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?!

Monday, 4 June 2007

Missed Universe

Well done Miss Japan for winning Miss Universe. I missed the show, but I'm sure your suggestion to bring about world peace was a sound one. I wish that just once a contestant would answer the token question with honesty:

Interviewer: If you're crowned Miss Universe, how will you forward the cause for women worldwide during your tenure?
Contestant: Do I look like Hillary Clinton? I didn't just strut around in a bikini to forward the cause for women worldwide. I did it to make lots of money and become very famous. Why don't you forward the cause for men worldwide by talking to my face instead of to my cleavage?

It's natural for men to cast admiring glances at women. I catch men looking at my wife all the time. If it's a glance it doesn't bother me, but if they leer then I give them the patented "Margrave stare". Women should not have to tolerate leering and neither, frankly, should their husbands.
In Saudi, in spite of all attempts to subvert it human nature is still human nature and Saudi (and expat) men are still men. But because there are so few outlets, there seem to be fewer admiring glances and many more leers.
Recently I was at Debenhams when I observed a man opposite me go through a typical leering manoeuvre. As the lady walked towards him he stared at her head, and then let his glance travel down her body with a pause to ogle idly at her chest. As she walked past his leer followed her, with his ogle this time being slightly lower down.
Like all leers this was rude, but it was amusing because the lady was completely covered from head to toe by her abaya. In this country men have fantastic imaginations.

In Saudi we don't have Miss Universe, but we do have Miss Automobile. Last week we went to the car souk in Riyadh. When we got there we noticed an unusually large number of Saudi guys all standing by the road waving frantically. We wondered why all these men were trying to hail taxis. Had prayer time just ended? Had there been an accident? I slowed down. The men started to swarm towards the car shaking their fists at us! What the hell?! Lock the doors! Get the hell out of here!
As we sped around the corner it became apparent that the men weren't angry honkey haters, they just wanted to buy our car. This is a part of town where men drive their cars up and down in the hopes that someone will buy it. All men are welcome to come and watch the show. You can glance at the ones you can afford and you can leer at the ones out of your reach. No angry husband will hit you. Just don't restrict your inspection to its cleavage and don't expect it to have a plan for ending world poverty.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Honest Advertising?

It's nice to see a leading Middle Eastern airline being honest with its customers.

Bland Meal

This has confirmed my suspicion that unless you ask for something special, they'll serve you a bland meal when you fly.

Lost In Translation #6

To prove what "expat in al-Khobar" said is true, here is a typical barber's sign (this one is from Dubai). Instead of a "salon" it's a "saloon".

It makes me want to put on a cowboy hat, swagger in and growl "dying ain't much of a living, boy..."

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Lost In Translation #5

Just to show that English can be "lost in translation" even in England:

Fookin Food

The roast duck rice sounds nice, but I have hygiene concerns about their fried rice. Why is it so expensive?...

Monday, 21 May 2007


Our recent trip to Europe included a stay in part of the world I've grown to love, rural Spain. It's a beautiful place with friendly, laid back people.
Unless I actually need some work doing, I like their priorities:
Pablo: We really should finish building that wall.
Manuel: Its 11am already, shall we have a quick beer first?
Pablo: Good idea!
Manuel: That’s why I’m the boss.
Ten beers later…
Pablo: We really should finish building that wall.
Manuel: Well its 1pm, it’s too hot now.
Pablo: Mañana?

Manuel: Mañana.

I used to think the Spanish are bad drivers, but Saudi gentlemen have opened my eyes and changed my traffic manners. So whilst I was driving on a dangerous mountain road in Spain and two men strolled out into the winding road ahead of me I didn't slow down. Instead I beeped my horn and sped up. One man leapt to the other side of the road whilst the other slipped into a ditch.
Had I known at the time that they were the local deputy mayor and the chief of police I may have slowed down. We will never know. Given that they've both been involved in some shady dealings I probably would have taken great delight in going even faster. They clearly expected me to stop and the local people who knew them most probably would do so. Corruption in local government in Spain is allegedly a real problem so who'd want to upset the deputy mayor? Their prince-like behaviour reminded me of those Saudis (not ALL Saudis!) that believe queues and rules only apply to other people.

A while ago a friend of mine was driving back from Bahrain to Riyadh. He drives a nice car. A very nice car. As his family was with him he was driving back carefully, below the 120 km/h speed limit and way below the apparently expected speed of around 180 km/h. This perhaps was his gravest mistake.
A police car pulled up along side them. The two cops inside stared at their nice car. They stared at their white skin. They gaped at their fair hair. They then pulled them over and tried to find an excuse to give them a ticket. They failed, so they wrote them a speeding ticket. They gave them a speeding ticket whilst they weren't even moving.
In Thailand the traffic police corruption could be humourous to us because they'd usually accept about 60 baht (less than USD 2) if they caught us breaking minor traffic laws. In Malaysia it suddenly seemed more sinister because the greedy gits wanted 300 ringgit (USD 88) if you were speeding. Taking a bribe instead of handing out a fine is certainly corrupt and it gets worse the more they want, but to me it is not as bad as punishing someone who is not breaking the law.
My first response upon hearing his story was indignation. How dare they behave like this! Corrupt scoundrels! This never happens in England! …or does it? I'm English and I'm white. Most of the English police are also white. I believe the Saudi police stopped my friend because he was in a nice car, in their country, and the colour of his skin did not match their own.
Perhaps now I better empathise with those minorities in England who complain about police corruption. Just because we don't see it, doesn't mean it is not there.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Don't Bank On It

Saudi banks put the "cuss" and the "vice" into "customer service".
I'd put it off as long as I could but I finally had to admit defeat and open a bank account here. I headed to the bank early in the morning as I'd been told that it's the quietest time.

I walk in and take a ticket from the machine. "Not bad", I think to myself, "only six customers to go." Really, I've lived here long enough. I should not be so naïve.
Time passes.
It becomes apparent why the only people sitting and waiting are all foreign workers. Anyone wearing a thobe and ghutra assumes that the ticket system is only for fools and foreigners. They all proceed to push in where ever they please. I make a mental note to wear Saudi national dress for my next bank visit.
Time passes. Despite my best efforts my blood pressure rises. I notice my foot is vibrating rapidly. It's getting impatient.
Finally! It's my turn! I race to get to the counter before a queue jumper steals my spot.
Me: salaam alaykum
Bank teller: alaykum salaam

I think: "hey this is going well!"
Me: I'd like to open an account please
Bank teller: *look of horror* English?!?
Me: Aww no way….

Time passes. I wonder if I'll still be sitting in the bank when my birthday comes around. It's only a few months away.
My paper work is examined in minute detail. To open an account you need your Iqama, a photocopy of your passport that has been stamped by your company, and for some reason you also need a stamped letter from your company stating your salary. I see him examine this letter. He looks at me. I wonder what he is thinking.

The papers are examined again. It feels like they are searching for any excuse to delay having me as a customer. My money is neither needed nor wanted.
The paper work passes the test. A thick A4 application booklet is produced. I shut my eyes in dismay. If Charles Dickens books were released in A4, this is how big they'd be.
I'm instructed to fill out my Iqama number, Iqama expiry date, Iqama place of issue, and my name and my nationality in at least five separate areas. I don't know any of my Iqama details because it's all in Arabic. He gives me the patronising look you'd give an idiot and in a leisurely manner produces one copy of the details in English for me.
Me: Why don't we just fill it out once and photocopy it?
Bank teller: *blank look*
It's not looking like he is going to let me fill the form out whilst sitting in front of him! My heart sinks even lower. The mattress in my apartment is starting to look like a better and more secure place to store my money. Perhaps I should bury it in the garden?
Another form is produced. I have to reproduce the Iqama number, Iqama expiry date, Iqama place of issue, name and nationality again on this form. I also need my address. Damn. I don't know my address! I know that like all postal addresses its just a PO box and a post code. But as post in Saudi is delivered by stage coach (possibly) I've never dared use it.
A frantic phone call ensues. My wife finds the address for me.
The bank teller is writing a phone number on the application mega-booklet. Why is he doing that?
Bank Teller: Fill out this *points* and this *points* and this *points* and this *points* and this *points* and this *points* and this *points* and also this. Oh, and of course all of these *multiple points*
He gives me an embarrassed and perhaps slightly sympathetic look.
Bank Teller: After you fill out the form call this number. Tell them you want to open a bank account and they will begin your application.
A short stunned silence follows.
I wait for the punch line but none is forthcoming. So I am in the branch of the bank, but I have to call the bank to proceed with my account application?
I stand up and walk over to the counter to fill out my form. I look around to check that I am not on Candid Camera. This isn't a hoax, its really happening!
Time passes as I fill out the same information repeatedly on a dozen copied forms. I drift away to happier times. I recall the last time I opened a bank account, in a land far far away. There was a private room. There was tea and polite chit chat. There was some enjoyable sycophancy. It was all over in a pleasant twenty minutes.
I finish the forms as quickly as I can and call the phone number. It's a recorded message! Of course it is! Why didn't I guess?! It says something in Arabic and then in English it says "Welcome to Piss Take Bank, where we take our time taking your money!" (Possibly)
The message then reels off about one hundred different options in Arabic. I have no idea what I am listening to. This goes on for at least a minute. I think I'm getting dizzy. Then RIGHT AT THE END it says "Press 2 for English". I want to scream. Are they insane?! Why didn't it say this at the bloody start?!? If I wanted Hindi I wonder whether I'd now have to sit through all the English options too.

I now realise why the security guards don't have guns in this branch. Angry customers would grab them and shoot the staff.
I press 2.
I get cut off.

With a low growl I put the phone down.
I consider opening my own bank in Saudi. I could stand in the street with a large suitcase and simply throw my customers money inside it. I'd do it with a smile. I'm sure people would prefer it to this.
I call the number again. I press 2 immediately and to my shock and delight I get through to someone. I explain I want to open a bank account. I expect him to ask me why I am calling him if I am standing in a branch of the bank. But he doesn't. Instead h
e asks me for some details. He wants to know my Iqama number, Iqama expiry date, Iqama place of issue, name, and nationality. I blink rapidly. I have just filled out this information ten times! Read my damned form for crying out loud! Is this some sort of sick joke?!
In a tired, resigned voice I repeat the details I now know by heart. Everything has to be repeated three times. My patience astonishes me.
I don't hear the clicking of a keyboard through the phone. Is he actually taking these details down? Or does he have all his friends around the phone, having a laugh at the stupid Englishman who thinks he has to call the bank whilst standing in the bank so he can open a bank account?
The phone conversation is over. I'm given a number and instructed to go back to the queue and complete my application.
With sagging shoulders I go and get another ticket and sit down.
There are six numbers ahead of mine. There is fifteen minutes to prayer time. It's going to be close. People in thobes push in front of me. By now I understand why. It's going to very close. It's going to be….. Damn. I don't believe this.
I will return tomorrow in the hopes that they honour me with a bank account. I'm worried. If it is this hard to give them my money, how hard is it going to be to get it back?

Saudis deserve better than this.

Monday, 7 May 2007


A little over a week ago an American women's society met over a restaurant here in Riyadh. It was a women-only affair, they ate a little dinner and had a few stalls to buy trinkets from.
The muttawa arrived and told the ladies that they all had to leave. Their reason? Too many ladies together in one place.


Well done to Rachel Reid for her swimming adventure in Riyadh.
…and for crying out loud can't we all just get along?
I love the BBC

Bad Terry

Speaking of Danube supermarket, its an unusual supermarket when it comes to prices. Some items there are bargains (good Terry) whilst some are outrageous (bad Terry).
35 SAR (USD 9) for one cucumber?! Is it made out of emeralds? Can you smoke it? What's the deal? I saw some Saudis buying them and I wondered whether I was surrounded by Princes and Princesses doing their supermarket shopping. Who else would pay that much for one cucumber?! We were at Euromarche later the same day and you could buy 8 chicken wings for 2.5 SAR. That's US 8 cents per wing. So for the price of 1 Danube cucumber you could have 112 Euromarche chicken wings.
Frankly, that sort of price is an affront to the chicken. Imagine dying and having your arms sold for only 16c.
Talk about adding insult to injury.

A Strange Day In Saudi

If you haven't lived here this won't sound strange at all.
We went to Hayat mall over the weekend. My congratulations go to Riyadh's newest mall for also being Riyadh's nicest. It also appears to be trying to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in Riyadh. I'd wager that Danube supermarket's current prayer time arrangements will not last. Time will tell.

Anyway, whilst in Danube the following all happened in quick succession:
- I accidentally walked out in front of a Saudi chap's shopping trolley and he said "excuse me" even though it was my fault.
- We were trying to get some cooked food and a Saudi gentleman offered to help us order. When the staff were painfully slow he turned to me and commented "just between you and me, these guys are assholes!"
- Another Arab man arrived just after us and when the staff member came to pick up his food order he told him that we were first.
- When we went to pay a Saudi chap let us move in front in the queue because we only had one item, rather than his full trolley.

These sorts of courtesies are very uncommon here in my experience. I'm not saying that all Saudis are rude, there are cultural differences and of course I do not speak the language. Behaviour always makes a bigger impact when it is unexpected so these four gentlemen really made my day. Thanks guys!


I've come to accept that when we move to a new country unusual illnesses will strike whilst my body is being introduced to all the local bugs.
In Saudi I don't get the familiar Western-style colds or flu, instead I get savaged by Arabic superbugs that take a perverse delight in attacking my ill-prepared European body. When they strike I'm either bed-ridden or toilet-ridden and in classic male style I end up feeling very sorry for myself.
On one occasion when I felt really ill the impact of my wife not being able to drive suddenly hit home. "My God, I'll have to drive myself to the hospital! Can I drive whilst sitting on a potty?! Is this why the driving here is so crazy? Because lots of men with diarrhoea are rushing to their doctors?!"
It's another consideration when pondering a move to Saudi, especially if you’re Western as the shock of the climate often makes new arrivals ill. Don't be surprised if your kids struggle for a while.
We do have 24 hour pharmacies here, but for me drugs are no substitute for having a medicinal whisky...

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Lost In Translation #4

What happens in Chub city? Is this where the chubby kids go to play with their toys after an afternoon eating McDonalds?

Chub City

I wish this was the name of a fast food joint, the honesty would be refreshing.

Lost in Translation #3

As you can see, the mosquitoes in Saudi Arabia are on the large side.
What do you need to kill the mossies? A bit of Arse, that’s what.

A Bit of Ars

Sunday, 22 April 2007

International Exposure

When I was young(er) a close English friend believed that England was the best place in the world to live. I was convinced he was wrong. Our argument was as pointless as it was heated because our opinions were uninformed.
We grew older. I moved abroad and found that (in my opinion) I was right and he was wrong. I took great delight in telling him so. He didn't believe me. He had never lived anywhere outside England, but still he insisted that England could not be bettered.
A few years ago he moved to another country. So was England still the best place in the world to live? No! He confidently told me that his new home was the best. This seemed incongruous. I took great delight in telling him so. He didn't believe me.
This friend is an intelligent man but this opinion of his was not (sorry mate!). How can you rate your home when you have no comparison? Our governments love to declare or imply that ours is the best country and we are the best people. We want to believe it so we accept the flattery. If we haven't travelled how can we question it?
Everyone deserves a good education and this should include travel. The only Saudis that have approached me to introduce themselves had all lived overseas. They were articulate, confident people. Diverse experiences open our minds, but unfortunately we are not all so privileged.
Governments can help those that cannot visit the outside world by allowing the outside world to come to them. It's no substitute, but it's better than nothing. Think of Dubai with all the recent international acts: the Rock festival, the Jazz festival, Shakira, Bob Geldof and others. Think of Bahrain and the recent Formula 1 Grand Prix. Think of Saudi… for the privileged the world beckons, but for the rest there is nothing. This is a great shame.
I wonder what they think of their country and their culture. Is it the best in the world? Is it the worst? Until they have some international exposure a surprise is waiting for them, just as it was for my old friend.

Speaking of international exposure, whilst we were in Dubai it was the (Daily) International Spitting Tournament. Teams of highly trained athletes from all over the world gathered together to compete for the coveted trophy by spitting the farthest in the loudest, wettest and most gruesome manner.

Dubai International Spitting Tournament

Gentlemen, I salute you! From a safe distance, obviously…

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

The Real Alien

When I received the Saudi job offer my wife and I stayed open minded and did our research. We bought the Lonely Planet (did the authors ever live here, I wonder?), we went to all the Web sites and bulletin boards and I spoke to people that were either former or current residents of the Kingdom.
Whilst I was mulling over the comparatively minor issues of giving up alcohol, pork and my illusions of safety, my wife was also having to consider sacrificing her right to work, her right to drive and her right to wear what she likes.
In truth our desire to see the country and the region made the decision easier than many would expect. That is, until I saw pictures and videos (2) of the camel spider.
Khalas. My mind was made up.

Me: "Religious persecution and unbearable temperatures are one thing, but I'll be damned if I'm living with these monsters! That's it! The move's off!"
The wife: *withering look*
Me: "Oh alright…."

When I read that "camel spiders prefer the shade" I had images of me standing under the sun in 48C heat because I didn't dare share the shade with an army of angry camel spiders.
I read a story by an American in Riyadh that used to see them regularly in airplane hangers and he described them as the most aggressive creatures he'd ever seen.
As I have yet to see one in Riyadh I've calmed down and I no longer jump every time I hear a rustle in the bushes.
I now see similarities between Saudis and the camel spider. No, really. They're shy, elusive desert dwellers. They both prefer the shade and only come out at night. More seriously, they both suffer ridiculous myths which refuse to die.
I'm happy to add that unlike the spiders, Saudi's aren't aggressive. So far I haven't been bitten once…

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Saudi In A Nutshell?

Your wife comes to visit you in Riyadh. Her expectations are very low but she actually finds that life here isn't too bad and contemplates moving here to be with you permanently.
You head to the airport for her flight back to Europe and she's not allowed to leave the country because her visa doesn't have an exit stamp in it. There's been a cock-up. She has to stay. Her face goes pale. You're in the dog house.
The next day you to speak to a friend of a friend. He "knows some people" (wasta!). That night your wife has her exit stamp and departs the country. You're a hero. Well maybe not, but at least she's talking to you again.

As you're saying goodbye to your wife and child you have one last review of your one year old son's visa in his passport. You notice that right next to the cute picture of his little baby face are the immortal words "Not Permitted to Work."
Who says the authorities don’t have a sense of humour?

Sunday, 15 April 2007

The Brown Hole

Whilst heading home last Wednesday my wife called me to say drive carefully because there was a bad sand storm at home. I looked at the sky sceptically. There was some sand in the air but it looked no different from the last week when we'd had sand storms and "normal" storms simultaneously. To have a sand storm combined with thunder, lightning and torrential rain seemed a bit like showing off, as if a child had been let loose in the special effects room.
I agreed to drive carefully and continued onwards. Then I saw it. The brown cloud. It hung in the air ahead of me on the freeway, sucking light and cars into it where they were never seen again (possibly). It brought night into day and inspired such awe that even the weavers slowed down from 140km/h to 125km/h, changing lanes now only sporadically.
There was no avoiding it, so into it I drove. The car began to rattle and shake in the intense wind, the aircon stank the smell of rancid sand and my nerves began to jitter. My wife wasn't exaggerating, this storm was incredible! I could only just make out the car in front of me (at the agreed Saudi stopping distance of about six feet).

Two things occurred to me at this point.

1) The fact that so many drivers put their hazard lights on is a tacit admission that they never use their indicators on the freeway. How do you know when they're going to change lanes? In one of two ways:
a) The Saudi Swerve. They cut in front of you with barely an inch to spare. Don't be alarmed and don't be enraged. It's not an act of rudeness or aggression, it just.... "is".
b) The Saudi Drift. The laid back option for the modern man in touch with his feminine side. Rather than indicate the driver begins a slow, inexorable migration into your lane. You can speed up or slow down to avoid a crash, the choice is entirely yours.

2) How did people survive in this environment before science and modernisation came to the rescue? It's a testament to the human spirit in general and the Arab spirit in particular that people could thrive in such an incredibly inhospitable environment.
As an Englishman I have no comprehension of how this shapes one's character. During our first drive into the desert we got lost and had no phone signal. In England you'd probably only get wet (and maybe a bit of hypothermia), but out here a cock-up like this can be life threatening.

As proof of just how bad it was, this was the view from an apartment as the sand storm raged. It was taken during daylight hours.

During the Storm

You have to feel some sympathy for the cleaners.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Still Well Endowed After All These Posts

After this experience I keep my eye on which Google queries bring visitors to the site. I'd like to say I have a good reason, but we all know it's just because it makes me laugh. It makes you wonder what the Google staff do with all the data they capture from us.
Anyway, below is a sample of the queries that have made me smile. I suspect none of these people stayed very long….

1) act of sharing wife with englishman (Are we sharing mine or yours? Which specific act do you need information about?)
2) lingerie business haram (It's not haram but I still think it's an odd job for a man, especially in KSA)
3) dodo ninja man (Huh?! I don't think I'm the man you're looking for)
4) dammam porn (Well, I know it's more liberal than Riyadh...)
5) i am in love with a guy from saudi arabia (Congratulations! Which guy? Is it me? If it is I'm sorry, I don't think my wife is keen on "act of sharing englishman husband.")
6) can you drink beer in saudi arabia (I'm afraid the ban on alcohol covers beer. Can I interest you in some Saudi Champagne?)
7) saudi hand chop (At least the query wasn't "saudi hand chop pictures")
8) saudi driving doughnut (What's the difference between this and a normal doughnut? Do you have to use an Hyundai Accent?)
9) how do you say i love you in saudia arabia language (I have no idea, but be careful who you say it to)

10) russian lades (Russian ladies?? Thanks for visiting!)
11) take copied dvds through customs (I really wouldn't recommend it. Pirated DVDs are rife here anyway)
12) arabia porn (Umm...)
13) harem arabia virgins (Yes, yes, in Saudi we all have harems. The aircon bill is horrendous, but what can you do?)

Edit: I just saw another one!
14) nice tight arse (Thanks a lot for noticing!)

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Margrave In Dubai

Did I say wow?
Just… well, wow.
What an amazing place. What a great melting pot of people and cultures. It's like Singapore on steroids.
The amount of construction is astonishing. It's amazing what you can get done with slave labour these days.
Slave labour? Well there's plenty of anecdotal evidence (and not just in Dubai). During my stay I heard about construction guys trying to strike because they weren't being paid. Some were so desperate they walked out into the crazy traffic so that their suicide would look like an accident. Families only receive money from accidental deaths.
We were withdrawing money from an ATM in one of Dubai's many fabulous malls and two foreign national guys came up and stood right next to me. Their close proximity was breaking an unwritten ATM rule so as I was completing my transaction I turned to give them the patented Margrave scowl.
When I'd finished one of them made a gesture with his card so I nodded my head and waved him towards the ATM. But he then shook his head and handed his ATM card to me. I realised this wasn't a gift, he didn’t understand English or Arabic (the only two languages the ATM offered) and so he needed my help.
So I ended up entering his pin number, showing him his balance and then helping him withdraw all of his money. After an embarrassed thank you he went immediately to the shop next door to (presumably) wire his money back home.
This is one of the many subtle ways in which people can end up feeling trapped and alienated.
Here is another example. Imagine you speak neither English nor Arabic, you're in the mall and you need the toilet. You live in Saudi Arabia, a country where almost all men wear ghutras (the "tea towel", if you're western and you need a hint) and women cover their faces. You look at this picture on the toilet door and wonder "is this for men or for women?"

Dubious Toilet Sign

Did you get it right or would you have been running for your life from the muttawa?

Ladies Toilet

The only uncovered woman in Saudi Arabia and she's on the door of a toilet. It's a funny old world. Is it just me, or does she look like she's in excruciating pain? Is she suffering from constipation or from the muttawa, I wonder?

Wouldn't it be less confusing to just use the following sign?


Tuesday, 10 April 2007

An Englishman in England

How do you recognise expats on holiday from their life in Saudi Arabia? When they're asked what they'd like to drink at a restaurant they say "wine that goes with pork". They get overly excited and take pictures like this.

delicious pork, you are sadly missed

Maybe we are easily pleased... but it was delicious.

You’ll also see them having one last rushed mournful beer when waiting for their flight to Riyadh at the Irish pub in Dubai airport. I was amused to see that I had the company of many men in Saudi national dress doing the same thing. Hypocrites? Hardly. Just people like you and I.

Monday, 9 April 2007

A Question For Suicide Bombers

Where exactly do all these virgins come from?
If they were virgins down here I doubt their reward would be an afterlife spent in your harem and if they weren't virgins down here then they aren't really virgins, are they?

If you really want to be an extremist, why not be one of these?

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic

When Children Squabble...

(Possibly) A gentleman from Iran writes....

My neighbour and I share a bit of garden in front of our homes. We always argue about who owns it. One of his friends recently put all these horrible garden gnomes on it without asking me for permission.
No one ever listens to me. It’s not fair.
So one night I sneaked onto the garden and kidnapped fifteen of the garden gnomes. Nobody could stop me, it was brilliant.
I then made them stand in front of the whole neighbourhood with confessions of trespassing that I'd cleverly written for them. I told the whole compound I was considering putting them on trial. If found guilty they'd spend years locked in my garden shed or maybe even have their little red heads cut off.
My neighbour's friend was really angry. He's a big bully so I wasn't surprised when he threatened to send all his rottweilers over and I just ignored him. So then he tried to get the whole compound to ignore me and be nasty to me. But they always ignore me anyway so I didn't care.
Eventually I got bored and decided to let the gnomes go home after they apologised and promised not to sit on our little patch of grass again.
I thought giving back something that doesn't belong to me would make me look strong and magnanimous and then maybe the compound would respect me as a big man.
But still no one ever listens to me. It's not fair.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Happy Easter

Happy Easter to anyone who celebrates it. Undoubtedly Eostre is delighted to be remembered, even if it is only by accident.

Saturday, 7 April 2007


We've returned from a relaxing break away from work and the Kingdom. My spirits were low on the journey back as I was not looking forward to returning to KSA but it already feels good to be back.
Time has lent its perspective and I’d like to reiterate to anyone considering a move here that we do enjoy living in Riyadh.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Lost In Translation #2

Vegetarian Eggs

I do prefer vegetarian eggs. I hate the way the carnivorous ones nibble your fingers when you crack them...

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

The Suntan Strip

Last weekend I spent an hour quad biking under the baking sun. As is the English tradition, by mid-afternoon the sun had turned my face a deep shade of red. Unfortunately I'd been wearing my shades so the area around my eyes was still bright white. I'd suddenly become the secret love child of Larry the lobster and Patricia the Panda.
It reminded me of a recent holiday to Malaysia when we were sunbathing on the beach and I noticed a lady in a full ninja abaya (this is the head to toe black outfit with only a slit for the eyes.) I realised two things:
- the ninja outfits in Saudi Arabia no longer make me look twice (no pun intended)
- out of context (Saudi Arabia) I still find ninja outfits surprising, even disconcerting
Like us this lady was enjoying the sunshine on the beach, like us she'd be getting a sun tan on any exposed sun, like us she'd end up with a tan line. Our friends would notice our suntan and I wondered whether like us, her friends would notice hers too.

[A group of ladies sitting in the family section in Kingdom mall in their full ninja abayas…]
Lady One: "How was your holiday?"
Lady Two: "It was lovely thank you. The weather was wonderful and the beach was fantastic"
Lady One: "Hey! You got a suntan!"
Lady Two: "Thank you for noticing"
Lady One: "It suits you"
Lady Two: "Are you saying I look like a servant?"

[Lady Two gets home, takes off her veil and we see that she has only got a strip of tanned skin across her eyes, the rest of her is her normal colour. Liberal doses of make-up have been applied.…]

The Suntan Strip is not a secret place in Riyadh where you can sunbathe in your bikini. It's a ninja's unusual tan line. If I'd had the option that day I got my "panda eyes" suntan, I think I'd have donned a ninja abaya too.

Monday, 26 February 2007

Lost In Translation #1

It’s a shameful fact that the English-speaking world takes a perverse pride in speaking only one language, whilst expecting everyone else to speak at least two.
We then make fun of their broken English, as though speaking English fluently means that you're more intelligent than someone else who might speak two languages, but cannot speak perfect English.

I briefly hang my head in shame. I then remember I'm English and I can't help it.
So in traditional English spirit, there are some accidentally humourous signs around Riyadh that I’d like to share with you.

Would you use the services of the following company?

Lufta Translatoin Office

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Pots And Kettles

You Failed Your Driver's Test

You only got 3/10 correct.
If you have a driver's license, it needs to be revoked!

Crap! Oh well, at least I got three right. I bet a weaver wouldn't even get one. Give it a go weaver, and no, numbers three and four aren't trick questions...

Happy Valentines Day!

The transparent commercialism of Valentines Day bothers me a bit. It's nice if you're single and have your eyes on someone special, but if you're a married man why should you buy roses and a card for your wife on just this one day of the year? Wouldn’t it mean more if you bought them spontaneously? The social pressure makes the gesture hollow.
But… we've been married for many years and due to local customs this is the first time that we've failed to buy each other Valentines Day cards. So now that I can't do it, I am wondering why. I am assuming that it is not religious but rather resistance against Western influence?
Anyway, the lack of Valentines Day action in Saudi Arabia does not bother me. Instead I'm going to let it inspire me.
Let's forget "Happy Valentines Day."
Let's instead say "Be Happy That You're In Love."
And if you aren't that lucky at the moment?
"Be Happy That You Want To Be In Love."

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Alien 2

Early one morning during Eid we were in Hyperpanda getting some shopping. There was probably twice as many staff than customers, so it was a very pleasant shopping experience.
Until, that is, we went to pay. I was immediately annoyed because the cashier tore the label on the oranges that I had carefully picked out so the foreign worker chap that does the packing would have to be sent to get a replacement.
The Hyperpanda supermarket is vast. It’s so big that a prince could safely store his 747s in it and still have room left over for a handful of Bentleys. Our cashier was at one end and the oranges (and trifles) were on the distant horizon, right at the other end.
The cashier grumbled and dispatched the packer.
Time passed… tectonic plates shifted…
Finally the packer returned. Tired from his long journey he had simply picked the first oranges he could find. Rather than the plump, juicy, bright oranges I had picked we now had oranges suffering from scurvy.
We'd also picked two small trifles as a 2 SAR treat. The cashier picked them up and saw that there were no labels on either of them. His English was as good as my Arabic so my attempts to explain that none of the other trifles had labels on either were in vain.
The cashier grumbled and dispatched the packer.
Time passed… acorns grew into oak trees…
Occasionally I would look at the cashier and he would look at me. I couldn't use humour to diffuse the situation and assure him that the wait was no problem because we couldn't communicate with each other. We stood in silence.
Time passed… my blood pressure continued its steady climb…
Finally I could see the packer meandering his way back. As he approached he held out his hand triumphantly… he had picked two completely different desserts! He’d seen that none of the trifles had price tags so he’d made an executive decision and changed our menu!
Much gesticulating and pointing followed.
The cashier grumbled and dispatched the packer.
Time passed… the dollar weakened… Hyperpanda was making me poorer and I hadn’t even paid the bill yet!
There was a conspicuous lack of packer on the horizon. I looked at the cashier. He looked at me. We both looked away.
Time passed… icebergs melted, continents slipped further into the sea…
Finally we could see the packer making his leisurely way back to us. He seemed somehow smaller than before. His miles of travelling were clearly taking their toll.
He slowly handed over two trifles to the cashier. Was that a bead of sweat on his forehead? I couldn’t believe it! One of the trifles had clearly gone off! Instead of nice fluffy whipped cream it looked like someone had spilled mustard on it!
Much gesticulating and pointing followed.
The cashier grumbled and looked at the packer. The packer looked imploringly at me. I looked at the cashier. Obviously someone needed to go and get another trifle.
Time passed… the universe expanded… the tides changed as the moon orbited the Earth…
I thought to myself "Bloody hell. No wonder the packer took so long. This IS a long walk!"

Monday, 12 February 2007

Recycling Does Not Mean "Riding A Bike Twice"

I've lived in countries where you are made to feel like a leper for requesting a plastic bag in the supermarket.
“This is a customer announcement. Margrave at till number four has just requested an extra plastic bag. Rotten tomatoes are available from the fruit counter. He will be in the stocks for the next sixty minutes.”
I've also lived in countries where you run the risk of being lynched if you’re caught wasting precious water by washing your car.
“Drown in your soapy water, sinner!”
Therefore I was completely taken aback to find that in Saudi Arabia (which happens to be a desert region, don’t you know) there is no apparent restriction on water usage and when you go the supermarket they give almost every single item its own individual plastic bag! Whenever we try to use our own reusable bag we end up in a race with the packing guy who desperately tries to do his job and pack the plastic bags before we can grab the items for ourselves.
Every time I walk out of Carrefour or Hyperpanda in Riyadh with 30 items of food in 27 plastic bags I look back at all those times of saving one or two bags on our trips to the supermarket and feel like a total fool.
If I was a smart man I’d explain it as a link to the country being a desert and therefore no one caring about conservation. Or perhaps because plastic bags are made from by-products of oil production they are considered neither expensive nor important.

But I’m not a smart man, so I won’t.
But I will say: Come on Saudis! Stop using all those plastic bags, let’s at least save a few for when the oil runs out.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Tourism For Singles?

I don’t know whether it was intentional but a paper I read in Bahrain reported two different stories about Saudi Arabia on the same page.
The first described the Kingdom’s desire to open up to tourism for a much needed boost to the economy.
Next to this story was a report on the decision to not allow families to attend the Janadriyah National Festival for Heritage and Culture. This is one of the most important cultural festivals in the Middle East but men and women will have to attend on different days to ensure that there are no "moral violations."
This begs the question: Which tourists does KSA want to attract? Single men? Or men with their families? Apart from pilgrims, who is expected to want to visit?
You cannot have stability without money. If nothing changes here what will happen when all the oil is gone? As my father-in-law likes to say "you can't live off love and fresh air."

The Power Of Context

We spent this last weekend in Bahrain. It was nice to get out of Riyadh for the weekend and let our hair down a little bit. There is a buzz about Bahrain and it feels like a country on the rise. I have to say that it also looks significantly richer than Riyadh does. The contrast between this dynamic little island and its much larger neighbour reminded me of Singapore and Malaysia.

If a Westerner arrived in Bahrain direct from their home country they’d probably make comments along the following lines:
- Some shops don’t even sell pork!
- Some restaurants don’t even serve alcohol!
- They hide the off licenses (liquor shops) like dodgy porn shops!
- A lot of women wear these funny long black robes!
However, coming from Saudi Arabia what you say is:
- Some shops sell pork!
- Some restaurants serve alcohol!
- My God, they have off licenses!
- People wear clothes with colours other than black and white!
- Hey! Real traffic lights!

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Bahrain, but it left me feeling a little sad. The people there seemed friendly and happy and I suddenly realised how infrequently you see people smile in Riyadh. The contrast is striking and it made me wonder whether my current home is a city of unhappy people.
The sun set as we drove westwards back to Riyadh, setting the sky a beautiful amber whilst behind us Bahrain was already shrouded in darkness. I drove on into the night until the sky turned amber once more, this time from the glow of Riyadh’s lights. After hours in the darkness of the desert, a horizon full of street lights was impressive and a heart warming sight. Far in the distance Riyadh’s two skyscrapers stood like matchstick sentinels and welcomed us home.
I remembered how different it all felt five months ago when I first arrived and Riyadh was alien and intimidating. But now it is home and it feels good to be back.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Ghutras And More Toilet Humour

Here’s a nice article on Sand Gets In My Eyes that describes the various uses of the ghutra. Tea towel jokes aside, it is a dapper item of clothing (especially the red and white version) and looks good on the Arab men.
When I first arrived in Riyadh I accidentally dried my hands on one hanging in the toilet as I didn’t realise what it was. I’m glad its owner was too busy to notice and from a safe distance I now apologise.
These days I know a lot more about the ghutra and recently discovered yet another of its important functions.
Driving back from Bahrain this weekend I had to stop to use the toilet at the service station. I had been warned that the toilets might not be the most salubrious but I was still dismayed by the strong aromas and explicit visuals that greeted me.
All the toilets were hole-in-the-ground style. There were three cubicles. The first toilet was flooded (not with water) and the second toilet was full to overflowing (not with liquid).
As I carefully considered my options, a chap came out of the third toilet wearing his ghutra tightly wrapped around his nose to block out the smell. I felt a twinge of jealousy and endeavoured to hold my breath as I did battle with the second cubicle.
Once I was done I stumbled out of the cubicle a lighter shade of blue and fled outside at high speed. The desert air has never tasted so sweet. That’s the problem with the desert of course, no trees to hide behind whilst relieving yourself.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Western Myths #9: All Saudis Are Rich

As ever the media has a lot to answer for.
The only Saudi images I ever saw in the West were of rich people and palatial settings. All I was told is that vast amounts of oil money flood into the country, there is no tax here and women are oppressed.

It reminds me of how amused I was when I saw England portrayed in the USA as an idyllic green land of historic buildings, quaint people and cucumber sandwiches at high tea. (Good work, tourism board!)
Obviously rich Saudis and historic English buildings exist (hell, even the cucumber sandwiches exist) but they’re not an accurate representation of the whole. So you’ll have to forgive the Westerner who assumes from afar that all Saudis are wealthy. It’s stupid of course, but assumptions often are when they’re based on bad information.
There is plenty of hardship here in Riyadh. I frequently see people begging by the side of the road (another instance where a full ninja abaya comes in handy.)

Our cultures may have their differences but from what I’ve seen I’d estimate that the Saudis give money to beggars about as frequently as the English. Still, nothing wrong with being a Terry Tightarse, eh?

Sunday, 4 February 2007

Western Myths #8: There Is No Crime In Saudi Arabia

Some of these are so stupid they don’t need stating, but it is a common belief that because of the harshness of the law, there is (practically) no crime in KSA. "No one steals, because if they do they get their hands cut off, innit?!"
So far I’ve had a friend who has been the victim of a car-jacking and friends who have been victims of theft. It seems that the car-jacking was carried out by bored Saudi kids who had nothing better to do than drive a stolen car out to the desert and trash it. As every Saudi car beeps at you when you go over 120 km/h they had even ripped the dashboard out (presumably to stop the noise).

Someone I know who used to live in KSA in the 70s was forced at gunpoint to watch someone have their hand cut off in "Chop Chop square". Thankfully this is not something I have had to witness. I've been told that the frequency of such punishments has declined and at the same time the frequency of crimes committed has increased, but I cannot verify this.
The bottom line is that there is crime here, but on the whole the level of crime feels far lower than the level I am used to in Western countries.
Saudi Arabia and Singapore are the only places I can think of where you feel so protected from crime. Because of the security and the close knit nature of the environment, I can honestly think of no safer place to bring up young children than on a compound in Saudi Arabia

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Man On Man Action!

A few nights ago we ate out with another married couple and two single guys. Upon leaving the restaurant we were standing outside next to some Saudi families who were about to go and eat. As is our custom, my friend’s wife turned to kiss one of the single guys goodbye when she stopped suddenly because a couple of Saudi chaps were watching with interest.
She said, “God, I nearly forgot that I cannot kiss you in public!”
I intervened and said “It’s alright, I can do it on your behalf.”
I put my arms around the guy and kissed him on both cheeks. Nobody seemed bothered in the slightest.
In the UK of course, it would have been the other way around.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Western Myths #7: Saudis Only Drive New Cars

I cannot remember if I read this on an informational Web site or in the Lonely Planet: “Second-hand cars are expensive in Saudi Arabia because Saudis like to buy a new car at least once every two years.” I am not sure I even understand the logic.
Anyway, having had so many near crashes with hunks of rust swerving across the road at a high velocity (old Hyundai Accent, anyone?) I can safely dismiss this as a myth.
In fact, even though cars are very cheap here, you don’t see many prestige cars. It is probably because people are reluctant to spend money on a nice car that gets scratched and dented moments after being driven out of the showroom.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Western Myths #6: Margrave They Want To Kill You!

Bloody hell. I hope this one’s a myth. Certainly what most concerned my parents when they heard we were moving to Saudi Arabia was the thought of us as victims of terrorists. All because I was born in a land that someone drew a line around on a map and called England.
Do not doubt it, 2003 to 2005 was a dangerous time to be a Westerner in Saudi Arabia. We’ve listened to some horrific firsthand accounts of the bombings of Al Hamra compound and the people murdered there (both Saudis and Westerners), the attacks in Dammam and Jeddah and other gruesome murders of Westerners in Riyadh. The events led to an exodus of Western expats who are now slowly returning.
I won’t deny that the risk of my family or me being attacked here is something I often think about. But as I explained to my parents, thanks to the British government’s involvement in the “War on Terror” (has anyone else noticed that “Terror” seems to be winning?!) and the desire of terrorists to murder the innocent, the real myth is that I am more at risk living in Riyadh than living in London.

"Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war."
- Maria Montessori

"I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Saturday, 27 January 2007

Western Myths #5: Saudi’s A Horrid Place To Live

When we told people we’d decided to move to Saudi Arabia the general reaction was one of shock. “Why on Earth do you want to move there?”, “But what about your wife?!” were questions I heard many times. In fact the only person I can remember being positive about it was a chap who remarked “you’ll love Saudi Arabia, Dubai is a great city.” Well, it’s the thought that counts.
We set our expectations low so as not to be disappointed but came here with an open mind and over the last four months the country has grown on me. Don’t get me wrong, there are things here I really dislike (just as there are things in the UK I really dislike) but Saudi does have its own appeal.

If you’re English and are pondering a possible move to Saudi Arabia, consider a few English things that Saudi lacks:
A high crime rate - I’ll discuss this another time
High teenage pregnancies rate - and all the associated social challenges.
Drunk brawls - I miss having a bottle of wine with my meal at a restaurant but I don’t miss all the people who cannot handle their alcohol. Why do so many Brits love to fight when they’re drunk?
Sober brawls – Hell, why do so many Brits just love to fight, period??
Dance music - *bleep* *bloop* *bleep* *bloop* KSA, please please don't do it.
Gardening and home improvement TV shows - I'd rather watch one of those Muttawa looking TV shows where an angry Saudi guy sits in a chair and talks loudly at you. I don’t know what he’s saying but at least he’s not patronising some poor couple whilst making a mess of their home.
Political correctness - Jeremy Clarkson has been criticised for calling a car a bit “ginger beer” (that’s rhyming slang for “queer” by the way.) I agree we should be sensitive, but can’t we laugh at ourselves a bit too? I thought the Brits were supposed to have a sense of humour?

Road rage - I know it happens here (sometimes fatally) but I cannot believe that in over four months I haven't seen any road rage. If you took ten Saudi "weavers" and put them on the M25 around London during rush hour you’d be visiting most of them in hospital that same evening.

So if you are considering coming out here be warned that it’s not like home, but be assured that there is plenty here to appreciate.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Western Myths #4: Saudi Women Are Oppressed and Must Be Weak

Yes, yes, "myth" probably isn't the correct word to use. I don't want to discuss the politics of it all but I would like to make one observation.
It's true that I'm still scarred by the curse of the angry ninja and don't even ask me about my experiences in Women's Secret, but a lot of the Saudi women I see here are very assertive ladies. Some of them are just downright scary and I wouldn't want to be the one to say no to them if they demanded something.
For instance, at Granada mall over the weekend we passed a young ninja shouting angrily at three guys. The guys were all grinning, but it was the sheepish grin of a guy thinking "please, someone reassure me that I'm still cool and please please move this lady on, I'm really rather scared and very very sorry."
As we passed the exit a Saudi gentleman in front of us stopped and spoke to the security guard whilst gesticulating back to the lady. I cannot speak Arabic but I imagined him to be saying "excuse me, there are three men back there being harrassed by a young woman...."

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Western Myths #3: Saudi's "Dry"

No Saudis drink alcohol. This of course means that I haven't seen any guys out in the desert blind drunk or any guys acting like crazy people hanging out of cars at the weekend.
This is because it doesn't happen.
I can see the News of the World front page headline now - "World Exclusive: Saudis are Normal People!"

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Western Myths #2: Saudi's Never Cold

"In winter it might get a bit chilly in the evening, so pack a sweater."
Yes, that's the advice we were given before we moved to Riyadh. "A bit chilly." "Occasionally." Well thanks for the advice buddy but several times this winter Riyadh has been colder than London. Yes, colder than London! So if you are going to be here during the (northen hemisphere's) winter, be sure to pack at least two jumpers. And for heaven's sake bring a coat!
If it gets any colder I might start wearing an abaya...

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Western Myths #1: Saudi's Dry

Well it's the desert, isn't it? No rain there, right? Wrong! I can't believe how often it's rained in the last month or two. It's like an English summer. They say this year has been unusual but I'm not so sure, perhaps Saudi's not really a desert at all. Maybe it's a conspiracy to keep the English tourists out.

[Edit: See?! It's raining again!]
[Edit: And again!]

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Muttawa Training, Day 1

A western friend of a friend was caught dating a Saudi girl here in Riyadh. The muttawa were tipped off and whilst I don’t know what happened to her, I understand that he got a bit of a beating and he has been deported from Saudi Arabia. The story surprised me because whilst the muttawa have rules to enforce, I thought that the beatings were becoming a thing of the past.
Anyway, I was reading about the young unmarried couple that were caught by the muttawa in a supermarket and it made me wonder how they tell who is and who is not married…

Teacher: …and you must arrest any unmarried couples without a chaperone.
Student: But teacher, how will I know if they are not married?
Teacher: Well, look at that young couple over there. Are they arguing?
Student: No, they are not.
Teacher: Are they ignoring each other?
Student: No, they are not.
Teacher: Do they look tired and bored?
Student: Well, no. Actually they look quite happy.
Teacher: Then clearly they are not married! Arrest them!

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Margrave the Alien

As a Saudi what is normal to you is often completely alien to me because.... well, I'm an alien here.
I know that as a visitor in Saudi Arabia I should learn Arabic. There is no way I should expect people here to speak English. I've tried to learn the local language in other countries where I've lived and its my intention to try here too. I've got the books and the tapes but... well.... I've been busy and I haven't started yet.
This has led to several rather odd telephone conversations along the following lines:
Him: *arabic*
Me: Umm, do you speak English?
Him: Yes, sir.
Me: Thank you.
Him: You're welcome [he must be thinking: Why the hell is this idiot thanking me for learning another language? Does he think I did it for him?!]

Anyway, we decided to try a new restaurant for some take away food a few nights ago. For a local this is an everyday experience. For a foreigner it can make you feel like Alice in Wonderland. As it was men only I went in to get a menu that I could then bring out to the car so my wife and I could decide together.
I entered the shop and asked the waiter for a menu and he looked at me like I had blue skin. I made the international "menu" sign with my hands and he brought me a menu.... which was only in Arabic.
I was then led to a selection of meats which to my untrained eye all looked the same. I stood there for a while trying to look like I was making an informed decision about what to eat whereas in reality I was wondering what the hell to do next.
To my relief the chap cooking suddenly asked me in English "What do you want?" I ordered a mixed grill and retreated swiftly.
I decided to also purchase a banana milk drink (I love the fruit drinks you guys have here). Because of the language barrier I had to resort to picking up a banana and waving it in front of the bemused fruit drink man.
I now had time to kill. I didn't want to stand in the middle of the shop looking completely lost and out of place (even though I was) but I didn't know what else to do. So there I stood amongst the hustle and bustle without a clue as to whether people were saying "Hi, I'd like to order some kofta and a lamb chop" or "Who is this white fool that doesn't speak our language? Can I give him a well deserved slap to move him out of the way?"
Out of the corner of my eye I saw an old man approaching me in traditional dress. Out of respect I stepped back to give him extra space to walk by, but he stopped right next to me and looked me in the eye.
Me: Salaam
Him: (in a withering tone) Salaam?
Me: (in a questioning tone) Salaam alaykum?
Him: (in an even more withering tone) Salaam alaykum??
Me: (starting to panic) mafi arabi!!
Him: *broad grin*
Me: *slightly scared*
Him: American?
Me: No, English *feeling paranoid about why he wants to know if I am American*
Him: ....america.... american... ahh, England?

I nodded an anxious nod and then to my relief he sauntered away to get the cup of tea he ordered.
My meal was finally ready and I went to pay. The cashier looked at my order and said "right... 1200 riyals please" (US $320! - bad Terry). I stared at him politely waiting for him to admit he was joking and he grinned broadly, saying "ok, 15 riyals". I gritted my teeth, grinned politely, paid and then ran for the car.

My wife: What? Didn't you order me a lamb chop?
Me: Aarghh!