Saturday, May 27, 2006

Dubai Weekend

"... but at least it's a dry heat."

I wish I had a pound for every time I've heard that phrase this year. Whenever someone exclaims how hot it is here in Riyadh there's always someone in earshot who reminds you that it's a dry heat. It may be true but it doesn't necessarily make the complainer feel any better.

Riyadh's central position in the Kingdom gives it a dry (low humidity) climate, whereas the Eastern and Western provinces are much more humid. The same is true of the United Arab Emirates, a country to the East of Saudi Arabia and the destination for our latest weekend away. When we arrived in Dubai we quickly realized the benefits of "...a dry heat", since here it's just as hot as in Riyadh (around 42 degrees centigrade), but now we also have 70% humidity to go with it. By the time we'd queued for 5 minutes outside the airport for a taxi we were all soaked with sweat, and as I stepped out of the air-conditioned taxi on arrival at the hotel my glasses steamed up and I had to take them off to find my way to the lobby.

Dubai is the second-largest and most populous city in the U.A.E., with approximately 80% of it's 1.1 million inhabitants being expatriates. There is an explosion of development going on in the city, with hundreds if not thousands of skyscrapers and other ambitious property developments under construction at the same time.

It is said that about one third of the world's cranes are in Dubai and I'm prepared to believe it. Everywhere you look (up) there are cranes nursing partially-built residential towers to their full stature. You can almost feel the wealth here; development originally funded by oil riches has provided a modern, glamorous tax-free focal point for doing business in The Middle East, and companies from all over the world are flocking to set up shop and take advantage of the opportunity. If you have some money put away and are looking for an investment I reckon you could do a lot worse than buying a property in Dubai.

Our hotel

We're staying at The Oasis Beach Hotel on Jumeirah Beach and close to Dubai Marina. We had reserved two double rooms but once the check-in clerk saw our Diplomatic Passports he upgraded us to a two-bedroom apartment in the newly-built Oasis Beach Towers, just across the street. Even though it's probably only a 30-second walk to the Towers a golf buggy is waiting for us as we leave the hotel and we all sit in it for the 20-second drive around to the front door. Our apartment is on the 22nd floor of the 46-story left tower (looking from the beach) and is very nice indeed; huge living room, kitchen complete with all appliances, utility room with washing machine and tumble dryer, and two large en-suite double bedrooms. From our living room balcony we can see (looking left) the beach and ocean, and in the distance the Palm Jumeirah - a massive man-made island development in the shape of a giant palm tree, and one of three such "palms" on the coastline of Dubai.

View to the left out of our apartment window

View to the right!

We spend most of Thursday at The Wild Wadi - a water park situated on the beach between the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and the Burj al-Arab hotel. You pay once to get in - as with most theme parks - then you go on whatever rides you want all day, as many times as you want.

The Wild Wadi with Jumeirah Beach Hotel in the background

The Wild Wadi's all about getting wet; from the large pool complete with wave machine to the adventure park for smaller children, from the surfing ride to the Jumeirah Sceira, all the rides are water-based which makes it a great place to spend a few hours in the heat and humidity.

Our first ride is the Master Blaster - a collection of uphill water rollercoasters and downhill slides that take you right around the park and which you can join and leave at multiple points - kind of like a hop-on, hop-off tour bus. I spend half my time on the ride being impressed by the engineering that provides water jets powerful enough to propel an adult sitting in a rubber ring uphill at speed, and the other half concentrating on keeping my bottom up so I don't bang it on the bottom of each slope.

Another feature of the park is Juha's Dhow - a part climbing frame, part adventure playground aimed at younger children. The best part of Juha's Dhow is the huge water bucket at the top of the mast, which every minute or so tips over to totally drench all who are foolish enough to be standing in the way.

Jumeirah Sceirah!

But for those who like their thrills high and fast there's only one place to go - the Jumeirah Sceirah (not sure how the second word is pronounced, but we chose "scarer" for reasons that will become apparent!). It's a 33m high water chute that you go down feet first lying on your back, and it propels you to the en of the chute at the bottom at 80km/h. Karen and Elliot took one look and walked off in the other direction, but Abigail and I wanted to go on it so we followed the twisting and turning path to the ride's tower, and climbed what seemed like a hundred steps to get to the top. Abigail went first, following the lifeguard's instructions to cross her legs at the ankles and fold her arms tightly across her chest, then down she went, down the long downhill slide with two humps along the way. The lifeguard and I watch the guard at the bottom of the chute until he waves his flag, signalling my turn! Time to blank out any fear and apprehension, assume the position, and just go! It's all over in about 10 seconds and is very thrilling, but once I slide to a stop at the end of the landing zone and stand up I feel a sharp pain in my posterior area. Abigail's got the same thing and it's the pressure of water using your backside as a brake pad to bring you from 80km/h to a halt in about three seconds.

Needless to say Abigail wants to go again!, so off we trot with me picking up the rear - in more ways than one! Back at the top of the stairs and we're queueing behind two men whom I recognize as brits, middle-aged father and late-teens son, both looking very apprehensively at the top of the slide. I say to Abigail, "Can I go first this time?" and they both instantly turn around and the older one says, "H-h-have you been on this before then?" "What's it like?", whereupon 11-year-old Abigail gives them a blow-by-blow account of what to expect with a big smile on her face, thus rendering useless any excuses they may have been thinking of trying to use to bail out at the last minute.

The Burj al-Arab from the Wild Wadi

Evening, and from the hotel we take a taxi to The Madinat, a large complex comprising a hotel, over thirty restaurants, bars, and even an indoor souk (market). After an early and excellent dinner at Trader Vic's we catch a gondola and cruise round the Madinat's network of man-made canals to the lobby, where another taxi takes us to the Mall Of The Emirates.

The first one came true didn't it? Got my fingers crossed for the other two!

The Madinat's canal system

The Burj al-Arab, from the Madinat

The Mall Of The Emirates is a huge shopping mall with the biggest Carrefour supermarket I've ever seen at one end, and a 12-screen multiplix cinema and bowling alley at the other. Oh yes, and also Ski Dubai (more later). No weekend away from Riyadh is complete without a trip to the cinema as you know, and we're hoping to see The Da Vinci Code, which had it's "worldwide" release the day before. We know the critics have panned it and it's apparently dire, but all of us except Abigail have read the book so we're determined to sit through it, if only so we can criticize it afterwards. Drat and Darn! It's not showing in Dubai til the end of the month! So much for a worldwide release. We end up seeing Mission Impossible III, which I quite liked despite being too near the screen (which I hate), and Karen slept through most of it.

Friday morning is spent again in the water, firstly at the beach where the waters of the Persian Gulf are crystal clear and almost as warm as a bath, then we move to the hotel's large pool, complete with poolside bar.

Old and New Dubai together on Jumeirah Beach

We meet Gerard - a colleague of mine from Novell Middle East for a nice, leisurely, but sweaty outdoor lunch in the hotel garden, then he kindly gives us a list back the The Mall Of The Emirates so we can do a bit more shopping and visit Ski Dubai.

Ski Dubai is the third-largest indoor ski resort in the world and presents a welcome opportunity to feel cold air on your body. We've only got a couple of hours and have never ski'd before, so now's not the time to start.

Instead we visit the Snow Park where, after donning your ski jacket, trousers and boots you can walk in the snow, have a snowball fight, and ride the various luges and toboggan slopes while to the left the skiers ssssshhhhhh to a stop at the foot of the ski slope.

We felt a bit daft at first wearing winter clothing that God knows how many others before us had worn that day, but everyone's in the same boat and we even see Arab men & women with black Puffa-style coats on over their thobes and abayas.

The best of the rides available to us in the Snow Park was the Snowtubing slide. You grab yourself a large rubber innertube and then stand on a travelling walkway that pulls you up to the top, then sit down in the ring (just like in Wild Wadi!) and slide down, spinning round and round as you go.

After a little more shopping it was time to return to pick up our luggage from the hotel then leave for the airport to catch the flight home. Dubai is a fantastic place to visit and in our short time we only scratched the surface of things to do, but the humid climate would put me off wanting to live here. Come back Riyadh, all is forgiven!

Monday, May 22, 2006

"High" Tea

While you're waiting for the Dubai Weekend story (I'm bigging it up aren't I? It'd better be good!)...

One of the "must do" things in Riyadh (and let's face it - there aren't many!) is to have Afternoon Tea in The Globe Restaurant. If you recall from my early posts the Globe is a ...well... globe at the top of one of Riyadh's two skyscrapers: The Faisaliah.

We had put off visiting the Faisaliah tower until recently, instead focusing on the Kingdom Tower or, to be more accurate, the Kingdom Centre shopping mall at its base.
A couple of weeks ago we could deny our curiosity no longer and paid the Faisaliah Mall a visit: shiny, nicely designed, full of designer shops and very expensive. They've even got a Harvey Nichols!

Anyway to get back to the point of the story...

We'd heard from others at the Embassy that Afternoon Tea at The Globe is very nice, and as with most things in Riyadh the only way to find out about things is to ask as many people as possible, then average out all the answers and you'll be pretty close to the truth. Official websites are useless, there's no point asking locals or the attraction-in-question's staff, and at time of writing TimeOut have yet to be convinced to produce a Riyadh edition, so all you've got to go on is the opinion of other expats and Embassy staff.

Phone call to The Globe:-
Me: Hello, we're thinking of coming for Afternoon Tea...
Them: Yes?
Me: Are children welcome?
Them: No, no children
Me: Oh, and are women permitted to take their abayas off in the restaurant? (I'd been told they could)
Them: Of course not!

Chats with various friends:-
Me: Have you been to The Globe for Afternoon Tea?
Friend: Oh yes, it's very nice. Get there around 5.00 and watch the sunset!
Me: They told me they don't allow children in for Afternoon Tea!
Friend: That's not right, We've been a couple of times and took the children (their children are younger than ours). Just don't tell them you're bringing children.
Me: Do you think I need to reserve a table?
Friend: Oh yes definitely, it's very popular and always busy.

So, averaging all that out we need to make a reservation, omitting that we intend to bring children, and we'll suss out the abaya situation once we're inside. I call and make a reservation for four "people" for the following Saturday afternoon.

Come the day and we arrive at The Faisaliah, Elliot and I in smart casual attire and Karen and Abigail with nice outfits on under their abayas - just in case. The guard at the Globe Reception Desk at the base of the tower leads us through an airport-style security check - X-Ray machine and walk-thru metal detector - before taking us up to the Globe which is reached via two separate lifts; the first takes you up to the 50th floor then a second one takes you the rest of the way.

Boy am I glad we booked a table! The place is completely deserted and we are the only customers there. The waiter doesn't react at seeing that we've brought children, nor is anything said when Karen and Abigail shed their abayas. Maybe things would be different if it were busy, but I doubt it. This is Saturday after all (which is Monday here remember), so probably the least popular day of the week to come, but we don't mind since there's table after table of delicious-looking food and it's all for us!

Not quite the cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off served on a silver tray that I was expecting, but still very nice. The tables and chairs are very modern and the food is a self-service buffet laid out around the tower's central column. We order drinks and then make our selections from the savoury snacks: samosas, sushi, vol-au-vents, sausage rolls... I could go on but It's starting to make me feel hungry again.

With the boring savoury stuff out of the way it's on to the main event,

and Abigail makes a bee-line for the white chocolate fountain,

into which she dips a couple of strawberries and marshmallows.

We continue to stuff ourselves for about an hour, and when our stomachs can hold no more our attention turns to the view outside and the promised spectacular sunset.

Downtown Riyadh is not the prettiest sight in the world but you can see how the low-rise nature of the city really makes the two towers stand out. You can also make out the busy King Fahd Highway running roughly North-South between the two towers.

We've picked a very hazy day (we've had lots of sand and duststorms lately), so the sunset is not worth a mention, but after tea we went out to the observation deck and got this interesting shot of the Kingdom Tower reflected in the globe.

I'm sure we'll go back again in the summer, when I hope to have some nicer skyline photos to show you.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


We just got back from a brilliant weekend in Dubai, but Abigail also picked up a throat infection which she has generously passed on to me, so while the Dubai trip should by rights be the priority story, I'm really not up to it today (sniff, cough). Will try to post it tomorrow, but in the meantime here's a "short".

Abigail, Karen and I all received minor injuries in the last few days, but Elliot remains unscathed. I put this down to our relative levels of physical activity; Elliot's injury avoidance strategy being to do nothing; if you don't do it you can't get injured doing it can you? Makes a kind of annoying sense.
The remaining - and more active - three of us have spent many happy hours arguing whose injury is the worst, the most painful, the worst looking: you be the judge.

Stumbled and scraped arm on wall whilst filming a spy movie with her best friend Alix.

Victim of "Windmill of Death" skating accident in the Embassy compound. Impact absorbed by elbow (10%) and right buttock/mobile phone in back pocket (90%). Nasty bruise on elbow, right buttock and mobile phone unhurt, thanks to quality Nokia craftsmanship. ...Oh, and the additional body fat I have deliberately developed on my bottom to safeguard against just such an eventuality.

Dropped glass saucepan lid metal-rim-first on bare big toe while cooking. Made a big fuss.

I think you will all agree that Abigail's looks the worst, but I think the more discerning among you will recognise who has done the lion's share of the suffering! Please cast your vote now by leaving a comment (coz you've got nothing better to do, have you?).

Dubai weekend story soon, tomorrow if I'm up to it (cough).

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Quite strange really - while in the UK recently I found myself feeling homesick for Riyadh. I've lived there only four months but I've spent the rest of my life in the UK, so this surprises me a little, but home is where the heart is, we've settled in nicely and have been made to feel very welcome by the Embassy staff - so Riyadh's home now!

As soon as I get back the party invitations are flooding in. I like to think that the entire Diplomatic community put it's collective social life on hold while I was away so that I didnt' miss anything, but I think they pretty much carried on as normal, the only difference being that Karen would have declined a few invitations.

The day after I got back we attended a dinner at the Ambassador's residence to welcome a new family to the Embassy. Mel is working in the same department as Karen and has moved here with her husband Dave and two of their four daughters. After dinner we were shown Bridget's two new falcons, Noor and Al Wahib, given to her by a Saudi prince, and I thought I was very brave to stroke the big one's breast with my index finger as it was giving me particularly nasty looks. The birds are beautiful and I really must take my camera next time and get you some photos.

The next evening and it's the RGBB Ball, again in the gardens of the residence - the same venue where the QBP and most other Embassy parties are held. RGBB stands for The Riyadh Group for British Business, and I guess there must've been around 300 guests there each paying 275 Riyals (about £40) for a ticket. The night was a fundraiser for ICING - The International Children In Need Group - and all through dinner several ladies were circling the tables selling tickets for the raffle, the star prize of which was a pair of return tickets to London from bmi.

Dinner over, and after Sherard's address it's time for the raffle before the disco gets going. The M.C. calls out the first number... "Orange 8, 6, 2!"

"That's us!" shouts Karen, and sure enough we've got the winning ticket. I trot up the stairs to collect my prize and have my photo taken with one of the officials - will upload it here if I can get a copy.

Our prize? An Olympus digital camera! I say "our" because although it was Karen's ticket I bought them and gave it to her, so it should be half mine really shouldn't it??

We've got five digital cameras now!

Monday, May 08, 2006


I know... no postings for a while.

I've been in the UK for the last week on business and to visit my family. The business part was successful but the family part was tinged with sadness at the death of my Aunt, Jocelyn Wright, or "Auntie J".

J was 81 and had been in a nursing home for the last two years, but even though her death was no surprise it was still a shock when we heard the news. She was my mother's older sister and only sibling and had always lived quite near us, so she was a constant figure in our lives for as long as I can remember. I won't share the many fond memories I have of her here. Suffice it to say that, though we weren't very close, I have lots of happy and funny moments to remember her by.

I've extended my trip so that I can attend her funeral tomorrow before flying back to Riyadh on Tuesday, shortly after which normal blog service will be resumed.