Sunday, 8 April 2012

Welcome to Riyadh Airport

'Welcome to Riyadh Airport'.
If there is such a sign welcoming visitors to Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport, it must be blending into the surrounds as recollection of seeing it evades me.

The sign for 'Have a Nice Flight, Come Back Soon' is equally elusive. 

The Riyadh International Airport tends to get a lot of bad raps from peeps and admittedly it has some failings but once you know the in's and out's, and if you're a Saudi, other Arab or obvious westerner,
it ain't so bad.  For everyone else, the aiport or more specifically, the attitude with which you are treated, can seriously suck.

Departing Riyadh
There are three departure terminals at Riyadh airport - Saudi Airlines international flights, most other international airlines and Saudi domestic flights.  We have used all three.

The first time that most precious of documents, The Exit and Re-entry Visa, was garnered so I could travel to destinations afar, I stood inside the international terminal thinking "Holy Guacamole". 

Having dispensed with the man in green overalls who approached the second I exited the taxi to ask if he could assist (Hubster had advised me to decline their service) the validity of that decision was being seriously questioned given how crowded the airport was.

There were queue's of men and women, mostly from the Asian continent and Filipines, with their luggage stacked closely beside them.  The queues were not moving.  In fact, closer observation showed security were holding up the lines of people and only letting one or two at a time over to the baggage scanner that must be transitted prior to reaching check-in. 

Two things were clear - not a Saudi or white face was in the queue and joining the queue was going to get me nowhere fast, but what else could I do?  Then a Saudi couple walked straight past the queue to the luggage scanner and on to the check-in counters.  Shortly after, a man in business attire headed for the front of the queue. 

I decided to follow The Suit.  Security asked, 'What airline?' I responded. They waved me to continue loading my bag and on through the single scan gate.  One does feel a bit guilty jumping the queue like that, but not guilty enough not to do it!  

If the foyer was crowded, the check-in counter area was bedlam. 

Boxes bound with rope to keep them from flying apart pile up along with the lines of people and plastic wrapped suitcases.  Which counter to use?  If you get the wrong one, regardless of how long you may have waited to reach the man smiling behind it (yes I'm wearing my rose colored glasses making that comment)...

Rose Tinted Glasses - $10 on TradeMe will be sent to the back of the correct line to wait again.  Tempers flare in such situations.  Patience is a definite virtue at this airport.

One can look at a Saudi couple waltzing up to the counter and expecting attention even though you have been waiting for ages and think 'Why can't they wait in line?'  It pays to remember you just jumped ahead of umpteen workers, desparate to get home and, I'm guessing, scared of being denied that pleasure at any point in the going home process.  Bite your tongue, count your blessings!

Once checked in, head back out the same scan gate and over to the customs area, which often requires skirting the still waiting queues of workers.  Looking them in the eye is avoided. 

The customs guys at Riyadh airport have been criticized for being unfriendly.  They're Customs Guys - what do you expect, a cup of tea and a cheery, 'Hope you're having a fab day!'   Customs Guys in lots of countries are unfriendly.   Before leaving the Customs Guy make sure he has returned the precious Entry - Exit visa with your passport (unless of course you have no intention what-so-ever of coming back).  It is easy to leave that separate, yet essential, A4 page behind if you aren't paying attention to proceedings.  Then it's on to another scanner for your hand luggage.

If your of feminine gender ...

Feminine Gender is usually wrapped in black in KSA
...and there is a queue of men at this scanner, jump straight to the front to load your hand luggage on to the track.  I like to make sure it has set up into under the black, car wash looking flaps before turning to the room off to the side sign posted 'Ladies Only' - that's our scanning area.

Some women are absolutely paranoid that their handbags will be interfered with while they are off getting scanned and the bags are out of sight.  I've never worried about it.   And as far as I know, because bad stories travel fast in the expat community, nothing ever does happen.  There are usually two security ladies behind the thick curtains covering the entrance to Lady Scanning and food is often spread about the small table inside in various states of unfinishedness.   We get scan wanded and occasionally felt over, back and front, in this room.

If security have an issue with what's in your recently scanned hand luggage they wait till you're through Lady Scanning and have come back to retrieve said bag from the scanning table before asking you to reveal its contents.  On more than one occasion I have seen them ask travellers to remove nail scissors from their bag.

There is a shop past this point.  Never having looked at it I have no idea what's in it.  I usually head straight for the coffee shop.  If luck is shining upon me a comfortable seat will be available.  Otherwise, it's a long wait in a hard, butt numbing, plastic fantastic chair.

It's a good idea to be aware of your boarding time in Riyadh airport.  Don't count on announcements.  The PA system makes anything said over it complete echoed garble. 

Once the gate opens there is a rush to the queue.  This is partly from the excitement of going home.  Mostly though, it's wanting to get on the plane first because hand luggage space disappears fast.  The 'one piece of hand luggage per person' request is, like most rules in Saudi, ignored.  The size of some of the hand luggage is ridiculously large.

On a recent flight a man's hand luggage was obviously not going to fit into the overhead locker because it was actually a suitcase.  He lambasted the flight attended for her inability to find space for his bag in the lockers near his seat.  His comment,' This is your responsibility' made me laugh.  Was she also responsible for you packing your suitcase and calling it your hand luggage?

I chuckled to myself when she took the phrase to heart and said, 'I'm taking your bag and storing it below'.  Left hanging in the air was the rest of the sentence - 'Where your bloody bag should've been checked into anyway'.  He complained.  He wasn't happy.  He let her know.  His bag still went below.

Without fail on a flight there is the last minute 'We aren't happy with the seating arrangements' shuffle just before, or sometimes as, the plane is getting into runway position.

Some Saudi (and Yep it's always Saudi) has decided he doesn't like one of two things things - his seat or the seat His Woman (or Women) is in.   Most 'Plane Seat Shuffle' is due to the latter.  Hostesses have to ask people if they don't mind shifting seats so Woman is not sitting next to unrelated maleness. 

On one flight the hostess was desperately trying to get the Seat Shuffling Saudi's to sit down because the plane had started to taxi.  A call came over the intercom, "All steward staff please take your seats, now!"  Basically the head steward had decided if Saudi's where still standing when the plane took off, so be it, but his staff will be safely buckled in.

Arriving in Riyadh
Arriving in Riyadh is not difficult if all your paper work is in order and you are not one of the Asian labour force. 

Getting off the plane and down to customs is a piece of cake.  Just before the stairs there is a toilet for those western women who want to don the required black garb.  Although a lot of KSA expat forums say an abaya is not necessary at the airport, check whether such commentators are from Jeddah or Riyadh.  Riyadh airport has been known to have abaya spot checks - as in 'I spot you without an abaya - you don't leave here till you go put one on.'

The customs boothes in the arrival hall are divided into Saudi/GCC, business, and other.  Some days the arrival hall is absolutely chocka full of workers who are sent, without fail, to The Other lane.   Westerners fill Business.  I prefer the lane next to Saudi/GCC because once all the locals are through, security often invite women from the closest lane for processing.

Ramadan is not a good time to arrive in Riyadh. Not having eaten all day workers are on a go slow sometimes combined with bad mood. Arriving at Iftar is also a bad idea.  This is when all Customs Guys will head off for their first meal of the day and if you're in the arrival hall queue be prepared to sit and wait for at least half an hour.  It's funny watching westerners toe tapping, looking at their watches and getting edgy wondering 'what the hell?'  All you can say at such times is "Welcome to Saudi".

Baggage claim is chaos.  Our bags have been concertinaed in the jam on the carousel.  Buying expensive luggage is a complete waste of time if you're coming to Riyadh.

What happens if you're paperwork is not in order on entering the country?  That depends on who you are or where you're from.  Most westerners have enough dosh, or a credit card, to get themselves to somewhere comfy, like Dubai, while they get whoever stuffed up their paperwork to fix it.  Such repair can take from a few days to a couple of weeks depending on how connected your paperwork man is.

For anybody else, apparently there are cells rooms under the airport for those who turn up with the wrong paperwork and have no way of changing plans or are left 'unclaimed' by prospective sponsors (because no-one gets into the country without a sponsor) according to this article in the Arab News about Stranded Maids.    That must be a terrible situation to be in - What a terrible welcome to Riyadh Airport that would be :(

Ka Kite,


  1. Hiii

    Your description of the airport experience is spot on! I have also felt the same thoughts on many occasions.

  2. Hi there, how's it going? I've started my own - hilarytravels dot blogspot dot com. You can read about my latest adventures in the magic kingdom now.


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