Skip to content

Postcard From Saudi Arabia – Adventures in the Diplomatic Quarter

November 21, 2014

Diplomatic Quarter 2.

I’ve just finished reading The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase: Tales From the Diplomatic Bag, an interesting compilation of dispatches from British ambassadors to their masters in London put together by Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson. It reminds me of a rather odd interlude in my life: the six months I spent in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter.

The DQ, as it’s referred to by residents, came into existence in the 1980s, when the Saudi Government decided to move all foreign embassies from Jeddah to Riyadh. It’s effectively a very large walled compound, guarded at both entrances by a hefty military presence.

Within the walls you will find most of the embassies, as well as villas, shops, offices, apartments and schools. The embassies themselves have varying levels of security depending on their importance in the scheme of things. Visit those of Britain and the USA, for example, and you will almost certainly walk past members of their respective militaries who are armed to the teeth and ready for action. Not surprising, given that the diplomats of both countries tend to be top of the hit list for those disenchanted by our respective roles on the world stage.

Outside the walls of these little fortresses, strange, un-Riyadh-like things happen. At least they used to when I was there, and probably still do. For example you could see women out jogging and riding bicycles. Anyone who has seen the much-admired Saudi movie, Wajda, will know that women are not encouraged to ride bikes, let alone jog through the streets wearing shorts and t-shirts that would not be out of place in London or New York. And anyway, jogging in the long black abayas that women are required to wear in the city proper would be somewhat impractical.

In this respect the only other place remotely like the DQ in the Kingdom is the Aramco Camp in Dhahran, where – shock horror – women actually drive cars. But whereas the Aramco residential area is, thanks to its origins, rather like a well-heeled small town American suburb – neat little villas, manicured grass verges, parks and a green golf course, the DQ is much more self-consciously “designed”, and much less well-maintained. Yes, there are jogging paths through the enclave, one or two restaurants where people sit out and eat, but not so much communal greenery, and definitely not the sense of community that comes from being part of a company town. Such communities as do exist tend to orbit around the major embassies. Otherwise the residents, mostly from the professional classes – both Saudi and expatriate – tend to do their own thing without much reference to each other.

Anyway, back then I was looking around for somewhere to live, and a colleague suggested the DQ. Pricewise, villas and apartments in the quarter are often less expensive than in the popular expatriate compounds to be found around the city. Part of the attraction was that with a reasonably-sized villa it would be possible to accommodate visiting colleagues from the US – I was the general manager of a US-Saudi joint venture at that time.

One of the problems with finding a place in the DQ was that there was a long waiting list – officially. Unofficially, if the accommodation office tipped you the wink you could do a deal with someone leaving to nominate you as the next leaseholder. “The deal”, as you would expect, usually involved a financial transaction. Not a bribe, you understand. In my case I was referred to a gentleman who was moving to another more luxurious location outside the city. In return for my paying him for all the contents of the villa – and I mean all, as will become clear shortly – he arranged for me to take over the lease.

So for a fairly stiff price I had inherited a five-bedroom villa, together with all the fittings, fixtures and furniture. But this was no expatriate villa with neat IKEA sofas, pine beds and all the usual functioning accoutrements.

I can only describe it as an old-style Saudi palace in miniature. Ornate furniture, marble bathroom fittings, huge Chinese vases, carved elephants, flock wallpaper, a U-shaped majlis (traditional gathering area) for guests, a massive TV and a battery of shisha pipes only begins to describe it. But as my colleague told me, this was not a family residence. This was an estiraha, the Arabic word for place of rest. Public estirahas are places where you can relax, smoke shisha, eat kebabs, and in some establishments get married. This one was definitely private. A place, it seemed, where my predecessor could come to get away from his family – to party with his male friends.

The odd thing was that it was as if he had abandoned it in a hurry. There were numerous personal possessions dotted around the place – some extremely, shall we say, exotic. The beds looked as if they had just been slept in. There were men and women’s clothes in the wardrobe. All the windows on the upper floor had been painted black. Downstairs, thick curtains and liners ensured that not a chink of daylight could penetrate the interior. It was a place of the night.


As for the fixtures, there was a massive glass-fronted refrigerated case full of soft drinks and processed cheese. The cooker was blackened by whatever had been cooked on it. Only one element worked. The dishwasher didn’t work.


But everything else seemed to be functioning, including the phone – the previous tenant hadn’t bothered to close his account. This had one interesting consequence, which was that for the first couple of months I kept getting calls from various ladies wishing to speak to him. I couldn’t help, since I had no forwarding address or phone number for him.


It took three days of industrial-scale cleaning to make the place ready. I held on to his bedding and the women’s dresses for a while in case he came back to claim them. He didn’t, so eventually I ditched them. I scraped all the black paint from the windows to let the light in. Some things I couldn’t fix without considerable expense, such as the burn marks on the inch-thick carpet in the master bedroom, presumably the result of over-enthusiastic use of en-suite shisha. But I managed to cover them up, and to disguise most of the other blemishes that became clear once the light made its long-denied entrance.


To this day I have no idea what the guy did for a living, though some of his more bizarre possessions offered clues. There was a canister of pepper spray, and one of tear gas. Even more intriguing was a spray canister of liquid that one could use to render envelopes transparent, so that you could inspect the contents within. This odd piece of kit is manufactured by a US vendor of police, military and surveillance gadgets. Before writing this I went to their website. It’s a paradise for the paranoid. It includes within its product categories a range of items it describes as “revenge products”, including one that when added to food or drink will liquefy the contents of your bowels at very short notice, and another that will produce uncontrollable flatulence. Surely there’s a law against stuff like this? Apparently not. If you want a glimpse of a bizarre and rather sinister aspect of American society, the site is here. The Envelope X-Ray Spray is still on sale.


In addition to his strange arsenal of personal security aids, he had a CCTV camera on his door that enabled him to inspect visitors before he let them in. Not unusual, but it and the other things I found did make me wonder. What potential intruders was he guarding against? Whose letters was he reading? And why did he insist on perpetual darkness? Certainly, if my colleague’s guess was correct, he must have had a rare old time there. Other clues of a lifestyle that might be frowned upon outside the walls of the DQ were also to be found. I will spare you the details, dear reader, because I wouldn’t want you to believe that I had taken over a former den of vice, or indeed that dens were commonplace in this very respectable neighbourhood. Enough to say that the evidence could be interpreted in more than one way.

Leaving aside such idle speculation, I got the place cleaned up, and settled into life as the solitary occupant of my little palace. And actually it was very comfortable, though I felt that I should really have had an army of servants to complement the surroundings. In fact there was to the side of the villa a tiny apartment for the use of the driver, housekeeper or whatever. But my budget didn’t stretch to domestic help, and anyway I was quite content with my solitude. I was sans famille, since my wife runs a business in the UK, and it didn’t make sense for her to join me for what was never intended to be more than a limited assignment.

I was happy enough to rattle round the DQ. The journey to work was a mere twenty minutes, and there were occasional Embassy invitations that prevented me from becoming a hermit.

Eventually my assignment came to an end, but not before a period of cohabitation with an American consultant sent over to reinforce the sales effort. I’d never lived with an adherent of Tibetan Buddhism before, an individual whose work schedule was circumscribed by whether or not a particular day was auspicious, and who liked to practice martial arts with a big wooden staff as I was enjoying the morning air out in the yard. It was an interesting though somewhat disconcerting experience given that about the only thing we had in common was a desire to see Barack Obama elected in his first presidential contest. But expatriate life is all about tolerance and adaptability, so we rubbed along OK.

Eventually I moved on to Bahrain, and he inherited the villa, shisha pipes, Chinese vases and all.

By and large the DQ experience wasn’t one I would willingly repeat. It’s a good place for the embassies, with the assurance of security without and within. But despite the relatively relaxed atmosphere that came from being in a protected enclave, I missed the hustle and bustle of living in the city. Having to wait for fifteen minutes behind a line of cars at the security checkpoint before entering the enclave didn’t help either.

But at least I had the opportunity to live in an authentic Saudi residence for a while, even if I could never consider it home, and nor presumably did the previous occupant. And of course I found out what to do should I ever want to read my wife’s letters, perish the thought. What a pity that nobody sends anything interesting by post any more.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: