Travelogue: Riyadh

I recently traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to speak at the RiseUp Summit SaudiI had spoken at the RiseUp Summit in 2019 in Cairo, so when the organizers asked me if I would be willing to travel to Riyadh for their first event in Saudi Arabia, I checked the calendar, saw that it wouldn’t interfere too much with Thanksgiving, and accepted.  The RiseUp team also invited my business partner Jeff Abbott to speak with me at RiseUp, as well as another event the following night, Garage Disrupt.

The geopolitical relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is complicated, to say the least.  While the two hegemons are important allies to each other, their interests often differ.  Older Americans still have bad memories of the so-called “Arab Oil Embargo” in the 1970s, and very few Americans of any age have a great enthusiasm for the actions of OPEC.  And those are just the economic conflicts!  As I pointed out to Jeff in a discussion of this complicated relationship, “The Iron Sheik of 1980s pro-wrestling was a villain, not a hero.”  I wonder how soon it will be before the WWE has a heel named “Crypto Bro?”

I considered all this when weighing the invitation, and decided to go for three simple reasons.  First, one of my missions is to spread the gospel of Silicon Valley in general and Blitzscaling in particular.  With its resources and ambitions, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its residents seemed like a strong fit.  Second, I like to visit different nations and cities.  The world is a big place, and if I restricted myself to a 50 mile radius from Stanford, I would have a very narrow view of the world.  Third, now that I am a venture capitalist as well as an author, Saudi Arabia is an important source of capital, as evidenced by the parade of famous VCs and other financiers who attended FII (“The Davos of the Dessert”) just weeks prior to my visit.  Some of the people I met even showed me their selfies with legendary figures like Ray Dalio.

I also decided that if I was going to go, I was going to write about my experiences.  Trying to keep my visit a secret struck me as both impossible (since I was speaking at multiple public events to audiences of hundreds of people) and hypocritical.  I try not to do things that I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing with the public!

Jeff flew up from Phoenix to travel with me, and together we flew from San Francisco to Riyadh on Turkish Airlines (with a stopover in Istanbul).  This was my first flight on Turkish Airlines.  At first, I was a bit disappointed, since the original plan was to fly on Qatar Airways, which I’ve always had great experiences with, but I loved flying on Turkish Airlines as well.  The staff were friendly and knowledgeable, and I like how Turkish culture was evident throughout the food and drinks (including Turkish coffee!).  Meanwhile, the new Istanbul airport rivals places like Doha and Dubai in size, amenities, and aesthetic appeal.  Jeff and I ended up traveling with the always awesome Zach Coelius for part of our trip; Zach is even crazier than us.  Rather than returning home after RiseUp, he was traveling on to North Macedonia to speak there as well.  Zach is working on visiting all the countries in the world, so being able to cross off two more on a single trip appealed to him.  We spent a fun couple of hours hanging out, first at the Polaris Lounge at SFO and then at the truly magnificent Turkish Airways Business Lounge in Istanbul.

Always start an adventure with sparkling wine!

Everything about it was enormous and high-quality.  I had read about the lounge, and it did not disappoint.  The flagship feature are the live cooking stations; rather than preparing the foods in a kitchen in the back, the food in the lounge is available from open kitchens and small food stalls, and your food is cooked in front of you.  My two visits to this lounge were all too brief; I actually wish I had a longer layover to more fully explore!  Maybe next time.

Another reason we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked is that Jeff was pickpocketed and his nearly-new iPhone was stolen.  Despite our best amateur detective efforts using “Find my iPhone,” we were unable to recover the phone before we had to leave for Riyadh.  The last thing we did before boarding was to remotely erase the phone.  Fortunately, theft insurance will cover most of the replacement cost, but it left me in the unfamiliar position of being the Uber Master during our trip, and meant that Jeff had to keep a close eye on me since he couldn’t call an Uber himself.

Jeff and I arrived into Riyadh at around 2 AM local time (3 PM Pacific time).  The RUH airport was a bit confusing at times, and we were accosted politely but aggressively by many taxi drivers.  But we stuck with our plan of calling an Uber, and soon found ourselves checking into the Grand Plaza Riyadh.  We had a good experience with this hotel, starting with the traditional hospitality of tea and dates in the lobby.  My only two complaints are that the WiFi was not great (it would sometimes drop and reconnect, and it really wasn’t fast enough to watch video), and that the door handles were terribly designed.  The door handles of the hotel are beautiful brushed-nickel wedges, but they taper to a point, and even with that point rounded off, they were quite painful if you stumbled into them in the middle of the night.  Over the course of my stay, the handles bruised my thigh, and left me with significant scrapes on both my arms.  Without the points rounded off, I likely would have needed stitches.  Alas, I forgot to take a picture of the offending items.  What I did enjoy was the ample sitting area in my room, the plentiful water, coffee, and tea, and other amenities including a hot water carafe (which I used a lot), a non-tiny refrigerator (ditto), and a microwave (not used, but appreciated).  The bathroom was also capacious, and it featured one of those giant overhead shower heads for a rain-like experience.

Jeff and I worked together in my room for a couple of hours, planning out the trip (and filing the necessary paperwork around Jeff’s stolen phone).  That was when I hit upon my idea to keep what I dubbed a  “Werewolf Schedule.”  I named it after the werewolf movies, where the full moon caused a lycanthropic transformation which would end when the moon set in the middle of the night, leaving the werewolf to wake up in human form late in the morning.  Since the events we were invited to all started at 3 PM or later, I decided to stay up until at least 4 AM, and then sleep until noon, to keep my schedule within spitting distance of the Pacific time zone, where I would typically sleep from 11 PM to 7 AM (or 10 AM to 6 PM Riyadh time).  As crazy as it sounds, the werewolf schedule worked–I was awake for all my events, and with our return flight scheduled to depart at 6:50 AM, I simply didn’t sleep the night before, and slept on the return flights, waking up for the final time a little before 10 AM Pacific, pretty much back on schedule.

After sleeping from about 6 AM to Noon that first night/morning, I guided Jeff and I to a nearby restaurant for lunch.  I had found the Bismillah Restaurant using Google Maps, and the translated reviews seemed pretty good.  It was also open 24 hours per day, and just around the block, which helped.  Bismillah was an Indian restaurant, and when we entered, it was apparent that we were in an authentic local establishment.  The menu above the counter was in Arabic, no one spoke English, and all of the customers seemed to be Indian construction workers.  Through a mixture of pointing and pantomime, we managed to order a fine lunch of chicken curry, rice, and mixed lentils and spinach.  They also provided us with plastic spoons, since we were pretty obviously out of place, and hadn’t mastered the local art of eating everything, including rice, with our hands.  The food was magnificent, and the total cost for the two of us was about 40 Saudi riyals, or about $11.

Jeff and saw thin plastic sheets for dining a couple of times; why don’t we use them in America?

Stuffed, we waddled back to the hotel and squeezed ourselves into more formal clothing.  The conference organizers had put most of the speakers in the same hotel, so we got to travel together via shuttle to the conference, which was taking place in the King Abdullah Financial District.  Some of the folks like Zach and my old friend Mike Sigal I already knew, but we met a bunch of other cool people from all around the world.

All this is brand new!

The venue for the conference was a beautiful outdoor space, surrounded by skyscrapers.  As we arrived, the stages were still being set up by work crews, so was whiled away the time with teas and fruit juices at the speaker’s lounge (a beautiful covered space between another set of buildings).  Even though the work crews were working feverishly, the conference still kicked off about an hour or so late, but soon enough, they were calling us on stage for our talk.  I delivered a short presentation explaining blitzscaling, and then Jeff and I discussed Blitzscaling in Saudi Arabia.  I hope that the video will eventually be available, but the key points are this:

  • Saudi Arabia has many of the prerequisites for blitzscaling.  It features the largest domestic market in the region, as well as the most financial and human capital.  The human capital is particularly interesting; Saudi Arabia introduced a policy where the government would pay for the college education of any citizen.  The citizen had to be admitted, but the government would pay for tuition, room and board, supplies, and a $1,000 per month spending money stipend.  The result was that an entire generation of young Saudis were educated in Western (largely American) colleges and universities.
  • We are currently in a global downturn where talent and market share are easier to buy than they have been in a long time…and thanks to oil prices, Saudi Arabia has ample cash to do just that.  This is a great time for Saudi investors to invest in good startups that are struggling to raise money, and use that as leverage to get them to open offices in the Kingdom.
  • Re-investing oil revenues is also critical to creating the circumstances and network effects to promote scaling.  The King Abdullah Financial District is an attempt to deliberately create a financial cluster (presumably to rival Dubai) by using up front investment to build an entirely new section of Riyadh, and use the power of institutions like the sovereign wealth fund as anchor tenants to overcome the cold start problem.  SVC helps stimulate the VC sector by investing in emerging managers.  The Garage does the same by incubating startups.  While these investments might not pencil out in the short term, they build momentum for the long term.
  • Finally, I pointed out that the scarcest resource is human capital, and it can’t all be home-grown.  Saudi Arabia needs to make itself the kind of place where people want to live and work.  Top talent can now decide where in the world to work; smart cities and nations will make themselves more attractive to this suddenly mobile talent.  The continued reforms, including tearing down the laws and customs that held women back, are essential to this, as is creating a vibrant, open society that produces the cultural resources that attract creative workers.
  • I hadn’t heard this when I gave my talk, but one of the most interesting movies that the government is making is funding a new airline focused on international travel.  The current flag carrier, Saudia, is overshadowed by both Emirates and Qatar Airways.  Part of this is that Saudia has to serve multiple purposes, including being the main airline for Muslims around the world making their sacred pilgrimage to Mecca.  But serving those low-cost travelers makes it hard to serve business travelers who don’t want to be crammed into a plane full of loudly praying pilgrims, crying children, and other distractions.  Setting up a business-oriented airline serving key global cities with non-stop flights would be a game-changer.  Plus, the Kingdom could subsidize flights and promote tourism as well.

After the talk, I had a great time chatting with a number of entrepreneurs, including fans of the book.  Then, after watching a few more talks, a large group of the speakers went to one of the new restaurants in the Financial District, AOK.  This was a fantastic place; I had terrific lentil salad, along with an old favorite, charred broccolini.  Some of the speakers had flown in from Dubai and were slightly horrified by my plans to stay up all night to stay on my werewolf schedule, but I assured them that it was working.

The next day, Jeff and I met one of the speakers from the previous night, Sallyann Della Casa, for lunch.  Sallyann was another global traveler who was Canadian, had studied and practiced law in the United States, and was now based in Dubai and working with clients all over the world.  We had great conversation where she confirmed how far and how fast Saudi Arabia had come (she recalled that five years prior, she had flown in to speak at a conference, only to have the security at the venue prevent her and some CNN journalists from going on stage because they weren’t covered from head to toe, with only their eyes showing; it took a direct government intervention to fix the situation).  Alas, we had to dash off because I had an appointment to visit my friends from Seedra Ventures, a leading Saudi VC.

Jeff and I had a great chat with my friends Musaab and Haitham, whom I had met as a guest lecturer at Stanford this summer, and even had the good fortune of running into some of Seedra’s entrepreneurs on our way out, who were huge fans of Blitzscaling (and were saddened that their copies of the book weren’t with them).

I would like to get my own thawb; it looks both stylish and comfortable.

From there, we made our way to another event, Garage Disrupt, this time at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST).  This was a truly stunning outdoor venue, complete with a gigantic stage and an equally gigantic 60-meter LED screen.  I was both surprised and delighted; the event had been described to me as a dinner and pitch event, which meant I pictured a hotel ballroom somewhere, not an incredible outdoor venue with nearly 1,000 attendees.  The event also featured incredible food, prepared on the spot by a variety of vendors.  I can’t remember the names of all the dishes, but they included delicious flatbreads, skewers of freshly grilled meat, and a panoply of desserts and sweets.  Jeff and I had the honor of delivering one of the two keynotes of the evening; the other keynote speaker was Mo Gawdat, who was Google X’s Chief Business Officer (and also worked for Microsoft and IBM) and is the author of the bestseller, Solve For Happy.  I talked about how to apply blitzscaling to investing, using Blitzscaling Ventures as an example, and then brought Jeff and my friend Amr Awadallah (who is also an LP in Blitzscaling Ventures) on stage to discuss investing in Saudi Arabia.  Amr is the founder and CEO of Vectara, a machine learning company in which I’m an investor, and was previously the founder and CTO of Cloudera.  Both Mo and Amr are proud Egyptian entrepreneurs who are also honorary Saudi citizens; Amr explained that this citizenship is a great honor for any Muslim, because it confers the right to visit the holy city of Mecca, which is otherwise extremely difficult to do.  It didn’t hurt that he was also a guest at the Saudi-Argentina World Cup match, which Saudi won 2-1 in an upset victory.

I am really hoping that we can get copies of the photos and videos from the event, because it was truly a special venue. Until then, I have a few I pulled from social media:

What a great outdoor space!

Look at the size of that screen!
Jeff made the smart call of wearing a sweater underneath his blazer. It was actually a little nippy!
Amr and I after the talk.

After the event, Amr took us to Petit Cafe in Boulevard Riyadh City, a giant entertainment complex that was reminiscent of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, and Downtown Disney in the Disney Parks.  It was also stunning, and we spent a fun several hours drinking juice and tea, and snacking on fresh fruit.

To cap off the Disney comparisons, they have fireworks shows as well!
Just the usual 2 AM activity…

When we woke up on Monday, we went to lunch at another local restaurant for the most popular dish in Saudi Arabia: Bukhari rice with chicken. It is a fragrant basmati rice dish, served with roasted chicken.  We also ordered hummus, cucumber salad, yogurt salad, and arabic bread.  As we popped out the hotel door, we invited a fellow speaker, Felipe, to come along on the adventure.  As with Bismillah, the food was delicious.  My approach was to smear hummus on a bit of bread, top with chicken and salad, and add a dollop of acidic, spicy sauce on top.  Delicious!  Also as with Bismillah, it was clearly a local place–the menu was again all in Arabic, but we were fortunate that one of the clerks spoke English.  Most of the diners removed their shoes and sat in carpeted, elevated platforms to eat, using their hands. We foreigners were directed to a table and chairs, and given the seemingly ubiquitous plastic spoons to help us eat.  Pro tip: Order a whole chicken.  These aren’t the steroidal, bloated, flavorless chickens we eat in America.  A whole chicken is just about the perfect amount for a single person.

We’ve got to go back!

We waddled back to the hotel for another rest, then visited my friend Abdulaziz’s majlis.  The majlis is the entertaining space for receiving visitors, and Abdulaziz showed us magnificent hospitality, engaging us with coffee, snacks, and good conversation.

That wall in the back is centuries old. It’s amazing to have living history around!

From there, we proceeded to an SVC networking event in the KAFD complex, where I got to meet another wonderful set of people, including the Austrian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.  Some of our fellow speakers were Austrian as well, and apparently they got to go to an afterparty at the ambassador’s residence.  We contented ourselves with a fantastic dinner at Il Baretto, just downstairs.  Amr’s friend and fellow Vectara investor, Omar Almajdouie of Raed Ventures was a gracious dinner host, and we had a wonderful time discussing both business as well as explaining to each other the various changes occurring in Saudi and the United States.

For my last night/morning in Saudi, I ended up taking a 6-minute nap (I might have slept for longer, but I had forgotten to turn my phone to silent mode and was awakened by a call from an insurance company!) and then packing up to return home.  This post was written on my flight from Istanbul to San Francisco; I slept until just before 10 AM Pacific after enjoying a fantastic Turkish dinner.

Overall, my trip to Riyadh was another great adventure.  I got the chance to visit a new country, meet lots of smart and interesting people, enjoy fantastic food, and hopefully spread the gospel of blitzscaling just a bit further.  It was amazing to see what Riyadh has become, and seeing it made me hopeful that in the end, people everywhere will converge on an open, innovative, more inclusive society.  We’re certainly a long way off, and there are still many obstacles to overcome, but I think we will get there in the end.  Most people want the same thing: A good place to work, live, and raise a family, and the chance to have a positive impact on the people you care about and the world as a whole.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *