When I started planning my year-end journey to Egypt in 2013, I came across a really sweet deal from Saudi airways. For a flight from Singapore to Cairo, with a transit at Riyadh, the price was only about 400 Singapore dollars. That’s one of the closest I have ever come to hitting a jackpot!
The only catch? I would be stuck in transit in the Riyadh airport for 12 hours, and during the night.
A little bit of reading on the web later, I had some interesting information about taking a transit in Saudi Arabia, like the fact that single women cannot be seen in the airport unless they are accompanied by a male relative. Having grown up in the middle-east, I was aware of a little Arabic, so while most people would squeak at the idea of transiting through Saudi, I was relatively calm about it. But the scares started even before I left Singapore.
At the Singapore airport, one of the officials asked for my flight out of Egypt. Previously, I had booked Cairo-Amman-Tel Aviv tickets, and my plan was to return from Tel-Aviv to Singapore. But since I didn’t get a visa for Israel, I had scrapped the whole Israel plan. Since Bravofly would not let me cancel the 2nd leg tickets, I still had the original ticket, but had no intention of going to Israel without the visa. This was before hidden-city ticketing had become famous, so my intention was not to avail of any hidden city airfares, but only because I couldn’t cancel the whole flight with Bravofly.
The official in Singapore kept reminding me that I cannot go to Israel without an Israeli visa. And I kept repeating that I am NOT going to Israel. And then, he turned his focus on how I cannot be in Saudi if I have been to Israel. I was losing my patience, and told him that I have not been to Israel, EVER. And because I don’t have a visa, I will not be going too.
After a while, he must have got tired, because he gave up with the meaningless argument, and let me board the flight.
And the Saudi Airways flight was much better than I expected, with food being served twice, a really good selection of movies in the entertainment section, and I did not even notice when the flight touched down. Of course, the only downside was that there was no alcohol. But then, I was too tired to even notice that, and either kept sleeping or eating the whole 8 hours from Singapore to Riyadh.
In Riyadh International Airport
Once in Riyadh, I had to go through a baggage and passport check in the transit area. And they didn’t ask me for my ticket out of Egypt, so the Israel leg never came up in discussion. I had a Singaporean friend travelling with me on the flight until Riyadh, but going to Paris after that. For him, the transit security guy, rather suspiciously, detained the Indian passport, and said he will be returning the passport a little bit before the flight. When inquired on the reason, he simply said that a copy of the passport will need to be made for some security reason.
Needless to say, my friend was freaking out, and kept checking back every 30 minutes. It was not helpful that we had really long transit times – he had a 6 hours transit, and I had a 12 hour transit. So, while he kept checking out on his passport, I kept checking out the smoking room in the airport. Or rather, the smoking corner, because they just converted a small corner of the airport into a smoking area.
2 hours later, the security guy returned with my friend’s passport, and genuine smiles all around. And it was relieving to find out that it was not just my friend, but all passports of travellers heading to Europe, were detained to make some kind of copy for documentation, which was then scanned and sent to airport authorities in Europe. Mine was not, because I was not heading to Europe. Since I have never seen this practice before in any other airport, I can only assume that this is solely because the travel was originating in Saudi Arabia.
My friend boarded his flight after a few more hours, and I was now left on my own with 6 hours still to kill.
Loneliness is the mother of all problems
I tried sleeping in the seats, but they were so uncomfortable that sleep would become a gargantuan effort. The toilets were pretty dirty too, but I guess it was also because the last cleaning slot was nearly 20 hours ago. There was an Al-Fursan lounge in the airport, but I didn’t think it was worthwhile to spend my money there.
But there was starbucks!
And a coffee can get me a free wifi token for an hour, which I believe is the only wifi in the whole Riyadh airport. The only catch was that they accepted only Saudi riyals. Or dollars or Euros at a really bad exchange rate. I didn’t have any of the 3 currencies, as I had only kept some Egyptian pounds and Jordanian dinars in my wallet. I checked out the ATM to withdraw some local currency, and the least amount that I could withdraw was 100 Saudi riyals. That was more than 25 dollars! Since I knew this was going to be a long wait, I decided that I might as well have more than 1 coffee.
With the coffee cup in hand, and the wifi code, I settled down on one of the seats and set up my laptop to check my tweets. In the table opposite to me, a Muslim girl was seated with her mac opened up, dressed in a black burqah which covered her from head to toe, except for the eyes. This was surprising to me on multiple levels. I was in conservative Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights have been the centre of international attention for years. And in an airport, where the ‘Muttawa’ religious police look out for independent women who travel without male company, and keep them inside.
And then, there was this educated girl doing whatever-it-was-that-she-was-doing, on her snazzy 13-inch mac.
I looked around. The hour was nearly 3 AM, and there was clearly no police around. So, I leaned over the table, and started small-talk with the girl opposite to me. At first, she was shocked at the sight of a single male trying to talk to her in Riyadh, and so was the Filipino guy who worked in the starbucks. Then, she warmed up.
She was not Saudi, as I had guessed. She was an Emirati from Dubai, who has here on some official work. And she spoke fluent English, and even her Mac OS was set to English language. I queried about the Burqa, and she said she would never wear the Burqa in Dubai, where she prefers to use a hijab instead. A hijab covers the whole body, but leaves the face open. A Burqa on the other hand, covers even the face and leaves just a slit for the eyes. She wore it only because she was in Saudi.
So, here I was, talking to an Emirati girl in one of the scariest airports in the world, and I didn’t have a clue what she looked like. Just when I thought about asking her what she looked like, or swapping Facebook IDs with her, 2 cops materialized out of nowhere. They just stood there, next to me, looking into my laptop to see what I watching on my screen! I froze!
The girl opposite played it smarter, as she picked up her laptop and bag and quietly slipped away. Sitting around, she might have attracted the attention to herself, which is a really bad thing to do in Saudi Arabia. The cops just kept staring at my laptop, not saying a word. I am guessing they figured out that there would be English involved in any kind of communication with me, and I am pretty sure that was something they wished to avoid too.
After a gruelling minute – with them looking at every inch of my screen, and me with my fingers froze to type anything into it – I looked up and at their faces. And then, I asked them in English, with the tell-tale universal symbol of 2 fingers held up in a v-shape close to my lips: “Is there a smoking area in this airport?”
The 2 fingers seemed to do their trick. They realised I was asking for a smoking room, and they pointed to the far-end of the terminal. I smiled and said thanks. They smiled too. The ice was broken, and the tension around the starbucks table had vanished as well.
I still had 4 more hours for my flight, but I ensured that I spend those 4 hours away from any other burqa-clad woman. And when the dawn came up for my 7 am flight, it was one of the sweetest sunrises I have ever come across.