First, some observations about what has and hasn’t changed since I was last in Kingdom in 1990.
The first and most obvious change is how women are adapting to increasing freedoms and cultural changes. Women greeted us from behind the immigration desk when we arrived. Women are working. They work in shops, restaurants, technical fields, museums and tourist sites, everywhere. Women are driving. Women are going out with their friends to the mall, to coffee shops, museums, and restaurants - and laughing and talking and genuinely enjoying life. Saudi men and women are holding hands in public (gasp!). People generally appear more upbeat than I remember.
The driving is still as chaotic as ever, but there’s way more traffic. Lane lines are merely directional suggestions and it’s quite easy to squeeze six cars across three lanes. People cut each other off, drive on the shoulder, tailgate, honk, and run red lights - just like at home, only a lot more aggressively. But the madness works. I saw a few fender benders and many close calls but nothing too serious. The traffic jams but flows.
The entire country seems to be under construction or redevelopment. Rebar and masonry block are everywhere. Some of it looks stalled out, but there’s something new popping up right next door or across the street. We saw the shell of the Kingdom Towers which was purported to be the tallest building in the world by a long shot - but it's stalled out, with a half dozen cranes sticking out of the top like some wild hairdo. There are roads to nowhere. Entire neighborhoods are being razed to remove the old buildings, and networks of narrow streets and alleys, are being replaced with wide thoroughfares and housing projects (mostly cookie-cutter, unfortunately). Some head-scratching construction techniques and no OSHA anywhere in sight, but a bustling industry nonetheless. Fully a third of the population are expats here on work visas.
Saudi Arabia is developing a tourism industry in a country that only recently began welcoming visitors. As such, they have a long way to go in developing the multiple sites of interest, and in recruiting and training tour guides, museum staff, transportation systems and customer service reps. Improvements are needed in direction and way-finding signs, maps, restaurant menus, visitor centers, museums, etc. But they have made a start and I would expect that many improvements will be made in the coming years - it doesn’t happen overnight.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the Saudi hospitality that was evident everywhere we went. We were always offered coffee and dates when we went inside someone’s home, private museum or business. We were warmly greeted by everyone we met, everywhere we went. And it was genuine.
The old ARAMCO camps have grown a bit, and the demographic has changed, but they are easily recognizable - the homes, buildings, the RT beach, the roads, schools, etc. The trees are much taller, there are flowers everywhere, and the communities still feel as safe as they did when we were kids. The housing is showing its age and could use a good coat of paint, but the bones are good and the neighborhoods look comfortable and inviting.
It has been an amazing two weeks reconnecting with old brats and retirees and meeting many new ones. Being able to return “home” after all these years is special and emotional. The reunion committee did a fantastic job with the logistics and curated a memorable and simply amazing experience. A special shout out to Mr. Ali Baluchi for his support and advocacy and for ensuring that we all had an unforgettable trip. And none of this would have been possible without the support of ARAMCO and their Government Affairs staff who provided in-Kingdom air travel, bus travel, events, incredible meals, and a genuinely welcoming spirit. We were truly treated like VIPs. Patty commented that she has never seen an organization revere and acknowledge its retirees the way ARAMCO does. We hope to go back for future reunions, especially to see Saudi Arabia roll out its 2030 Vision.