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Saudi Diary part01
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Saudi Diary part09
Saudi Diary part10
Saudi Diary part11
Logan's Run

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 5th June
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 Street………

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' outfits.

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.

That 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. Again, 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 June
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 June
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 work?
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!



  (C) 2008 Mark Sykes