American horse saddle makers Jessica and Douglas Cline were in the middle of renovating their home in Alabama when their phone rang.
It was August and a representative from Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority had called to invite the couple to participate in a “new cultural site” planned to launch in November.
The space turned out to be the Boulevard World, a sprawling 1.2-kilometre site in Riyadh featuring zones inspired by 10 countries.
With their booth featuring prominently in the US zone, the Clines are a hit with crowds, as they showcase the intricacies of their trade with a mix of welcome southern charm.
That said, it took a moment for the couple to decide if the invitation was legitimate.
“I thought the whole thing was some kind of prank,” says Jessica. “I didn’t even know how they thought of us and why they would have wanted us to come all that way.”
Her initial hesitation was down to her family’s niche business.
For more than a decade, she and husband have been making sturdy horse saddles from a combination of leather, various animal skins and in some cases fibreglass, which are sold to dedicated US customers in their home state and beyond.
The idea their work could resonate beyond the US, let alone to the Gulf region, seemed far-fetched.
Two months into their stint at Boulevard World, which ends when the park closes on Sunday, the couple have realised there is more in common between the two sides.
And that is saying something for Douglas, who, at two metres tall, dressed in black and sporting a proud cowboy hat, has become a major attraction himself with families taking selfies with Riyadh’s very own urban cowboy.
“The people here have been so kind and respectful,” he says.
“I can’t count how many times people would ask us great questions about what we do and invite us over to their homes for dinner. It has been a really beautiful experience for us.”
A lot of these exchanges could have only been inspired by a venue such as Boulevard World due to its cultural focus.
Each of the 10 countries represented, from Mexico to Morocco, features local ambassadors that include artists and traders.
“Yes, this is a fun place and it is really spectacular in how it is put together but really it is about having that dialogue with people from other cultures,” Douglas says.
“It does help break any misconceptions from both sides. This is my first time in Saudi Arabia and first time back in the Gulf in over 20 years.
“In that time things have changed rapidly and especially here in Saudi Arabia.”
Jessica hopes this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Boulevard World and hopes for a return visit next season.
If it happens, they know they will be back among friends.
“Alabama is far away but it does also make you also realise how small the world is,” she says. “We had nothing but a great time here and I know that when I return home I have a lot of fun stories to share.”
Boulevard World is open daily from 3pm to 11pm until Sunday. Tickets are 100 Saudi riyals ($26) on weekdays and 150 Saudi riyals on weekends from riyadhseason.sa
Scroll through images of Riyadh's Boulevard World below