Until last night my experience of Riyadh nightlife consisted only of going to and from a mall: sitting in the school bus or a taxi, inching along the enormous highways in a traffic jam or zooming through the glittering lights – overpasses, systematic U-turns, anonymous side streets – my headphones on, or the drivers blasting urban beats: RnB, hiphop, trap, grime, and Indian/Arabic dance music are all popular here.
Even though you’re in the back of a car, wearing an abaya and a head scarf, these moments are liberating. The city looks alive, heaving, growing – a nation on the make. You feel like you’re in a music video and the fact there are no tourist visas means there’s a limit to the number of people who will ever see this particular expression of what is ultimately a manifestation of the American dream.
But last night I had my first sample of ex-pat life. On one compound we had a quiet glass of home-brewed, high-strength cider with a couple of men from the north of England, and I first heard the term Middle East-enders. Apparently, there are huge numbers of chav southerners in the region and they warned of theft – said the place was little better than a council estate. But then they’re seasoned professionals with offshore wives and children: been here and there, seen it all.
Next we wove through the city to a compound that was hosting a ticketed party. First criteria of entry: no Arabs. My friend is from Sri Lanka and within seconds of exiting our car, some girls asked if she was Muslim. She was then questioned by the manager and there was a delay over admitting her. Another friend who arrived later and has a common African Muslim name, but is a first-generation Londoner, was given similar grief.
Inside was a melting pot of Earth, with a heavy African base. There were Africans from all over the continent, as well as African-Americans. There were a few small groups of white British/Americans and then I guess there were people from everywhere in between (except for the Arabic nations). People were aged maybe 20 to 50. It reminded me of the intergalactic bar scene in Star Wars.
You could buy coupons to get watered-down alcoholic drinks: vodka, gin, or whiskey with juice or soda. The DJ looked Filipino and played a mix of decent hiphop and RnB, as well as some very bad dance music.
I had never seen a dance floor spontaneously split into lines and dance in formation before but apparently it’s called the Electric Slide (my black friend said: “black people don’t line dance” when I used the country term). It’s apparently been going on since the 70s – the era of Soul Train etc – so I’m obviously way out of touch. Late or not, it was a cool thing to see! Most of the crowd seemed to know all the moves to a few different tunes.
The dance floor would also spread out into a circle so showmen and women could bust moves in the centre, to applause and whistling. Some break danced or bumped and grinded with a partner.
Afterwards we went to a friend of a friend’s house: my first entry into a private Saudi villa. These are large houses, grand, with high walls and solid ornate gates. In Saudi, marble floors are the norm and walls are usually white or cream. If a building is new and clean, they look glamorous even when simple.
Having been here 10 years, this guy’s place was particularly nice. There were large areas featuring a single formation of furniture: a room with nothing but a huge Turkish mat, a modular lounge suite and coffee table – not even anything on the walls. A room with just a dining table and chairs. A room with a full-size pool table in the centre, and in the corner a giant TV and sound rig mounted on a single pole.
In an alcove around the corner from the pool table was a home-bar: a mini-fridge stocked with soda, and bottles of liquor on the counter. One of the guests rolled exquisite spliffs in cigar paper, with a filter, or puffed his special mix from a slender, sophisticated pipe.
Everyone discussed how long they’d been here and knew to the very month “like it’s a prison sentence”. But we’re all here for a reason: to make more money than we can make at home, to further our CVs, and to expand our life experience.
In Saudi, not only the booze and weed, but our very presence in the house was illegal, (owing to the fact men and women cannot socialise outside of the family). But it’s obvious there’s a cache of people who are defying the strict conventions of the city at large, and making the most of the weird world that exists behind compound and embassy walls.
The scene is not, perhaps, to my taste, but I enjoyed hearing about people’s different stories: where they were from, what they were doing here, what languages they speak, where they plan to go afterward. The calibre of achievement was high and the future stakes seemed higher. Highly educated with specific, in-demand skill sets, they could go anywhere they like next: but first comes the KSA cash.
The night over for us, we still had the 90-minute commute to our dusty provincial town. Forty through the sleepy city and fifty through the desert, a large sun rising slowly and spreading a pure shade of peach over the eastern horizon until it encompassed half the sky and was swallowed by the pale blue of a new day.