I last visited Riyadh almost 15 years ago for the opening of Harvey Nichols, so I was curious to see the city again. A decade and a half is a fair old while; much has happened over that time, a great deal of it in and around the Middle East, so when I had the chance to visit the place with a friend I took it.
My travelling companion was the legendary dealer in Chinese contemporary art Fabien Fryns. Fabien is a great guy, a fearless cigar smoker, a tireless champion of Marbella and an intrepid traveller. He went to Beijing 10 years ago not speaking a word of the language and he has come back with a charming Chinese wife, a world-class collection of pictures and was instrumental in organising the Zeng Fanzhi show that has just closed at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Now he believes that the time is right to explore the Saudi art scene and I tagged along hoping that we would get the opportunity to play a few games of backgammon and set fire to the occasional cigar. As it happened, I need not have bothered to bring the backgammon as, such was our programme – a new province more or less every 36 hours – that it took all my effort to find time to squeeze in a daily Havana.
In Riyadh we were staying right next to the Harvey Nichols that I had helped open in 2000 and we had dinner in a restaurant located in a glass sphere near the pinnacle of the Norman Foster-designed tower. I seemed to remember that I had been able to walk up here unannounced during my last visit, while it was still under construction, and my memory has preserved an image of an incomplete glass bubble with one janitor-like individual resting on a camp bed as the winds whistled through the as-yet-unglazed portions of the globe. I well remember the speech Lord Foster gave about this soaring tower, just as I remember the sight of a shuttle loaded with dignitaries whizzing through the mall as a military escort jogged alongside. I also recall the swishing susurrus of the thobes of the guests and the light aroma of sandalwood and patchouli.
At the time, all the TE Lawrence clichés came to mind, even though, of course, Lawrence of Arabia never – at least as far as I know – attended the opening of a shopping mall in Riyadh. Besides, Lawrence worked with the Hashim family who were in control of the Hejaz region in those days and not the Saud family who eventually absorbed the Red Sea littoral into their family lands in the 1920s. (The Hashims had to make do with the kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan as consolation prizes.)
Now seeing the building complete and sitting up there looking over the blanket of lights that stretched away until they faded from sight into the dim soft folds of the desert darkness, I thought how, until after the second world war, this was little more than a settlement built of mud bricks clustered around a simple fort (which happily is still standing, complete with spearhead embedded in the gate near the postern). Then, turning my mind to more pressing matters, I walked upstairs to the cigar club, where last I had seen a janitor, camp bed and primus stove, and selected a perfectly humidified Cohiba Piramide that, thanks to Lord Foster, I was able to enjoy in air-conditioned splendour.