Christmasing in Riyadh
Updated: Jul 4, 2021
December 2020: In early March this year, international travel to Saudi Arabia came to an abrupt halt, thanks to the dreaded Covid-19. Realistically, I thought at the time, “for the sake of a month or two, how hard can this be?” Ya, right!!!, more like how naive can I be!
“Little did any of us realize that we were preparing to hunker down for a hot summer staycation here in Riyadh. Covid restrictions became this recurring groundhog day that would run into many months and leave us all hoping that someone would step up and press stop on this crazy and surreal science fiction movie that is now our lives! ”
I have been happily living and working in Riyadh for over three years. Ordinarily, I regularly travel back and forth to Ireland throughout the year, whenever the notion might take me, or simply when I needed a family and friends fix.
So, in contrast, 2020 has been a draining period of roller-coaster emotions where travel plans were repeatedly dashed. All anyone can do is remain stoic and positive since we are all in the same boat in one way or another. We can also reimagine how we entertain ourselves. In an effort to keep the spirit of adventure in our souls, my friends and I took to exploring Saudi Arabia. In return, Saudi offered up all its hidden and charming local destination secrets. Yellow Lake, Al Souda Mountains, AlQarah Mountains, Al Habala, Al Ahsa, Riyadh, Abha, and with these names come many other names of places to visit. During 2020 Saudi has become our pandora’s box of travel surprises.
At the time of writing, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has reported about 361,000 cases and 6,122 Covid deaths. That equates to over 1% of the population infected with Covid19 in the past ten months. The Kingdom does have some previous experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which first emerged in Asia in 2003. Therefore, the authorities did not take any chances and were swift to action. I think everyone here feels that was a very good move indeed. The borders closed almost immediately, and from that point onwards, only repatriation flights were available until about November.
At the same time, there have been over 79.5K cases at home in Ireland, with 2158 deaths. Worldwide there have been 1.69 million deaths, and that number continues to climb. It is a very sobering realization, given we are still nowhere near beating this virus.
The first real inkling for those of us based in Saudi that we were in for a significant event was when the Saudi authorities cancelled Hajj. Hajj is a very holy event for Muslims worldwide, and many millions make the annual pilgrim to Mecca to pray and give thanks for their good fortune in life. In recent history, the Hajj pilgrimage has not been cancel since the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. As the year rolled on, every major religious event worldwide was reduced, minimize, moved online, held in private or, worst-case scenario cancelled altogether! Whole communities were advised to keep their distance from family and friends at all costs. Easter, Eid Al Fitr, Yom Kippur, Holi, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah all suffered. Perhaps the higher powers we believe in seem to have conspired to teach us all a good lesson this year.
Some time ago, our Tanaiste, Leo Varadhar, said, "don’t come home for Christmas...”. It really hurt the diaspora to hear this, but the truth is, it does appear that Leo made a perfect call.
So, Christmas 2020 has also moved on to Zoom. That does sort of take the fizz out of it a bit! Personally, I succumbed to Zoom fatigue back in October!
This Christmas day, which tends to be busy enough for everyone at home because they are distracting by basting the turkey and perfecting the roast spuds, I will be bothering everyone with zoom calls. Doubtless, to say, it will either be hard to hear me or see me, but when we do eventually connect, we will do our best to mimic the usual jolly, happy, cheery, cork-popping gatherings we are used to!
And what comes next? well, it is not long till we are pulling back the curtain on 2021... Personally, I am almost afraid to go there. What is in store for us? Here in Saudi, we have already commenced the largest coronavirus vaccination operation ever witnessed by the Kingdom.
The first consignment of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has already arrived, and distribution has started. Saudi Arabia will offer the vaccine free to all residents in the Kingdom. In the meantime, authorities in the country are keeping a watchful eye out to avoid any second wave of infections. With the exception of a few rule-breakers, most people have followed the guidelines of mask-wearing, social distancing, and limited gatherings.
Yesterday the Saudi Authorities once again closed the borders, this time for a one-week period in a bid to corral a new variant strain of the Covid virus and stop it in its tracks from reaching Saudi. Once again, all travel plans are cancelled.
Looking towards 2021, I suspect we will continue to improve and adapt to living most of our lives online. If world powers and the best minds can’t find a quick solution to this pandemic, then I think we may have to perfect the art of living in vacuums or bubbles and zooming... So my Christmas wish for you is, be extra kind to yourself and those around you this Christmas. It’s fair to say it's been a really tough year. I hope to be home by March, but don’t hold me to it, just in case!
Wishing you all a safe & very happy Christmas. x