Trip to Saudi Arabia on a Government Mission (2): The Ten Biggest Surprises in Saudi Arabia

Arriving at Riyadh Airport at 2 a.m., I reached my hotel a little before 3 a.m. I fell into sleep immediately and woke up shortly before 7 a.m. After checking emails briefly, I took part in an inauguration ceremony for the Japanese government mission from 7:30 a.m.

Senior JETRO director and Japanese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Shigeru Endo delivered their speeches at the kick-off ceremony. I found Ambassador Endo’s words impressive. “No country differs from Japan as much as Saudi Arabia,” the Japanese ambassador said. “But, at the same time, no country is as interesting as Saudi Arabia.”

I visited Saudi Arabia with almost no preparation. At the meeting we had in Jeddah the day before, I asked my friend if there was anything I should “pay attention to.” He told me to “watch out for women at least.” I needed a little while to understand what this advice meant.

A chartered bus for the government mission left for a place where a meeting with prospective investors was scheduled to take place. Top executives at Japan’s leading private equity and venture capital firms were on the bus. Naturally, the mission members actively exchanged industry information on the way. This information exchange was one of the reasons for my participation in this mission. Many of these people are hard to meet in Tokyo.

Our bus arrived at the incubation center in Riyadh. Saudi Arabian participants showed up for the meeting in thawbs. They took up their position on comfortable sofas in the front section of the room. We sat on hard chairs in the rear section. The meeting started with customary greetings at 9:30 a.m. After a keynote speech and an introduction of Japanese technologies and venture companies, the meeting stopped for a break. Subcommittee meetings were held from 11 a.m. for three groups of participants. I took the platform as the first speaker at the Subcommittee Meeting C. Shortly after starting to speak, I adjusted the speed and tone of my speech. I decided to speak as slowly and plainly as possible and talk from my heart. I also answered questions scrupulously after the speech.

We had Saudi Arabian food for lunch. Basically, the food consisted of fatty meats like mutton. The dessert I had was delicious. I enjoyed lively conversations with the Saudis who shared my table. I couldn’t help but asking about their lifestyle, because the subject interested me more than business negotiations. “How many children do you have?” “How did you decide your marriage?” “How many wives do you want?” “What sports are popular in Saudi Arabia?” I asked them questions like these.

In the midst of this meeting, a reply to my tweet arrived from someone in Saudi Arabia. “Welcome to Riyadh,” the reply said. “I’m a GLOBIS student in Riyadh (on a leave of absence from school now) you met before.” There was an email from this GLOBIS student, too. “I happened to see your tweet about your visit to Riyadh. I’m writing this in great surprise.”

I contacted him immediately. We arranged to meet in a hurry. The student told me he had accessed Twitter for the first time in three months on a whim, found my tweet and contacted me in amazement. Meeting a GLOBIS MBA student in Riyadh was also the last thing I expected.

I went back to my hotel, changed clothes, and went out again with the student. I had three objectives in mind – (1) to visit the National Museum of Saudi Arabia and learn about the country’s history, (2) to go to a shopping mall and find out about people’s lifestyles, and (3) to pay a visit to a downtown area and experience the nightlife. In the course of these activities, I asked the student many questions.

I came up with the following list of the “ten biggest surprises in Saudi Arabia,” based on what I had heard from many interviewees there. Note that I had visited other Muslim nations in the Middle East and North Africa, such as Jordan, the UAE, Egypt and Morocco. But none of these countries differed from Japan as much as Saudi Arabia.

1. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive a car. Saudi Arabian women are said to have a foreign worker drive while they sit in the rear when they travel alone.

2. In Saudi Arabia, mothers decide marriages. There is said to be no opportunity for single men and women to meet before marriage. The GLOBIS MBA student said he sympathized with a coworker who said, “I want to see the woman’s face before marrying her.”

3. In Saudi Arabia, men and women are not allowed to share space. Museums in the country keep separate hours for two groups of visitors - (1) single men and (2) families (including single women). Buildings have separate doorways for men and women, too. The incubation center we visited had two entrances with exactly the same design at its front and back. All schools in Saudi Arabia are single-sex institutions. (The first coed university in the country, called KAUST, was reportedly set up recently.) At restaurants, men and women must eat in separate sections.

4. In Saudi Arabia, women wear abayas when they go out of house. This is a basic rule. They are not allowed to expose their skin or hair. Foreign women are not exempted from this rule. They must wear abayas outside the house, too. Religious police apparently force foreign woman home by force when she fails to observe this rule.

5. Not a single drop of alcohol is allowed in Saudi Arabia. No expatriate employee is allowed to own or drink any alcoholic beverage, even at hotels catering to foreigners. Strict punishment is inevitable if someone is found to have consumed alcohol. Alcoholic beverages are treated in the same way narcotics are treated in Japan.

6. No movie theaters exist in Saudi Arabia. No restaurant offers music. And of course, there are no concerts in Saudi Arabia.

7. As a rule, Saudis have many children partly because women in the country marry when they reach 22 to 24 years of age. More than half of Saudi’s population is aged 20 years old or younger. Two Saudis I shared a table with at lunch had four and six children, respectively. Saudi cities have many places designed for kids for this reason.

8. In Saudi Arabia, all activities come to a halt five times a day for prayers. Life is centered on the night because it is too hot during the day. (Temperatures rise to more than 50 degrees in the summer.) Accordingly, activities flourish after the last prayer for the day from 7 p.m. Traffic is apparently at its worst around 10 p.m.

9. There is no individual income tax, consumption tax, or corporate income tax in Saudi Arabia. The tax system in the country requires companies to donate 5% of their income only. Income from crude oil is said to supply more than 80% of the national treasury. Citizens experience little frustration because they are entitled to full unemployment allowances. Saudi Arabia has remained calm in the wake of the recent uprising in Egypt.

10. In Saudi Arabia, people spend their money on cars, shopping, and overseas trips. Saudis are said to be particularly wild when they go abroad because they live under such strict rules at home. (I can understand their feeling very well.)

Indeed Saudi Arabia offered me many surprises, and not just those on the list above. You need to watch out for women because to go out with a single woman in Saudi Arabia leaves you with just two choices: (1) to go to a jail as a criminal; or (2) marry her. Many other things kept surprising me in Saudi Arabia.

The GLOBIS MBA student and I went into a Lebanese restaurant in an entertainment district after visiting the National Museum and a shopping mall. After a toast with a glass of non-alcoholic beer, we drank some champagne with no alcoholic content (apple cider) at the restaurant. We enjoyed the night quietly in a space for men only where no music was played.

My taxi was caught in a traffic jam past 10 p.m. I returned to my hotel in something of a rush, and headed to the airport. After takeoff, I asked for a glass of champagne, but was told “no drink can be served for 30 minutes after a takeoff.” I figured no alcohol is allowed while an aircraft is in the territory of Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, however, the cabin attendants and female passengers had taken off their abayas. They were wearing skirts with their faces and skin exposed. Their very ordinary, stocking-clad legs and bare hands seemed strangely alluring. Fatigued, I slept eight hours nonstop on the flight, and never had that drink of champagne.

The plane jolted me awake just before it landed in Hong Kong. I switched flights in Hong Kong and flew back to Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Thus, my long trip to Paris, Zurich, Davos, Jeddah, and Riyadh, with six overnight stays (including three spent on flights) ended in just 10 days.

Again, I fell asleep soon after my flight to Haneda took off. I woke up abruptly as the plane began to descend. I was finally able to drink some real champagne before the plane descended.


February 6, 2011
Yoshito Hori
At my house in Sanbancho

Mr. Yoshito Hori established GLOBIS Management School in 1992 and GLOBIS Capital Partners in 1996. In 2003, GLOBIS started its original MBA program which, in 2006, received accreditation from the Japanese Ministry of Education and gained “university” status. GLOBIS started a part-time MBA program in English in 2009 and a full-time MBA program in English in 2012.

A Harvard MBA graduate and former Sumitomo Corporation employee, Mr. Hori founded the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) Japan Chapter in 1995 and became the first board member from Asia in charge of Asia Pacific region in 1996. He also served on the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s New Asian Leaders Executive Committee and Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership, as well as the Harvard Business School Alumni Board from 2005 to 2008. Currently, Mr. Hori is a board member of the Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), and serves as co-chair of WEF’s Global Growth Companies.

In 2008, he launched the G1 Summit – a Japanese version of the WEF’s annual Davos forum. This led to the foundation of G1 Summit Institute in 2013, which Mr. Hori serves as Representative Director.

Just days after a huge earthquake struck northeast Japan in March 2011, Mr. Hori launched Project KIBOW to support the rebuilding of the disaster-affected areas. The following year Project KIBOW was incorporated as the KIBOW Foundation, which Mr. Hori serves as Representative Director.

An avid enthusiast of the Japanese game Go since age 40, Mr. Hori has been Director of the Nihon Ki-in (Japan Go Association) since June 2013.

Since October 2013, Mr. Hori has hosted a weekly TV program in Japan called Nippon Mirai Kaigi (Japan Future Conference). He has authored several books including Visionary Leaders who Create and Innovate Societies, Six Dimensions of Life, and My Personal Mission Statement.

Mr. Hori received his BS in Engineering from Kyoto University and his MBA from Harvard Business School.

He is an avid swimmer and enjoys spending time with his family, especially his five sons.

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