Almost every time I leave the Diplomatic Quarter to venture into the city I wonder if I'll make it back in one piece. In personal exchanges I have found the locals -- Saudis and Expats alike -- to be polite and conservative, just as the "Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Saudi Arabia" says, but... and it's a big BUT... put them either in a queue or behind the wheel of a car and all bets are off.
I've covered the insane driving here several times before, so let's not get into that again now. Assuming you have reached your destination still alive and with no more dents and scratches on your vehicle that you set out with, it's time to turn your mind to the other main aspect of motoring that takes nerves like Indiana Jones'. Parking.
In much the same way that old Indie took his life in his hands every time he walked out the front door, how you fare on a drive into Riyadh depends almost totally on your own reserves of patience, bravado, arrogance and sheer nerve.
In case you hadn't heard I'm a bit of a gadget freak, so my favourite shopping mall in Riyadh is Al Akaria because it has lots of Hi-Fi, electronics, and camera shops all together. The problem with that is that Al Akaria Mall is also home to Riyadh's worst parking experience. The mall is a scruffy, dirty, old shopping centre in the middle of the city and housed in a large drab building with several floors of offices above the ground-floor shopping level. Put all the office workers and shoppers together in an old building, in a city with no public transport, and you've got parking hell. I decided to drop by there this morning on the way back from renewing my car insurance (see Bills), to enquire if the tripod case I had ordered had come in yet. I did my usual two circuits of the outside of the building looking in vain for a parking space on the street, and as usual every inch of the building's perimeter was occupied by a parked car, with another line of parked cars outside them, blocking them in. I circled anyway in vain hope; you really don't want to descend into the murky netherworld of the underground car park unless you have first exhausted all other possibilities.
After two circuits I realised it's no good, time to bite the bullet.
I gritted my teeth and turned right into the car park entrance (actually there are two entrances but the other one is for Families Only). Two young, undernourished, bored-looking security guards in maroon uniforms looked blankly at me as I rolled past them and began down the ramp to the waiting blackness. I slowed down towards the bottom of the ramp, partly to take my sunglasses off and switch my headlights on, and partly to take heed of the scratch marks on the concrete lintel just an inch above the roof of the car. This was a no-no apparently, as the Saudi in the car behind explained with his horn. I ignored him and began to cruise around the first level, looking forlornly for a space. The dark, dirty, low-ceilinged parking area was totally packed with cars, and the later arrivals, on seeing all the marked spaces already taken, seemed to have made their own by parking on corners or against the opposite wall. All this made an already narrow lane even narrower, and as I snaked cautiously around the car park I received a second, longer burst on the horn from the car behind. Giving up on Level 1 I turned onto the down-ramp to Level 2, and saw in my wing mirror not just one but three cars behind following me. I got two more honks for driving down the dark ramp too slowly, then a third, possibly for loitering below 50km/h as I scanned row upon row of parked cars. At the end of the next row I spotted a space! Well, not a real space but an "extra" space in the driving lane and against a kerb. However it was on a bend and by the time I'd spotted it I'd gone too far forward to turn into it in one movement, which was all I felt my "fan club" would allow me, so I drove past it. Once onto the straight of the next lane the Saudis behind me decided they'd had enough of this namby-pamby Western Diplomatic (they could tell by the green number plates) driver and each one overtook me with a rev of the engine and a screech, lights off, sunglasses on, and giving me the Saudi equivalent of The Finger as each drew level. Relieved to have them in front of me at last I resumed my search. I went down a long lane only to find that someone had parked at the end, in the middle of the turn, completely blocking my path. There was nothing for it but to put the car in reverse and back slowly all the way to the previous junction and hope that nothing came up behind me. Having survived that manouevre I set off again, only to find myself at another dead end a few minutes later. This time it was a down-ramp to another part of the car park, but one that was apparently not being used, as there were closed barriers blocking the top of the ramp, on both sides. Another car was already parked nose against the barrier of the up-ramp so, having had enough by now, I pushed the nose of the Prado up against the other barrier at the top of the down ramp it was blocking me from using, switched off the engine and set off to find the lift to the shopping level.
I returned to Level 2 about fifteen minutes later (empty-handed: the case had not come in yet) to find the barrier in the up position and an irate-looking Saudi in a Land Cruiser waiting at the top of the ramp to come up, his car and mine nose-to-nose about six inches apart. I didn't make eye contact but got into the car as quickly as I could, wound down the window and started reversing all the way back down the lane to a junction where I could turn and drive forwards again. He followed me closely all the way, lights on full, as if he were trying to push me along faster with the beam. I finally reversed past the junction and he turned into it before me, and at the same time an undernourished but now less bored-looking security guard in a maroon uniform came up to my window shouting, "Mishkila Mishkila!" (meaning Problem). I put my sunglasses on and shouted back, "Mafi Arabie!" (don't speak Arabic), and sped off towards the welcoming daylight.
So next time you curse the inventor of Pay 'n' Display, think yourself lucky.