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    « Saudi Arabia's got talent | Main | Unquiet Americans »

    Up in the old hotel

    THE REVIEW - 8 MAY 2009

    From the beginning, in 1978, Al Khozama Hotel was a product of Riyadh’s frontier spirit. The city had a Wild West lack of infrastructure, and with it the opportunity – fed by oil’s disorganised gush – to strike it rich overnight. Fortunes were being made and lost; big thinkers and big dreamers were parachuting in to conjure up opulent masterpieces in the barren desert.

    A Saudi prince and his Swiss business partner decided to build a hotel. Everything they needed – from walls and faucets to flooring tile – was delivered by heavy lorry, all the way from Basel. So was a full complement of accessories – hangers, stationary, towels – all printed with a custom Khozama flower logo. Then the Prince announced he’d leased the newly-built hotel to an airline. Oops. What to do with all that branded gear? Build another hotel! Exactly like the other one. Another set of lorries set off from Basel, and another set of prefabricated materials arrived in Riyadh.

    For its first five years, Khozama was – with its marble lobby, aluminium-shaded modernist exterior, and outdoor swimming pool – one of the only hotels in Riyadh, and certainly the most luxurious. (The same company built a sister hotel, Al Tuluh, from the same materials, but it burnt down.) Saudi royals were tentatively starting to outgrow simple houses, but no palaces had yet been built. The only option was to move into a luxury villa or hotel. But it was shameful to pay a stranger to host you.

    Over time, sleeping under a foreigner’s roof and paying to eat his food became rituals of Saudi society. Because it was one of the first places to offer such services, Khozama and its eight European chefs were at the centre of this transition. To deliver, the hotel had to overcome a preposterous supply chain. Ninety-nine per cent of everything was imported. Everything – especially European meat – required a sheaf of certificates: halal certificates, refrigeration certificates, and more.

    Hussein Hatata moved from Cairo at age 28 to help open Khozama as a bell hop. Today he is the vice president of the management company that owns the place. The first time I met him, in his beloved hotel’s lobby, he told me how it worked. In the early years, the company wasn’t concerned with profit. They just wanted to establish their reputation. So the service was over the top: shoe shines, fruits and flowers for every guest, every day. Gold leaf stationary. Swiss chocolate. Two staff members for every guest. A mad baker who led a secretive kitchen with awesome ambitions. King Fahd bought his cheesecakes here, and a powerful prince had a celebratory cake made that required electricity and minor ballistics.

    Through the 1980s, Riyadh gained more and more prestige. Palaces were built. More foreign firms opened shop. In 1988, the Diplomatic Quarter on the city’s western edge was completed and became the official home for all foreign embassies, which moved there from Jeddah. Riyadh’s supremacy as oil-rich Saudi’s nerve centre was secure. At Khozama, business was booming: Hatata told me that the average customer stayed 30 days, as opposed to the regional average of 2.3 days.

    In 1990 war struck, and air raid warnings shattered the city’s sense of inevitable progress. Hotels – by then there were many – closed their doors. Hatata told me that Khozama was one of the few to take in both guests and neighbours, all of whom were

    periodically herded deep underground in a giant concrete conference hall. There were rumours that Iraq might use chemical agents. So along with music, flowers and food, the hotel installed a cage containing two pigeons. If the birds got sick, everyone knew to worry. But they were fine; “The fattest pigeons in Riyadh,” General Manager Erik Huyer recalls today.

    A few years later, the war over and business booming again, Khozama’s parent company found itself considering offers from five major corporations, including the Four Seasons, Hilton and Rosewood. Rosewood won out, and soon announced plans to raise Riyadh’s first skyscraper, the Faisaliah Tower, which opened in 2000. Thanks to its great height and fantastic hotel, offices and residences, Faisaliah began to draw attention away from Khozama, which had begun to show its age, with its 1970s logo, cramped elevators, and cracked pavements. Those container loads from Switzerland had not included many spare parts.

    In 2003, a Saudi insurgency broke out. For three years, there were bombings, attacks and killings all over the country. Security measures around Riyadh grew elaborate and cumbersome. Machine gun nests were installed around Faisaliah, the city’s newly-built icon; getting into the place for lunch could take 20 minutes. Because Khozama was so small and intimate, guests could be quickly screened by the employees. “If they want to bomb the street, we can’t stop them,” Hatata said. “But when someone walks in our one front door, we make an instant evaluation.” Huyer told me that there were more than a few guests – including a millionaire from Bahrain – who called Khozama home during this period, despite tonier offerings elsewhere in town.

    On a recent afternoon, sitting in the lobby with Hatata and Huyer, I brought up the widely-circulated rumor that there are plans to build a big new Khozama and tear down, or at least repurpose, the original. They couldn’t confirm anything. But the next day, Hatata took me on what felt like a mournful farewell tour of the hotel. He showed me the big generators, the original lift cables, the chairs and rugs he had picked out from Spain. All this would probably disappear in a few years, he noted obliquely. “Progress.”

    On a similar tour the following week, Hatata took special relish in showing me the employee barracks, a clean, multi-story structure with narrow hallways, comfortable rooms with bunk beds, and the same air conditioning system used in guests’ rooms. “Touch this thermostat,” Hatata said, fingering the control. “Same one!” In their wide-eyed adoration and beaming smiles, it was clear the Pakistani guys doing their laundry knew exactly who Hatata was – that one day not too long ago he had not been much higher than them in rank, and that now he was the big boss.

    For now, almost everything at the hotel continues to function. The faucets still shimmer, the toilets still flush, and the wallpaper in the bathrooms is original. And Hatata, a living memory of young Riyadh’s struggles, continues to wander the halls – no plans to retire, he told me – taking care to straighten a flower arrangement here, to shine a table top there.


    This piece was published by The Review. The original has inexplicably vanished.