Desert Gardens Riyadh
Going to Saudi Arabia is already in my itinerary plan. I even wrote a long email to Saudi officials many years ago, expressing my strong interest in visiting this country on the Arabian Peninsula, but nothing came of it after the email was sent.
My colleague comforted me in the tone of someone who has been there: “Saudi visa is not something you can get just by applying. You have to be patient enough to wait.” For the computer, when I got a one-year multiple-entry Saudi electronic visitor visa online in less than an hour, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Saudi Arabia must be changing, you must see it.
Saudi Arabia borders the Persian Gulf to the east, the Red Sea to the west, and borders Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen. In the 7th century AD, the successors of the Islamic prophet Muhammad established the Arab Empire, which reached its peak in the 8th century. Today’s Saudi Arabia is part of its territory, and Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad, is the holy place of Islam.
After the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire conquered large areas of the Arab Empire, but did not really control the hinterland of the Arabian Peninsula known as Najd. After the 19th century, the Arabian Peninsula was invaded by British forces. The Ottoman Empire was defeated and divided in World War I, and fell in 1923. In 1924, Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, chief of Najd, annexed Hijaz, located in the west of the Arabian Peninsula, and declared the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, means “garden” in Arabic. In the 14th century AD, the famous Arab traveler Ibn Battuta visited here and described it in his travel notes as “a beautiful and rich city with rivers and trees”.
The Masmak Fortress in the southern suburbs of Riyadh records the vicissitudes of this ancient city. Walking into the fort, there is no extravagance and magnificence of the royal palace that people imagine, but an ancient well can be seen at a glance, and there is still water at a depth of 10 meters. It can be imagined that even as a member of the royal family, life was not easy in the desert.
In the Masmark Fortress, people pass through the thick walls and feel the military atmosphere here. Many of the items displayed in the fort are weapons used by the Saudis in wars in the past. Some of them have been used by ordinary soldiers, and some have been used by senior generals. Each weapon is marked with its source and name. As the founder of the country, the video materials left by Al Saud in different eras are also the focus of the exhibition. In his hands, Riyadh was lost and lost again, and it confronted the Ottoman Empire strongly. This history has been imprinted in the minds of the Saudis, and now the Saudis hope to tell this history to the world.
At the beginning of the last century, about half of the population in Saudi Arabia lived a nomadic or semi-nomadic life, and a tent was their residence. Although Saudi Arabia has a land area of 2.25 million square kilometers, ranking thirteenth in the world, 95% of the land is desert or semi-desert, only 1.45% of the land is suitable for farming, and the agricultural products produced can only meet the needs of 10% of the country’s population. . Many people have been poorly clothed and hungry for a long time. A handful of dates and some camel milk is a meal.
In 1938, American oil companies discovered large oil fields in Saudi Arabia. Oil wealth changed Saudi Arabia’s fortunes. By 1982, Saudi Arabia’s per capita income had reached US$22,300, making it the country with the highest per capita income in the world at that time.
To this day, Saudi Arabia is still the “oil tycoon” in people’s mouth. In Riyadh, I noticed that the price of high-quality 95 gasoline at the local gas station remained at a level equivalent to 4 yuan a liter. Most of the cars that come to refuel are four-wheel drive high-horsepower or high-end luxury sports cars.
I tried taking a bus in Riyadh to get around the city. However, I waited for nearly half an hour in the all-glass waiting room with air conditioning and a comfortable temperature, but no bus arrived. It made me realize that the locals are used to the cheap life on four wheels. Where it is usually more than 10 minutes on foot, Saudis prefer to drive, especially in hot weather. Therefore, the local public transportation is not developed.
Saudi Arabia has a total of 211.2 billion barrels of oil reserves. Even if it extracts 2.3 million barrels per day, it can still be exploited for more than 230 years. However, the Saudi decision-makers have seen that the oil resources will eventually be exhausted one day. Another reality: Saudi Arabia may be far from running out of oil, but people around the world are already switching to electric vehicles. In recent years, the world’s oil prices have generally continued to fall, which once halved Saudi Arabia’s national income. Oil, known as “black gold”, has made Saudi Arabia the most powerful country in the Arab world, and it is now the main driving force for reform in this ancient kingdom.
To see clearly the real plans of Saudi Arabia for reform, some details are worth paying attention to. After King Salman of Saudi Arabia ascended the throne in January 2015, he appointed his 30-year-old son Mohammed as the Minister of Defense, and then appointed him as the Chairman of the Economic and Development Affairs Committee. In April of that year, Salman appointed his nephew Nayef as crown prince and Mohammed as deputy crown prince. Mohammed is in charge of Saudi Arabia’s energy policy and economic reforms, and also led the military operations of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in Yemen. On June 21, 2017, Salman appointed Mohammed as Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, replacing Nayef, who was 57 years old at the time.
Muhammad intends to modernize the country, and the “Vision 2030” promoted by Muhammad covers a wide range, and empowering women is part of it. The young crown prince said in an interview with Columbia Corporation in 2018: “Sharia law is very clear. Women need to wear respectable clothing like men, but it does not need to be in the form of a black robe.” Changes come
. Too soon, local women don’t fit in for everyone. In the King’s Tower shopping center in downtown Riyadh, many of the local women walking past me still wore black robes and veils in the old fashion.
But Saudi women did start to take on more social roles. At King Khalid Airport in Riyadh, the local female staff who checked my ID spoke fluent English, which shows that she has received a good language education for a long time. Out of professional instinct, I deliberately contacted Francesca, a local real estate business girl in Riyadh, to hear her personal feelings about the social changes in Saudi Arabia. Unexpectedly, she has been busy with business activities, so we have never had the chance to meet in the same city. Francesca later told me in an apologetic reply that in Saudi Arabia, there are too many business opportunities for women, and she has no time to spend at home. She was very willing to take the opportunity to sit down with me and talk about this experience.
On a wider scale, such as in the field of infrastructure, Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030″ is committed to reducing the economy’s dependence on oil, developing industries such as automobiles, military industry, and communications, and even building a future city (NEOM), with a plan of more than 5,000 One hundred million U.S. dollars. However, since the project was launched in 2017, the progress of the new city has not been smooth for several reasons. For example, when a foreign company invests in Saudi Arabia, it must not only have a guarantee from the Saudis, but also take into account the country’s conservative cultural atmosphere. For another example, the Hovita tribe lives in the location where NEOM was chosen. This is a large tribe with many people and quite a reputation. They do not want to leave their homes and give up the land they have lived in for generations.
The ups and downs of NEOM construction are actually a vivid manifestation of Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of social transformation and communication with the world. With the reduction of oil revenue, all aspects of Saudi social life are facing difficult choices and reforms. To ease the financial strain, the Saudi government sold a 5% stake in Aramco. The company is one of the most profitable companies in the world, with a market capitalization twice that of Apple. Its 5% stake is enough for Saudi Arabia to cash out hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth.
”But what Saudi Arabia needs more now is technology that adapts to the sustainable development goals.” Wicker, a Swiss who has worked in China for 17 years, came to Jizan Province in southwest Saudi Arabia more than a year ago to help the local government attract more Chinese Enterprises participate in infrastructure construction and diversified industrial development. He told me that from railway transportation to electric vehicles and mobile payment, China’s development experience is definitely worth emulating for Saudi Arabia. Like many Saudis, he also believes that there will be no “zero-sum game” in Saudi Arabia’s future development. Changing a country’s economic model cannot be accomplished with just one or two projects. If a large amount of money is spent on infrastructure blindly, it will also bear a high price in case of setbacks. In this process, Saudi Arabia needs to not only maintain cooperation with the United States and other Western countries, but also find room for in-depth cooperation with China and other Asian countries.
Looking back on the nearly 30 years of economic and trade cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia, it can be regarded as a model of cooperation between China and the Arab world. In the central business district of Riyadh, the modern aspect of the city always reflects the economic strength of the world’s largest oil exporter; but in the Bata Bazaar in the old city I visited, local residents seeking jobs or business opportunities can be seen everywhere. Immigrants from India, Pakistan, Philippines. Many of the work of these grassroots people is related to China.
McGrady, the owner of a shoe store, told me that 35 Saudi riyals (about 65 yuan) a pair of sneakers are very popular with the local people, and he can sell more than 150 pairs a week. Small shop owners selling Internet broadband routers also praised the Chinese-made products, saying “they bring in good business”. In Saudi Arabia, Chinese elements are much more than that. The bilateral trade volume between the two countries will reach US$87.3 billion in 2021, an increase of more than 200 times compared with US$418 million when diplomatic relations were established in 1990.
From December 7 to 10, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Saudi Arabia to participate in the China-Gulf Arab States Cooperation Council Summit and the China-Arab States Summit held in Riyadh. During the visit of the Chinese head of state, enterprises of the two countries signed 34 agreements, including investment in green energy, information technology, cloud services, transportation, and logistics. The market value of the cooperation agreement reached 30 billion US dollars.
Saeed, a media studies scholar at King Su’ud University in Riyadh, told me that in terms of economy, trade, infrastructure construction, and people-to-people and cultural exchanges, the cooperation between Arab countries and China is not only pragmatic, but also does not set political conditions, which is the reason for their increasingly close relations.