I took a little jaunt over to the American Embassy the other day.
And when I say “jaunt” I mean a 20-minute cab ride (25 riyals) to the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ) and a 10-minute search for the actual embassy.
Getting to the DQ is easy. Finding the actual Embassy sees us meandering around lush country club-like circular drives lined with palm trees and little directional signage. Outside the DQ is hardcore desert.
I’m not too concerned about the time because we negotiated a flat rate with our cabbie and he’s burning his own petrol now.
The cabbie eventually spots it in the distance and proceeds to the guard station. He gets out and opens the trunk, advises the guard that we’re two Americans and is allowed to proceed. We then weave back and forth through a winding course of about 10 concrete barriers over a quarter-mile, passing small tent ramadas with mounted anti-artillery guns and numerous sandbag fortifications until we stop, about 300 yards away from the building in front of what looks like an empty parking lot. But it’s really just an open buffer zone that was probably a parking lot at one time. We get out and hike through the space and find the walkway to the entrance.
I don’t like to use the “T” word, but here’s just a personal observation. I’d think that true well-bankrolled terrorists would have no problem finding the Embassy so all the barriers and fortifications are just keeping out the amateur banditos and crazy Timothy McVeighs driving trucks. It seems silly, at least from my naïve point of view, not to at least have an address listed on the website. Like I say, it’s not like anyone who wants to find you bad enough couldn’t locate the place. But why pretend you’ve got an unlisted address?
Update: I've since learned that many, perhaps most of the locations in Riyadh simply use a PO box. Some public institutions, such as museums just give a street name. Needless to say, it takes a bit of navigating to find anything
Of course, all the best compounds have the concrete barriers and other security devices and warnings so I'd expect the Embassy itself to be, as Andy Taylor would say, "extry good."
Anyway, we arrive at the entrance guard post, having seen no discernible Americans yet, where we go through a typical airport x-ray-and-search drill.
(Side note: The Embassy website makes it absolutely clear that you are not to bring cell phones, PDAs, cameras and the like up to the Embassy. The website is very specific: leave ‘em in the car. But Eric brought his and simply checked it at the guard station with no fuss a’tall.)
As foretold, all the employees seem to be Saudis or other Gulf folk. I could be wrong…maybe they’re naturalized citizens. In any event, we can see the façade of the Embassy itself past a nice outdoor fountain and are led into a doorway that goes down a nondescript hallway. We didn’t really have a plan when we set out, though Eric figured he’d take the opportunity to register. I had registered the day before online. When they asked whether we had an appointment or who we needed to see we just kinda shrugged and said we had some questions and wanted to register. We were directed to the “consular section.”
Here’s the American Embassy in a nutshell:
It’s like a cross between a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles and a small branch bank.
We were led to a small waiting room with about 50 cafeteria-style chairs. There were three windows at one end, numbered in English and Arabic: 1, 2 and 3. Each window was like a bank window with a big piece of glass and a scooped out tray where materials could be passed back and forth. The employee behind the glass has a microphone and you speak to him through the glass. When we got there, there was one American woman with hair uncovered, wearing a nice abaya (long black robe), a group of small children with their father in Arab thob (man’s formal robe), ghutra and agaal (head scarf and head rope) and a woman in fully covered mode sitting in front of him. A couple Arabs were filling out forms at a side-counter. After a while the American woman removed her abaya to reveal business-casual-wear.
We waited while various names were called, but usually no one answered.
Finally Eric and I just went up to Window 2 and talked to the guy. He indicated that the 2 pm appointment hadn’t shown up yet and seemed willing to talk for a moment. I had a few questions prepared.
I could have just asked some of the local expats, but I wanted to hear what the actual American Embassy person had to say. After all, it’s officially and specifically their job to be experts on Arab culture and Saudi laws and culture. What one may hear in bull sessions around the apartment could be tainted with all sorts of misinformation and lore.
We asked if it were possible to see an actual embassy consul of some type and maybe be allowed to see more of the building but were very courteously informed us that since it was the last day before the holiday period, they were short-staffed and would not be able to accommodate that request.
Frankly, I had no expectation of that happening, but figured we paid our $6.65 cab fare to get here and the worst they can say is ‘no.’
Eric, who has some experience with American embassies abroad, assures me that we’re getting relatively royal treatment.
We then traipsed around the other side of the building to visit the gift store sporting a somewhat anonymous entry with no markings except one sign that says “Entrance.”
It was filled with really great t-shirts, golf shirts, caps and other clothing paraphernalia — all unfortunately brightly emblazoned with “U.S. Embassy” and logo. One can only wonder where you might wear that.
There were American style candy bars, lotions, soft drinks and other mini-mart supplies. But the motherlode is a huge collection of videos and tapes for rent.
Back in the parking lot we wondered if there would be any cabs to take us back. We were tramping out to the entry station when a car pulled up alongside and asked if we needed a ride. We said we were going to central Riyadh…and was he a taxi? He said he was not, exactly, but would take us for a fee. I had been warned about such freelance cabs but since we were two people, and at 6’5” Eric is an imposing presence, we negotiated a 25R ride. The man, an Egyptian who works as a driver for a different embassy, apparently makes a side-living as a freelance driver. He gave us a very efficient and smooth ride back.
Actually, my primary goal, other than to simply to see what the Embassy looks like was to obtain a business card from someone official. I had heard that if one ever gets in some kind of minor trouble and you’re looking for whatever small edge you can manage, it could help to reach in your pocket and have an official-looking business card to flash.
Later, when we got back I was asked what the Diplomatic Quarter was like.
I said, “It’s like Palm Springs with sandbags.”