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.

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...