Saudi Arabia: Riyadh’s ‘Walk and Talk’ group creating space for constructive dialogue

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In one of Riyadh’s coffee shops sits a vibrant and diverse group of people openly holding discussions and enjoying their time. This is the ‘Walk and Talk’ group, which has been creating a safe space for people to meet, socialize and discuss issues of interest.

The group of 20 people were divided into different teams, where they each had to answer questions and hold a dialogue on the purpose of life.

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These questions are presented to the team by founder of ‘Walk and Talk’ Bandar al-Swyan, who sets out the topic of discussion for the group meeting, which takes place every Saturday. Topics vary and can be related to an array of subjects such as technology, culture or gender.

Each team has about an hour to discuss the topic before openly explaining their take on the matter to the other teams. Al-Swyan said that he does this in an effort to initiate conversations focused on topics that people might not regularly think about.

“This is a group where there is no room for judgment, and this is what makes everyone comfortable at Walk and Talk,” 27-year-old al-Swyan told Al Arabiya English in an interview.

Before heading to the coffee shop, the group starts their Saturday morning with a walk through one of Riyadh’s parks. They introduce themselves to one another, as members can change at each gathering depending on who signed up. After the introductions are out of the way, al-Swyan informs them about the topic of the day.

“Then we start walking. Some will talk about how their day is going, but others don’t have the foundation because they do not know the other people in the group, so they focus on talking about the topic,” he explained.

Members of the Walk and Talk group during a walk at one of Riyadh’s parks. (Supplied)
Members of the Walk and Talk group during a walk at one of Riyadh’s parks. (Supplied)

“Hence, this becomes a way for them to socialize and by the time we get to the coffee shop, they would have already built something that would allow them to [comfortably] continue discussions.”

Women and men of different age groups have joined the ‘Walk and Talk’ group since it first launched in 2020, al-Swyan said, a unique initiative in Saudi Arabia which has welcomed some members who had never taken part in anything like it before.

How did the group start?

Al-Swyan said he was exposed to lots of people from different cultures and background during his time as a university student in the US. During this period, he said he was also introduced to the idea of university clubs, which he took part in, and noticed how it helped him grow, learn more about how to handle various issues and how to contribute to a community.

After living and studying in the US since 2012, he moved back to Saudi Arabia in 2019 which was when the idea for the ‘Walk and Talk’ group came about, in what he called a “turning point” in both his life and in the development of Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has seen many changes in recent years after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched Vision 2030 in 2016, leading to a series of reforms in the Kingdom’s various sectors. Saudi Arabia has been witnessing a major shift in economic development and within its art and cultural scene, including allowing women to drive and more openness to the entertainment sector.

“When I returned in 2019, it was a turning point not only [in my life] but in Riyadh in general. Even my friends changed. You had those who got married or those who left the country to study or work. So, I did feel like I was a stranger in my own country,” he said. “The question for me was ‘what should I do.’ The first thought for anyone returning back is ‘I should start looking for a job,’ but I decided to open a Meetup similar to what I used to do in [Washington] DC.”

Meetup is a platform which has helped people across the world plan local events and create groups that help build communities; and this is precisely what al-Swyan did when he decided to launch the ‘Riyadh Walking Group’ in 2020 – which was later renamed as the ‘Walk and Talk’ group.

“When I opened the group, there was a lot of excitement from people, and many joined. At first, we only started going on walks at a park in Riyadh,” he said, adding that he later decided to expand the group to include the “talking part.”

Founder of Walk and Talk group Bandar al-Swyan says he got the idea of creating the group after returning to Riyadh from the US. (Supplied)
Founder of Walk and Talk group Bandar al-Swyan says he got the idea of creating the group after returning to Riyadh from the US. (Supplied)

“The first topic we tackled was on artificial intelligence and then the environment and then challenges facing women and men at work,” he said.

“So slowly we started becoming more organized. We give one hour for walking in different parks and then we head to a coffee shop to talk about a subject for another hour, after which we discuss the answers and outlooks [for half an hour].”

No judgement

After building a life in Dammam, Mohammed Krimly, 40, moved to Riyadh in 2021 where he found himself with very few friends and acquaintances.

Being busy at work during the week, and bored on his weekends, Krimly felt compelled to check the Meetup platform in the hopes of finding local groups he could join. He said that although he joined many groups, ‘Walk and Talk’ was the only one he felt comfortable in.

“They welcome you and they are organized unlike other groups I joined,” Krimly, who works in IT, said.

“I am someone who doesn’t know how to break the ice, so they helped me in this regard, and they helped me better communicate with the person in front of me. This is what made me stick with them.”

For him, the group became an outlet to better understand how people of different ages and characters perceive certain issues. Krimly explained that discussing topics which are not normally approached on a daily basis has been a fun and interesting experience as it allows one to better understand and be open to other points of view.

“You can say whatever you want, there is no judgement,” Krimly added.

Salma al-Yamani, a 22-year-old graphic designer, said that the ‘Walk and Talk’ group created a space to share different ideas, adding that she looks forward to the meetings on Saturdays because they help her start the week with a positive outlook.

“I am a social person in my nature, and I love to hear other people’s thoughts because when you listen to other people’s ideas, be it younger or older, you develop,” she said, adding that the group is also a good networking opportunity that can open doors such to job opportunities, for example.

Morhaf al-Rubyyi, 25-year-old civil engineer student, agreed with al-Yamani, saying that the group was been “place to network and to know people.”

“This is a place that makes us heard,” al-Rubyyi said. “Even if the group’s opinion is different, it is totally okay.”

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