THERE are roughly 3,000 Irish people currently living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - Westmeath native Hilary McCormack is among them.
The Mullingar woman, who lives in the capital Riyadh, has been in the Kingdom for three and a half years, having moved there for work.
She is one of eight Irish people working at an energy research centre, the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC), and is an active member of the city’s thriving Irish community.
Irish sports, culture and business networking are well represented in Riyadh - which boasts the Naomh Alee GAA Club, founded in 1994, the Riyadh Irish Society, a social club promoting Irish arts and culture, and the Irish Business Network, of which Ms McCormack is a board member.
There would usually be St Patrick’s celebrations to enjoy too, this month, but the ongoing pandemic has pushed the Riyadh festivities online for 2021.
Here, Hilary McCormack reflects on the year that was, for an Irish woman living in Saudi Arabia…
"After a herculean effort in 2020, the Saudi authorities got their Covid-19 infection numbers right down to 50 cases per day for the whole country by early December.
Eight weeks further from that we stared a second wave in the face as numbers slowly, but steady rose again.
The response by the Kingdom was to once again suspend flights and entry to the country in order to check the spread of the coronavirus or any new variant of the disease.
From February 3, 20 countries were put on the no entry list, including Ireland, UK, UAE, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, US, Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Japan.
I work in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh the capital.
In total seven Irish people work at my company and there are about 3,000 Irish across the whole country.
Here in Saudi Arabia the weather has turned chilly. You might be surprised by that, but it can get down to the low teens in the evening now.
So the jumpers that I normally keep for my trips home to Ireland are out and I will wear mine most evenings until sometime in March.
I was on the brink of a visit home to Ireland to see my folks back in March 2020, when all international travel to Saudi Arabia came to an abrupt halt, thanks to the dreaded Covid-19.
Realistically, I thought at the time, “for the sake of a month or two, how hard can this be?”
Yeah right, more like how naive could I be? Soon I will have completed a full year of failed attempts to get home!
Little did any of us realise that we were in fact preparing to hunker down for a hot summer staycation here in Riyadh.
Covid restrictions were about to become a recurring Groundhog Day that have run into many months and left us all hoping that someone would step up and press stop on this crazy and surreal science fiction movie that has become our lives.
I have been happily living and working in Riyadh for over three years.
Ordinarily, I regularly travel back and forth to Ireland throughout the year; let’s just say, whenever the notion might take me, or simply when I needed a family and friends fix.
So, in contrast, 2020 was a draining period of rollercoaster emotions where travel plans were repeatedly dashed for all of us.
We did all we could do to remain stoic and positive, since globally we are all in the same boat in one way or another.
Here in Saudi, we had to reimagine how we entertained ourselves.
In an effort to keep the spirit of adventure in our souls, my friends and I took to exploring Saudi Arabia. In return, Saudi offered up all its hidden and charming local destination secrets.
Places with names like Yellow Lake, naturally wild and romantic places like Al Souda and AlQarah Mountains, remote places like Al Habala Tourist Village, which sits in sa triking natural valley, orange sunsets along the Red Sea coast to bustling cities like Al Ahsa and Abha, and of course the capital Riyadh.
With these names come many other names of places to visit. During 2020, Saudi became our pandora’s box of travel surprises.
To date, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has reported about 380,000 cases and more than 6,500 Covid deaths.
That equates to over one per cent of its 33.4 million population infected with Covid-19 in the past 11 months.
While in Ireland, the numbers are much different and perhaps more scary, more than 220,000 cases and more than 4,400 deaths for a population of less than five million.
The reason for such a major difference in numbers here in Saudi compared to other destinations is that the Kingdom does have some previous experience in this virus space.
In 2003, they had to tackle Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and in 2012 it was the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another variant of the coronavirus which can be transmitted by camels appeared.
Therefore in 2020, the authorities did not take any chances and were swift to action.
Borders closed, masks became mandatory and social gatherings stopped.
I think everyone here feels that was a very good move indeed and very quickly we all started to mimic the action of the authorities.
As the word Covid spread globally, Saudi was already moving to protect its people and from that point onwards, only repatriation flights were available until about November 2020.
At the time of writing, worldwide there have been more than 2.6million deaths, a number that continues to climb.
It is a very sobering realisation given we are still nowhere near beating this virus.
The first real inkling for those of us based in Saudi that we were in for a significant event was when the Saudi authorities canceled Hajj.
Hajj is a very holy event for Muslims around the world and many millions make the annual pilgrim to Mecca to pray and give thanks for their good fortune in life.
In recent history, the Hajj pilgrimage has not been cancelled since the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was back in 1932.
As the year rolled on every other major religious event around the globe was reduced, minimised, moved online, held in private or, worst-case scenario, cancelled altogether, like Hajj.
In Ireland and Saudi whole communities were advised to keep their distance from family and friends at all costs. Easter, Eid Al Fitr, Yom Kippur, Holi, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah all suffered.
Perhaps the higher powers we believe in conspired to teach us all a good lesson in 2020?
Late last year our Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar said ‘don’t come home for Christmas”!!
As a perpetual traveller, Christmas at home is sacrosanct.
So, it really hurt the diaspora to hear this, but the truth is, those were wise words indeed and Leo actually made a very good call on all our behaves.
Even my sensible father said, “for the love of god, Leo is right, don’t be traveling home, sure no one can”!
So, Christmas 2020 and the New Year moved on to Zoom which did rather take the fizz out of it a bit! Personally, I succumbed to Zoom-fatigue back in October 2020.
Right, so what next? Well, here in Saudi, we have already commenced the largest coronavirus vaccination operation ever witnessed by the Kingdom.
The first consignment of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in December and distribution started soon after.
Saudi Arabia is offering the vaccine free to all its citizens and residents in the Kingdom.
The uptake has been very positive, and many of my friends and colleagues already have their first shot.
Social media has been brimming with positive comments from all quarters about the service and the way the Saudis have handled the situation.
However, it seems we still have a way to go, and with a temporary travel ban back in place here I think we may as well prepare ourselves for a re-run of 2020.
At least we have experience on our side this time so perhaps it won’t be so daunting.
And our plans for St Patrick’s Day here will now move online.
But seriously, overall, in my personal opinion, looking to the future, if we get to travel internationally again this year, then it will be more expensive and problematic for us all.
I think none of us are under any illusion that fares will be much higher, testing and quarantine times may be imposed in some countries and we are probably going to chew up a lot more leave days that normal per visit.
So I feel I need to start planning my next Saudi staycation as that is the only travel fun on the horizon right now."