Arabia/Saudi Arabia

Meet the radicals

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In a tourist souvenir shop in an old (1980s) part of Riyadh, last night, I met a couple of men I was not quite expecting too.

Sitting in the back of a shop, two young thick-set men sat in their thobes drinking tea. Thinking them to work in the shop I asked about something hanging up. They replied that in fact they didn’t work there, they were just visiting. It wasn’t what they said, though, that particularly struck the attention but how they said it. By the accent they were plainly from the south of England.

My companion (a Saudi colleague) began chatting with them, asking them what they did, how long they had been in the country and how they liked it. They were teaching English, had been in the Kingdom for about a year and really liked it. As they explained why they liked it so much, I found myself slowly backing away and disengaging from the conversation. This was how life was meant to be, they explained. If you truly believed God’s word, then you would realise that this was the perfect way to live. People thought they liked to live in England because of freedoms, one of the young men explained, but he knew what God really wanted and lived his life in England just as he now did in Riyadh.

He spoke very calmly and smoothly and was perfectly relaxed. There was no doubting his ideology though. It wasn’t just about religion; it was about particular cultural habits as well. He voiced a rejection of the values and benefits of the West. There was nothing crassly stupid in what he said. It was his general theme that left me worried. A second generation (at least) Britisher, he voiced a complete rejection of its culture and proudly described how he ostracised and isolated himself back home. Initially looking for support from my colleague, when he learnt that my colleague had spent time in America (and worse, had liked it), his attitude shifted. My colleague afterwards commented that the man wouldn’t look at him.

It was interesting that my colleague shared my doubts about these men.  If I had picked up on some things, seeing it from the British side, he had latched onto others, seeing it from the Saudi and Moslem side. Everything about the pair was studied. Their dress certainly, but also their personal grooming. Their particular type of beard but without a moustache was a clear sign of a hard-liner, my colleague commented later. Would this pair steepen their dislike of England? Would they hit the head-lines?

Arabia/Saudi Arabia

Opening a bank account

My Iqama arrived, and with it my ability to open a bank account. Such things are important. Without a Saudi bank account I cannot get paid.

The bank’s account security is apparently tied to one’s mobile ‘phone. Codes and confirmation of account activity are all sent by text message. So before I can open my bank account I need to get a local sim card. This too requires an Iqama. There are two (it seems) mobile ‘phone operators in Saudi Arabia: STC and Mobily. Based on nothing at all beyond their logo, I chose STC. I chose poorly.

The shop was chaotic, with lots of staff and lots of customers but apparently little order and little actual activity. A group of us from the office had come together, for I was not alone in needing a sim card and a bank account. But I alone could enter the STC shop. Women were forbidden. So whilst I was told to go and wait in a corner, the women were told to get lost. It didn’t take too long to get called to a desk and at first the sales assistant smiled. When it got down to actually serving me, finding out what I wanted and sorting it out, the smile vanished. When I didn’t have the exact change on me and instead asked for change, his displeasure was obvious. When I asked for a pen to write down his instructions he almost snarled.  All I had wanted was a sim card.

The women, meanwhile, had gone to the Mobily shop on being refused entry by STC. When I caught up with them I entered an atmosphere the antithesis of STC. The shop was calm and quiet. Sales assistants seemed actually to almost realise what their job was. There was something at least recognisable as service. Oh, I definitely made the wrong choice.

I had a telephone number, though, and that was what mattered. So off it was to SABB, the Saudi version of HSBC, which makes HSBC’s British heritage rather more prominent: the Saudi British Bank. We had been told there was a contact waiting for us at the branch but that wasn’t exactly true. The queue of people waiting to open new accounts was dispiritingly long. The need for a contact was becoming rather obvious.  In Saudi Arabia, it seems, contacts are key. The bureaucracy is grindingly slow; almost impenetrable without a guide but even then inefficient. An insider, someone who can help you jump queues and cut through the form-filling, is key. Unfortunately, our contact hadn’t actually been told we were on our way and we didn’t have his proper name. “Ask for Ahmed,” was what we had been told. But which one? There were ten at this branch alone.

Three telephone calls later and we had a surname. By this time the women had been siphoned off to the Ladies’ Branch, so I went to ask after Ahmed’s whereabouts. I was asked to sit and he was called for. I sat and sat and in the end went and asked for Ahmed a second time. I was told he had come and gone; no one had thought to introduce us. He was called again.

Finally the wheels began to turn. I was shown to a room and given a couple of forms to fill in and sign. Men came and went and half an hour later I was told I could go. Someone would call tomorrow. I didn’t yet have an account, but I felt progressed had been made.

Arabia/Saudi Arabia

It all rests with the Iqama

The Iqama is Saudi Arabia’s residence permit. Without one you cannot have a telephone number nor can you open a bank account. Of far greater importance though, is the Iqama’s status as a prerequisite for an exit visa. A peculiarity of Saudi Arabia’s immigration bureaucracy is that not only does one need a visa to enter the country, one also needs an exit visa before one can leave.

I may not yet have anywhere to go. The thought that, even should I want to, I cannot go anyway adds a certain frisson to things. Things are made more pressing by Eid. When Ramadan ends on the 7th August this year, the country shuts down for the Eid holiday (8th to 14th August). The entire population appears to flee the country and flights are eye-wateringly costly, close to twice their usual price in some cases. In preparation for this great exodus, the government is apparently hit with a marked increase in exit visa applications. To help smooth the process (what else could their intention be?) the bureaucracy shuts down a week early.

So if everything rests on the Iqama, everything rests on this week too. But I shouldn’t worry. I have been assured I will got both my Iqama and exit visa this week. In fact, they were so confident, they were definite I would get it. Insha’Allah.

Arabia/Saudi Arabia

Breaking the fast with iftar

Yesterday a sand storm blew up. The heat never wavered but the sun was veiled in yellow-brown as the air filled with sand. Oven-hot winds whipped around one, the air gritty with sand. Sunglasses were a necessity, not because of the sun’s glare, which was much reduced, but to protect the eyes. The Indians employed to keep the desert sand at bay were kept outside all day, sweeping back the sand even as the wind picked it up and whirled it around them. Today the winds had dropped but the air was still full of sand. The light was still a hazy yellow and buildings were swallowed up in the murk.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, I felt it was high time I got off the compound and saw a little bit of Riyadh proper. I arranged to meet a group of expats (an Indonesian, a Syrian and a Jordanian) who between them had clocked up nine years of Riyadh experience. Unlike me, these people did not live on a compound, sequestered from the town. They had flats in a single-male block right in the centre of Riyadh.

The centre is not quite the same as the heart. Like some US cities, Riyadh does appear to have a quaint old centre-quarter, or at least I haven’t found it or even heard mention of it yet. Massive roads, three of four lines each way, slice through the city. The junctions are equally large, with fly-overs, roundabouts and feeder-lanes. The city doesn’t look made for walking. Obviously the weather rather mitigates against walking, but crossing one of these tarmac behemoths is a tricky proposition. Cars don’t slow for one and there are no zebra or pelican-crossings. You just have to trust to your judgement of speed and distance and make a dash for it.

Life appears to revolve around shopping and malls. It is here where people congregate to socialise outside the house. The restrictions on what one can and cannot do and who one can and cannot mix with mean that most people carry on their lives within their own houses. There they have all the electronic gadgets they need to while away the hours. Shopping, window or otherwise, is one activity that is allowed. So Riyadh appears to be in large part a series of malls separated by massive roads.

It was at one of these malls that I met my companions for the evening and though it was only five thirty in the evening, they were soon discussing where to eat. Ramadan’s fasting ends around six forty-five each day here but they were leaving nothing to the last minute. By ten to six we were on our way to a restaurant for iftar, the celebratory dinner marking the end of the day’s fasting.

By six we were seated. Booking is difficult and so restaurants apparently start to fill up a full hour before people can actually start eating. By the time we arrived at six there were only a couple of tables left and we had to squeeze ourselves in. There was no ordering; iftar was set: an array of dishes and more than enough to fill one up. By six fifteen these dishes were being handed out. But there was no eating. Over the next half hour our table was steadily laden with food, water and fruit juice. Even if you hadn’t been fasting since four in the morning, this was an unpleasant torture. To see all this food right in front of one but to be forbidden from touching or tasting required a degree of conscious will-power.

All ears listened for the call to prayer which would then allow people to start eating, but as the restaurant filled and conversations grew, so the noise level rose. Commenting on how hungry we were, we suddenly saw people outside drinking and eating. We had missed the signal in all the hubub. Like a wave, conversation in the restaurant was extinguished and the sound of chomping jaws took its place.

Arabia/Saudi Arabia

Welcome to the Compound

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Any new place can be a little disorienting at first. School or work; Houston or Reading. A new place will always demand adjustment. If I recall my time in Bangkok I don’t suppose I can now remember what it felt like at first. I remember the easy rhythm I had by the time I left; the strolls through town in the balmy evenings, the orchids, the little motorcycle-taxis, the bars and the street life. My first night when I was taken from the airport to my flat and left for the evening I remember less well. No doubt there was some anxiety. There always is, isn’t there?

Arriving in Riyadh was no less disorienting but possibly not that much more. The things that were most unsettling were entirely unexpected. It is always thus.

A meet and greet arrangement had been organised to help me arrive and from stories others had told about arriving into Riyadh I was grateful for it. I was met off the ‘plane and as others funnelled their way downstairs to immigration, baggage reclaim and customs, I was taken through a glass door to a quite different part of the airport. My passport was taken from me, as were my finger prints and photograph, and I was asked to sit in a waiting room. An hour and a bit later I was told I could leave. A man was waiting with a trolley stacked with my luggage. I was handed my passport and walked out of the airport to a taxi. If my luggage had gone through customs, I hadn’t. A far cry from the experience of the poor China man who told me he had had every single piece of luggage emptied and inspected by customs every single time he arrived.

Expats live in compounds here. Often many companies will group themselves together in a single compound and if the workforce (or at least the residential part) is entirely expat, life can apparently be reasonably easy behind the walls. My compound is close to the airport, is exclusive to my employer and the residents are mixed, Saudi and expat. The result is that life isn’t as liberal as some would claim it can be, but it is certainly comfortable. Pass through the main entrance with its roadblocks and chicanes, pass the barbed-wire inner fences and the second roadblock and the road takes you past a line of houses, quite the quintessence of what one would think of as Arabian architecture, despite their modernity. Then, in the centre, are two blocks of sex-segregated flats for us singletons. Everything is easy and comfortable, if a little santised and overly reliant on the colour white.

The compound lies right on the very edge of Riyadh, on a road so new it has yet to be named. In one direction is an endless sea of sand; in the other is Riyadh itself. A tiny community (perhaps no more than fifty, with an effective social circle even smaller), we are perched precariously alone. There is the office. There are our houses. There is a supermarket with just a few aisles actually stocked. There is a gym and two swimming pools. There is a ten-pin bowling place and an artificial-grass football (or probably basketball) pitch.

It is the isolation that is the most unexpected thing. The lack of people. Already, after just a single week, I have started to get used to the office routine with its grisly 7am start. The canteen and the leisure facilities I have become aquainted with. The lack of people? The impossibility of just stepping out onto the street and watching the city bustle around me? These are things that one week in I still find myself remarking on.