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Saudi Diary part11
Logan's Run

Hello and welcome back to all of my loyal readers, many of which have been waiting with interest for the next instalment of my diary of life in Riyadh.  I’m sure some of you are anticipating that at some point I’m bound to get arrested, but so far I’ve managed to dodge the metaphorical bullets!

So here I am, back in Riyadh for the third time this year, and this stint is the longest at 7 weeks.  Seven weeks is much longer than I would want to stay out here in one session, but needs must.  On this visit I’m ably supported by that well known rally driver called Tan, (remember - strap yourself in tightly!) who managed to frighten the life out of me on more than one occasion on our first visit – although at least we never got stuck in sand!  Okay, the formalities over, let’s get stuck in…..

Wednesday 8th October
We had a fairly uneventful flight, other than a number of screaming kids meaning I didn’t get much sleep.  As so often happens, when one child starts crying their eyes out another one seems to start as well – just in sympathy if nothing else.

Mine and Richard’s final week in Riyadh went well back in August, and on our final afternoon our host presented us with a gift each – a copy of The Holy Qur'an and some other handbooks explaining the ins and outs of Islam.  So I was wracking my brain during September as to what I could bring out as a gift.  A copy of the Bible would probably have seen me suffering 50 lashes so that was a no, no….a Sheffield United football shirt maybe?  Ok, ok; I can hear already someone back home shouting out that that’s worth 100 lashes!!

I talked often to my Saudi colleagues about my beloved Yorkshire and Sheffield (got to get my own back somehow!), so I settled on bringing out Yorkshire Tea and bottles of Sheffield Relish.  For the non-Sheffielders amongst you, Henderson’s Relish has been made in Sheffield for 100+ years (http://www.hendersonsrelish.com/). Similar in constitution to Worcester Sauce, but tasting totally different, you use it as a sauce on meat dishes, in soups, marinating, etc. So I carefully packaged two bottles in my suitcase along with two boxes of finest Yorkshire Tea.

At Riyadh airport, once you’ve collected your luggage you have to put it through scanners so that customs can check if you’re carrying anything illegal – such as, perish the thought, alcohol.  So, as my bag with two bottles of Relish goes through the scanner, I sense a delay on the belt and then the customs agent rises from his seat and calls me over. 

“You have bottles in your bag?” 

‘Er, yes officer’.

“What’s in them?”

Hmmm….so how do I describe Relish to him??

‘It’s sauce – a gift’ as I start to open my bag.

And with that he waved me on. I didn’t have to open my bag and prove it wasn’t alcohol; he took me at my word.  Remember that the next time you try and smuggle a bottle of whisky into Saudi Arabia.  It’s a cooking sauce really!

My next problem, when back at work, was explaining to my host what Relish is and how to use it.  And convincing them that they can use it, even though it mentions alcohol on the list of ingredients on the label.  (It’s a chemical alcohol, not a ‘get you legless’ alcohol).

Saturday 11th October
So it’s back to work – remember weekends over here are Thursday and Friday.  First day back and were greeted by devastating news – the tea boy tells us it’s his last week working here and the contract isn’t being renewed.  I still don’t know what’s going to happen next week when I want a tea or coffee – maybe I’ll get a tea girl…..NOT!!

Sunday 12th October
When we first checked-in at the hotel me and Tan were in adjoining rooms, but Tan asked to move because of the noise coming from my room with all the late night parties I was having with my harem of girls – well that and the fact he wasn’t invited.  So I got a new neighbour today.  About 23:30 he returns to his room and switches the TV on – full volume.  After a couple of minutes, and with no sign of the sound reducing, I bang on the interconnecting door between our two rooms.  The TV is then turned down.

I’m lying in bed when at 23:45 he gets on the phone and is using speakerphone.  Everything is so loud I can clearly hear the conversation of both parties – I’ve no idea what they’re talking about as it’s all in Arabic, but it was bloody annoying.  Half an hour later, the phone call ends – with me having a pillow over my head trying to escape the noise.

Then, at 00:30, the TV is switched on again – full volume.  That’s it I think, as I’m losing my rag now.  I get a shoe this time and start banging loudly on the interconnecting door.  The response I got was, and this is true…. “Who is it?”.   Who is it, I ask you – how thick can someone be!!  Anyway, my response was …”turn down the f***ing tv”.  Things we’re then a bit quieter the next few days. Which is a good job, because I was ready to storm his room the next time. 

Wednesday 15th October
Our final day of week one goes down in the annals of history!  Our lives will never be the same…..

I’ve reported much about the lack of female interaction over here, with us not speaking to a woman from stepping of the plane and saying goodbye to the stewardess until we were saying hello to the stewardess as we got on the plane for the flight home – 4 weeks in June and 3 weeks in August.

So, it’s Wednesday afternoon and we have a meeting scheduled to talk about Service Level Management.  As we’re walking towards the meeting room a woman is walking about 10-15 paces in front of us.  A rare enough sight as it is, but she enters the room that we’re supposed to be in.  Me and Tan look at each other, thinking we’ve gone to the wrong meeting room.  As we stand at the doorway we see one of our male Saudi colleagues already sat in the room and who is supposed to be in the same meeting as us.  We’re waved into the room, and both of us sit opposite this woman.  She’s dressed all in black, with a head scarf (Hijab) as well, but with her face uncovered.  What we then understand as her manager comes in and sits next her.

So for the next 75 minutes, I'm talking about Service Level Management and having a conversation with a Saudi woman for the very first time.  Just to put things into perspective, this is our 40th day working in this office and our 55th full day of being in Riyadh this year – and this is the first time we're having a conversation with a woman.

It was somewhat disconcerting at times, trying to make sure that I didn’t say the wrong thing – especially with Saudi men present.  At one stage she said that she had a number of comments about a document that I had wrote.  I replied that I would be happy to have a further discussion outside of the meeting, but I consciously made sure that I looked at both her and her manager when I said that, as I’m sure that I won’t be left in a room alone with her.  Now, if I was back in the UK, I’d just sit down with the woman and we’d have a free discussion/debate about any issues she’s got – here, I have to think about culture and politics; and trying not to put my foot in it!  I’ll let you know how the second meeting goes.

Friday 17th October
Richard and I found one of the most disturbing scenes of life in Riyadh when we were driving around one of the older districts that can be found in downtown Riyadh.  We drove down this road and for over half a mile there were lone women sat on the pavement, apparently homeless and abandoned.  Even worse was when you saw that some had a child sat next to them or indeed a baby or very young child in their arms.  Occasionally, two women may be sat together, more rarely 3 or 4, but for such as rich country this was a depressing scene of how Saudi men can treat their women.  We never saw this of Saudi men, only women.

So I asked Tan to drive me down to the district so that I could take some photos.  Conscious that I was probably getting into serious territory here, the plan was for Tan to keep driving and I would just take some pictures whilst the car was still moving.  There was no way after my previous close encounters that I was going to take any risks with this particular subject. 

I don’t think it was the same road, but we did find another one with women littered along the pavement and again a number of them had young children with them.  We didn’t stop, but I still can’t get those scenes out of my head.

To shed some light on some of the female (and other) issues out here read some of these stories: 

'Surge in unfair' Saudi beheading
The 'Justice Square' in the photo is where I got told off for taking pics!!

Saudi cleric favours one-eye veil

Saudi women 'kept in childhood'
Read the full HRW report

Saudis on the highway to change

Why Muslim women wear the veil

Bizarrely whilst looking at these links and doing research on the Human Rights Watch web-site, I lost my internet connection.  Coincidence, conspiracy, is someone watching me….you decide.

Until the next time....goodbye.




  (C) 2008 Mark Sykes