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, 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.