Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Is Riyadh Dangerous?

The answer to this question is "it depends on your definition of dangerous."

If you are asking whether it is dangerous in the sense of whether it is likely you will be kidnapped by a terrorist and have a toe chopped off and sent to your spouse in an envelope, then no, it's not dangerous. Ever since the bombings in 2003, the country has cracked down on terrorist activity and I am happy to report that I have never felt unsafe here. I am told things did get bad for Westerners just before the bombings and there was some harassment going on, but these days I would be very surprised to hear of something like that happening.

If your version of 'dangerous' entails lashings by angry bearded arab men yelling infidel at you because a button is broken on your abaya, then the answer is also no, it's not dangerous for Westerners. The Muttawa once roamed free in this land, travelling in packs, some say carrying sticks, and when there was a full moon out they would grow fur and claws and howl while they feasted on the flesh of... oh wait wait...I'm getting mixed up here. It's hard to separate myth from reality, past from present, rural vs. urban with the things you hear about the religious police. For the most part the main kind of trouble they will currently give a Western woman is for not having her head covered. I believe locals and muslims are under more scrutiny, but that being the case I would still not recommend Westerners to be alone in public with the opposite sex if they are not married or related to them.

If your definition of 'dangerous' is petty crime, then yes, Riyadh is dangerous in the same way Toronto, LA, New York, and other countless big cities are dangerous. Add the high proportion of youth and their matching unemployment rate, you can sort of get an idea of what type of trouble brews here. People occasionally get carjacked, and muggings occur, though they usually target working class Filipino and Indians who have no recourse. If anyone tells you that the benefit of coming to a holy land is that the cities are very safe, you have my permission to laugh a little. I say this because hubster told me that before we moved here and we now have a good laugh from time to time about it.

Lastly, if your definition of "dangerous" is the most insane and violent road rage you've ever seen in your life, then on very rare occasions Riyadh also fits the bill. I'm only gonna say this once: if the other driver looks crazy, he probably *is*. In this specific circumstance, resist the temptation to get out of your car to engage the angry man who has just cut across three lanes to slam into you, because although he may look like a skinny nothing, he probably has a lead pipe under his seat saved for special occasions like this.

Though the majority of the country is perfectly fine with Westerners being here, there's still a segment of people who resent us and what we stand for, and it's best to remember that when you're out and about. They all speak English and can understand disparaging remarks, so save your frustrations for your house or car. I've never felt unwelcome or truly unsafe here - but if you go looking for trouble in Riyadh, you can find it. As a woman and Westerner, I am out and about regularly on my own and do not think twice about it. Riyadh is as safe as any other metropolis, so don't worry too much about it!


Stacy said...

One thing that has always made me feel safer here is the fact that men do not approach women who aren't related to them and will go to great lengths to stay away from you. People might stare at you coz you look different but will never engage conversation with an unrelated woman.

However, I would also not choose to wander around the dingy, crowded alleyways of Ba'tha without company as the likelihood of petty crime in the areas more heavily populated by foreign workers is a bit higher than the local mall in Olaya.

Orchidthief said...

yes, all good points stacy. There are many parts of the city that are frequented by Westerners, and the flipside of the coin is there are lots that are full of working class from asia. The poorer parts of town are definitely places where people should be more careful.

Riyadh does have plenty of unemployed young Saudis and plenty of poorly paid workers shipped in from abroad, and while most are honest people, desperation and boredom can drive some men to behave badly.

Anonymous said...

I need a category of my own. I am from Chicago and worked as a Spcial Worker in the largest detention city in the country! My cases were so dangerous tv series picked up on them to base their episodes. So dangerous compared to having a 5 year old boy thrown out of the 14th floor window of a housing project, or dangerous compared to having an 11 year old boy go on a killing spree and have his gang eventually kill him to get rid of the police presence. Or do you mean on a domestic front? Like beating your grandmother to death for not letting you use the car?

Sorry, I know this was intended to be a lit post! :)

Orchidthief said...

hi ummadam, wow you must have some crazy stories from your time in Chicago! I guess every major city has its parts of town where there are safety issues. Chicago is a gorgeous city, but clearly nowhere is perfect.

Christophe said...

Things definitely started feeling dodgier circa beginning of 2000 (I say "feeling", because it's difficult to say whether they actually were getting dodgier considering how specific the dangers a typical expact might face are). My parents were there since the mid-seventies and there's no comparing the freedom expats had then and now!

Trafic was most definitely the main danger from when we were there, my mother worked as a radiographer and from what she said things were pretty horrendous compared to "normal" conditions, both in terms of frequency and viciousness. Things were compounded by my sister turning into a young woman (by local standards, she was only about 12) which gave the cars packed with young men an extra excuse to honk / show off / tailgate / etc. I'm still amazed than in almost 25 years of living in the country, my father managed to stay out of a car accident (despite frequent trips between Riyadh and Dammam!).

Orchidthief said...

Wow Christophe your father deserves an award. No accidents?! I don't know how he managed to pull that!

As for the atmosphere in the new millenium, I have heard from 2000 to 2003, there were cases of open hostility towards Westerners, and then the bombings occurred. After that, the powers that be instituted an aggressive clamp down on terrorist activity and things have been comparatively quiet ever since.

I've heard of how Saudi was back in the 70's and it the stories make it sound a bit like the wild west. We have it lucky in comparison!

Christophe said...

Well actually saying he managed to stay out of all accidents is slightly inaccurate. He did cause one (minor) when he slammed the brakes after having been tailgated by a sudanese truck driver for ages. The police were on the spot in no time and weren't interested in collecting the different versions, westerner = good so the other guy necessarily = wrong. My father was happy to accept the blame but I can only imagine how many of these accidents go on with the wrong person taking all of the blame simply because of origins.

I've been reading your blog and several others for the past few days, would love to return to Saudi Arabia for a short while. Many of my friends have relatives who stayed behind when they went to study in the West, so the gates of the kingdom aren't entirely closed to them. As for myself... well, I need to find a job first ;)