The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

by WouterVertogen

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country I never thought of visiting in my life. Not because I’m not attracted to the country’s magnificent landscapes and unfamiliar culture. No, I have other reasons…

I had mixed feelings taking on a job in a country where my sexual orientation was an illegality. Truthfully, I was afraid and didn’t want to enter a country where my community was so unrightfully mistreated, it just didn’t feel right. 

But on the other side, it was going to be the experience of a lifetime and a way to learn about the country’s culture and history. A culture that is fundamentally different from anything that I’ve ever known. 

And judging by the speed of change within the country, maybe it was okay for me to be a spectator of that change. To see something that potentially won’t be there to be seen in a couple of decades?  And so, I went. 

Coming to Saudi Arabia with the knowledge of the horrible things that are happening to the LGBTQ+ community and human rights activists, I stayed vigilant. But how much of this was true? I come from a western country and as I’ve travelled the world, I’ve come to understand that also we have our own perspectives and stories. I decided to keep an open mind, and I’m happy I did that. 

Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud is the current crown prince of Saudi Arabia and is the one that holds most of its power. He is extremely loved by the people because he is so progressive. I came to Saudi Arabia to be part of the Riyadh Event Season. A three-month lengthy season of world’s biggest events. Think about parades, stadium concerts, dance festivals, a winter wonderland theme park, formula 1 races, flown in Broadway plays and soccer matches, Riyadh had it all! Riyadh Event Season is part of the crown prince’s vision to introduce Saudi Arabia to the world stage as one of world’s fastest growing nations and of course to attract people and tourists from all over the world. 

I was part of that as I was performing in the official closing event. Something I will never forget!

As I travel, I always document my adventures and Saudi Arabia was no exception to that. People actually thought I was a professional Youtuber… maybe one day? It surprisingly opened up many doors! All kinds of people wanted to be on camera and started to talk to me about their country and how everything is changing so fast. It was so beautiful to hear these stories from actual locals. I remember talking to a dad and his young son. The father told me that he is so happy with all the positive changes within the country and that it’s not for him but for his son, who now grows up in a better place than he did. 

I came to learn that the Saudis put a lot of attention towards the new generation. Saudis are all allowed to study abroad, and all expenses will be covered by the government. Like hello! I wish I had that opportunity! But after graduation they are expected to come back and share their newly gained knowledge and intellect to enrich the country. Which I think is more than fair. 

The Saudis are extremely kind and welcoming, something I didn’t expect. They are so eager to share their culture and it’s beautiful to see how they take the time for you and treat you with great respect. And because they respect you, you do the same. When there’s mutual respect you’ll find yourself understanding the differences in culture faster. There are of course a bunch of things you aren’t allowed to do and that will cause you trouble. But as long as you respect their culture, you’ll be fine. 

At one point we decided to go to the Masmak Fort, the infamous fort the Saudis re-conquered back in 1902 in the Battle of Riyadh, which marked the birth of the Kingdom. There was a huge event going on as part of the Riyadh Event Season. As we went in, I got checked and of course I had my camera with me. I knew it was sometimes forbidden to film special places and the security guard took me with him. I thought I was in trouble… 

I couldn’t be more wrong! I had to follow them all across the event to a small back room where everybody greeted my kindly. They asked me for what purpose I was going to film, I said it was for my Youtube channel of course, slightly in panic! 

They looked at me with great smiles and asked me to sign a few forms and I was free to film whatever and wherever I wanted. As I walked out, they stopped me and even gave me a few presents! 

Truly, the Saudis are a great folk and want to be seen! The want to improve their image in the world badly. But coming back to the LGBTQ+ community. I discovered there is a large underground scene, just like we had back before Stonewall and back before we were all celebrating Pride with our rainbow flags. 

Through friends of friends I was able to be part of a social gathering and it was wonderful to see the community thrive and see that they actually have spaces to do this. I won’t go in any details though, but I was happy to see these people support each other and discovered that they are not actively being hunt down or prosecuted. It’s nothing like I expected it to be, and that’s when you figure out that western media tells just one side of the story. 

I agree, there’s a lot of work to be done in Saudi Arabia to live up to our western life standards but we can’t deny the fact that the country has gone through massive changes already! I have hopes that one day the LGBTQ+ community and every other person, will enjoy the same freedom in their country as I experience in mine. A freedom where we had to fight for and still will have to fight for every single day. 

I had a great experience being in Saudi Arabia for the first time and I was in awe of the country’s development. They are moving up like the United Emirates but still manage to keep their traditions and culture. And with a leader as envisioned as their crown prince and unlimited money resources, the sky is truly the limit! 

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