First impressions, in no particular order...
insane traffic! (extremely selfish driving behavior is the cause)
Anyone born here would not know that the sky is blue. Here it is yellow.
When not in their cars people are polite and quiet.
There is fine, sandy dust everywhere.
Where I am used to seeing women I now see black spots.
There are very few black spots on the streets.
The air-conditioned shopping malls are full of black spots.
All the sidewalks in the city are torn up and construction is booming. It looks to me like an unsustainable bubble.
It's very hot.
It's even hot at night but the low 90s is a relief and I enjoy talking a walk.
My office is air-conditioned and I must remember to bring a sweater to work tomorrow.
The people I work with seem like good folks and I have a positive impression of their work and the work environment.
I am happy to discover that the company is a very important player in the engineering industry all across the Middle East and is designing many high profile projects.
The project I am working on is massive and it's going to be a majorly big feather in my cap to be able to say I played an important role in it.
A little more about my impressions on the situation of women...
It's actually not as bad as I expected. I guess that goes to show the value of holding very low expectations.
Burqa, the complete ensemble of enveloping robe, head covering and face veil seems to be worn only by Saudi women, but is worn universally by them when in public. I have seen other women wearing only the robe. A few wore scarves that only partially covered their hair, leaving their faces fully revealed. A few wore not even a head scarf, letting their lascivious hair drape seductively over their shoulders (except the 2 black women who had hair cut to about 1/2 inch long). All these women appeared to be foreigners and it seems to be completely tolerated here in Riyadh. Incidentally, I was told that Riyadh is the most conservative of the large cities. So that suggests that the other large cities such as Jeddah are less restrictive still. I haven't seen this first hand but I understand that in Jeddah women are starting to work alongside men. Apparently wild orgies are not breaking out in the offices.
I have seen no evidence here in Riyadh that women must be accompanied by men when in public. The vast majority I have seen in groups, not singly. I often see 2 women in burqa walking down the street together. I've only seen a very few individual women in burqa on the street. But I saw no sign that they were being bothered about it by anyone.
There was an article in yesterday's paper about a woman who tried to register to vote in a local election. Women have the right to vote, but only in certain specific elections. This election was not one of them. The woman attempted to register and was turned down. She did this many times, as a kind of non-violent protest. It seems to have garnered some attention and there does not seem to be a great deal of support for the election officials. You may have heard about a woman a few weeks back who was protesting by driving a car. I think the country is gradually moving in favor of giving more freedom to women. It's like a very slow moving river. It is indeed progressing, flowing inevitably towards the ocean of modern standards. Everybody knows it and nobody wants to call attention to it. The idea seems to be that it's best not to call attention to it, so as not to alarm the religious conservatives. I think what will happen is that certain rights will become established legally. Even the wearing of the burqa, I believe, is NOT a legal requirement but simply a social norm. With these rights established by law, it will become harder and harder for conservative men to dominate the women. I have an optimistic view, though I expect it will be another 10 years before the changes become obvious.
Well, that gives you a little sense of my first impressions. I haven't gotten around to taking any photos yet but when I do I'll make sure to send some.
Love to all my family and friends,