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.

Politics
“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.
Religion

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

khalas.
That is all I will say about either subject.

Thursday, 28 December 2006

The Tortoise and the Harebrained

I'm now used to driving in Riyadh. I don't mind making the occasional improvised fifth driving lane, I beep my horn so much there's a faded patch on my steering wheel and I accept that the agreed stopping distance at 120 km/h is about two metres.
But there is one thing I refuse to get used to. Whilst they aren't peculiar to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh probably has the worst ones I've ever seen. I'm talking about "weavers." You know, the guys that insist on swinging from lane to lane, putting everyone's lives at risk for no apparent gain.
When I go home via what we call Airport Road (why do you guys have two or three different names for every main road?!) I like to get straight into the fast lane and sit there at whatever speed the guy in front of me is doing.
That's exactly what I was doing the other day when I spotted a ridiculous weaver swerving from lane to lane, cutting everyone off and missing the other cars by mere inches. Why don't the police do anything about these guys?
This weaver was just ahead of me when I joined the road at exit 13. A few junctions later he was still just ahead of me. And by the time he headed for his exit? Predictably, he was just behind me.
Harebrained Idiot.

Sunday, 24 December 2006

Hail to Queen Teresa

Sales hit the clothing stores last week. Unlike the UK and other western countries, the sales here in Riyadh are still real sales with real bargains to be had.
In Australia I learned what it is to be "Terry", as in "Terry Tight-arse". A "Tight-arse" is someone you need to sedate before you part from their hard earned cash.
As I'm careful with my money and I shop around to make sure I am getting the best deal as far as I am concerned to be "Terry Tight-arse" (as a man) or "Teresa Tight-arse" (as a lady) is something to aspire to, not something to be ashamed of.
As mentioned previously the shopping system in Saudi Arabia is unique. If you are so inclined you could wear your new clothes for a week with the label concealed and still take them back for a refund (I haven't done this yet, honest). This system provides exceptional opportunities to be Terry.
I'd therefore like to extend my congratulations to the Teresa in Mango last week. She had bought a lot of clothes from the store without knowing the sale was starting the next day. My wife was standing behind her in the queue as she returned the clothes and got her refund.... and then immediately grabbed the clothes back from the cashier and bought them back at the sale price. Perhaps there are times when its nice to be hidden behind a full abaya?
Queen Teresa, I salute you!

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Tom and Jerry Fetish

As today has seen the passing on of Joseph Barbera it seems a pertinent moment to reveal Riyadh's (KSA's?) ongoing Tom and Jerry fixation.
It doesn't seem to matter whether its Carrefour, City Plaza, Citymax or any other store. If they have televisions on they will be showing Tom and Jerry. Have you noticed? I love Tom and Jerry so I don't mind, but this is even more pronounced than the Singapore government's Mr Bean fetish.
It's also nice to see that Riyadh isn't the only place where you can get in trouble for looking like Santa. You see, I told you Christmas isn't a religious holiday, it's actually a Disney conspiracy.
A nice example of both English humour and one of English society's problems too. I'm glad you don't see this very often in Saudi Arabia....

Monday, 18 December 2006

Well Endowed Englishman?

Thanks to the counter down in the bottom right I can keep my eye on who comes to the blog and where they come from. I've left it public so anyone can click on it and see.
It helped me see that a couple of other sites linked to me (sincere thanks to them!), it also showed me that a few people emailed links to the blog as well (thanks guys!).

The fascinating ones are the hits that come from Google queries. Google took ages to crawl the site and after fretting about whether it was actually going to happen for a while I now realise it's in the "be careful what you wish for" category. Why do I say that? Well..... I'd like to extend a warm welcome to the person who came to this site via the a Googling of "englishmen with big dicks". I also have nice eyes, don't you know.
Seriously, if you Google "englishmen with big dicks" (please don't!) this blog sits proudly in second place, right behind a site talking about "Big Black Monster Dicks" (don't Google that, either).
Of course now I've mentioned "englishmen with big dicks" here three times, I might even get into first position. Some people would pay good money for that. Being first in the Google search return I mean, not for "englishmen with big dicks"...

Sunday, 17 December 2006

An Apology From A Conceited Englishman

You can take an Englishman out of England, but you can’t take the England out of an Englishman.
Any anthropologist will tell you that when analysing other cultures it’s imperative to cast aside your own bias and preconceptions. I am not an anthropologist and I am not analysing Saudi Arabia or its people, however I think the same rules should still apply to a certain extent.
In case you’re wondering, I think the UK is a bloody awful place. If I was to start a blog about the UK it would be hundreds of pages of complaints about rude people, crappy weather, rude people, crumbling infrastructure and did I say rude people?
But if there is one thing the Brits are justly famous for it’s our queues. We get the occasional queue jumpers of course, but generally the sanctity of the queue is respected. Also, the Brits are courteous drivers. This is something I didn’t realise until I left. Living abroad can sure put things in perspective.
So what have I been focusing on when talking about life in Saudi Arabia? The driving and the queue jumping! The only things we get right (or at least less wrong than elsewhere) in the UK.
My wife is not British and she’s just taken great pleasure in knocking me off my precarious soap box. KSA, accept my apologies! I promise I also intend to discuss the good, such as the beauty of the desert, the excellent architecture and the excellent food!

Evening Rush Hour in Riyadh

Oh alright, it's actually the "Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred Tennyson. But for some inexplicable reason I often think of it when I'm driving home at night...

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Saturday, 16 December 2006

Stick Em Up Boy

My place of work has an Alcatraz level of security. It would take a megalomaniac with a henchman wearing a sharp steel-rimmed bowler hat to get inside. Well maybe not. A winning smile and a slap on the back would probably get you in.
Anyway, as I left work last night I walked into a security check point to find a Saudi guard gesticulating to one member of a group of foreign labourers to put his hands up. The labourer duly did so and my heart quickened as I wondered what the bloody hell I was walking into.
The scene was set with a multi-national group of concerned extras, an Arab guard and a foreign labourer with his hands in the air and his box of tools on the counter. It looked like a mis-cast low budget Cowboy film.
Suddenly the guard reached into the labourers box, grabbed his drill and pointed it at him like it was the sheriff's handgun. The room burst into laughter, and the surprise of it made it a fantastic piece of comedy.
Saudi Arabia can often seem like such a severe and humourless place, moments like this really make me smile and remind me that despite what people like to tell us, we're all pretty much the same.

A Word About Holidays

In the UK we still have old fashioned public holidays called "Bank Holidays" (not any more they're not), in Australia they have pointless public holidays like the Queen's birthday (when it actually isn't) and Melbourne Cup day (a public holiday for a horse race), and don't even get me started on Independance Day in the U.S. (celebrate freedom from paying taxes to them but don't forget to pay your taxes to us!)
In contrast, Singapore celebrates (almost) all the major cultural / religious holidays of its citizens. So Christmas will be followed by Eid-Al-Adha which will then be followed by Chinese New Year. What a fantastic idea. The spirit in which they are all celebrated in is great too. It spreads awareness about other customs and probably helps to create harmony as well (hurray! a day off work thanks to the Muslims / Christians!)
So come on Western countries, you claim to be multi-cultural but what are you actually doing about it? How about swallowing your pride and learning an important lesson about multi-culturalism from Singapore?

Friday, 15 December 2006

Christmas In Saudi

It's Christmas in Saudi. Only it isn't. Well alright it is, but with no bells on.
In case you don't know, public practicising of any religion other than Islam in KSA is illegal. Therefore this is probably the only country in the world where shops sell traditional Christmas decorations on the sly. If you want Christmas tree decorations for example, you'll find tinsel in one store location and then the baubles on the other side of the store next to the jewellery.
For me it's ironic because let's face it, most people in the West don't consider Christmas to be religious in the slightest, unless they worship capitalism. It's a time to give gifts to loved ones and put on 10lbs. I wonder how many of the people engaged in secret Christmas activity would go to as much trouble back home.
My thanks go to "a major supermarket chain" here, who made me laugh by using Christmas to sell chocolate Easter bunnies (!!) and one of the most fantastic chocolates I've ever seen, a large Santa... sat on a donkey. Either they've confused their Christmas idols, or sleighs are banned. Or given the road toll maybe Santa's just not as stupid as he looks.

Monday, 11 December 2006

A Wife: The Ultimate Saudi Accessory

I had to spend two months alone in Riyadh before my wife was able to join me here. I was a lot happier (and less lonely) when she finally arrived. One thing about Saudi then became immediately apparent. It is far better to be a married man in KSA than it is to be a single one.
What with immigration, customs and the Saudi queue (maul) I was expecting hassle and delays when my wife and I arrived together at King Khalid International Airport.
When we got to immigration it was packed. Things did not look good. But I didn’t fully appreciate the impact of my new power-accessory. Thanks to having a female on my arm, we waltzed through the very small “Families Only” queue, leaving an army of single men waiting in long lines.
When we got to customs the queues were long and they were opening and searching all bags. It did not look good. But thanks to my WIFE 1000™ we were ushered to a separate area, our bags were only X-rayed (not opened), and we were swiftly on our way.
Of course, the same can be said about any restaurant, take away or coffee shop in the city, and (seemingly) any police check point on the roads. When you are married you also get to sit in the family section in restaurants which usually means that you get your own private room / area to eat in.
In KSA, married people have a higher status and singles suffer for it. But the lack of respect for family in the UK has meant high divorce rates and large numbers of children growing up in single-parent families. I wonder which attitude towards the family really causes the most suffering.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Margrave and the Curse of the Angry Ninja

Over the weekend my wife and I went to a supermarket late one night to do some shopping. To be honest, I am still a bit on guard when we go out and on this particular evening it was further exacerbated by another encounter with the muttawa.
Anyway, as we walked down one aisle we passed what I assume was a mother and daughter out together. The mother was in full ninja attire whilst the daughter was more “Lawrence of Arabia” as she’d covered her hair and pulled a scarf about her lower face.
As we passed them the daughter stared at me. Wondering if she’d look away, I stared back. She didn’t and because her face was covered I have no idea what her expression was and what the stare was meant to indicate. It could have been flirtatious, it could have been disgust. I don’t know.
Later we were deciding what to take from a deli counter when a movement caught my eye and I looked over to find the same girl re-covering her face after trying some food. She immediately nudged her mother and said something whilst pointing at me. Her mum then fixed me with some sort of ninja death stare. I was transfixed. I felt like I was an innocent man being accused of something terrible (leering, I assume?!) and I felt like staring back at her would prove me a leering scoundrel, whilst looking away would prove I had a guilty conscience.
In retrospect winking at her was probably not the most sensible reaction. To be fair I was at a total loss about what to do. I knew she couldn’t talk to me, hence her reliance on the death stare. I didn’t feel like I could talk to her either. So a stupid misunderstanding became this surreal silent staring contest that no one could win. All we needed was “O Fortuna” from “Carmina Burana” playing in the background to complete a scene of comic genius.
I don’t know why the girl insisted on creating the situation but it upset me because I was obviously being accused of some cardinal sin and I had no way to resolve it. I guess it serves me right after complaining about the locals staring.
It was another crazy experience. I am not a big believer in coincidences, but can you guess what the deli counter was selling? Nuts.

Oh... and I was so upset I didn't even complain when the cashier robbed me of my change.

Monday, 4 December 2006

Riyadh’s Most Aptly Named Clothes Shop

My memories of shopping at malls in the UK are of gangs of surly teenagers, packed shops and poor service. It might not be fair but that’s how I remember it.
I love the malls here in Riyadh. As a man they actually make shopping almost bearable. They’re always clean, they’re rarely busy, I’ve never seen any surly teenagers and generally the service is pretty good. In some shops the service has been absolutely stunning.
It can also be a slightly surreal experience for a foreigner. One of the first things I saw was a ninja (a lady in a full abaya with either her face totally covered or just a slit to see out of) buying make up at Mac. Obviously she couldn’t try it on and the (male) staff could not see her skin tone to help her pick the right colours. It just struck me as odd. Because their eyes are often the only thing you see, women here wear a lot of eye make up. I wonder if they also do up the rest of their faces when they go out shopping.

You see a lot of ladies here carrying Louis Vuitton hand bags. I always thought a large part of the appeal was that people can see you carrying something considered expensive and desirable. But if no one knows who you are or can see your face it suddenly doesn't seem to make as much sense.
Barring a few exceptions (e.g. nurses, ladies' toilet cleaners, shop assistants in ladies' malls) women are not allowed to work, so you see guys doing things here that they would not be seen dead doing anywhere else in the world. Dressing mannequins in clothes shops (and boy can you tell!), selling make up and perfume and (most bizarre of all) selling ladies lingerie. In a country as conservative as this, it seems odd to me that ladies buy their lingerie from men. I wonder how many people apply for the job when they have a vacancy.
Women are not allowed to try their clothes on and there are no female changing rooms. Refuse any offer to use the store room to try clothes on. A western woman accepted such an offer at Granada mall and was attacked by one of the staff. Fortunately she was unharmed.
This means that when a woman sees an item of clothing she likes, she has to hope it will suit her, estimate the correct size, buy the clothes, take them home and try them there. Then return the ones that do not fit.
Riyadh’s most aptly named clothes shop? Guess.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

My WIFE Is Not A Piece Of Meat

We went quad biking again last weekend with another married couple. Why is it that with such a vast desert surrounding Riyadh we have to have quad bikers, 4x4s and people having picnics in the same small area? Doesn’t anyone see a problem with that? It was very busy so I had a constant fear I'd go over a sand dune and straight into a family eating a picnic or a big 4x4.
Neither of the ladies covered their hair, but they did manage to quad bike with their abayas on (it can’t be easy). When my friend’s quad bike broke down he got on the back of his wife’s quad and they went back down to the road to get a new bike. There they met the muttawa who became very upset about the fact that they were sharing a bike and that his wife’s hair was uncovered.
Fine. But where was the muttawa when all of the guys were hooting and hollering at our wives from their 4x4s? Where was the muttawa when they were making rude gestures and acting like chimpanzees? What about when some guys in a huge truck did a doughnut right around my wife, putting her life in danger? What did you think, chump? That my wife was going to see your impressive doughnut and decide to leave me for you? You’re an idiot.
I suppose the muttawa would blame the ladies. The impression I got was that those guys felt it was acceptable to whistle and shout at a woman when she hasn’t covered her hair.

Right.
I know the majority of guys in KSA aren’t like this. I can try to forgive the bad ones to some extent because they don’t get to interact with women often enough to learn how to behave correctly. But someone needs to teach them or next time I’ll use some muttawa logic. It won’t be my fist’s fault that your nose is broken. It will be yours for putting your nose within its reach.

Saturday, 2 December 2006

Dick Tricking

I have discovered a fantastic new game and it’s the best form of entertainment available in Riyadh (possibly). In KSA there are never any traffic lights on the far side of junctions. So if you pull too far forwards at the traffic lights you cannot see when they turn green. There are two types of dicks that do this:
One is so afraid to be beaten at the lights that he keeps crawling forward until he can no longer see
The other drives down the right turn-only slip road and at the last minute swerves across to stop in front of the rest of us who are politely queuing.
They both annoy me.
As I’ve mentioned before, one thing I do enjoy about driving here is the massive Saudi propensity for beeping. As soon as the light is green you’ll hear multiple car-horns, helpfully telling everyone else what they already know – “hey! The light’s green! Go quickly because someone important is behind you!”
So… if you catch yourself a few rows back at the lights and see one of those dicks waiting beyond the traffic light just beep your car horn whilst the light is still red, then sit back and watch them as they set off like bats out of hell and then immediately stop when they realise they’ve moved too early.
The first time I tried this I managed to get four cars to go at once. I’ve promised myself I’ll stop should anyone get hurt…

Friday, 1 December 2006

Al Haram

Haram: Not permitted, not allowed, sinful…
In Saudi a lot of things are haram. Alcohol is haram. Pork is haram. Being alone with a member of the opposite sex who is not a relative is haram. Some people say smoking is also haram.
In Riyadh they actually have a chain of superstores called “Al Haram”. I drove past one the other night and it was absolutely packed. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s the store where I can pick up some beer and bacon, but somehow I doubt it….

Monday, 27 November 2006

Driving - Tailgaters

One thing I hate about driving here is the tailgaters.
On one of my first drives home from work I was doing 120 km/h down the freeway and this imbecile pulled up to a few inches behind me and started flashing his lights so I’d get out of the way. I didn’t. I drove for at least 5km until he finally turned off. The whole thing was ridiculously dangerous and whilst I know I should have pulled over I didn’t want to send him the wrong signal. Why should his idiotic driving be rewarded? What he really needed was a good kicking.
However…. last night driving home on the highway there was this car that pulled in front of me on the fast lane.

You know where this is going.
I pulled up behind him thinking he’d get the hint. We drove for about 1km like this and he still didn’t pull over. Despite the fact it represented everything I hated I decided I’d flash him.
- As I leaned forward for the stick it felt dirty and wrong.
- As I pulled the stick towards me I hated myself for it.
- I pulled the stick.
- My windscreen was suddenly covered with water.
- I retreated in shame.

My unfamiliarity with my new car saved me from becoming one of those flashing tailgating gits, but I am sure it’s only a matter of time.

Sunday, 26 November 2006

First Experience With Muttawa

Anyone even remotely connected to Saudi Arabia knows about the muttawa. For those that don’t they are the basically the religious policemen here. Most Westerners will experience them in shopping malls as they walk around asking the women to cover their hair. There are some sinister stories about them ( http://muttawa.blogspot.com ) but in my first experience with one last week he was so polite we were actually unsure about whether he was muttawa or just a fuss-pot.
One story I recently heard involved a group of western women who went to Bata to do some shopping. Sometimes Bata is not the sort of place that western women should go to alone. Whilst they were there a group of guys groped them. The muttawa witnessed what happened and stopped both the men and the women. They then gave the women their sticks and invited them to beat the men who groped them. Unfortunately they didn’t avail themselves of the opportunity. :-(

Saturday, 25 November 2006

“Ween Al-Bagi” - Thieving Shops

There is an online protest growing at the moment here in Saudi about the practice of shops (such as Carrefour) who never give you your change if it’s less than 1 SAR. Now I know that perhaps that’s not much money, but I bet if you add it up over the year it amounts to a lot. At least Hyperpanda ask if they can give it to charity. Shame on you, Carrefour!
So yesterday when were at Carrefour and our bill was 120.49 SAR I just handed over exactly 120 SAR. The cashier didn’t ask for the change but if he had I intended to say I didn’t have any. It should work both ways, right?

Toilet Habits

Generally when a westerner sees one of those squatting toilets their hearts sink. I’m no different. I know it’s meant to be healthier for you, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I don't get the physics. I am not sure which bit should go where or when or how. The custom here seems to be to use the squatter and then use a hose (and then a paper towel) to clean yourself off. Fair enough, you probably come out a lot cleaner than those of us that use the western “scratch and sniff” approach.
But when the hose is used the floor ends up soaking wet and as a westerner a toilet with a wet floor only means one thing - someone has a bad aim. I know it’s not the case but I just can’t stop myself from tip-toeing into the toilet with dismay.
The toilet facilities at work are not good so the guys have to get into advanced yoga positions to clean their feet in the sink before they pray. They’re a lot more flexible than me.
There’s one guy at work who always turns on the hand blow-dryer before he "drops the kids off at the pool." I guess he’s shy.

I think the oddest thing I’ve seen in the toilet so far is the chap who was holding his keyboard under a running tap in order to clean it. I didn’t have the heart to stop him. I have visions of him going back to his PC, plugging in his keyboard and thinking "hmm it’s still not working, it must still be dirty…"

Friday, 24 November 2006

At the Car Wash

Car washing is big business here. It’s an easy way for workers to make a bit of extra money and (thanks to it being a bit on the sandy side here) cars require continuous cleaning.
We went shopping at a mall yesterday and when we came out to the car we found some guy busy washing it. He was well prepared with a bucket of soapy water and a prehistoric sponge. I’d never asked for the car to be washed and I’d never even met the guy before, he was just trying a cheeky bit of business.
I told him to get stuffed and didn’t give him any money. I feel bad about it but he could have at least asked.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Queue Jumping Ninjas – Defeated!

The cashier sent two lardo-ninjas packing and they were SO upset! He obviously wasn’t aware that they are more important than the rest of us! It was one of the most entertaining spectacles I’ve witnessed in this country. Go on love, waddle off to the back of the queue whilst we laugh at you!
Unfortunately in true "Shogun Assassin" style they will be back but for now check-out guy, I salute you.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Driving - The Capitulation

It's been one week. How has my driving changed?

  • I assume the minimum speed limit everywhere is 100 km/h.
  • I’m fifteen rows back at the traffic lights and they go green. I immediately beep my horn.
  • At traffic lights, six inches is the maximum gap between my car and the car in front.
  • I suddenly realise I need to turn left. I turn left from the far right lane whilst beeping my horn.
  • The slow lane is the middle lane, the overtaking lane is the left lane, and the alternative overtaking lane is the right lane. The “I’m in a hurry today” overtaking lane is the hard shoulder.

“Totsiens”, “hen hao ren!”

We’re going to miss you. Good luck in your new endeavour and stop trying to hide the fact you’ve got such a big heart. None of your friends are fooled anyway.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Muddy Waters

About two weeks ago though the weather suddenly turned and it’s now quite chilly. It rained yesterday (if you expand your definition of “rain” to include “small blobs of mud falling from the sky.”) I don’t mean a bit of desert drizzle but English summer’s day rain. If you’ve been to the UK you know what I mean, a cold grey day with a bad-tempered dampness that seems to permeate everything. They don’t see rain like this very often and when they do it causes carnage on an impressive scale.
Would you spend millions of dollars of drainage systems if you only got serious rain once in a blue moon? Of course you wouldn’t.
Would you change your insane driving habits just because the roads have turned into water slides? Hell no!
The result is lakes of muddy water and a huge number of car accidents. When you have an accident here you cannot move your car until the police arrive so the roads turn into parking lots and everyone tries to overtake everyone else.

The Saudis can handle it, they seem to have unlimited patience. Hopefully I’ll learn it soon too.

Monday, 20 November 2006

Unbelievable Manners

Before we came to KSA we read reports from many westerners who had lived in Saudi saying that the Arabs were amongst the friendliest people in the world. In these times of mistrust it’s tempting to assume the worst about the people here. Or at least, assume that they’ll be assuming the worst about me.
I’m happy to say that the people here continue to surprise me.
I was paying my bill in a popular restaurant here yesterday when I realised that I had been short changed and so immediately took it up with the cashier. After the dispute was settled I apologised to the Saudi customer I had interrupted. He responded by assuring me it was no problem and then he actually asked me whether I was now satisfied or if there was anything he could do to help me! I was humbled by how good his manners were.
Of course this isn’t the only such incident here either. My hope is that when I leave this country I’ll remember gentlemen such as him long after I’ve forgotten the queue jumpers and their ilk.

Saturday, 18 November 2006

Queue Jumping Ninjas

Unfortunately not in the “Shogun Assassin” style, but in the “I’m an ignorant git and I think I’m more important that you style”. The women here do it all the time. Perhaps queues are only for wimps and infidels. Perhaps I’m just too English.
Last night in a clothes store a particularly large and cumbersome ninja decided that rather than queue with everyone she’d start her own queue at the exit from the tills. As she lumbered straight to the next free cashier my wife and I laughed at her behaviour and a Saudi chap in front of us (who had also been jumped by lardo-ninja) saw the funny side with us. When her majesty had been served he actually insisted that I go in front of him to the free till.

I can only assume that in some way he was trying to apologise for her behaviour. I thanked him profusely and wondered at the peerless manners of some people in this Kingdom, both good and bad. I'll forget her soon enough, but I wont forget him.

Friday, 17 November 2006

I Am Not A Piece Of Meat

I am not a handsome man. Ladies do not stop me in the street to comment on how I “look like Brad Pitt, only cuter.” But the women here leer at me. I am not joking, I’ve seen them. My wife has seen them too, staring out from behind their veils.
Last night a girl who had not covered her face gave me such a “come hither” look I was completely taken aback. She was probably only 14 or 15.
I am not saying that the women here are promiscuous. I wouldn’t know either way, but I seriously seriously doubt it. But perhaps all this covering up makes them suffer in exactly the same way as the men. The men here are the champions of leering. Who can blame them? They have so few outlets. Last night we went out to a garden center to buy some plants and my wife wore her abaya as usual, but she didn’t wear long pants. I caught two men leering at her ankles. Her ankles! Not being able to casually glance at the opposite sex makes you behave in the oddest ways.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

First Drive

I left work at 4pm to pick up my car because I didn't want my first experience driving in Saudi Arabia to be:
a) during Wednesday (the Saudi Friday) rush hour, and
b) in the dark.

Thanks to a typical cock-up followed by a prayer time, I ended up having my first drive:
a) during Wednesday rush hour,
b) in the dark, and
c) from somewhere I’d never been before and with no idea how to get home.

I wasn’t so much relieved that I got home in one piece as I was surprised. Somehow I didn’t even get lost. Thank you, Kingdom Tower!

Sunday, 5 November 2006

Shit Hospital, the Return

Today I returned to Shit Hospital so that my wife could do her medical for her multiple entry / exit visa. A colleague and his wife also accompanied us so that she too could do hers. My colleague's wife is six months pregnant, so as you can imagine she has a very visible bump.
At the hospital they test women's pee to see if they are pregnant as if they are they should not be X-rayed. So the nurse completed the tests, sauntered up to my colleague's wife and confidently informed her that she wasn't pregnant. We all looked at the bump. We all looked at the nurse. The nurse looked at the bump. His brow furrowed. He went running back to the tubes and did another test. He then came back and said yes, you are right, you are pregnant.
If I get ill, I'm going private.

Saturday, 4 November 2006

Drivers License

It finally came through! It took a mere six weeks for my driver’s license to arrive from the UK via registered air mail! A word to the wise: use a courier. Now I just need to have my medical and have my driver’s license translated to Arabic and I can finally drive on these insane roads!

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Departing King Khalid International Airport During Ramadan

My flight from Saudi to Singpore included a change at Bahrain airport and I'd only have one hour in which to make it.
Given local efficiency I was understandably concerned that I would miss my flight. With a scheduled departure of 17:00 I was happy when we were all aboard at 16:30. It looked like we would be leaving early. At 16:55 I was resigned to the fact that we’d leave on time. At 17:15 I wondered what the hell was going on. The captain announced that we were waiting for four passengers. What the hell?! Leave the self-important, selfish little prats! At 17:30 the captain announced that the passengers were on board but as it was now sunset during Ramadan all of the ground crew had left to break fast. So there we were, a plane full of people stranded on an empty runway. There is only one country on Earth where this can happen. I then endured one of those peculiar Saudi moments when you are reminded that you are not a member of the boys club. Passengers started passing around dates and water supplied by the cabin crew and everyone broke fast. Despite my secret lunch I broke fast too, but I still felt a little left out. We finally left at 18:00 and I had no chance of catching my connecting flight. When the plane landed I leapfrogged barriers and pushed past a huge queue at the transit control area (it must be the Saudi in me) I then ran to the gate…. only to find they were true to their word and the plane was waiting.

Checking In At King Khalid International Airport

My wife's visa finally came through! In total it took a little over a month which is fast by local standards. As Eid was only a few days away we decided that I'd go back to Singapore and then we'd both fly back together.
My flight to Singapore via Bahrain was scheduled to depart a week before Ramadan ended so I’d been told that King Khalid International Airport would possibly be quieter than usual. Fat chance.
When I turned up I could only just get in through the front door of the airport because the queue for luggage screening (and then check-in) was backed up so far. A typical Saudi queue had formed.
Let me explain what a Saudi queue looks like. Take one exit / entrance. Place ten rugby scrums in a row in front of it. This is a Saudi queue. It’s a maul. The queue was about 15 people across for only 2 scanning machines. I had three hours till my flight left. There would not be time.
Fortunately I had been warned that the porters could help out in these situations. I turned down the first two guys but on the third request I relented and let him take my bags. I’d been told that the standard tip for these guys was 10 SAR (about US$2) so as he carried my bags away I checked my pockets. Damn. I had either 4 SAR or a 100 SAR note. This could be tricky. I figured I’d never see him again so I’d hand over the 4 SAR and scarper.
He took my bag to the very front of the maul, right past (and sometimes through) the other people jockeying for position. We walked straight through the bag scanning area and straight to the first and business class queue. I tried to quell my rising embarrassment and explained I was only travelling economy but he didn't care. As the person at the front of the queue was being processed he pushed their bags forward and put my suitcase on the conveyer. As I stood and watched him in open-mouthed awe my hand in my pocket dropped the 4 SAR and reached for the 100 SAR note. I had met the Jedi master of pushing in. He was as oblivious to my admiration as he was to all the other people shouting profanities at him.
As I was checked in I got chatting to a friendly South African chap behind me who was going to be on the same flight to Bahrain. He was actually travelling business class so he had a right to be there. When checking in was completed I shook my porter’s hand and slipped him the 100. He stole a glance at it and I could see the happy surprise on his face as he grabbed my hand again to shake it once more. I can’t express how glad I was that I didn’t try to stiff him with the measly 4 SAR. Ironically, the South African chap had been in the same situation as me but had nipped to the shop to split his 100 SAR bill for two 50s. His porter must have seen how much I gave mine because when the guy handed over the 50 to him (already a princely sum compared to the standard 10 SAR) his face fell and he put his hand out for more!

I think I spoiled the market.

Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Blondie

If you are a blonde haired woman and you are planning on coming to Saudi you had better be prepared to be stared at. A lot. The men here love blonde hair.
An example: A blonde female friend of a friend was in a taxi and did not have her haired covered. Two Saudis drove up along side and starting gesticulating. They actually followed the taxi for a long way until a phone call to a muttawa friend scared them off.

Wednesday, 20 September 2006

Shit Hospital

I had a medical for my visa at a rather run down hospital. They have fantastic private hospitals here, but for the visa we're forced to go specific government ones. I met some very friendly Saudis there but I also saw a Saudi guy slapping and spitting on one of the Nepalese workers. I guess that’s the best and the worst of the Arabs.
I got a shock at the medical because they suddenly asked for stool samples.
Personally, I find that when I move to a new country one of two things always happens. Either I cannot "go" at all, or I cannot stop going.
In this case I was in no position to "go". For some reason though, they demanded it of everyone apart from me. I suppose it has something to do with where you have been living? Anyway, the wife of one of the other guys there went off with her little plastic container to deposit a sample and was away for an age. Then her husband came back and much to everyone's bemusement he asked for a plastic bag. He then went back to see his wife and returned with the plastic bag full of dribbly number twos! It was unbelievable. I had to look away and try not to laugh. What made it even funnier was that the medical staff then went and lost the bag! They actually lost a plastic bag full of crap! The woman's face when she was told she'd have to do it again - priceless!

Monday, 18 September 2006

Freight / Customs

I’ve been worried about my freight arriving since I got to Saudi. I was worried for three reasons:
1) I didn’t expect it to actually arrive,
2) I thought they’d confiscate my DVDs or my PC,
3) I knew that it would be major hassle.
I’d been watching its progress online and was getting worried about the fact it was in Indonesia for about 3 days. I had images of it being left out on the runway in 90% humidity under the baking sun.
When we left Australia we sent freight to Singapore and Riyadh. My wife picked up the freight in Singapore a few days before the rest arrived in Riyadh. She had no hassles at all. You’d think the process would be about the same in Riyadh, right? Ha!
I’d been warned so when it finally arrived I arranged for an Arab speaking driver to come with me to pick it up. Thank god for him because if he had not come with me I think I’d still be there.
Roughly, the process consisted of the following simple steps:
Drive to the airport
Go through security screening
Hand in passport and get a pass
Go upstairs and queue at window 1
Hand in your paper at window 1 and then wait around
Go to window 2 and confirm your details.
Go to window 3 and get a photo copy of a paper they give you (at your expense)
Go back to window 2 and hand in the photo copy
Go back to window 1.
At this point we were directed downstairs and I thought we were done. I’m so na├»ve.
When we got downstairs a similar process was repeated ad nauseum. We went backwards and forwards from the same two counters so many times I got dizzy. It was bewildering and excruciating.
Whilst we were waiting a customs official insisted on giving me a book called “Understanding Islam”. A gift I was glad to accept, but in those circumstances who would dare turn it down? “I don’t want this stupid book, take it away! Now, can I take my DVDs through customs?” The book is sitting next to me now, staring at me. I think its daring me to not read it.
When I finally saw my boxes my heart sank. My once white boxes were now a dark brown / black colour. They really had been sat on an Indonesian runway for a week!
They were dumped on a big x-ray machine and I knew at this point the fun was going to begin. At this point I should state the obvious, that porno or religious material (other than Islam) is not allowed into KSA. If you are caught with porn you are in trouble. Now I had no porn, but they often confiscate DVDs and even PCs to check them. You get a receipt and you’ll get them back if they are ok, but I did not want the hassle of going through all of this again.
Customs official: “Any cds?”
Me: “No.” thinking “but loads of DVDs so please don’t open the box.”
Customs official goes to open the first box
Me: “But I do have some DVDs!”
Customs official: “Movies?”
Me: “No just my wife’s DVDs, they are TV shows. No movies! No sex!”
Customs official pulls out some DVDs. The first one he looks at is a movie.
Me: “No sex! I watch the movies with my family” etc etc etc
My friendly Arabic Driver:

Customs official: “What is in that other box?” (my PC with all my personal details and more movies, that's what!)
Me: “I can’t remember”
Customs official: “OK, free to go”
Me: *stunned relief*


I don’t remember ever feeling so happy. The weight of the world slipped from my shoulders. This would be the end of the story, were not for the fact that at that point the shutters went down for prayer. So I sat in the dark with my boxes hoping it was all going to end soon.
We got out about an hour afterwards. It seems we still had to make another 5 or 6 trips to the same counters before we could leave. The whole episode took about 2 1/2 hours.

You have to have a deep respect for the patience and stoicism of the average Saudi. Gentlemen, I applaud you.

Thursday, 14 September 2006

Insha’allah

It will be ready for you tomorrow, Insha’allah.
Insha’allah. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that this means “God Willing”. It actually means “If I Can Be Arsed”. Think about it. Why would God be willing to do anything for an infidel atheist like me? If it was really “God Willing” then nothing would ever get done for me in Saudi. Hmm… on second thoughts….

Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Driving Me Insane

Riyadh is huge and sprawling. Nondescript buildings are punctuated by the occasional incredibly grandiose shopping mall. Kingdom tower dominates the skyline as the only real skyscraper and can be seen from almost everywhere (it’s very useful when you get lost).
They drive like absolute lunatics here. I cannot emphasise this enough. Don’t think you won’t be surprised by it because you will. They simply create their own lanes and are quite happy turning left from the far right lane and vice versa. My personal favourite though is their liberal use of the car horn. You'll be sat in a huge traffic jam about 40 cars back from the lights but as soon as the light goes green someone next to you will beep their horn. I find it hugely entertaining and I can't wait to give it a go.
On average I see two or three crashes a day. I’m not driving yet, I’m still waiting for my UK driving license to arrive in the mail. As it was sent about two weeks ago I would have thought it would have arrived by now…..

Monday, 11 September 2006

The Compound

I stay in a compound in the north of Riyadh. There are a lot of compounds in this area.
A compound looks like a small resort but really it’s a gilded prison. My compound has three pools (one indoor), a gym, squash courts, tennis courts, supermarket, restaurant etc etc. Once you are inside you could be in any country in the world. The security is absolutely intense (think armoured cars and huge machine guns) but at least you feel safe. Or at least you do when they are not pointed at you, which happened to me on one occasion when I tried to get a taxi driver to drive through security. Obviously they are not allowed and knowledge of important rules here is assumed.
So why do we live there? Well, unfortunately we have to balance our desire to experience the "real Saudi" with security concerns and the practicalities of every day life. If we were to live in an apartment we'd save a fortune but I'd be constantly worried about my wife's safety, her ability to get around (as she isn't allowed to drive) and her lack of friends / support structure.
A compound might not be perfect, the segregation of westerners might not be the most healthy, but right now this is the best place for us.

Sunday, 10 September 2006

Red Hot

When I landed in Bahrain yesterday morning I remember the captain saying that it was 34C. I thought to myself “well that’s not too bad” and then I realised it was only 8:15am.
Imagine Europe at the very height of summer when it hits 35C. Imagine everyone has left their ovens on. Imagine you’re wearing a thick woollen head to toe outfit your granny knitted you. Imagine that you're outside under the red hot sun, sitting in the middle of a forest fire. That is almost how hot I think Saudi is. Sometimes I think my eyeballs are melting. This isn’t even the height of summer.

Saturday, 9 September 2006

Soft Landing?

My journey to Saudi was taxing but uneventful. I flew from Singapore to Bahrain at 5:25 am and when I landed in Bahrain I had my first taste of Middle Eastern chaos. I had the passport control guy telling me to go to see the permit stamping guy and the permit stamping guy telling me to go and see the passport control guy.
When I finally got through to collect my bags I waited ages and they never appeared. I finally realised that someone had taken all the bags off the conveyer as they came through so my bag was sitting quietly in the corner of the hall.
I was driven from Bahrain across the causeway to Dammam in Saudi. From there I was driven to Dammam airport where I almost accidentally got onto a flight to Cairo - it seems they don't like to advertise unimportant things like check-in desks and gate numbers for domestic flights in English.
I think by square km Dammam airport is the biggest in the world. The airport road alone is miles and miles long. Yet the airport is hardly used and eerily quiet.
It only took me a few minutes to perform my first faux pas in Saudi Arabia. There were two waiting areas. One was absolutely packed and other one only had one woman sitting there. So I figured it was an easy choice and went to sit down near the woman. The temperature suddenly dropped a few degrees. I realised swiftly that I was a single man sitting in the "Family Area" (for women and families only) and was about to be in serious doo-doo...