Last month I had the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia for the very first time. It was an eye opening and enlightening experience.

Getting to Riyadh is a long trip from New Zealand – Auckland to Singapore, Singapore to Dubai, Dubai to Riyadh for a total of 27 hours travel. I arrived at about 8:00pm local time. I know that there is a large migrant labour force in Saudi Arabia, but hadn’t considered the potential impact that could have in the airport arrivals hall! There must have been 2000 people in the arrivals hall; we were sorted into various categories and I got through immigration fairly quickly. As immigration experiences go, it was actually one of the less stressful that I’ve been through.

I know it would be warm, but was not really prepared for 29 degrees at night! When i left Auckland it was 15 degrees so the contrast was almost shocking. I was collected at the airport by my host, Tariq, and was deeply grateful for air the conditioning in his car :-). Tariq informed me that this time of year is cool and comfortable – mid summer gets up to 45 degrees!

The next day was fairly relaxed, recovering from the flight and meeting the team from Jodayn. I was in Saudi Arabia to deliver some Agile courses for Jodayn’s customers and establish the basis for a partnership with them. The courses went well, and I was really impressed with the depth of knowledge and great questions from all the course participants. It was a great classroom experience.

The weekend in Saudi Arabia is Thursday-Friday. On Thursday Tariq very kindly took me out in the morning to do some sight-seeing and shopping. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a tourism industry, so the souk doesn’t have tourist stores and local stores, unlike some of the places I have been in around the world. The stores are selling products for the local market and the price is based on local consumption.

After the souk we went to the Al-Musmak fort – this is the building which the first King Saud conquered to form modern Saudi Arabia. It has been restored and is a museum which tells the story of the foundation of Saudi Arabia. We toured around, and when we were leaving met a group of foreigners coming into the fort with guides and guards. Turns out it was Lt Gen The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae – the Governor General of New Zealand with a small group of local NZ diplomats from the embassy. He was there for the funeral of the Crown Prince, who had died the previous week. We stopped and spent a few minutes chatting with the GG in the passageway – we Kiwis sure do get around. I found him a personable and gentle man, who I think does our country proud.

After that it was back to my hotel for a brief rest and on to lunch with the team from Jodayn – a glorious feast of fish cooked fresh in front of us. Good food and good company added to the delights of the day. The food in Saudi was always great – each meal could classify as a gastronomic adventure, and heaven for a carnivore like me.

After lunch we went to see the desert – turns out the desert outside of Riyadh is a weekend playground. Lots of vendors hiring out 4×4 bikes, go-karts, horses, donkeys and yes, there was someone offering camel rides. Families come out to the desert area for picnics and a fun day out, and quite a few set up tents for winter holidays away from town; leaving the tents up for the whole winter and coming out for the weekend and returning on Saturday morning.

We watched the fun for a while and them went to find a quiet area to sit and watch the sun set and stars rise – sitting on a carpet under the stars in the desert is a supremely peaceful experience, and one I a deeply grateful for.

Friday was a day of rest – I stayed around the hotel and recharged my batteries.

The architecture around Riyadh is impressive:

Saturday is the beginning of the work-week and the start of the second two-day course. Again a great bunch of people with real interest in what I was teaching and lots of good questions.

Monday was a series of presentations to customers around Riyadh, as was Tuesday morning.

Tuesday afternoon we wrapped up business and it was off to the airport for the long trip home.

On the way we stopped an I got some nut-stuffed dates to take home – delicious! The sweet stores are amazing:

It was the beginning of a holiday week so the airport was chaotic, but some order prevailed and I got through to the lounge, before flying to Singapore and on to Auckland.

Flight timings meant a six-hour layover in Singapore, fortunately there is a transit hotel which is pretty reasonably priced so I could have a shower and a comfortable sleep before taking the 12 hour flight to Auckland.

Singapore airport is really impressive – it even has a butterfly house:

I had a great time in Saudi Arabia – it was great to make new friends and experience a completely different culture.