fbpx

Calling Riyadh Home

Living with the Pandemic in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

NeueHouse_DanielDart4

Some mornings I shake my head when I wake up. I must have entered into some weird alternate universe or b-rated science fiction movie. As I walk outside at 8:30 am to drink my morning coffee, the temperature already reads 109 degrees, and reflection of the sun off the hot asphalt reminds me to grab my sunglasses.

This is not how I expected my 2020 to be. This was not my plan.

In January, I was on cloud nine. I had just signed a significant investment deal to open my first international office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was going to be a monumental year. It started great. Hiring new staff, optimistic and upbeat, I held the world in my hands. I was nervous, of course, but I expected that. I believed if I just worked hard and focused, I could make it a success. I had spoken to my mentors and advisors, and I was as prepared for everything.

Then, Coronavirus.

All of a sudden, we heard about a virus in China. Then it was in the UAE. Then it was here in Saudi Arabia, and the borders closed in March. The entire nation went into lockdown. Work froze. Everything began to spiral slowly at first, then faster and faster. But, it still hadn’t hit the United States yet. My friends and colleagues there thought it was a joke. They didn’t fathom it would come to the US. They had things figured out. Then would lay low for a day or two, and all would be good.

NeueHouse_DanielDart1

Then it hit New York. Everything changed.

Officials were immediately overwhelmed, and businesses shut while last-minute emergency orders are declared. But it is too late. Overnight it becomes a partisan issue. In America, even in a pandemic, politics come first.

In the majority of places were my company DEC works, we are not so fortunate. In Palestine or Algeria, they don’t have a central bank that can pump money out and send people checks. They don’t have a robust tax system to leverage, or billionaire business people, tech companies, and big celebrities that can go on TV and rant and rave. They have none of this. They have something even more substantial. They have dedicated people willing to work long hours together to help each other.

I got the first text on WhatsApp at around one in the morning. The daughter of the Prime Minister of Palestine, asking me where we can get test kits. I had no idea. But I would find out. The next text came early the following morning from the Minister of Entrepreneurship; he was fearful of what the crisis would do. Then another text from a UN consultant, telling me that as we spoke, aid was being pulled and redirected away from Palestine and similar places for Western countries to prop up their local economies.

I had to do something.

NeueHouse_DanielDart2

We moved quickly. With lawyers working pro bono, and staff members from multiple countries pulling all-nighters, we began to build a plan. We agreed to represent the crisis response, develop a national response, and coordinate with the World Bank and the UN. We had WhatsApp groups in Australia, Chile, America, and Egypt, and DEC signed to be the strategic advisors to the State of Palestine, help build the response to the crisis, and their five-year plan for youth empowerment entrepreneurship.

As this is all happening in real-time, I stand back and watch America’s response with the unusual amount of schadenfreude you have when a high school bully gets punched. People blame Cuomo, they blame Trump, but no one blames a public health policy that has been there for decades, supported by both sides, that destined any American attempt at a response to fail before the pandemic even began. Maybe the upside of this will be us finally building a healthcare system that works for everyone. Maybe.

People blame Cuomo, they blame Trump. But no one blames a public health policy that destined any American attempt at a response to fail before the pandemic even began.

NeueHouse_DanielDart3

But for me, for now, that is not what I can work on. I spend my days in a small apartment on the eastern side of Riyadh. I take long walks in the evening with my Leica when it begins to cool down. Tonight I took pictures mostly of doors. I had been thinking of home and what home meant to me, and it brought me to think about what a home is. That feeling of comfort and safety when you walk through your door. That moment when you lock the bolt at night before you head into your bedroom to go to sleep. The family and loved ones you want to protect are the same in the US and Saudi Arabia. The age-old journey that we are all just trying to make our way back home. What is that?

For me, home right now in the physical sense in Saudi Arabia. But my heart, soul, and spirit are with my friends in Palestine, and Algeria. And, even more so with my countrymen in New York and Los Angeles, and the protesters in Minnesota and Atlanta.

In the long course of history, this situation is not new; we are a species that faces crises every day. Sometimes they are televised, frequently they are not. The only thing that is true for all of them is that we have made it through. And that will be true this time too. And in that sense, the only question that remains is what will have changed, and what will we have learned? And, is it enough for us to be willing to make things better. I hope so.

I had been thinking of home and what home meant to me, and it brought me to think about what a home is. That feeling of comfort and safety when you walk through your door. That moment when you lock the bolt at night before you head into your bedroom to go to sleep.

Daniel Dart is the Founder of DEC Projects, a strategy, communications and insights firm with offices in North America and the Middle East. DEC Projects focuses extensively on solving the world’s most challenging problems in its most fragile places. Their client list includes the United Nations, State of Palestine, Skid Row Housing Trust, Bezos Family Foundation, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and more.

You can follow him at @itsdanieldart or learn more about his work at www.decprojects.co