Important Notice

It is not my intention to denigrate Saudi Arabia or its people. It’s like everywhere else, there is good and there is bad. I would rather focus on the unusual and the humourous. Offence is not intended.

“The country is not perfect. The media cannot be trusted, mistreatment of religious minorities is common and there are some that live in fear.” You can decide for yourself whether that statement is about Saudi Arabia, the UK, or any country for that matter.

To quote the Joker, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

That is all I will say about either subject.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

RF #3: Chumpoo

This is where stupid people wash their hair.

Badoom tish!


If eating at Villa inspires you to try the same type of cooking at home just wander next door to Chumpoo Food Store as it’s a good place to buy Asian ingredients. In the fridge, you will find a selection of fresh vegetables and herbs including lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, water convolvulus, to name a few. You can also purchase shrimp paste, curry pastes and Asian sauces.

Location: Next to Villa, you can see it on the same map.

RF #2: Villa

Enjoy Asian food in general? If so then it's worth trying Villa where they offer a dizzying selection of Thai and Filipino cuisine. The restaurant décor is basic to say the least and the waiters are often thoroughly disinterested but the Asian food is amongst the best you can get in the Riyadh city centre.
I recommend the Thai curries and sizzling platters.

Location: It is located on Al-Urubah Road (west) in the direction of the Diplomatic Quarter on the right hand side. There is a map here.

Margrave vs The Traffic Police pt2

Unfortunately there has not been a happy ending to this story.
As I understand it, there is a telephone number you can call in Saudi to query your traffic fines but it's an Arabic language service and not many expats are aware of it.
Therefore in the past the only way an expat would find out whether he had any traffic violations would be when he tried to leave the country. This is because your traffic violations are checked at the airport / border on exit and if you have any outstanding fines you are not allowed to leave. This results in a mad dash to pay the fines before you miss your flight and you have no time to complain if you feel the fine is unjust.
This is no longer the case. You can now query your Saudi traffic violations online.
I suspect the policeman that stopped me either did not know about this or did not care. This explains why the traffic violation that he never handed to me (for not wearing a seatbelt even though I was) was still processed and I now have a 100 SAR fine.
This of course is thoroughly unfair.
Therefore I've decided to complain. Perhaps nothing will come of it, perhaps something will.

Either way, I will let you know…

Sunday, 2 September 2007

RF #1: Granada

If you've just arrived in Riyadh this is a great shopping mall to come to for a soft landing, especially if you live in one of the many compounds to the north or east of the city as you won't have to deal with city centre traffic to get there. If you're going by taxi, make sure you arrange to be picked up as it can be difficult to get a drive-by cab once you are there. If not, exit the mall from one of the 2 gates near the hypermarket as your chances of hailing a cab will be much higher there.
Granada has a Carrefour hypermarket for all your basic needs, from food to underwear to a screwdriver. To address your audiovisual and electrical needs, there is Extra (by the way, Carrefour also has a range of electrical appliances and so it may be worth shopping around for the best product at the best price.)
At Axiom Telecom, you can purchase a local SIM card for prepaid services or subscribe to a mobile phone package.
If you need to get an abaya there are two places in the mall to get one from (depending on your budget). There is a high-end boutique called Beddon Essm, or Carrefour for cheaper alternatives.
If you’re male (or you’re picky about what you wear under your abaya) there are the UK high street brands, namely Topshop, Topman, Next, Oasis, River Island, and also Debenhams for all your clothing needs.
To address any hunger pangs the food court is located on the second level. Here you can find the usual fast food joints like McDonalds and Burger King. If you’d prefer restaurant dining, there are two restaurants located near the food court, Steakhouse for steaks and Zee Noodle for Chinese cuisine. If you are feeling a little more adventurous try the pizza and manaeash at Saj. You can’t miss them as they have a large dome-shaped heat plate right in their shop front.

Best time to visit: Thursday morning. You'll have the entire mall to yourself. When I first arrived my experience of Thursday morning at Granada left me wondering whether something terrible had happened and no one had told me. It was like 28 Days Later, with less zombies.

Riyadh Favourites (RF)

So you've just landed in Riyadh. You're dazed, confused and possibly mildly terrified. Where can you go? What can you do?
In separate posts 'm going to make some suggestions as they occur to me. If I become smart enough (i.e. stop being lazy) I will (eventually) embed Google Earth maps so you can see where they are.
If anyone wants to write their own recommendation please do so!

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Margrave vs The Traffic Police

If you drive on Riyadh's ring road at night you see a large number of cars stopped by unmarked traffic police cars. You don't see a Mercedes or a Porsche stopped. The majority of the cars are pick-up trucks or less expensive cars. Sadly I'm driving the latter kind of car rather than the former.

So it had to happen eventually, didn't it?

Late at night I'm driving home after a very long day at work. I'm doing 115 km/h on the highway where the speed limit is 120 km/h when I notice the car ahead being forced to brake by a weaver. I change lanes to avoid the danger and suddenly a silver car pulls right up behind me, tailgating me with barely a yard's gap. I decide to move back into my original lane to avoid him but he follows me. Suddenly police lights start flashing and I realise he's an unmarked police car. I move into the slow lane to allow him to pass but he follows me! I finally realise that I'm being stopped by the police! Outrage and indignation arrive but are quickly beaten into submission by fear and resignation.
"What on Earth can he be pulling me over for?" I wonder to myself.
I pull the car onto the verge by the side of the highway and he pulls in behind me.
I should explain at this point that in the countries where I've lived if you are stopped by the traffic police you never get out of your car (unless you want to be shouted at). You wait in your car for them to come to you.
It slips my mind that Saudi is different.
I sit in my car.
The policeman sits in his car.
Time passes.
I frown at him through my rear view mirror.
I notice he's fidgeting a bit and I wonder when the hell he's going to come and see me.
He stares at me.
He's probably wondering when the hell I am going to go and see him.
Time passes.
He blasts his police siren.
Realisation dawns and I get out of my car and walk over to him. He winds down his window and I shake his hand.
Me: Salaam!
PO: Salaam!

Me: Err, is there a mushkilla officer? (I apologise to all Arabic speakers for my casual butchering of their language)
PO: Istemarah!

Me: Oh… right… umm…
I walk back to my car, retrieve what I assume is my Istemarah and my driver's license and walk back to the police car. The lights are still flashing. They're almost blinding.
Me: Here you are.
PO: (pointing at my car) Car!
Me: Yes, err, it’s a car.
I assume he wants my help to check his English vocabulary.
PO: Car! Car!
Me: Yes, it's my car. Well, it’s a rental actually.
We look at each other.
Me: Ohhhh! You want me to go back to my car! Right… well… goodbye then.
I walk back to my car with hunched shoulders and sit down. I call my wife to let her know I might be a bit (or perhaps a day) late and squirm impatiently. I make sure the policeman can see I'm using my mobile. A tiny bit of hope suggests he might get worried about who I'm calling.
Perhaps he's sitting in his car wondering if I have powerful wastah.
I sit in my car looking at my phone, wondering if I have powerful wastah.
I wonder what the arrest sheet will say.
"Margrave. Pompous git. Arrested for driving a cheap car under the speed limit. Given extra time for bad hair."
Time passes.
More time passes. Note to self: keep a book in the car for just such emergencies.
I look in my rear view mirror. The policeman is chatting on his mobile phone! I wonder who he's talking to. Is he calling his mum to find out when dinner's going to be ready or is he arranging to have a whitey-hating psychopathic prisoner moved to my jail cell?
Time passes. The moon orbits the Earth. Or maybe it's the other way around. Normal laws no longer seem to apply.
Next to me on the highway tailgaters, weavers, swervers, sliders and crazies speed on their merry way.
More time passes. I slowly realise that my chances of waiting this long only to be told that I can go free are very slim indeed. I wonder whether I should have behaved differently. Perhaps deference was a bad decision. Belligerence might have worked. Or it might have put me straight into the back of his car in a pair of shiny new handcuffs.
I look back at him again. My mouth hangs open. He's lighting a cigarette! This is unbelievable! He's sitting there without a care in the world! Is this a post-coital cigarette after royally screwing me? Was it good for him? It wasn't good for me! I wonder whether he'd notice if I just drove home.
I get out of my car and walked back to him.
Me: So... is there a mushkilla, mate?
PO: Car, car! …one minute.
Me: Ohh… only one more minute? Ok...
I walk back to my car once again and drift away. I imagine I'm a Muslim chap in England with a long beard. I've been stopped by the traffic police and I'm sure it’s because I'm a Muslim chap in England with a long beard. The real me commiserates the imaginary me. The imaginary me grins and tells me to get lost.
I fret about what the conditions in the traffic police jail will be like. I realise to my horror that I need the toilet. I need a number two! My imagination starts to conjure up images of the worst police toilets in the world. The sights! The sounds! Oh god, the smells! I think of my "Family Section" photo and beg forgiveness. I cross my legs.
Suddenly behind me he blasts his siren.
I look in my rear view mirror and he looks at me. His lights are blinding. I'm not sure whether he's trying to make contact or just having a laugh.
I get back to worrying about the toilet.
He blasts his siren again.
I try to look at him through the rear view mirror but by now his lights have killed my vision. I open my door and lean out to see if I can see him. I can't.
I wonder if the toilet will have a lock on the door. Will there be toilet paper? Why didn't I learn how to use that hose?
He blasts his siren again.
Finally I get out of my car to see if he is trying to get my attention. He is. He’s now gesticulating angrily. I'm obviously the most stupid person he's ever stopped. At least now he'll have a story to tell at dinner parties.
I walk back to his car and he hands me a small piece of paper. I look at it dubiously.
PO: Ok!
My driver's license is nowhere to be seen.
The red mist begins its inevitable descent.
Angrily I open the piece of paper. It's my Istemarah. The policeman has carefully and neatly folded it around my driver's license. It strikes me as the most considerate and sweet thing anyone has ever done and engenders immediate feelings of warmth towards him.

The feelings don't last long.
He has a yellow piece of paper in his hand. It's a traffic violation!
He looks up at me, yanks his seat belt and says "Seat belt!"
I wouldn't even sit in my car in Riyadh without my seat belt on! I value my life too much! I can't believe he is going to fine me for something I blatantly didn't do and something he blatantly could not have seen from behind me anyway!
Me (outraged): Of course I was wearing my seat belt!
PO (sarcastically): Ohh… "of course"!
Me: Yes, of course!
PO: Ok. Bye bye!

He puts the yellow traffic violation back on his seat and waves me off.
In a daze I walk back to my car, put my seat belt on in the most theatrical manner possible, turn on the engine, indicate and slowly crawl away.
I think it's time to get a nicer car.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Being English

Is there anything more English than...

  • Sitting on Swedish furniture.
  • Eating Indian food.
  • Drinking Belgian beer and French wine.
  • Watching American programs on a Japanese TV.
  • Driving a German car.
  • Deep distrust of foreigners.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Brainwashed Saudis

I caught this clip from a Lebanese TV debate regarding women on Saudi television from Alien Memoirs.
The wonderfully articulate woman and the increasingly uncomfortable looking man make gratifying viewing. What was interesting was her claim that Saudis are brainwashed. Of course they are. The vast majority of Saudis are practically zombies. Automatons. Drones.
But so are the rest of us.
The English are brainwashed into believing that Britain is "great", the British Empire was a good thing, God will save the Queen
, Christianity is the way, and that innocents are dying for "democracy" rather than to make the rich even richer.
We have a noble and heroic spirit. Never was so much owed by so many to so few.

Americans are brainwashed into believing that America is "beautiful", the American Empire is a good thing, God will bless America, Christianity is the way, and that innocents are dying for "democracy" rather than to make the rich even richer.
They have a noble and heroic spirit. Remember the Alamo.

This is all nonsense.
Our schools don't teach us how to think, they teach us one version of events as fact. They want us to be patriotic, cause no trouble and pay our taxes. Free thinkers don't make good citizens nor good employees.
If you want to learn how to think for yourself you're on your own.
Brainwashed Saudis, brainwashed English, brainwashed everyone, I wish you luck.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

A Saudi's Home Is His Castle

In England there is a saying that an Englishman's home is his castle, meaning that his house is his little kingdom to rule. It's ironic when you consider that the majority of us live in houses like this:
Englishman's Castle
But in Saudi Arabia, a country where privacy is everything, a Saudi's home often really is a castle. They have the high walls, the fortifications, the jaw-dropping impact of "Wow! Look how huge it is!"
Saudi's Castle
The huge numbers of vast palatial houses in Riyadh continues to amaze me. If the country was not so dry I am convinced that many would be surrounded by a moat, with a drawbridge to let the select few in and out.
Castle with a moat
I'm sure that my father would have loved a Saudi house when my sister was a teenager. She wouldn't have been able to step out of (or into) the house without him knowing about it.
It reminds me of the debate about the Great Wall of China. Was the wall to keep the enemy out or to keep the Chinese in?

Monday, 9 July 2007

T For Two

Thanks to Alwan for sending me this fantastic photograph which was apparently taken at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry here in Saudi Arabia.

T for Two
The sign on the wall may or may not have been added by me…

But seriously, who built this?? In a country where married couples can't walk hand in hand, who believed that two Saudi men would enjoy sitting next to each other whilst answering the call of nature? In my experience most Arab men don't even like to use urinals (even when they aren't in a thobe).
So what did they imagine would happen?

Two men squatting side by side on the toilets.
Man one: …and I'd advise waiting until the stock hits around 2 riyals before you sell it.
Man two: Well the market indicates, oh hang on… uhhhhhh uh huuuuuuuunnnnhh uh uh huuuuuuh huh huh. Phew… As I was saying, the market indicates that…
Man one subtly wraps his ghutra over his nose.

I think not.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Cultural Sensitivity and More Man On Man Action

The Middle Eastern chaps at work are forever putting their arms around each other and distributing shoulder massages, hugs, kisses and handshakes. When they come into work they often greet each other like long lost friends. Liberal numbers of kisses are deployed on large numbers of cheeks, often accompanied by subtle slurping noises.
Despite having lived here for almost one year, this behaviour continues to amuse and surprise me. I cannot help my innate Englishness. In the West you're lucky if you get a mumbled "Good Morning" when you arrive at work. I am not used to all this male physical affection. In Riyadh I am Margrave, the untouchable.
Last week one of the guys was departing for a holiday. He was going to be away for ten days. I anticipated some frenzied man on man action before he left. I was not to be disappointed.
I watched cautiously as he gradually kissed and hugged his way through the entire team.
He was getting nearer and nearer to me.
I grinned nervously.
I looked him over. He's a big man. If he gave me a bear hug I could be lost for weeks. He might board the plane for his holiday without realising I was still stuck under his arm, my muffled screams drowned out by the hum of the engines. I hoped he was going somewhere nice.
I mentally prepared myself.
He walked towards me… this was it. Stiff upper lip, old chap.
…he thrust out his hand to shake mine.
No hug. No kisses for Margrave. Not even the briefest of shoulder massages. Just a handshake.
He wasn't touching me, but his cultural sensitivity was.
To me it's still odd that holding your wife's hand in public is frowned upon, but being touchy feely with your male colleagues is business as usual.
I wonder what my colleagues think of me. Margrave the emotional retard? Hell, maybe they're right.

Perhaps, just once in the future, I'll copy their behaviour in a Western work setting somewhere. Can you imagine the responses from the Western men as I slowly kiss my way through them all?
Margrave the untouchable, indeed!

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Fat Brits, Fat Saudis

Dear Saudis, be ashamed. Be very ashamed. You're almost as fat as the British and we're one of the fattest groups of fat fatties you've ever seen.
This is one of the downsides of thobes and abayas, with no discomfort coming from your ever tighter trousers you can hide beneath your flowing clothes in blissful ignorance. Its only when you can't see your feet that you realise you may be over eating a bit...

Monday, 2 July 2007

Margrave the Happy Philistine

Whilst in Singapore we went to a Jazz show at Singapore's "Durian", the Esplanade theatre.
Singapore Esplanade

The concert included the living legend Jimmy Cobb and I was really looking forward to it. I consider myself a Jazz fan, or at least I thought I did.
The show started well enough but after the opening instrumental tracks I started to wonder when they were going to stop warming up and actually play something. There were many old folks (including some Important People) in the audience and as I people watched I noticed some of them were already falling asleep.
The music was starting to make me feel like I was trapped inside a giant elevator.
I realised I was spending more time looking at my watch than watching the concert. The guys on stage were clearly superb musicians but I was bored. I was also becoming convinced that everyone else was bored too, but was too pretentious or polite to admit it.
My legs were crossed and my foot started to vibrate rapidly. I started to wish I was in a bank in Saudi, with prayer time rapidly approaching. At least no one would glare at me if I stood up and left.
Finally, I saw redemption approach as the singer walked on stage. Roberta Gambarini has a fantastic voice so things were sure to get more interesting.
Audience: *polite applause*
Roberta: Thank you. Thank you.
Audience: *more polite applause*
Roberta: *small talk*

I looked at the audience. Half of the old men were still snoring, but half of them had been sufficiently stirred and were now sleepily leering at her. Possibly. I tried not to wonder what they were thinking.
Roberta: We're now going to perform a new arrangement of (famous song) by (famous person). We've added vocals and I personally wrote these lyrics. I'd like to sing them for you now.
I perked up a bit. This should be nice. I wondered what she'd sing about.
The music started.
Roberta: Daboob daboob boob dooby doo, shabaa shabaa shabaa shabaa.
Me: What the hells??
Roberta: Shabaddy shab, shabaddy shab, shabaab baab babby bab.
My mouth hung open.
Roberta: Squeee oon, squee oon squee oon squeen oon, uh huh uh uh uh uh.
I looked around to see if anyone was laughing. No one was. I covered my mouth with my hand.
Roberta: Scuddudda bang, scudduda bang, bang bang bang bang bang!
I wondered how long these lyrics took to write and whether they'd been translated into any other languages. I tried to guess what the Arabic version would sound like. With growing impatience I realised that even I could translate these lyrics into Arabic.
I’ve now discovered that this type of singing is called "scat".
Now I may have had a bad upbringing but to me "scat" has always been the mixing of porn with poo, including eating faeces. No, really. Perhaps this explains my shit eating grin at the end of the concert.
Not having to pretend to enjoy free form Jazz. Another positive aspect of living in Saudi Arabia.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Saudi's Best Named Drink?

Can you believe that "Bliss House" resturant in Riyadh serves a drink called a Hitler? I couldn't handle a large one, so I ordered myself a "Little Hitler".
Only in the Middle East.

The Boys Are Back In Town

Well, this boy is anyway. Our trip to Asia included a stay in possibly my favourite country, Singapore. Beneath all the clichés like "it's a 'fine' city" or "it's too clean" (hey idiot, do you really want the place to be dirtier?) is an exceptionally well managed country full of hard working, law abiding people. The women can even wear shorts and singlets with no subsequent breakdown in law and order, public lewdness or mass orgies. Watch this space.
Of course clichés are often based on fact. For instance, where else would you be told what to do when driving towards a dead end?

Turn Around

On the flight back to Riyadh we were seated behind three Saudi gentlemen whose behaviour astonished me. It's an example of one of the cultural differences between me and some of the Saudi men that I'm still struggling to get used to. I'm tentatively calling it the "Prince Complex".
When they arrived they rammed their hand luggage into the overhead locker, carelessly throwing around the bags that were already there. Why care about those next to you?
As soon as they sat down they immediately reclined their seats all the way back. Or at least they tried to. The seat in front of me was mysteriously broken and wouldn't recline (I have strong knees.) Why care about those behind you?
Their ghutras came off and were draped carelessly over the seat in front of them. Why care about those in front of you?
Every few minutes they called for the flight attendants because this wasn't right and that wasn't right. I could see the attendant's eyes roll every time they walked away. No one else is as important as me.
When they tried to purchase some perfume and the attendant explained that the airline didn't accept Riyals (Saudi currency) they believed that complaining about it constantly would suddenly change the airline's policy. Don't you know who I am?
Their behaviour cast a cloud over me and the mixed feelings I had regarding my return to Riyadh. I was looking forward to being back home, looking forward to serene Thursday morning shopping, dreading driving on the roads, wondering when I'd next have a nice glass of wine, and finally of course dreading immigration and customs.
I don't really know why I dread them so much. They've never once treated me badly. In fact my experiences with Australian customs and immigration have been far, far worse than my experiences in KSA. Oh and did I mention Indonesia? It’s the only place in the world where the immigration official has asked me for a bribe.
By the time we reached immigration in Riyadh we had been travelling for a very long time. After recently reading KR Khan’s post
about customs I was wondering what they'd do with the DVDs we had with us. They were all mainstream movies and TV series and I assumed they contained nothing that would offend. Of course, having not watched them and knowing a little about what can be deemed offensive here I couldn't be absolutely sure.
After the traditional jockeying, elbowing and wrestling at the luggage carousel we picked up our bags and joined the queue for the X-Ray machines.

My mouth went dry.
We were so tired and we just wanted to go home. The last thing we wanted was to have to sit with the customs guys whilst they watched all of our DVDs. I made a mental note to pack some popcorn on our next trip back to Riyadh, just in case.
I hoisted our two suitcases onto the belt and watched them nervously as they made their tiny but crucial journey.
Customs: You! Open that suitcase!
Ahh hells.
Customs: And that suitcase too!
Ahh bollocks!
My mouth went even drier. My tongue seemed to be sticking to the roof of my mouth. I started mentally counting how many DVDs we brought with us. We had four huge TV series that alone would take ages to scan through. Then there were all the movies.
Customs: Show me the bottle!
Me: *mouth stuck shut* Gnunf?
Customs: The bottle! The bottle! Show me the bottle!
Me: Umm?..
My wife calmly searched for the bottles of cooking sauce she'd packed in the suite case.
Mrs Margrave: It's just cooking sauce.
Customs: *hears* It's just squiggle squiggle.
My wife showed him the bottle.
Customs: *reads* squiggle squiggle.
Mrs Margrave: *pointing at the "Cooking Sauce" label* C-o-o-k-i-n-g s-a-u-c-e…
Customs: *hears* s-q-u-i-g-g-l-e s-q-u-i-g-g-l-e...
Customs: Ok.

He wasn't in the least bit interested in our DVDs. They were on top inside the suitcase but the only thing that concerned him was the slightly beer-shaped bottles of cooking sauce. I was very surprised and now assume that they aren't as concerned with married couples' tastes in movies as they are with those of single guys.
Despite the fact that customs was very busy he was actually polite and he even cracked some jokes. Mr Saudi Customs Man, whose name I do not know, I salute you.
It's good to be home.
Bloody hell! It's a bit hot, isn't it?!