Cream colored boxy house and the same one just like it next door. And another one after that. Rows and rows of lined up tiny cacti in front of them, nicely positioned between spotless sidewalks and a road without a single pothole. Oh, and bicycle lanes as well! There are enough traffic signs for “drive slow”, “wrong way” and “watch out, speed bumps” that almost make you feel like you are at a driving school track.
Two wire fences and a high stone wall separate this “Stepfordi Arabia” from the Saudi one. Upon entry, residents and visitors have to make a stop at two checkpoints with a ramp.
“Before you come visit us, we will send you an invitation to register through our community portal, and then you have to fill out a form. It’s probably easier to get to an American embassy,” our friend said jokingly, another Slovene woman who has been living with her husband in this campus city called KAUST (King Abdullah University for Science and Technology), less than two hours north of Jeddah, for the past year and a half.
“They might as well ask for the size of your underwear at this point,” she added, because she herself is already too familiar with the joys of the Saudi bureaucracy, which often gets on our nerves. And so it was, in addition to information from our IDs, Tamer also had to enter our car’s details, including the required data about the insurance policy.
We came in time for lunch to one of the previously mentioned houses, which we took a closer look at on a guided tour with our hostess. Tamer later asked me if this might be a Slovenian custom to show houses to visitors. I am embarrassed to confess that after two and a half years abroad I can no longer be sure of this. To each their own, I guess. But let me tell you, how I was left speechless at the very beginning of our visit at the entrance to the house, where three trash cans were staring at me. “Packaging”, “organic waste” and “other” was marked on them.
The head of the family, the one working at the University, took us on a tour of the campus. “You don’t need to wear an abaya here, you know,” he told me as we got to the car. A similar remark came from his better half. Obviously they didn’t know that I had put on my newest, Eid abaya for the sole purpose of the visit, in which I also wanted to take some photos on our trip out of town. They may have forgotten about the fact, I don’t have to wear one or a scarf in Jeddah either.
I did however, notice a couple of debates on online forums, mentioning that in other smaller closed compounds the rules of “Western dress” apply and that the headscarves, abayas and, of course, niqabs or veils are forbidden on the premises. Imagine that… On the other hand, driving around KAUST we saw, among other things, a middle-aged lady cyclist who, under the scorching desert sun (despite the late afternoon), simply had to wear sporty attire so short, it only covered her buttocks. For God’s sake, why? Just because she can? She may prefer severe sunburn or perhaps an already acquired thighs like leather, though in her right mind she wouldn’t wear something like that somewhere in the West riding a bike.
KAUST is a self sufficient city with shops, restaurants and all the necessary infrastructure available to its residents. Just before sunset, for example, we also visited one of the recreation centers with a swimming pool and many sports activities. There, however, it became clear that respect for interculturalism is very much present, as detailed rules of etiquette can be read at the pool and in the locker rooms; changing clothes is acceptable only behind closed doors of private changing cubicles and not in the common area, modest one-piece swimsuits for women and shorts for men are permitted, it is forbidden to take photos by the pool…
The city and university were founded by King Abdullah in 2009; they are a home to people of more than 100 different nationalities. The university offers education to students of master’s and doctoral programs in the field of science and technology. There lie high ambitions and a vision for a sustainable future, but for now, after more than decade, it still seems to be only that, a vision. According to the founder, the late King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (1924-2015), KAUST is a beacon that will illuminate the path to a better future of peace, hope and reconciliation and thus serve the people of the kingdom and the rest of the world.
Who is being served with recycling, clean streets and all-inclusive benefits? Picture perfect neighborhoods for all (mostly Western-minded) foreigners within a militarily protected closed community can hardly be a beacon, when 99% of the Saudi population does not have access to its progress, cleanliness and comfort. Perhaps there are plans to step up their game and hurry to implement sustainable approaches outside of the two wire fences and one stone wall. Time for realization of the “Vision 2030” of the current king and his heir to the throne is running out.