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, 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!

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Knowing Me, Knowing You

Hello. You are a muslim and I am a westerner. I've lived in Riyadh for four months now and I have some news that may shock you. It might even insult you, so be prepared...

You and me, we're just the same.

Sure there are a few cultural differences, but basically we want the same things. We want to have a family. We want our kids to grow up happy and safe. We want them to be good people. We want an end to violence.

Some in the middle-east say that Islam is under attack. Western leaders and reporters remind us of 9/11 and 7/7 and the threat of Islamic extremists. But it is not "Islam" or "the West" that's under attack. It is muslims and westerners. It is you and me.

Who died in London on 7/7? Muslim haters? Who died in Lebanon? Who is dying in Iraq? Terrorists? Of course not, just normal people like you and me.

We are not to blame for what the leaders of our countries do. Democracy is only the power to choose your dictator for the next four years. There are those on both sides that enjoy stirring up fear, hatred and an attitude of "them and us". This is to gain them more power. But who lives on the front lines of possible attacks? It is not them, it is you and me. Who will suffer? Who will be grieving? You and me, the silent, decent majority.

So whose responsibility is it to change attitudes? Who can make a difference? Well, that would be you and me. So next time you pass me on the street in Riyadh try not to think of me as “a westerner”. Try instead to see that I am just like you. I promise you I will be doing the same.

Monday, 1 January 2007

More Harebrains

An honourable mention for the two harebrains I passed on Thursday who were reversing back up the motorway.
The first one was humourous enough as it was on a long straight stretch of road. I have no idea where he was going because there wasn't an exit in sight.
The second one was even more impressive. Reversing back up a steep hill in the slow lane (not the hard shoulder) around a blind bend on the motorway because you took the wrong turn at the fork.