Day 1, Week 1 - Wednesday 4th June
Whilst the flight
itself was uneventful, checking-in at Heathrow most
certainly wasn't! I was over the 20kg baggage
allowance (I was going for 6 weeks plus paperwork &
books for work), and was charged £100 (£20 per kg)
for the privilege of not leaving anything behind!
What irks even more is that the plane was only just
over half full. Have you ever seen the moving map on
the in-flight entertainment system that shows the
position of the plane? Well this is the first
time that I've seen a system that also shows you the
direction of Mecca.
Having heard lots of
scare stories about spending hours getting through
immigration and customs at the airports in Saudi, it
turned into a breeze. Within 30mins of touching down
on the tarmac at Riyadh, me and Tan were through
into the arrivals hall of the main terminal
building. It actually took us longer to find the
Hertz car rental desk than getting through
immigration & customs.
Immigration was a
surreal experience though. There were very long
queues of people from the 'lower classes', i.e.
workers coming in from the India, Pakistan,
Philippines, etc. and these individuals were made to
wait whilst the more 'important people' (i.e. those
arriving on my BMI flight) took priority. They
looked like they had been waiting a very long time
already, but it also looked like they were used to
it. Anyway, by the time we got through immigration
our bags were on the carousel, so we picked them up,
then we had to put them through x-ray machines
(lifting them ourselves), and then walked straight
past the customs officials. No searches were done at
all, it must be because I look so innocence!! So
what a relief, I can spend the next 6 weeks drinking
my Yorkshire Tea :-)
It took an age to
find the Hertz desk, but eventually we did and we
are now driving a Mazda. Like the US, they drive on
the right and you can make a right-turn on a red
signal, but there the similarities end. It's every
man for himself!! The road markings are difficult to
see, lane markings almost invisible, and most road
signs in Arabic. Plus there are no road maps. So we
made our way to the hotel using Google Maps
satellite images that I had printed off, and a bit
of good luck! If we get through the six weeks
without any scrapes on the car it will be a miracle.
The hotel, a Holiday Inn near where we will be
working, is nice and clean, and surprisingly quiet
(good soundproofing) considering how close we are to
the main roads and the main highway intersection
that is called Cairo Square.
Day 2 - Thursday
I haven't mentioned the heat so far, but yes it's
damn hot!! Everyday whilst we are here will be in
excess of 40°c, and if we are lucky(!) it may even
hit 50°. Did I mention I don't like hot weather?!
Today (Thursday and Friday being the weekend in
Saudi Arabia) we had a bit of a walkabout, as we
searched a local restaurant for some lunch. It
really is like being inside a fan oven - what breeze
there was today just seemed to make it worse rather
than helping matters. One other strange phenomenon
out here is that it goes dark by 7pm. Not used
to that in the middle of summer, but it does make
the evenings more pleasant with the excessive heat.
The rental car was
almost empty of petrol when we picked it up, so when
we went on a driving exploration I pulled into the
first available petrol station. The car was
filled-up by one of those 'lower classes' and a full
tank cost 32SR - approx £4.57. Yes, less than a
fiver for a full tank of petrol. I'll let you do the
maths on the price per litre/gallon! All
complaints in writing to Gordon Brown, 10 Downing
Then we went to the
Kingdom Tower shopping mall. This is at the
bottom of a tall skyscraper, but getting into the
underground parking area is hard work and not
exactly well sign-posted - unless you can read
Arabic I suppose! It took three trips driving round
the building before we found the right entrance, as
we kept arriving at the 'Ladies Kingdom' entrance -
strictly no men allowed, so we didn't want to hang
around there too long! Anyway, inside the mall it is
certainly a grand design and has many western shops;
Debenhams, M&S, Saks 5th Avenue, Claire's
Accessories, Starbucks, etc. There were plenty of
Saudi women shopping, but most were covered in there
black abaya and a large proportion also had their
face covered. It really does seem strange when you
see the Saudi women dressed in the abayas and
shopping in all the 'western' fashion stores - it
makes you wonder when they get to wear 'normal'
We could shop on
the ground floor and first floor of the mall, but
the second floor was strictly women only. They even
had their own elevator, the single staircase up to
the second floor had a male guard standing at the
bottom of it. All of the restaurants, Starbucks
included, have two entrances. One for the likes of
me and Tan, and a family entrance. There is also a
typical fast food court in the mall and, like the
restaurant in the hotel, has a family area that is
sectioned off from prying eyes.
was followed by a trip to the mall at the
Faisaliah Tower and then it was off to the
supermarket to stock up on some essential supplies.
Carrefour will be familiar to many that have
shopped in Europe.
Day 3 - Friday 6th June
On Friday we drove out into the wilderness,
exploring and trying to get lost. On this particular
day it was blowing a gale and we were faced with
dust and sand storms, with visibility on the roads
very poor at times. Another strange cultural site is
when prayer time occurs. You'll see all these
lorries just parked up on the side of the road
whilst they disappear into a mosque to pray.
Day 4 - Saturday 7th June
Saturday is the first day of the working week here,
so we got in our taxi for the short drive to the
office. Although it is only a 15 minute walk, it is
too hot even at 8am to be carrying heavy laptop bags
without arriving at the office sweating buckets!
(But we do walk back to the hotel each evening). By
the way, the cab fare is just over £1.
After the initial
pleasantries of introductions with our new client
were over, I was then shown into my own large and
luxurious office with a nice leather-topped
table. It was a case of wow, I could get used to
this! By the way, there isn't a tea/coffee machine,
but a tea-boy who makes whatever you want! You just
phone the kitchen and a few minutes later it
arrives. This is also the first office I've been in
where's there's no ladies loo - because there are no
women working here. (By the end of the first week, I
had seen 2 women in the building attending meetings
- not sure what happens if they get caught short!)
We then sat down
with our host to discuss the project and the six
months ahead. We were served Arabic coffee (that he
had brewed himself at home) and dates. The rest of
the day was spent getting settled into the new
surroundings and planning the next six weeks work.
We had to visit the HR department to get our new
security passes. They took the opportunity to have a
bit of fun with me, not wanting to offend I went
along with it, but I hope you'll agree
the new look doesn't really suit me!
Well it was at this stage
that we hit our first hurdle. Our business visas
are valid for 6 months and allow multiple entries and
exits, but the HR man (no females here remember!)
informed us that the max we can stay is 1 month at a
time. Now, the Saudi embassy web-site and all
accompanying documentation never mentions anything about
a 1 month limit. Ah, Mr HR man says, but its written
here in the Visa in your passport - albeit it's in
Arabic!! So after much frantic discussions (having
return flights home booked for 6 weeks time) we've gone
for the cheapest option - next weekend we're driving 300
miles to Bahrain, staying one night, then coming back.
This will then satisfy the authorities that we've been
out of the country!
Day 6 - Monday 9th
In between all of the work, and now with our boss on
site for a couple of days to help with the project
kick-off, our hosts took us out to an authentic Saudi
restaurant for what is known as a Sultan's lunch.
A great feast was had by all as you can see in the
photos of week1. Our hosts took the leftovers from
lunch in a 'doggy bag' and handed it to one of the less
fortunate people who was washing cars in the car park.
Day 7 - Tuesday 10th
This evening we went to one of my favourite US
restaurants, Tony Roma's. Another surreal moment
then occurred. We entered the restaurant just as it
re-opened following the early evening prayer session.
Then about 20 minutes later, the doors were locked, the
blinds were rolled down (so people outside couldn't see
us eating), the TV was switched off (in the middle of a
Euro 2008 match) and the lights were switched off. For
the next half an hour we were sat in darkness eating our
meal. Bizarre! Even more bizarre is the fact that
the world is still going by outside, traffic jams, Arabs
walking around etc. but all the shops close and kick out
the shoppers. If you're in a restaurant you're ok,
but if you want to go in you've got to wait.
Another example of their
being two classes of people out here. The cleaner in our
office building wouldn't go in the lift with us - even
though he pressed the button first. It became obvious
the reason why - he isn't allowed to. We took our lift
down to the ground floor, moments later followed by the
cleaner in another one.
Yes, but what about
Okay, okay I hear you say - but what about work!
Well, actually the first week has gone very well. From
the initial project scoping workshop, we've delivered an
ISO20000 Awareness Session, and held assessment
interviews for Incident Management and Change
Management. We've also had to spend quite a lot of time
on various options for the project plan due to many
people being on vacation during Jul/Aug/Sep. Indeed, it
looks like we'll be putting the project on hold during
Ramadan (i.e. the whole of September).
Their normal working
hours are 8-4 (10-4 during Ramadan), but obviously we're
doing much longer hours as it's usually nearer 6pm
before we leave. This at least means it's cooled down a
bit before we walk back to the hotel.
Prayers take place twice during the normal working
day, so meetings and workshops are having to be arranged
around those. It's a strange sight seeing men wash their
feet in the Gents before commencing prayers.
Well, that's more than
enough for the first week. Catch you again next
week, same time same place!