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.

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.

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….