It's nice to see a leading Middle Eastern airline being honest with its customers.
This has confirmed my suspicion that unless you ask for something special, they'll serve you a bland meal when you fly.
“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?”
khalas. That is all I will say about either subject.
Wednesday, 23 May 2007
It's nice to see a leading Middle Eastern airline being honest with its customers.
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
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.
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
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.
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 he 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.
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.
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...