On landing at Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport, it's instantly clear to an outsider that Saudi Arabia is unlike any other place on earth—though not necessarily for the reasons one might expect. Sure, luggage is thoroughly searched for contraband, and the terminal is filled with abaya-clad women and their male counterparts in flowing white robes, known as dishdashas. But there are other, unanticipated sights that immediately command attention, primarily the ultramodern airport itself here in an ancient land—a notable landmark and masterpiece of Islamic architecture.
Begun in the 1970s, the airport radiates out from under a bold, futuristic geodesic dome and is connected to an enormous hexagonal mosque that can accommodate up to 5,000 worshipers, with a courtyard big enough for an additional 4,000. The budget for the entire complex exceeded $3.2 billion, and it took more than 10 years to complete. It's one of the many large-scale development projects the Saudi government has been able to undertake, thanks to a gargantuan stream of oil revenue that shows no sign of drying up any time soon. To uninitiated visitors, the high-design structure juxtaposed with the vast traditional space where busy travelers can stop and pray may come as a surprise. But it is a fitting gateway into a country dominated by ambitious public-development projects that jostle for pride of place while embodying the tension between conservative and progressive cultural currents.
Encompassing both futuristic, sky-scraping hotels and old-fashioned date and camel farms, Saudi Arabia is more complex than media coverage—usually limited to negative stories about a lack of civil rights—allows. Its smaller neighboring countries may attract more attention; after all, an airport doesn't invite as much journalistic interest as a man-made, palm-shaped island (in Dubai) or a new outpost of the Louvre (in Abu Dhabi). But in that difference lies the crux of Saudi Arabia's approach to development—and the most convincing reason to consider making the journey.
Since it opened to tourists in 2004, Saudi Arabia has challenged travelers to confront their preconceived notions while simultaneously offering an authentic version of the Gulf that has not been artificially constructed for Western consumption. Getting there itself can still be difficult: non-Muslims usually need either a sponsor within the country or a well-connected travel agent or tour guide. But once in, visitors are welcomed. The fact is that Saudi society is highly conservative and traditional, and in some cases authoritarian—but it is also fiercely modern in its contemporary esthetic, and deeply hospitable to strangers who respect its mores.
The tension is especially pronounced in Riyadh, the capital and largest city. Riyadh is the seat of such traditional, defining elements as the royal family and the historic Masmak Fort, whose recapture by Ibn Saud in 1902 led to the founding of the current ruling dynasty. Women are not allowed to drive, or to socialize with men who are not family members; the same rules, including having to be covered in an abaya, apply to visitors. Yet the city is sophisticated, boasting a cultivated and well-informed population. Fueled by outsize bank accounts filled by the oil economy, the people have traveled widely outside the country for education, business and leisure, then returned home from destinations like Mumbai, London and Paris with a taste for both the Occident and the East.
The Riyadh skyline runs very low to the ground. Speeding down the highway toward the city center, first-time visitors will likely be struck by the vastness of the desert surrounding a small concentration of glittering lights, dominated by the 45-story, bottle-opener-shaped Kingdom Centre and the 44-story obelisk that is Al Faisaliah Tower. That unapologetic modernism competes with the natural majesty of the landscape, and serves as a metaphor for the technologically advanced trajectory the government is attempting to follow. The Kingdom Centre is owned by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the high-flying billionaire who is a major stakeholder in the Four Seasons hotel group worldwide. It houses offices, a Four Seasons Hotel, apartments, a luxury shopping complex and a skybridge. The interior architecture is immensely scaled, designed to impress and inspire awe, like so many public spaces in Riyadh.
Because of the religious tradition of Wahhabism, an ultraconservative strand of Islam, restrictions apply as to how these spaces are used. The most obvious are that men and women may not mix freely, and music is not allowed in public. To the outsider, the effect can be surreal; what should be lively centers of human exchange can feel more like elaborate stage sets. Visitors can experience this sensation while standing in the vast lobby of the Kingdom Centre, but nowhere is it more apparent than in the Harvey Nichols store in Al Faisaliah Tower, where the sound of voices mixes with the click of stiletto heels, but no background music can be heard.
Most stores in Riyadh offer a fairly mainstream product mix—standard-issue logo bags from Gucci, embroidered Armani chiffon gowns—that appeal to a conservative clientele. But for those seeking to make more of a fashion statement, the most interesting store in Saudi Arabia is DNA. The brainchild of international fashion plate Deena Aljuhani, DNA is the region's first concept store, along the lines of Colette in Paris or 10 Corso Como in Milan. At 8,611 square feet, the museum-like space stocks a global selection of cutting-edge labels, including Tunisian master couturier Azzedine Alaia and the New York design collective ThreeasFour. Aljuhani's vivacious personality has won over some of the biggest names in fashion and persuaded designers like Michel Klein and Martine Sitbon to custommake abayas for her store, and Diane von Furstenberg and Proenza Schouler to produce longer versions of their short-skirted styles. "Most people think women from the Gulf are either in Al Qaeda or dressed from head to toe in logos," Aljuhani says. "We want to change that perception, and to show that women here are much more savvy and aware of style and trends than people think."
The tension between tradition and modernity is readily apparent on the Saudi restaurant scene. Dining has always been a national pastime, with multi-course dinners stretching late into the night. The Globe restaurant, located at the top of the Rosewood Hotel in Al Faisaliah Tower, offers an example of Middle East meets West. Like a glass marble suspended in the sky, it is another impressive feat of engineering, providing a 360-degree view from within a geodesic globe while serving modern European dishes like Wagyu beef fillet with horseradish confit. But like the city's other architectural marvels, the interior affords its own surreal views: families making hushed conversation while sipping elaborate, alcohol-free mocktails from crystal glasses; a burqa-clad woman slipping a piece of foie gras behind her veil and into her mouth.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the tension of modern-day Saudi Arabia is to try to learn more of its history. The National Museum in Riyadh houses an engaging array of antiques, manuscripts and documents about the evolution of Islam and Saudi Arabia. The museum's eight halls are arranged in chronological order. The first explores the region's early inhabitants and the development of Arabic; then the exhibit moves into the "Age of Ignorance" that preceded Islam, the rise of the Prophet Muhammad and the development of Islam, and finally modern-day Riyadh. The painstakingly restored Masmak Fort, built around 1865, contains a museum displaying antique firearms, costumes and agricultural tools—the relics of Saudi life in that period. The dramatically lit building is one of the few remaining traditional structures, a vivid example of how deeply the Saudi landscape has been transformed by the discovery of oil. Located in the Old Town, it is nonetheless surrounded by modern buildings.
Such contrasts can make Saudi Arabia a challenging place to visit. Women can't rent a car or wear a sundress in the unbearable heat. Those seeking a holiday filled with shopping, sunbathing and poolside cocktails should definitely head to Dubai instead; hedonism is not appreciated in Saudi Arabia. But respectful curiosity certainly is. It may be the only place on earth where Buckminster Fuller futurism meets contemporary French cuisine meets Wahhabi Islam—compelling proof that there is more than one definition of what it means to live in the modern world.