By Ann Mangold and Chris Sorensen
Ask most staff members of Embassy Riyadh to describe their posting to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and you will hear descriptions such as “historic,” “unprecedented,” “fascinating,” and “groundbreaking.” A vital U.S. security partner in the Middle East for nearly eight decades, Saudi Arabia boasts the largest U.S. foreign military sales program in the world. Its oil-driven economic power renders it crucial to economic stability in the region and globally. Underpinned by deep people-to-people ties, Saudi Arabia is the fourth-largest sending country for international students to U.S. colleges and universities. A posting in Riyadh provides embassy personnel a unique opportunity to work on a multifaceted, strategic partnership between the two countries. It is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live in a country that is undergoing profound social and economic changes.
The Vision 2030 social and economic transformation plan, announced in April 2016, aims to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism. Key goals include reinforcing economic and investment activities, increasing non-oil international trade, and promoting a more tolerant, open society. Progress, particularly on women’s rights, empowerment, and economic opportunity has been remarkable in this traditionally conservative society, as women now account for more than one-third of the workforce, up from less than 20 percent just five years ago. At the forefront of U.S. engagement with this rapidly changing society, embassy officers are positioned to shape these changes in ways that reflect U.S. interests and have an important impact on the future of the U.S.-Saudi partnership.
The earliest U.S.-Saudi ties date back to 1933, when Standard Oil of California began drilling for oil in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province. Ten years later, the United States established a legation in Jeddah. The foundation of the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership was laid during a historic meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, Feb. 14, 1945. Their friendship and strategic vision have underpinned U.S.-Saudi ties for more than 76 years. Along with all other foreign missions, the embassy moved from Jeddah to Riyadh in the 1980s. Jeddah now hosts a U.S. Consulate General, which in November 2019, dedicated a new consulate compound. The Mission also includes a U.S. Consulate General in Dhahran.
Today, Mission employees are advancing key U.S. priorities, especially providing support for the 80,000 Americans who live and work in Saudi Arabia. Promoting human rights and American values, advancing economic empowerment for women and youth, as well as engaging on shared climate goals, are also at the top of the Mission’s objectives. Their team is committed to working with Saudi partners to enhance U.S. security goals in the region, including efforts to bring a peaceful end to the war in Yemen. The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reforms offer new opportunities to strengthen U.S.-Saudi economic and commercial ties, and their Mission works closely with U.S. companies. Saudi Arabia is also a key partner in higher education, and the Mission focuses on building educational ties through a variety of programs.
As with other posts, Riyadh is not immune to challenges. The security and safety of U.S. citizens and Mission personnel is their highest priority. Whether the threats originate from a terrorist organization or regional adversaries, the embassy maintains a robust security posture. In the face of security and other challenges, Mission personnel have shown remarkable adaptability and resilience. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, embassy employees continued meeting with Saudi partners through platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and hosted online events and programs that helped to advance Mission goals, despite quarantine and social distancing requirements.
Located in Riyadh’s Al Safarat neighborhood, commonly known as the Diplomatic Quarter or “the DQ,” the embassy houses staff from the Departments of State, Defense, Energy, Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Justice, as well as other agencies—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Embassy Riyadh is also currently home to the Yemen Affairs Unit, hosting staff that would normally be posted to Embassy Sanaa.
As the Kingdom’s capital and main financial hub, Riyadh maintains an ever more recognizable skyline from its business district landmarks including the 990-foot-high Kingdom Centre, with a sky bridge connecting two towers, and 875-foot-high Al Faisaliah Centre, with its glass-globe summit. Nestled deep in the Arabian Peninsula’s Najd region, Riyadh is located on a central desert plateau bound to the north, east, and south by the sand deserts of Al Nufūd, Ad Dahnā’, and the Rub‘ al Khali (or Empty Quarter). The sweeping arid region is bordered to the west by fertile oases that dot the cliffs of the Jibāl Ţuwayq mountains. Few world cities have grown as fast. From a fortified desert outpost in the 17th century, Riyadh became a modern, bustling metropolis with several million inhabitants in the 20th century and boasts a current population of approximately 7.7 million. It is the most populous city in Saudi Arabia and the third most populous in the Middle East.
“Living in Riyadh has been a great experience for my family,” said Information Management Specialist Khalid Abdelaziz. “The Diplomatic Quarter is a city of its own within the capital city. With its parks, walking trails, and views over the wadi, Riyadh provides a family friendly living situation with a strong and diverse embassy and expat community to match. It’s an interesting time historically for this country, and we are glad we are here to experience it first-hand.”
Riyadh’s culture offers a blend of past and present, with modern restaurants and contemporary art exhibits juxtaposed with vibrant souqs and historic sites dating back centuries. The more adventurous will find plenty of outdoor activities to keep them busy, including cycling, hiking, and desert camping. A popular day trip to “Edge of the World,” about a 90-minute drive northwest of Riyadh, offers visitors the opportunity to explore one of Saudi Arabia’s geological wonders. While summer temperatures can reach a whopping 120 degrees, winter provides a welcome respite with daily temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s.
Further afield, there is no shortage of opportunities to explore Saudi Arabia, and many of the most popular tourist destinations in the country are an easy drive or a short flight from the capital. Pristine beaches, snorkeling, and diving destinations run along the western Red Sea coast. In the northwest, the ancient Nabatean civilization’s southern capital at Al ‘Ulá has become one of the crown jewels of Saudi tourism, offering five-star accommodations and a base of exploration for what many describe as a mini-Petra. For the more adventurous-minded, there is an endless array of opportunities to explore canyons, mountains, and the vast, rolling dunes of the Empty Quarter. As Saudi Arabia continues to invest heavily in its tourist infrastructure as part of Vision 2030, new cultural and entertainment venues are opening all over the country.
Consular Officer Dana Pinoli agreed that Saudi Arabia is experiencing many social openings that did not exist even a few years ago.
“Having served in Saudi Arabia before Vision 2030 and now as the project is in full swing, it’s really impossible to overstate how much things here have changed,” she said. “It’s made a big difference in how we as diplomats live in and interact with the country as well; Saudi Arabia is open for us to explore and appreciate in a way that wasn’t possible before.”
A highlight of serving at Embassy Riyadh is the close-knit community among the large, diverse staff. Community liaison officer-sponsored events and social activities bring the community together for popular gatherings at Uncle Sam’s, particularly the weekly pizza and steak nights, as well as off-compound activities such as desert camping and visits to local tourist attractions. Saudis are famous for their hospitality, and most embassy employees leave Saudi Arabia with fond memories of meals, weddings, and other events to which they were graciously invited by their Saudi friends and colleagues.
“There is no doubt that the work in Saudi Arabia is challenging. Advancing the United States’ foremost priorities in a country and a region that are of enormous strategic importance to our country can be tough, but it is the reason why most of us answer the call and join the Foreign Service,” said Chargé d’Affaires Martina Strong. “Our work in Saudi Arabia is critical for the United States, and it’s deeply gratifying.”
Ann Mangold was assistant cultural affairs officer and Chris Sorensen is assistant information officer at Embassy Riyadh.