Little South Asia in big Riyadh (Riyadh Diary)

April 22nd, 2008 - 6:34 pm ICT by admin  

By Aroonim Bhuyan
Riyadh, April 22 (IANS) Going by the ambience, one could be forgiven for believing it is Chandni Chowk in New Delhi. But it is ‘little Asia’ right in this Saudi Arabian capital city that is home to a large number of expatriate Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. “Let’s go see a patch of South Asia in the heart of Riyadh,” our friend in Riyadh tells us, a group of Indian journalists who were here from Dubai to cover Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s weekend visit.

A little way down our hotel, a turn right, a turn left and there we were - a scene straight out of Old Delhi - or any other place in the subcontinent.

Indian shops, run by north Indians as well as their southern counterparts, jostled for space with Bangladeshi fish vendors and Pakistani restaurants.

Bangla Maachher Dukan, Pakistan Restaurant, Saree Shop read the brightly lit signboards in English, Devanagri and Bengali scripts.

Our friend carefully manoeuvred his way out of the area and then we found ourselves on a street with fast-moving traffic and headed towards downtown Riyadh…


Who needs a movie theatre?

“There is no movie theatre in Riyadh,” you are informed as soon as you land in Riyadh.

So what do people do for leisure? By the afternoon, as you move around the city, the question is answered.

Glitzy malls, shopping complexes, American fast food chains - all are here.

Huge buildings boast of names like Hayat Mall, Royal Mall, Riyadh Sahara Mall, Geant and Carrefour.

“People come out in the evenings and spend their time here,” our driver informs us.

“And the fast food joints (he meant the KFCs, McDonalds’, the Hardees’, etc) are always full in the evening. Those are extremely popular here.”

There are separate sections in all these establishments for women and children too.

And you cannot fail to notice the shops selling the latest Bollywood and Hollywood DVDs surrounded by retailers of large screen TVs.

“The Bollywood titles all come with Arabic subtitles.”


Signs of globalisation?

Till a couple of years ago, if you did not know Arabic you would be lost driving down the smooth, broad and orderly roads of Riyadh - a sign of Saudi Arabia’s focus on infrastructure.

Direction signs on the main arterial roads were all in Arabic then. But these are slowly being replaced by new road signs giving directions in both Arabic and English.

So, nowadays you know that keeping to this lane will take you to Makkah and the other lane will lead you to Dammam and so on.

And so is the case with vehicle registration plates. Most cars carry Arabic number plates. But then again, you see an odd car here and there with number plates in both Arabic and English.


Scenes in the sky

Riyadh’s skyline is dominated by two iconic skyscrapers - the Kingdom Tower and the Al-Faisaliah Tower.

The 302-metre Kingdom Tower is the tallest building in Saudi Arabia.

As it shoots up in the Riyadh sky, it forms a ‘U’ with two towers on the top. An arch bridge connects the 99th floors of the two edges of the ‘U’ - giving the impression that you are looking at a gigantic bottle opener.

And built in direct axis to the Kingdom Tower is the Al-Faisaliah Tower.

The glass-and-steel tribute to modern architecture is remarkable in the sense that it tapers to a tip like that of a ballpoint pen at the top. Near the summit of the 267-metre tower is an enormous glass globe.

The first 30 floors of the tower house various offices. On the 31st floor is a viewing deck and above it are three floors of restaurants.


Work time and prayer time

There are two sets of working hours in Riyadh. Government and private offices stick to the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule.

Shops and marketing complexes open around 9 a.m. and close strictly at noon, keeping to prayer timings. Then they open again around 4 p.m. and close at midnight.

“That is because, in the first half, only families visit these places and then begins the prayer time. It is only in the second half that the office workers can visit these places,” our friend explained.


Serenity all around

“So what struck you most about Riyadh?” I ask my colleague as we make our way to the King Khalid International Airport.

“Ek alag sa sukoon hain (A different kind of serenity prevails here),” he replies.

(Aroonim Bhuyan can be contacted at

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