New year and a new design for this special blog.
I feel that it is important to share my experiences of this month’s one big event and journey to Saudi Arabia, a relatively unknown destination with a continuing changing landscape. Some may not have had the experiences that you read below; however, I do believe that we can support positive change if we keep talking about it. Enjoy.
The start of the story
You are a western woman, with a strong opinion and blonde hair.
Saudi Arabia is the country for you to develop your career as a conference MC.
This was a sentence that simply hadn’t been in my vocabulary nor anywhere near my business development list. Until, thanks to a forward-thinking conference director in Riyadh (male) happened to get in touch 6 weeks ago.
To start with, I thought it was a hoax. But true enough, the client had googled me (which should go in my first-time paragraph!) and identified that my energy and MC style was exactly what he wanted to support the success of the conference. After a long call, with me asking a lot of questions, we had some good discussions about The Railway Forum and I was hired.
Looking for the answers
I sought so much advice. I spent time really considering whether a) as a gender quality champion should I actually take the job b) how the, mostly Saudi delegation would respond to my moderation and lastly c) how comfortable would I feel working in a country with a difficult history when it comes to human rights.
“Be the change you want to be” is my life motto and unless we support change and be a part of a paradigm shift, we stay stuck with the same old. I asked various event groups on Facebook, googled as many things as I could and still felt that I was not getting the true insight as to how it would be for me to work in Riyadh. But saw enough to make me decide that this is something I wanted to participate in.
The advice for western women MC’ing conferences in Saudi Arabia was fairly non-existent unsurprisingly & the information about western women travelling to Riyadh in 2020 didn’t exist either.
I am going to use this month’s blog to update those who, like me, have not been clear on how business can be done in Riyadh as we move into this new decade. I can only comment on my professional experience and hope this is useful for those thinking of working in Riyadh.
Travelling to Riyadh alone (as a western woman)
This is the one thing I was PETRIFIED about. I’d heard stories and whilst I’m sure they might have, in the past been true; the welcome/entry experience. today is refreshingly positive. You do not need to cover your head; you do not need to wear an abaya and you don’t have to do anything different to any other country border. You join a (very small) queue to get your visa stamped and voila, you are done. I was welcomed by the gentleman at passport control and there were woman also working there. There are signs asking for customer service ratings (first time I hit the big smiley face) and before 10 minutes were up, I was through and picking up luggage. The visa application (tourist) was quick and simple to do in the UK and it was approved in less than a couple of hours. That visa is now in my passport and I was told by passport control that I’m now welcome to come and go as I please.
As a business traveller, you will automatically be hosted by your client or company. This is currently a stipulation that you get met as a woman alone. The hosts with Samme Allen signs were there with big smiles, handshakes and welcomes. This is something I didn’t feel unduly strange about, it is nice to be welcomed into a country/destination you don’t know and have the 5-star service and ground transfer arranged by a client.
Due to the speed of change in Saudi, I couldn’t quite seem to get the right in-formation. But most certainly, you are not required to wear any head scarf or abaya. Dressing conservatively is a must. However, this should be taken as a positive. I wore a trouser suit and shirt day 1 with a scarf which I didn’t end up wearing as the organisers said I didn’t need it and on day 2 , I wore a jumpsuit and scarf, sensible shoes (which all moderators need!) and that was that. There is such a mixture of outfits in the city as you would expect from any cosmopolitan city. Don’t wear short sleeveless shirts or low-cut tops (stay classy y’all) and no short skirts. These are dress codes we adapt to naturally when conducting business everywhere in the world and shouldn’t get a bad press in Riyadh in 2020.
I am a conference MC and my job is to keep time, support participant engagement along with speaker and production liaison. Sometimes you need to take a lead, direct and drive forward activity in a conference and my fear was that I would not command any respect and that no-one would pay attention or listen to me. Myth. It was actually the total opposite! The Kingdom is at the beginning of its conference management journey and whilst I was working with the no 1 events company in Riyadh, they were responsive to advice and meeting design support. Their client (the Saudi Arabia Railway Company) was exactly the same. I was listened to, respected and rewarded for my ideas and leadership.
I didn’t get the chance to explore the city due to my time constraints with the event itself. However, staying in the once infamous Ritz-Carlton, whilst there was a good security presence, I felt extremely comfortable as you’d expect in a 5-star hotel and although there was a gentleman’s only spa in this property, that was the only nod to different way of life and one that, I suspect will change if the path continues in the direction it appears to be doing. I don’t “drink” on the job so didn’t miss the alcohol but suspect that might be introduced in the future as tourism is a big driver for the new economy. I loved the watermelon juice and coffee, perfect for me!
I did wear my “abaya” over my jeans and top travelling back from the hotel to the airport. It wasn’t necessary but I felt comfortable wearing it and again, respecting cultures within this environment probably wasn’t a bad thing. If it helps get through an airport quicker, then I am all for that. I noticed other female travellers doing the same. The security leaving Riyadh was split into male and female, I’m not sure whether this the next thing to change (we will wait and see) but I can only take a positive out of this as it meant less queuing time.
Respecting cultures – globally.
This may sound incredibly naïve of me, but I have never actually had a conversation with anyone wearing a niqab or hijab before. There were many women wearing these garments both working in the airport and hotel, and it would seem, more often a garment worn by choice. Eyes are the most amazing feature of us all (in my humble opinion) and I was able to communicate without speaking the same language, I was able to make smiles happen without the same language and I was able to feel a bond. It is about getting to know some-one, understanding and being open to different cultural nuances. I was honoured by one of the events team who asked me (next time) to visit her family home, which I fully intend to do as I am keen to explore more of this country and its cultures.
Saudi Arabia is not perfect. The pace of change, albeit seemingly like a rocket in one way, also still has a long way to go. The same week I am embracing the shifts and attitude changes I experienced, the lovely Linda Pereira posted a photograph of a conference which shows separated entrances for women and men. It has been less than 2 years since women were issued driving licenses, the first cinemas opened in April 2018 and there is still a long way to go in terms of human rights shifts but speaking with one of the British Airways crew on the way home (having a glass of wine after leaving Saudi airspace..!) she said she travels to Riyadh almost every month, and every month she sees positive change. Long may this continue.
I hope January was a month of positive beginnings for you all and big hugs and all good wishes for a healthy and happy 2020.