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.