Saudi Arabia: A Country Where Eastern Fairy Tale Ends | Traditions, Pilgrims, Hadj

Saudi Arabia: A Country Where Eastern Fairy Tale Ends | Traditions, Pilgrims, Hadj

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I love the first fine you mentioned. Come again? Checking your spouse's phone. Meaning if your darling got her curious eye into your phone, which fine will she get? - 500 thousand riyals. - 500 thousand?!

- That's 133 thousand dollars. - What if she doesn't have money? - She'll go to jail, I guess. - 60 kilo of caviar are 67 thousand riyals. - They grill a pineapple, squeeze out juice and add various spices.

- A country of wonders with luxurious skyscrapers rising up from the sand. A country going to its bright future, building futuristic cities and taking care of its citizens. A country worth visiting. Stop. My friends, that's how my video about Saudi Arabia might have begun if I did everything right.

The thing is, no-one is allowed to shoot anything here. Police and security are all around and you must have a filming permit. To get it, you apply to the local Ministry and tell them what you're going to shoot and how, whom you're going to talk to. Of course you will get your permit only if you show and describe the bright side.

There is no bad news in here! Saudi Arabia prefers to hide its problems, ill decisions, and negative sides. Well, I decided to ignore their filming permits. I don't want anyone to control my work. I want to see the real life here and make a video at my own risk as I always do.

Let's have a look at Saudi Arabia and hope I don't end up in jail. We'll begin our Saudi Arabia experience with its capital Riyadh. Although it's the capital, Riyadh is not an old city.

It was founded in the 18th century. Its name Riyadh means gardens, although the climate here is extremely dry. In fact, it's one of the world's hottest large cities. As an independent state, Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932. Before that, it was a cluster of various emirates.

Saudi Arabia has lots of skyscrapers, and the most famous and famed one is behind my back. You may see it on many postcards, on book covers for Saudi Arabia and Riyadh. The building represents the Kingdom center.

It's 99 stories and 302 meters high. Until recently, it was the highest building in Saudi Arabia. People call it Bottle opener. The world has several similar buildings.

But when this one was finished, it was sensational. Everyone was impressed with its exceptional design, with the bridge and the high viewpoint. You can come up there and admire the Riyadh view.

The building was finished in 2002 and back then, the landscape was completely desolate. If you have a look at old photos made from the viewpoint, you'll see an endless desert with tiny houses going in both directions. With seldom mini skyscrapers. The view was impressive.

I came up there once to see it back then. We won't go there now because I can't shoot anything there. Well, just like everywhere in Saudi Arabia. Plenty of objects in Saudi Arabia are named in honor of King Abdullah. He was the 6th King of Saudi Arabia. This is the main road, a huge highway crossing Riyadh from north to south.

It was named after the 5th King of Saudi Arabia Fahd. It's the King Fahd Road. New parks or areas are named after the 7th King.

Everything is associated with kings in Saudi Arabia. Unlike the UAE, with their plenty of sheiks and various emirates, here they have only one King. One more object Saudis named after the King is the business center.

While new blocks are under designation and construction, let's have a look at the object that's almost finished. We are in the local City area. It's a business quarter named after King Abdullah, the 6th King of Saudi Arabia.

He ruled the country from 2005 to 2015. Lots of skyscrapers, lots of offices. Now they are for rent. It took them long to construct it.

Some of the buildings are open and in full operation. Some are at their final stage, getting ready for the opening. The area itself is ready, people are walking around, cafes are open. We are here at the very moment of wakening.

The only thing they lack is the public transport. But it's also coming. The area has one of the most beautiful metro stations in Riyadh. It was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and it's very typical for Zaha Hadid. A kind of bionic style with interesting lines.

An enormous station, sadly not open yet. But it's coming soon. Land improvement's here, trees, benches. But most buildings are still in progress. By the way, check it out: each building has a passage.

For the people to use the cool fresh passages for visiting each other, needless to come outside. Oh, a wonder bench! With a charger, with Wi-Fi. Let's see if it will charge my phone. Yes, it's working! Amazing. Hm, or maybe not. They keep constructing, keep finishing something.

Improving something. Not all skyscrapers are open yet. But everything is almost finished. They finished the construction and are trimming the interior.

In a year, the workers will leave, I guess. The plan shows passages design vividly. They are marked blue.

And you see, all buildings are connected through passages. This way, you can walk around the area fresh without coming outside. A large mosque is in the center. It's the main mosque in this area. It has unusual design. Nice architecture. Looks like a big statue, a kind of shell set on the square. What else do we have here? A metro station is here, we'll try to go there now. It's cut off the map.

And a helicopter landing site. In case someone arrives to work in a helicopter. What could go wrong? We arrived at a nice area and even asked for a filming permit. Asked a nice manager-ish man driving around in a golf car. He told us we could shoot, we even must shoot. Because why would we hide the beauty they have here? He even offered us a lift in his golf car for sightseeing.

But my joy was short-lived. Security officers came up soon. They said I couldn't shoot in here and asked for my permit. As usual, allegedly I have to ask someone for the permit, no-one knows whom, where, and why. It took them long to debate whether I could shoot or not. And finally they decided to play it safe and prohibit my shooting.

But they were really nice. They said, 'Okay, you may keep the video you've already shot. Don't erase it. We respect your work.' But I mustn't shoot anymore. They allowed me to shoot phone videos only. Without using my professional camera.

That's really weird. Some countries figure it this way. If you arrive at some trash heap with garbage, stray dogs and mud, you can shoot all you want there, no-one cares. But when you arrive at a nice place, you assume Saudis should be proud of it and persuade everyone to shoot it and show its beauty and novelty. But no. You mustn't shoot the beautiful place. Go shoot trash heaps, garbage, and ruined houses instead.

Let's shoot garbage bins then. They are not guarded yet. A monorail is coming soon, I guess. It will connect the buildings.

Here, here, check it out! Prohibition rules! You must put on respectful clothes. I've never seen such list. For some reason, they consider T-shirts respective clothes. Although a woman in T-shirt will shock everyone here, I guess.

An image of modern and sophisticated Saudi Arabia. Check out the USB sockets here. For you to charge something. Look here. A woman with... What's that? A cello?

I got it, it's a cello. - Music used to be prohibited, right? - Right. Music is allowed now. A woman with no scarf on is playing cello on the billboard. And here's an unescorted woman sitting on the bench with no scarf on.

And she' has jeans on! Extraordinary. Lately, Saudi Arabia has tried to avoid the image of a classical Arabian oil monarchy. They developed a whole program called Saudi Vision 2030. It's supposed to change the country's image for foreigners. They construct various futuristic objects, invite world leading architects and sport celebrities in the country.

All in all, they invest their best. The program was developed by their current leader King Salman. He got his power in 2015, but he started to implement his project long before that.

Say, Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter was one of his ideas. It was founded in 1975, when the Foreign Ministry Affairs office was moved here. After that, it was surrounded by foreign embassies and the foreigners themselves.

Chain hotels like Marriott and Radisson are constructed here. They have a British school here. A kind of international nook in the Arabian capital.

That's how the Diplomatic Quarter looks like. Lots of various embassies are in here. Palms, houses... Everything looks beautiful, with plenty of security. I can turn on my camera only in suburbs and I must be extremely careful. Because the rest of the area is strictly guarded. Besides, there's a summit taking place here.

Shooting's not allowed. I talked with Gusel about her life in the Diplomatic Quarter. She was born in Kazan and moved here due to her husband's work. - How did you end up here? - How did I end up here? Like lots of other Russian women in Saudi Arabia, I married an Arabic man. My husband is Lebanese. He has lived here for like 15 years. He works here. Because of the hard financial situation in Lebanon,

many Lebanese live here. - How did you meet? - I worked as a translator. - Okay. - And I met him at work, in Istanbul. - So you met your wonderful Lebanese husband in Istanbul.

- Yes. - You started getting along, then you celebrated a beautiful wedding. And then he said, 'Now, let's go to Saudi Arabia'? - That's how he told me that. In fact, we didn't communicate a lot. He saw me, I didn't pay any attention to him. We communicated mainly via WhatsApp.

In two months, we decided to get married. After we got married, I returned to Kazan, and he stayed here. The Lebanese can hardly get a Russian visa.

They're on the black list because of the organization, you know what I mean. Yes. He is Muslim, and we couldn't have any relationships before the religious rite of marriage. - Hold on, the Lebanese can't get Russian visa because of Hezbollah? - Yes. - But aren't they Putin's buddies?

He keeps chumming with them, doesn't he? - No, it's rather hard. It takes a month or so. - My goodness, okay, I got it. - Well, he keeps chumming with Taliban also. Okay, go ahead.

- Well, we'd talked online for 2 months. Then we decided to get married. I told my parents I was getting married. Online. - You didn't know about Saudi Arabia yet, right? - I knew he lived in Saudi Arabia. - But you didn't take it seriously, right? - I have a bad habit. Wherever I travel, I never read any guides or anything. I arrive there and let the country surprise me.

- Okay, when did he tell you to move to Saudi Arabia? - Straight off. - Did he? - He said, 'Kazan is nice and so is Lebanon.' - But Riyadh is better. - 'But you will live in the center of a desert.' - Okay. - He told me that.

I didn't know the country was so well-developed. I thought I'd arrive to a desert, with bedouins and camels. I was impressed by the huge city, its modern multi-level roads.

Lots of cars, plenty of business. According to Gusel, before 2019, women were not allowed to go somewhere unescorted. Outside, they had to put black clothes on covering their so-called prominent body parts that could have attracted men's attention. Now, women are allowed to leave their heads uncovered and have European clothes on. Their skirts and pants must be knee-long and their arms must be covered down to hands.

The latitude is a part of the Saudi Vision 2030 program. - Even when I first arrived here... Once, I wanted to come outside for a walk. Just wanted to leave the house. I can't stay home all day long.

I said, 'I'm going outside.' My husband said, 'Why would you do that?' I answered, 'I want to walk around.' 'You don't walk around here.' 'What do you mean? I can't stay home all day.' Outside, people looked at me with their eyes wide open.

- A woman walking unescorted was... - I was simply walking around the city unescorted. In my Instagram account, I used to have a caption saying The only pedestrian woman in Saudi Arabia.

Because I was the only one on foot outside. - Can you walk around with no scarf on now? - Yes, you can. - So you're allowed not to cover your head? - Yes, I do it following my religious beliefs.

- But if you wanted to, you would leave your head uncovered, right? - Yes. - And no-one would make any comments. - Yes. Last year, I didn't have a scarf on yet. This year, I decided I was ready to cover my head.

- Do local girls go outside without scarves on? - Plenty of them. Yes. - Oh my, that's one of a freedom here! - Well, talking about my female friends, who are married to Saudis. Many of them insist on women having niqab on in public places. With a black abaya and sheila, of course. They have more strict demands about that.

Free life rules prevail in compounds. That's the city areas with expat residents. - What's a compound? - Roughly, compound is a city inside a city. A kind of place for expats.

- Are we in a compound now? - Yes. It's a compound. It's a place for expats arriving to work here. Speaking of our compound, the locals are not allowed to live here. They can't even apply here. - You mean they're not allowed to come in? - They can come in, say, as visitors. You can invite them to your apartment for dinner, and it's fine.

If you want to swim in the pool, you can't take them with you. They are not allowed there. - Because of naked women in the pool? - Yes, that's right. We have no restrictions here. You can go around wearing a bathing suit, shorts, crop tops.

No-one will comment on that. - Can you go with no bathing suit on? - You can go naked, okay. - So you can suntan at the pool topless? - Well, I've never seen that. - But theoretically? - Theoretically you can, I guess. No-one cares. - We are in a typical expat apartment, right? - Yes, it's a one-bedroom apartment. You pay for a whole year. This apartment is 115 thousand riyals.

It's nearly 31 thousand dollars. - A year? - A year, yes. Water supply is included, you don't pay for that. But you pay for power and Internet additionally.

Power and Internet are nearly 100 dollars a month each. - Well, it's rather expensive. The total price is nearly 3,000 dollars a month. - Right. - If your salary is 6,000 dollars a month, you pay a half of it for rent. - Right, but I rent a studio. - A studio?

- Yes, I rent a studio apartment, it's cheaper. - How much is it? - 75. - Okay, it's cheaper, it's 75. - It's nearly 1,700 in total. For two tenants it's fine. If you want a cheaper apartment, it'll be a worse one located God knows where. In a block built from sh*t and bricks.

Everything'll be old, rusty, and filthy, maybe with cockroaches. - But here, it's fine. - It's fine, yes, pleasant to live in. The freedom influenced even the restaurants.

Lately, lots of new bars and restaurants opened in Arabia. According to Islamic rules, alcohol is not allowed here. Right now, we have a street nearby. It's called Tahlia street. It's located in downtown, next to Al Olaya street. There are lots of bars, karaoke, hookah lounges.

Some time ago, hookahs were also not allowed in public places. - Is it okay now? - Yes, now you can smoke outside while listening to music. We even have sport bars now. A bar means a public place for gathering.

There is no alcohol there. Maria is a blogger and a former BBC journalist. She lives in Arabia and tells online about the local everyday life.

She says you can find a couple of booze bottles in the Diplomatic Quarter. - What about alcohol? - You can't find it here officially. - And unofficially? - I don't know.

You know, right now we are in the Diplomatic Quarter. - Yes. - It's a place with lots of embassies scattered around. By the way, Russian embassy is not here, it's in downtown. I hear you can get booze at some of the embassies' parties. - Have you attended any of them? - I haven't, no way. - Yes, I've heard of that too. That you can get booze in some compounds.

They allegedly produce it themselves. They have devices like, you know, hootch stills. - Yes, yes. Self-distilled. - Self-distilled, yes. They produce and sell it. Drink it and... - Everyone knows that and no-one does anything about that.

- I don't think everyone knows that. Those who do, they just let it go. You'd better obey local alcohol restrictions. Otherwise, you'll be punished. Here, I have a cup of coffee from a fancy Riyadh coffee shop. I paid 35 riyals for it.

That's expensive, rather expensive. It's filter coffee made from high-quality beans. It's about time to talk about prices and how restaurants and cafes cover their costs.

As we know, they do it worldwide by selling alcohol. For bars and restaurants, alcohol is the main source of income. Especially at nighttime, people drink alcohol in restaurants and help them earn money. Drinks can cost a lot. A bottle of wine or champaign can be 1,000 $ or 5,000 $.

Or even 10,000 $ in some places. I mean fancy luxurious places with exceptional alcohol. But what if alcohol is prohibited in your country? How can you earn money? They do it with coffee, cocktails and even juice. Here, any beverages cost a fortune.

I already mentioned the coffee price. As for the natural juice... If you come to a common mid-level restaurant, not a posh one, a glass of freshly squeezed watermelon, orange or apple juice will be 30-35 riyals. A bottle of water or a can of Cola will be 16 riyals.

That's expensive, even more expensive than in Europe. Besides, they make cocktails here. Alcohol-free cocktails, of course, but they look like alcoholic ones. They decorate it nicely and even add non-alcoholic gin or whiskey. They have it at the market now.

Suck cocktails may cost up to 100 riyals. Equal to alcoholic cocktails' price. Although their cost price is much lower. In fact, they have well-developed coffee culture.

Say, just like in Dubai. When you arrive to Dubai, you see lots of various coffee shops in most unusual places. Right now, we're standing on a roadside, between a gas station and wasteland. And here's a moderate building with an excellent coffee shop.

They have expensive equipment, splendidly roasted high-quality beans. How come? Coffee shops replace our bars here. People meet in coffee shops and hang out there.

If you look at the map, you'll notice many coffee shops open after lunch. Say, at 4 or 6 pm. And they work until late. People come to coffee shops, hang out there, order unusual drinks, with some froths or syrups. They enjoy themselves there, like we do in bars.

Only without alcohol. That's how the local market works. It helps local market develop. That's why some Arab countries are more developed coffee-wise than Europe. I asked Konstantin how they replace alcohol in restaurants. He is a manager of several restaurants in Arabia. Back then, say 5 years back, they used to sell juice for 40 riyals a glass.

10 dollars for a glass of juice. Nearly average cocktail price. That was boring, I'd say. Now, we have lots of alcohol substitutions.

Like non-alcoholic gin. I was among the first to bring it to Saudi Arabia and register it here. Gin and non-alcoholic whiskey. Of course, the taste is not the same and the drink is different.

But it can be used in cocktails. Lots of good mixologists moved here. Professional barmen. Say, the guys grill a pineapple, squeeze out juice and add various spices. It tastes delicious. It's not boring like it used to be. - Not like a bottle of champaign for 5 thousand dollars? - No. - Not like the enormous bills posh restaurants give?

- Of course, it was easier to cover the costs in Dubai. People used to visit restaurants for lunch and order Dom Perignon at least. Lunch and stuff, and in the end they paid 1,000-1,500 dollars for 4 people. Even before dinner. Here, if you want to earn 1,000-1,500 dollars for a table... - What should you do? How many pineapples should you grill for them? - Well. Of course, it influences the time people spend in restaurant.

Here, people arrive, spend 40 minutes eating, and leave. - Table rotation is higher. - Here, you don't drop in a restaurant for 5 minutes, leave in 6 hours and go to afterparty.

They don't do that. - How much is the average bill in the Japanese restaurant? - We have two restaurants. The first one has an average bill of nearly 160 US dollars.

In the second one, it's like 300 or 310 US dollars. Some restaurants still have separate rooms. One for men, another one for women and kids. Back then, all public places in Saudi Arabia were divided into male and female sections. As women were not allowed to walk unescorted, they had family sections.

Because women were escorted by their families. All malls, parks, and restaurants had such sections. Separate sections for single men or groups of men. And separate family sections for women. So that they could sit back and relax, eat with their face slightly open. With no-one feeling uncomfortable about that.

Now, the separation has vanished. In modern Saudi Arabia, old religious restrictions are almost gone. You can walk around the mall together and men are even allowed into lingerie stores. Freedom and equality everywhere, except for some places.

Hard to believe, but it's McDonalds. An American company must be open-minded and follow the trends, but their restaurants are still divided into family sections for women and single's sections for men. Of course, single's sections are for men, because women can't walk the streets alone. And I wonder, why McDonalds, Burger King and other foreign chains working in Saudi Arabia still follow these restrictions. Although the country itself has gone way forward and cancelled them. - Do restaurants still have male and female sections? - Some do.

- Back then, malls also had them. I don't know if they still do. Back then, if a mall store sold cosmetics or... - Yes, family sections.

- Men were not allowed there. - Well, now they are. They can even enter lingerie stores. - Can I go buy panties for someone? - Sure. - Back then, I couldn't. - Now you can. You're allowed there. - Complete freedom. - Yes. But both female and male sections do not sell alcohol.

Neither do grocery stores. But they have water that will suit any taste. One more point for you. As alcohol is prohibited in Saudi Arabia, they have a full range of common water.

Let's go to a grocery store and see the water we can buy and the price for it. Here's water, and the range is rather poor. Here are all European water brands. San Benedetto, Evian, Perrier, San Pellegrino, Voss.

A bottle of Voss is 12 riyals. By local standards, it's rather cheap. A point of conveniency: they offer various packings. Small bottles are very popular here.

How do Saudis have fun if neither restaurants nor bars sell alcohol? They have outdoor picnics with tea or coffee. According to Gusel, every Thursday Saudis hang out in parks. They bring soft drinks and snacks and enjoy themselves.

Here, they have a thing called Isteraha. That means both 'rest' and 'place'. That's a kind of country house. All respectable Saudis have isterahas.

It looks like a country house. It can be divided into male and female sections. Or it can be wholly male. Because preferably men meet there. They watch sport events there. Like football or basketball, or fighting events.

They play video games there, enjoy meals, dance or sing. That's what they do. So do women. Women also use isterahas, they are available for rent. I also meet my friends there for girls-only parties. Isteraha is a house with a pool and alcoves. We arrive there with our community, cook Russian food.

Yes. We bring our kids there to practice Russian. Kids mainly speak 3 languages here, English, Russian, and Arabic. We want them to practice Russian more. - How do you have fun here? You have no alcohol, and until recently you had neither music nor cinema.

How do local Saudis have fun? - Well, in several ways. Say, malls are rather popular. We have lots of them, they are large, so... - Everyone goes there. - Everyone goes there. They are cool, you can walk around feeling fresh and comfortable.

They have food courts, you can meet friends and hang out. Have coffee or lunch, go shopping, take your kids to entertainment center. That's what they do. I visited one of the luxurious malls. Let's see how rich locals enjoy themselves.

My friends, I arrived in a posh and luxurious mall. That's weird. I feel uncomfortable because of its splendor.

People in expensive outfits hand over parking tickets. The attendant's suit costs more than the car I rented! I'm not sure if I'm allowed inside with my sneakers on. That's how the attendant looks like.

With a nice cap and a snow-white shirt on. Well, let's take a look. Honestly speaking, I'm a little nervous. Luxury has always scared me. As we are now in the most luxurious mall in Riyadh, here's a luxurious grocery store. I have no idea what's in there, let's have a look! Porcini mushrooms.

200 grams of porcini mushrooms are 350 riyals. 100 dollars. Here are morels. 100 grams of morels are 760 riyals. They even have soups. Gazpacho.

Carrot gazpacho. 96 riyals for 50... Hold on. For half a liter. Half a liter of gazpacho. 200 riyals for 3 grams of truffle in a mill.

You can buy it and grate it in your meal. The price for black caviar shocked me even more. Just imagine, 18,000 dollars for a kilo! By the way, the caviar is allegedly from France. But actually, they secretly say it's Bulgarian.

Caviar from Bulgaria can't be so expensive, and so they pack it up in Paris. 60 kilos of caviar are 67,000 riyals! Those with no money can buy 50 grams for 3,300. A splendid food market we have here, with sausages. 26 riyals for 100 grams, and 37 riyals, that one is 37.

Here's the most expensive sausage, it is 52 riyals for 100 grams. Check this out. It says that's an olive tree from Spain and a historical object, by the way. The tree is allegedly 500 years old. What does it represent? Luxury! It's a luxurious olive tree. I guess... Well.

I guess this tree is luxurious because its crown looks like my hair! How can a posh place do without Richard Orlinski's animal sculptures? They are presented in Courchevel, in Monaco. He sells his sculptures everywhere. In fact, they are not so significant art-wise. But check it out, they fenced it off with a ribbon. Maybe people keep trying to touch the white bear.

Of course, there is a whole store with Richard Orlinski's sculptures. Just like in Courchevel! Similar to Courchevel. Here are European women. With low necklines. World-famous restaurant chains are about to open here. Like Sexy Fish. And some French restaurants down there.

That's how it goes. So far, it looks rather boring. You see, ads show girls with no scarves on, and it's fine. Check out the depravity here.

In fact, some 5 years ago, such dummies were impossible to imagine in Saudi Arabia. They were kind of lewd. But now, they have dummies, photos, and whatnot. Look here. Women with uncovered hands. Amazing. Back then, such ads in Riyadh shops were unacceptable.

Now, it's fine to have it here. Here are the lingerie stores. Also with female ad models. They also have such kind of dummies. Here's a kind of rest area. You can enjoy yourself on the swings

and swing up an appetite for expensive shopping. Swings, candles, and green plants are all over the place. Pleasant music is playing, and there is no people.

With their prices, one rich customer a day covers their rent costs. I guess. By the way, look at their opening hours. On Friday, most stores open at 1:30 pm. Because on Friday, most people prefer rest to shopping.

Here's a perfume store with a warning, Men are not allowed. Only women can enter it. Everything looks rather European. For some weird reason, there is no people here.

Maybe people are not ready for luxurious life. Maybe there are some other posh malls. But I was told that was the poshest one. As we are in a posh mall, you can buy a car here.

A surprising point, I've seen very few expensive cars here. Check this out, someone arrived in Toyota Yaris. It's shocking. I would be embarrassed to park a Toyota Yaris right at the entrance of the store with expensive useless sculptures.

Everything looks kind of weird. Here's the VIP entrance. The very important entrance. Only one Rolls Royce! I'd say it's rather modest here. Car-wise, at least.

A VIP parking with a Rolls Royce, a G-Class SUV, and a Range Rover. Okay, they have posh expensive license plates. But still. My posh mall journey came to an end. Honestly speaking, I felt uncomfortable there.

That was weird, with its delicious smells, pleasant music, and empty stores. There are more staff members than visitors. Everything is empty. Everyone's looking at you with greedy eyes.

Everyone wants to please you. As for me, I feel uneasy in such places. So let's go somewhere else.

Besides the Diplomatic Quarter, Riyadh has other modern areas. Like New Murabba. In February, prince Mohammed bin Salman presented it as the world's largest modern business downtown project. They promise it'll be fancy and trendy, with green areas and bike lanes.

Comfy and ecologic, as we like it. With Mukaab crowning its center, a 400-meters high cubic skyscraper. Its design will remind us of Kaaba, the Islamic holy site in Mecca. Inside, they are putting huge holograms that allegedly will make visitors feel out of time and out of place.

Well, promise does not mean getting married. A popular wisdom, as you know. And here, promise does not mean getting built. Arabian world has a name for such architectural endeavors. It's called conceptual fantastic architecture. They invent some magnificent projects.

Like the highest towers, line cities, cubic buildings and other unthinkable stuff. Then they show beautiful images for the world to discuss them. Sometimes they start the construction, but almost never finish it. Why do they need all those projects? That's a skillful way to gain public attention and investments. Just imagine, you have a city, a desert city no-one knows about. And you need not only to make people learn about your project, but impress them with it.

If you try to do it directly, you'll have to arrange a huge advertising campaign, spending billions on it. Because how can you persuade people to invest their money into a desert? Or you can do otherwise. You can create a magnificently fantastic project, draw splendid images and show them in a fancy presentation. That'll be much cheaper. You'll spend like a million dollars. An acceptable sum.

After that, the whole world will discuss your images. All architecture magazines will publish them. Maybe you'll even win some awards for that. Everyone will know you are going to build something fantastic. People will want to move there. They will bring you their money.

They will buy the realty that's not been built yet. They'll expect to open offices here, because everyone wants to live next to a world wonder. That's exactly what Arabs do. I remember they were going to put up a miraculous skyscraper in Dubai. It was like 10 years ago, and it's still not there. Or they were going to build a kilometer-high skyscraper in Jeddah.

And its construction site is still empty, with just a small hump in there. There were a dozen projects more. A sphere building, a god-knows-what building. It rarely gets to the end. Now, they promise to build a fantastic cube with 400-meter verges. With holograms in, wonder cars out and everything.

That looks splendid. I'd like to believe in that. I'd like to reserve and purchase my portion here, to come closer to the wonder. But my sober mind tells me the cube will hardly ever be here. They may construct its simpler version, but it's more likely to become a common business area with skyscrapers and public amenities. With several significant projects maybe.

But there'll be hardly any wonders they promise us. But as for their PR campaigns as a way to introduce themselves, Arabs are smart guys. They know how to advertise themselves, how to draw the world's attention, and how to attract investors. Of course, Saudis have a long way to go yet. Dubai got way ahead them because it was started earlier.

So, when you see the Persian Gulf region providing fantastic projects, don't get deluded. It can be just another PR project and an attempt to draw everyone's attention. If they really finish it, it'll be great. I'm about to come back here in like 50 years and see if the cube is here. They'll need all those years to convert this desert into something worthy. - The Mukaab skyscraper in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, it doesn't make any direct practical or functional sense. We must admit that most world-famous buildings, at least many of them, don't make any practical or functional sense. Like the Pantheon in Paris - no sense at all. Its sense doesn't matter for us. I think the point of the Mukaab project is its visual aspect. It doesn't have any sacral message. It's a kind of wow-building.

Like many Eastern projects, its wow-effect is taken from the Western culture. Of course, it's a little bit mad. Like all the projects financed with easy-come money in non-democratic states.

If it were us, we wouldn't spend our money this way. One more current Saudi project is the Neom construction. It's an area with a range of cities and resorts. Its largest part is supposedly opening by 2030. There will be an octagonal port city, a mountain ski resort hosting the 2029 Asian Winter Games, and much more.

It's worth mentioning that the Saudi government provides most money for the project. Neom is one of the world's similar projects at various stages of construction. Neom contains several concepts. One of them is the perfect city concept, originated from the Renaissance period. A concept of the perfect social system.

Then we have a concept of everything stuffed up with up-to-date technologies and being ecologically stable. And then there's a fancy concept of putting cultural and business centers together to get highly productive areas in the end. Honestly speaking, judging by the projects before Neom, the concept hardly ever works. Surprisingly. In fact some of the projects were really promising. Say, the project called Incheon city.

It was way larger and more noteworthy. Next to the airport in Seoul. They calculated everything there.

A city next to the airport, with bike lanes and metro stations. They invited 4 universities and qualified designers there. But the project failed.

Because it's a rather difficult task to manage theoretical city development. It doesn't work this way. You can't just come somewhere and say, 'I want my city to lie here and be a success.'

For me, such projects have several goals. First, to use a budget. I guess we all know it well. They use money for a large project. I don't know about the corruption level in Saudi Arabia, but it's a good way to invest money. It's rather important.

Second, it's a trendy project everyone talks about. Lots of Eastern people and others think that with such investments in high technologies, they improve their state's image and attract people there. In the end, I think the main goal of the Neom project is to attract the best professionals for Saudi Arabia development.

A fun fact is that Neom is allegedly going to be super-eco-friendly. Saudis declare it to use 100%-renewable energy sources. But Maria claims the Neom construction itself is worth 100 years in carbon emissions. - As for the modern ecological architecture, eco-image is often more important than eco-reality. It's a kind of achievement exposure. Not only Saudi Arabia does it, lots of countries do the same.

They say, 'We show our firm development, our new technologies. 'With electrocars driving around and solar panels all over the place.' In fact, the result is unpredictable. It must be calculated thoroughly. For me, the typical pace to firm development is completely different. Less connected to endless technologies all around and more related to smooth saving. It means avoiding excessive construction.

Avoiding unnecessary construction. For me, it's a sure way to our green future. With New Murabba and Neom still under construction, Riyadh already has its own Times Square.

With neon all over, containing billboards and stores. Riyadh has its own Times Square. The locals visited New York, saw the world-famous digital-screen square and decided to get a similar place for themselves.

And they got it. It does remind me of New York Times Square, only 2 times smaller. Huge digital screens, billboards, lots of lights, people all around. They lack people in the outfits of Mickey Mouse, Statue of Liberty and Marvel characters trying to take photos with you. Maybe some are out there, let's check.

Enormous area with food zones, jungles, spotlight fountains. Lots of interconnected squares here with crowds of people strolling around. Even light installations. A whole shiny bright open-air city for people to stroll around in the long-awaited coolness.

That's what people do here. All the new Riyadh areas are a part of the Saudi Vision 2030 program. That's a state program of Saudi Arabia for its social, cultural, and economic diversification. In simple words, it's their attempt to overcome the oil curse and earn money in other ways. For that purpose, Saudis have to improve their reputation of an autocratic country and lure in international business and tourists.

Just like their Dubai neighbors did. To learn more about Saudi Vision, I talked to Islam Al Bayaa. He used to study in London, and now lives and works in Arabia.

Three key points of Saudi Vision 2030 are dynamic society, prosperous economy, and ambitious nation. Ambitious nation means oil income, electronic government, citizens' private savings, and volunteering. Prosperous economy identifies female labor, drawing of foreign investments, increasing of any export except oil, and the work of Public Investment Fund.

Dynamic society contains urban planning, Islamic Hajj development, attention to heritage, and more support for sports and culture. As for sports, Saudis have cared a lot about that lately. They invested billions of dollars in football. Their main step was luring one of the best world players, Cristiano Ronaldo. He joined the Al Nassr club for more than 200 million dollars a year.

Other European players followed him. - Can you explain me? The clubs are private? - Yes, privatized. But for the majority of them is the Public Investment. - What is Public Investment? - Public Investment Fund is basically an investment fund that uses the money from the government, from the country to invest, to get the internal investment. - How they decide which club gets money? - In Saudi Arabia? - Yeah, I mean... - I don't know how the process goes, but when you see it, it's the 4 biggest clubs that get investments from the Public Investment Fund.

I think it's also a bit of politics. Two clubs in Jeddah, two clubs in Riyadh. There's other club in Riyadh, Al-Shabab. They don't have money from Public Investment Fund. It's a bit divided. - So the clubs are private, but they get money from the government? - Initially, it's governmental money, yes.

But Public Investment Fund is there to invest money, to get a return on the investment. - You said that stadiums are governmental? - The stadium we're at now is a governmental stadium. Al-Riyadh club, their games are here. Al-Shabab, their games. - In this stadium? It's very small! - It's still one of the biggest in the city.

The best stadium is in the university campus. That's where Al Nassr plays. That one is very nice, it looks like a football stadium. There is no tracks, but it's still not a big stadium. They'll invest in stadiums because they'll have the Asian Cup in 2027.

So they have it now. And they need to start investing in the stadiums. - Saudi Arabia invests billions of dollars in football development. What is the main reason? To improve their reputation or..? Like I said already, of course it looks nice. But when I speak to people in Public Investment Fund, it's clear that there's a strategy behind it, a financial strategy.

The country lives solely on oils, a long time. And they know they need to bring new and even start new sectors of income. Entertainment and sports is a big one. With sports goes tourism. You are here today.

According to Jelle Van Camp, even women started attending games lately. Before that, they were not allowed at stadiums. It was not allowed. When I was here the first time 9 years ago, I was in Jeddah for a year. I didn't see any women in the stadium. - Yeah, now it's many women.

- You see many, right? - Yeah. I think your perception would be different when you come here. And based on that you see actually there's many of them. People in Europe watch football in sport bars.

with beer and... - Yeah. In Saudi Arabia, how do people do? If not in the stadium, where can I go and watch football? Are there any sport bars? There're not really, like, sport bars, but you know the coffee culture is very big here. There are many coffee places.

When you go to, I would say, the center of the city, when you go to the boulevard, there are a lot of coffee shops and shisha places and they have big screens. - Ah, and there... - You can go there and sit and watch football.

This game will be on there. Every shisha place has football on. And they have tee and coffee. As I said, the main task for Saudi Vision 2030 is to end the oil curse.

The state budget is currently 75% dependent on oil and oil-related income. Other export items provide at least two times lower income. In Saudi Vision 2030, the country tries to raise its income from other fields.

Like tourism or entertainment. Arabia breeds young professionals to deal with all these changes. To help them summon knowledge and experience, Saudi Arabia sponsors its citizens' abroad studies. Islam says, young Saudis take many job vacancies now. The government supports this tendency. It established work quotas for the citizens.

In general, Saudi Ministry of Labor reserved 100 jobs for them. Like translator, realty specialist, or hotel front office jobs. The government reserves not only the jobs for which you need higher education.

With the Saudization program, Saudi natives may take the positions of taxi drivers or caterers. Without fears of some migrant potentially taking the place. - Now, more and more jobs can be taken by Saudi Arabia citizens only.

- Like what? - Like taxi drivers, but... - You mean all taxi drivers are Saudis? - Not all of them. Except for foreigners with driver iqamas. It means his main job is driver.

But in services like Uber or Karim, 90% of drivers are natives. So are pharmacists. Who else? Mall shop workers. Hotel receptionists.

- Are they? Is that the legal restriction? - Yes, yes. - Oh my. - They take more and more jobs. Say, accountants should be Saudi, too. I'm not sure, I can't remember the whole list now. They keep reviewing it, adding new jobs there. The Saudi Vision 2030 program contains not only brand new futuristic buildings and cities.

It also means the country's historical areas renovation. To have a look at Saudis changing ancient city architecture, I arrived at Jeddah. That's how Jeddah airport looks like. Palm-like lampposts. Nicely lit ceiling.

Marvelous. The airport looks awesome. Business class passengers check in behind the fence. I love the airport. It's huge I'd say.

One more point of Saudi transformation plan is to turn Jeddah into a large tourist center. Here's the Jeddah jewel, a 30-kilometers boardwalk going along the Red Sea. Its capacity is 120,000 people.

Well, not in this heat. Now, here are just guards, migrant workers and a beautiful me standing alone on that magnificent Jeddah Corniche boardwalk. It's nicely improved, with smooth paving, trees, bushes, and cafes. A pleasant place for walking around or running, with people cycling and roller skating along the boulevard, well, as soon as the heat steps back. Now, everyone's soaking off in their cool offices.

Oh god, oh god, oh my god! It's freaking hot! Wow, just like in summer. That's how public toilets look like. A bit shabby. Looks like I have to pay to use it. The toilet is locked. I've no idea how to use it.

Should I press here? What then? Only the smell suggests there's a toilet inside. I've no clue how to enter it. Everything's shabby and broken. The thing's not working. Sadly. That's it. And they call it public toilet. They surely don't respect the public.

Well, with no people around now, maybe they open it in winter. I didn't get it. Something weird's going on. With Riyadh counting on football, Jeddah comes along with Formula One.

Since 2021, it has hosted the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Its race track goes along Jeddah Corniche and is considered one of the fastest in the championship. Here, the average speed is 252 km/h, with the maximum speed reaching 325.

Mass media claim Saudi Arabia pays 55 million dollars a year for its right to host the racing. Let alone race track and arrangement costs. Just for the pleasure to see the world's best racers driving their fastest cars along the Saudi race track. In Jeddah, there's a separate beach for the locals only. How do the locals have fun? They go to the sea. Well, not exactly go. They drive here in their cars.

Jeddah has a separate place with puddled sand for them. You can come up here in your lovely car and enjoy the sea view. It's so hot out there, you better stay inside. So they drive here, stay in their cars, listening to music maybe, talking and enjoying the view. In case you're hungry, there are several food trucks selling cocktails, juice, and ice-cream. The locals often have rest and fun at night, because the Saudi sun can easily burn you down in the daytime.

In fact, everything you see was caused by the local climate. As I've already mentioned, it's very hot in Saudi Arabia. Even now, in the end of October, it's +40 degrees Celsius in the daytime. The streets are empty. People come outside at night. Restaurants and coffee houses are open till late at night.

People stay outside till 1 or 2 am. That's why illumination in public places matters a lot. They pay great attention to illumination here. In Saudi Arabia, the word nightlife is not the same as in the whole world.

Say, in Europe, nightlife means parties, booze, and fun. But in Saudi Arabia, nightlife means just life. In the daytime, the heat puts life on hold. Now, it's +40 degrees Celsius outside, and the streets are empty.

Completely devastated. That's how a roadside looks, and you may think it's abandoned. In fact, the street comes alive after the sunset. The food trucks open and start selling drinks, meat snacks, tea, and coffee. People come here in their cars, you see there's plenty of parking lots here.

They enjoy the meal and themselves. When you go around here in the daytime, it looks like a dead country. But it's wrong. Everyone's waiting for the sunset. You'd be surprised, but even rich Saudi Arabia has unfinished buildings. Here's the Jeddah Tower, allegedly the world's highest tower. It was expected to become the first kilometer-high skyscraper.

That was the way for the Saudis to beat Burj Khalifa in Dubai and show everyone the Persian Gulf's longest tower. But they had a problem. The construction of Jeddah Tower started in 2013. In 2017, some of the country's ministers, businessmen, and even Royal family members got arrested.

The reason for that remains unknown. Both struggle against corruption and race for power were suspected. But the period definitely secured the power of heir prince Mohammed bin Salman.

By the way, Saudi Vision 2030 was his project. The arrests affected the Jeddah tower construction. In 2018, the process came to a halt. Only one-third of the tower was ready then. The construction was resumed in 2023.

The kilometer-high response to Dubai is still in progress. The area around the tower is completely empty now. It's a fenced-off endless desert.

They decorated the access with palms. And there's a lone pimple here. A small lone pimple about to become a kilometer-high tower.

They say they resumed the construction, but I doubt it. No construction vehicles, no worker trucks. Construction cranes are on hold. Maybe they resumed it in documents. The project is fascinating.

But bear in mind, God knows when it comes to an end. Not only they have to finish the tower, they have to improve the area around it. Even if they start moving now, they'll need years or even decades to finish it. - The project is special because it will draw attention just with its existence. People love Guinness World Records. They really do. They come to Dubai just to look at Burj Khalifa.

Speaking of its utility, the skyscraper is absolutely useless. With its height, the price for 1 square meter is crazy. Now, I think we should compete not for the highest building title, but maybe for the most interesting one. A skyscraper with an appropriate city life. If we declare a skyscraper contains a whole city, then we can have a green skyscraper with open terraces. For people to walk around there, make friends and spend time the same way they do in nice cities.

Those who end up with such project will be true heroes. Jeddah's suburbs are also unfinished. Houses with no windows, a playground with a lone rusty slide. A rusty slide, garbage, and wasteland! We are in the suburbs of Jeddah. As for the quality of buildings, it looks rather sad. Typically, they have concrete boxes 5 or 6 stories high put up very close to each other.

They seem to take every spot. No-one cares about insolation either. Square meters are all that matters.

Speaking of residential areas, they look typical for the Arab world. Most of you have visited the Emirates. Here, it looks the same, just a little bit cheaper. There are several types of residential buildings. The fanciest guys live in villas. I mean, the richest villas.

Thousands of square meters, with private water parks and pools, entertainment centers, everything for you to stay right in. People with money just build their own private small hotels, to live in there and receive guests. They have private restaurants, private chefs. Well, a luxurious place. People with less money occupy simpler villas. They are also large but more densely constructed. Such villa areas are also common here.

A flying bag, check it out. Trash bags fly here instead of birds. Besides villas, people tend to live in apartment blocks. Here I mean significant apartment blocks. Modern buildings, sometimes skyscrapers.

The residents are either modern Arabs who studied abroad and don't live with large families. Or rich expats. You need a villa when you have a large family and lots of friends, and you all want to live together. Those are traditional Saudi families. As for modern Arabs and expats who prefer to live alone, they live in expensive apartment blocks. Nice-view apartments, good design. It's also very expensive, like in Dubai.

There are lots of so-called middle class people. Maybe they'd prefer villas, but they can't afford it. They are mostly workers and service staff. Middle class people. They live in such suburban blocks. They drive common cars, mostly Japanese, Korean or old American ones.

Even the mosque here looks shabby. Check it out. An old small mosque made of metal sheets. No-one cares about design, they care about their square meters.

No amenities here, no pavements, no trees or anything There are some trees growing all by themselves, but no-one really cares about amenities. Heaps of garbage are all around, lots of trash here. Oh, soldiers are here. Okay. Take a photo of them.

We were interrupted by the military. I thought we'd have problems with them. Like, what are you shooting here, and such stuff.

But they just wanted to take a photo. In fact, people like taking photos here. Then they ask you to send the photo via WhatsApp. Let's resume our area discussion. The middle class. They live in such areas.

Those are the people working for... Say, the military. People who came to work here. People owing small business, like tradesmen or drivers. Not exactly migrant workers, who live in separate camps. But those who can afford to rent an apartment here. They use is only to spend a night, leave their belongings there.

Or as a place for their family. In fact, such areas are rather unpleasant. They are hot and filthy, nothing to do here. How can they live here? But that's how real Jeddah looks like. Tourists will never see it. As you see, it looks rather sad. Brick plastered boxes all around.

The main wall can be stone clad. Every construction site... Buildings are put extremely close. Everything looks very simple. Concrete boxes all around.

Back walls are for service rooms. Some windows, maybe bathroom ones. Later, they'll put one more building here, and it will block the light for other houses. When you drive around the suburban blocks, you feel rather weird.

Because when you hear about Saudi Arabia, you imagine something truly miraculous. With splendid rich princes walking around. You think it'll look like Qatar or Dubai, with marble all around, with clean nice houses.

Something incredibly marvelous and extremely rich. In fact, while driving around you see everything looks shabby and filthy. They do take care about some small areas, but you hardly see any of them. Most cities are not ready for tourists yet.

A Mercedes is parked over there. With a piece of cardboard inside it, filthy and dusty all over. With another abandoned car parked next to it. Wastelands, construction sites... If you arrive to Saudi Arabia and expect to find a miracle here, then no.

There's no miracle here. That's how residential areas look like. Sh*tty roads. Reminds me of Saint Petersburg suburbs. In Arabia, they can possibly not finish skyscrapers or suburban areas. But they are extremely careful when it comes to religious objects.

Mecca Gate is precious for all Muslims. The Hadj takes place here. It's a holy pilgrimage that each Muslim must take at least once. The pilgrimage ends in Mecca, a holy place where non-Muslims are not allowed. Andrey Markelov pretended to be a Muslim to enter the city.

- How did you manage to visit Mecca? - That was a long way for me. You can't go there for no reason. It took me nearly 2 years. I couldn't just come up there, right? Only Muslims can do that. So I had to convert to Islam and get a certificate confirming that. Your promise won't do.

You can get this certificate in a mosque. That was a mosque in Moscow for me. There, you must pronounce an Arabian Islamic oath, it's called Shahada. Then you ask them for an official certificate.

It must be translated and contain two stamps. After that, you are allowed there. But it's not that easy. You can't come there without knowing their habits and rites. It's unacceptable. Before my converting and visit, I had to learn Arabic language. It took me 9 months to study it.

Then I read all the Scriptures. Including the Bible, Gospel, and Quran. I think I even read Quran twice. I learned all rites and habits as much as I could. As I didn't want to insult anyone or look stupid. And as I wanted to show my respect for their culture and religion. After I finished my study, I said, 'Enough for me, I gotta go.' And so I went.

- Was it difficult to enter there? Any security issues? How did you end up in Mecca? - After I got my converting certificate, I visited a travel agency arranging pilgrim tours. I showed them all due documents, paid for the trip. And started my travel. At Mecca border... Well, there are no direct flights there. First, you arrive to the nearby Medina city.

The security is not so severe. I showed them my passport and visa. And that's it, they let me in. - Have you learned about the consequences you may get if they discover you're not Muslim? What punishment would you get? How did you feel about that? - Of course I thought about that. That was a challenging adventure. Much like a Medieval pilgrimage or something. As for the punishment...

You know, I would be thrown stones at if they knew it. In Mecca, Andrey saw the Kaaba, a cubic Muslim sanctuary. He says it's the world's most magnificent holy place.

Kaaba looks like a black cube. It stands in the middle of the Sacred Mosque located in the center of Mecca. In Islam, they call it House of God. Kaaba is a cube-shaped structure covered with black silk.

The cloth is embroidered with golden threads forming Surahs, Qur

2024-06-02 01:15

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