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Postcard From Saudi Arabia – The Amazing Transformation of the Immigration Police

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Welcome to Saudi Arabia. Once upon a time, the words that greeted you when you arrived at any of the Kingdom’s international airports seemed a little insincere when set against the experience that awaited you during your first hour or two in the country.

At peak times, crowds of people were herded by scowling officers of the Jawazat, the immigration department, into a series of lines whose designations were clear as mud, except that expatriates went to the left and Gulf Cooperation Council citizens to the right. If you were a resident, and you found yourself in a line of new entrants, you could wait for an hour or more while those in front of you were being photographed and fingerprinted. Meanwhile those in the GCC lines were already riding off in their cars.

Nothing odd about streaming by nationality or regional origin. It happens in the US and across the EU. But in Saudi Arabia each type of visa has its own set of rules. You have the resident visa, the dependent visa, the business visa and the Haj or Umrah (pilgrimage) visas. Some people turn up with pieces of paper. Some fill out entry cards, some don’t. No apparent guidance as to what you should produce other than your passport.

My standard practice was always to bring a good book and prepare for the worst. If you were lucky, and managed to get into the line nearest to the GCC lines, sometimes the floodgates would open when all the GCC nationals had gone through and you would be beckoned to an empty booth. If you were unlucky, your arrival might coincide with the shift change, in which case you would be standing for a long period in front of an empty booth.

In short, you were left with the impression that you were entering on sufferance, and that every opportunity to deny you entry was eagerly seized upon as an act of patriotism.

The fun didn’t end once you were through immigration. You then had to form another line, at the end of which equally grim-faced customs officers took what seemed to be a malicious delight in rifling through the contents of your bags. Should they discover magazines, newspapers or photos with images that they considered pornographic, such as women with visible cleavages or parts of their limbs exposed, the offending items would be confiscated and you would be required to sign a document promising not to bring such offensive material in again. Bottles, Christmas puddings and cakes from Granny were opened, unwrapped and sniffed for signs of alcohol.

Eventually you would stagger out into the throng of unlicensed taxi drivers trying to entice you into their dodgy vehicles and wearily hook up with the person who was there to collect you.

Seasoned expatriates used to resort to sneaky tactics to avoid the worst of the ordeal. The Jawazat would often take pity on women with small children – especially if the kids were screaming – and send them to the front of a line. I know of at least one shameless mother (not my wife, I should make clear) who would pinch her child on the leg to induce the necessary volume. It had the desired effect, apparently. Others swore by the practice of placing a layer of grubby clothing at the top of their bags in order to deter squeamish customs officers from probing more deeply. I never tested that one, but I’m sure the officials would have got wise to the tactic, held their noses and plunged in.

In recent years, after the arrival of X-ray machines, the customs ordeal diminished. But the scowling, barking Jawazat still held sway at the immigration desks.

Until very recently, that is.

In what has been one of the most miraculous behavioural transformations I have ever witnessed, the whole process of dealing with arrivals has been turned into something dramatically different. I’m talking about Riyadh here, but I would be surprised if the same changes weren’t being introduced at other airports.

Gone is the barrier of desks guarded by forbidding men in uniforms. Now we have gleaming white free-standing stations manned by the same people in national dress – thobes and gutras. An animated two-dimensional official sends out encouraging messages in Arabic explaining what happens next. Smiling officials are standing around ready to look at your passport and send you in the right direction.

I’m reminded of the scene from The Life of Brian, in which Michael Palin, armed with his clipboard and in the manner of a solicitous holiday camp greeter, asks the bedraggled line of prisoners the critical question: “crucifixion?”.

After a short wait, you get to the desk, the officer greets you with a smile, stamps your passport and sends you on your way.

It’s as if the officials have had a total attitude transplant. You could almost believe that they’ve just spent a few months learning the tricks of the trade in a 5-star hotel in Dubai. I’d like to know who was responsible for the training programme that achieved this miracle. They are geniuses. They will never be out of business, especially in a region where sullen, unhelpful and downright obstructive attitudes in customer service are commonplace across all industries .

But actually I’m not sure I’m right about the attitude transplant. Saudis are by nature welcoming and hospitable people, even if in some areas they are more reserved than in others. What these trainers have done is to unlock the true natures of the trainees, and the abandonment of uniforms will have gone a long way towards the transformation. It’s amazing how uniforms dictate behaviour. They can turn ordinary human beings into officious pains in the backside. On the other side of the equation, people usually treat those in uniform with caution, if not fear. And just as dogs seem to sense fear in humans, and moderate their behaviour accordingly, so uniformed officials seem to behave more aggressively with those who fear them. Take away the uniforms and you take away much of the fear, and everybody can behave as normal human beings again.

It’s interesting as a side observation that while the Saudis have de-formalised their dress code, in my country, the United Kingdom, it’s gone the other way. In times past, officials at the immigration desks wore their own clothes. Nowadays, they’re dressed in smart uniforms, which gives an entirely different impression. Perhaps our increasing paranoia about immigration has something to do with it. Politicians rarely miss the chance to make a cheap point, so presumably the uniforms are designed to send a message that we’re serious about not letting in the wrong people. Ironic really, given that Saudi Arabia is supposed to be the doyen of controlled immigration.

So full marks to the Saudi government for realising that the first impression of a country is often the lasting one, and for blowing away the idea that its people are incapable of changing the way they do things. There’s much more work to be done, but changes in other areas, such as the introduction of electronic systems for visas, suggest that they are serious about making the stereotypical stone-faced wall of officialdom a thing of the past.

Officials in other G20 nations, such as the Russians and the Chinese, can learn from them. And they could teach the hard-ass immigration people in New York a thing or too about manners as well. As for the Jawazat, I’m not sure that their new-found attitude on the immigration desks matches their tone when rounding up illegal workers in the big cities. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

Saudi Arabia has many imperfections for which it is criticised by international observers.  Unfortunately, when the government makes constructive changes it doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

So it’s good to have the opportunity to say well done, and I’m sure that many thousands of fellow-visitors will feel the same way.

Postcard From Saudi Arabia – Adventures in the Diplomatic Quarter

Diplomatic Quarter 2.

I’ve just finished reading The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase: Tales From the Diplomatic Bag, an interesting compilation of dispatches from British ambassadors to their masters in London put together by Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson. It reminds me of a rather odd interlude in my life: the six months I spent in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter.

The DQ, as it’s referred to by residents, came into existence in the 1980s, when the Saudi Government decided to move all foreign embassies from Jeddah to Riyadh. It’s effectively a very large walled compound, guarded at both entrances by a hefty military presence.

Within the walls you will find most of the embassies, as well as villas, shops, offices, apartments and schools. The embassies themselves have varying levels of security depending on their importance in the scheme of things. Visit those of Britain and the USA, for example, and you will almost certainly walk past members of their respective militaries who are armed to the teeth and ready for action. Not surprising, given that the diplomats of both countries tend to be top of the hit list for those disenchanted by our respective roles on the world stage.

Outside the walls of these little fortresses, strange, un-Riyadh-like things happen. At least they used to when I was there, and probably still do. For example you could see women out jogging and riding bicycles. Anyone who has seen the much-admired Saudi movie, Wajda, will know that women are not encouraged to ride bikes, let alone jog through the streets wearing shorts and t-shirts that would not be out of place in London or New York. And anyway, jogging in the long black abayas that women are required to wear in the city proper would be somewhat impractical.

In this respect the only other place remotely like the DQ in the Kingdom is the Aramco Camp in Dhahran, where – shock horror – women actually drive cars. But whereas the Aramco residential area is, thanks to its origins, rather like a well-heeled small town American suburb – neat little villas, manicured grass verges, parks and a green golf course, the DQ is much more self-consciously “designed”, and much less well-maintained. Yes, there are jogging paths through the enclave, one or two restaurants where people sit out and eat, but not so much communal greenery, and definitely not the sense of community that comes from being part of a company town. Such communities as do exist tend to orbit around the major embassies. Otherwise the residents, mostly from the professional classes – both Saudi and expatriate – tend to do their own thing without much reference to each other.

Anyway, back then I was looking around for somewhere to live, and a colleague suggested the DQ. Pricewise, villas and apartments in the quarter are often less expensive than in the popular expatriate compounds to be found around the city. Part of the attraction was that with a reasonably-sized villa it would be possible to accommodate visiting colleagues from the US – I was the general manager of a US-Saudi joint venture at that time.

One of the problems with finding a place in the DQ was that there was a long waiting list – officially. Unofficially, if the accommodation office tipped you the wink you could do a deal with someone leaving to nominate you as the next leaseholder. “The deal”, as you would expect, usually involved a financial transaction. Not a bribe, you understand. In my case I was referred to a gentleman who was moving to another more luxurious location outside the city. In return for my paying him for all the contents of the villa – and I mean all, as will become clear shortly – he arranged for me to take over the lease.

So for a fairly stiff price I had inherited a five-bedroom villa, together with all the fittings, fixtures and furniture. But this was no expatriate villa with neat IKEA sofas, pine beds and all the usual functioning accoutrements.

I can only describe it as an old-style Saudi palace in miniature. Ornate furniture, marble bathroom fittings, huge Chinese vases, carved elephants, flock wallpaper, a U-shaped majlis (traditional gathering area) for guests, a massive TV and a battery of shisha pipes only begins to describe it. But as my colleague told me, this was not a family residence. This was an estiraha, the Arabic word for place of rest. Public estirahas are places where you can relax, smoke shisha, eat kebabs, and in some establishments get married. This one was definitely private. A place, it seemed, where my predecessor could come to get away from his family – to party with his male friends.

The odd thing was that it was as if he had abandoned it in a hurry. There were numerous personal possessions dotted around the place – some extremely, shall we say, exotic. The beds looked as if they had just been slept in. There were men and women’s clothes in the wardrobe. All the windows on the upper floor had been painted black. Downstairs, thick curtains and liners ensured that not a chink of daylight could penetrate the interior. It was a place of the night.

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As for the fixtures, there was a massive glass-fronted refrigerated case full of soft drinks and processed cheese. The cooker was blackened by whatever had been cooked on it. Only one element worked. The dishwasher didn’t work.

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But everything else seemed to be functioning, including the phone – the previous tenant hadn’t bothered to close his account. This had one interesting consequence, which was that for the first couple of months I kept getting calls from various ladies wishing to speak to him. I couldn’t help, since I had no forwarding address or phone number for him.

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It took three days of industrial-scale cleaning to make the place ready. I held on to his bedding and the women’s dresses for a while in case he came back to claim them. He didn’t, so eventually I ditched them. I scraped all the black paint from the windows to let the light in. Some things I couldn’t fix without considerable expense, such as the burn marks on the inch-thick carpet in the master bedroom, presumably the result of over-enthusiastic use of en-suite shisha. But I managed to cover them up, and to disguise most of the other blemishes that became clear once the light made its long-denied entrance.

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To this day I have no idea what the guy did for a living, though some of his more bizarre possessions offered clues. There was a canister of pepper spray, and one of tear gas. Even more intriguing was a spray canister of liquid that one could use to render envelopes transparent, so that you could inspect the contents within. This odd piece of kit is manufactured by a US vendor of police, military and surveillance gadgets. Before writing this I went to their website. It’s a paradise for the paranoid. It includes within its product categories a range of items it describes as “revenge products”, including one that when added to food or drink will liquefy the contents of your bowels at very short notice, and another that will produce uncontrollable flatulence. Surely there’s a law against stuff like this? Apparently not. If you want a glimpse of a bizarre and rather sinister aspect of American society, the site is here. The Envelope X-Ray Spray is still on sale.

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In addition to his strange arsenal of personal security aids, he had a CCTV camera on his door that enabled him to inspect visitors before he let them in. Not unusual, but it and the other things I found did make me wonder. What potential intruders was he guarding against? Whose letters was he reading? And why did he insist on perpetual darkness? Certainly, if my colleague’s guess was correct, he must have had a rare old time there. Other clues of a lifestyle that might be frowned upon outside the walls of the DQ were also to be found. I will spare you the details, dear reader, because I wouldn’t want you to believe that I had taken over a former den of vice, or indeed that dens were commonplace in this very respectable neighbourhood. Enough to say that the evidence could be interpreted in more than one way.

Leaving aside such idle speculation, I got the place cleaned up, and settled into life as the solitary occupant of my little palace. And actually it was very comfortable, though I felt that I should really have had an army of servants to complement the surroundings. In fact there was to the side of the villa a tiny apartment for the use of the driver, housekeeper or whatever. But my budget didn’t stretch to domestic help, and anyway I was quite content with my solitude. I was sans famille, since my wife runs a business in the UK, and it didn’t make sense for her to join me for what was never intended to be more than a limited assignment.

I was happy enough to rattle round the DQ. The journey to work was a mere twenty minutes, and there were occasional Embassy invitations that prevented me from becoming a hermit.

Eventually my assignment came to an end, but not before a period of cohabitation with an American consultant sent over to reinforce the sales effort. I’d never lived with an adherent of Tibetan Buddhism before, an individual whose work schedule was circumscribed by whether or not a particular day was auspicious, and who liked to practice martial arts with a big wooden staff as I was enjoying the morning air out in the yard. It was an interesting though somewhat disconcerting experience given that about the only thing we had in common was a desire to see Barack Obama elected in his first presidential contest. But expatriate life is all about tolerance and adaptability, so we rubbed along OK.

Eventually I moved on to Bahrain, and he inherited the villa, shisha pipes, Chinese vases and all.

By and large the DQ experience wasn’t one I would willingly repeat. It’s a good place for the embassies, with the assurance of security without and within. But despite the relatively relaxed atmosphere that came from being in a protected enclave, I missed the hustle and bustle of living in the city. Having to wait for fifteen minutes behind a line of cars at the security checkpoint before entering the enclave didn’t help either.

But at least I had the opportunity to live in an authentic Saudi residence for a while, even if I could never consider it home, and nor presumably did the previous occupant. And of course I found out what to do should I ever want to read my wife’s letters, perish the thought. What a pity that nobody sends anything interesting by post any more.

Postcard from Saudi Arabia – Jeddah: the Battered Bride of the Red Sea

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Jeddah – Balad District

I’ve just spent a few lively days in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city. It’s often referred to in the local media as The Bride of the Red Sea. These days, sadly, the term is used more out of affection than admiration, and is often followed by a lamentation over its shortcomings. But although the city has seen better days, I still love it.

Once upon a time Jeddah was the commercial hub of Saudi Arabia. For centuries it has been the main sea port of entry for pilgrims on their way to Mecca and Madinah. For the first 50 years after the Kingdom’s foundation it overshadowed the capital, Riyadh, both in terms of population and development. All the foreign embassies were there. The ruling elite would spend at least as much time in their palaces overlooking the Red Sea as they did in the dusty plains of central Arabia.

Whereas Riyadh’s visible heritage was limited to the ruins of Diriyah, the original oasis settlement from which the city sprang, Jeddah boasted a heart of elegant multi-story coral buildings with wind towers and wooden shutters, where merchants, fishermen and functionaries rubbed shoulders in the grubby streets, each doing their best to extract the maximum profit from the pilgrims passing through on their way to the Holy Cities.

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Balad District

The Balad, as it’s referred to in Arabic, is still there, officially designated as a heritage site. But although public money has been pumped into an effort to reverse the ravages of time, many of the buildings are in an advanced state of decay. Demolitions on grounds of safety are frequent. The souk is still thriving, though it’s no longer as free from petty crime as it was decades ago. Some older residents mutter darkly that things were better when thieves had their hands chopped off.

These days the Balad is something of a side-show. The Red Sea Palace Hotel, a stone’s throw from the souk, where we used to meet friends for a sumptuous brunch on a Friday, is way past its sell-by date. The rich have long departed to their palatial villas in the north of the city. The south is a sprawl of ramshackle housing around the port and along the Mecca highway. Further out lie huge industrial areas criss-crossed with dusty roads rutted by the thousands of trucks that wend their way to and from the factories. To the west is the sea, and to the east are mountains that inhibit further urban growth. As the locals say, the only way for Jeddah to grow is to the north.

Thirty years ago, when I lived in the city, the northward sprawl petered out a few kilometres away from the shiny new international airport. Now the office blocks and malls reach up the Madinah road to its boundaries. The airport – not blessed with the amenities you would expect these days from a major international destination –  will soon be replaced with a more spectacular version close by the original.

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Henry Moore on the Corniche

The Corniche, one of many Middle Eastern coast roads named after the French original, has turned from its origins as a sparsely-populated four-lane stretch notable for its eccentric monuments and not much else into something resembling the Jumeirah district of Dubai – full of high-end apartments and plush hotels. And close by, the Kingdom’s premier plutocrat Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal is constructing a one kilometre high tower. The Prince already owns Kingdom Tower in Riyadh – the one that looks like an inverted bottle opener – which is the tallest building in the Kingdom. He’s clearly a man who doesn’t believe in competing with anyone but himself, so he’s building the tallest tower in the world in Jeddah.

So Jeddah has developed into a city with two sides. The bright side facing the sea, and the dark side, all urban sprawl, choked with traffic, full of crumbling buildings and half-developed infrastructure.

Tales from the dark side are legion. Five years ago the city suffered from a disastrous flood that took more than a hundred lives, carried away hundreds of cars and damaged thousands of houses. This video tells the story better than I can. The catastrophe was blamed on botched civil works designed to protect against the deluges that occur quite often during the winter. Prosecutions for fraud and corruption have resulted in several people going to jail, though locals believe that those convicted are at the tip of an iceberg of malfeasance. By a quirk of the Saudi legal system they are not named, to save their families from reputational damage.

More recently there have been two cases of people dying after falling though uncovered manholes. In the first case the municipality, that owns what lies beneath, won itself no friends by pointing the finger of blame at the supermarket in whose grounds the hole was located. An example, say its critics, of the kind of blame-avoidance tactics that characterised the reaction to the 2009 flood.

They are perhaps being a little unfair. There have been improvements. It rained heavily on the last day of my visit, and though the city was gridlocked for a few hours, nobody lost their lives, and the flood channels by the side of the highway that took me to my hotel seemed to be working well. But the disaster of 2009 has left a permanent imprint on the psyches of the city’s residents. In the aftermath of what in England would be described as a heavy summer storm, my driver was distinctly nervous, and motorists kept to a sensible speed, except possibly those involved in the smattering of accidents we encountered on the way.

One of the additional hazards of driving in the rain is that some motorists don’t replace their tyres when they get worn, and that windscreen wipers unused 360 days a year often don’t work when called upon on the few occasions when it does rain. Unfortunately the average Jeddawi doesn’t drive like Lewis Hamilton, though I’m talking about his handling of wet conditions rather than his speed.

Then there’s the traffic itself. I wrote recently about the coming of the Riyadh Metro, but if ever a city needed an alternative to cars, it’s Jeddah. It’s known around the country as “the city that never sleeps”. And indeed there’s no such thing as a rush hour. Unlike the more sober residents of Riyadh, which tends to quieten down – somewhat – during evenings and weekends, the people of Jeddah seem to delight in taking to their cars at any time of day or night. For reasons of access to my client, I stay in a hotel far from the glimmering towers of the north in a central district I used to know quite well. Today I would never be able to find it myself, such are the complexities of the road system. What makes things worse is that the municipality has an annoying habit of changing some of the road names from time to time, so if you want to go somewhere you have to choose the name that the taxi driver might recognise, which of course depends on how recently he arrived in the city.

No doubt at some stage there will be an urban Metro, but for now the main focus is on the construction of a rail link from Jeddah to the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah. But if you’re an ordinary Jeddawi, wending your way across the city to get to work will continue to be the kind of energy-sapping ordeal encountered by city dwellers in countries far less well-endowed than Saudi Arabia.

Though the flood defences are becoming more effective, the treatment of sewage still leaves much to be desired. In the poorer areas, residents still rely on septic tanks, and battalions of “honey trucks” still make their way to the infamous Musk Lake up in the hills. This is a dumping ground for raw sewage that one local I spoke to referred to as “our secret shame”. A few years ago it nearly overflowed. Had it done so it would have sent a cascade of nastiness flowing down towards the city. The municipality took emergency measures to reduce the lake, but it’s filling up again. No prizes for guessing where most of the sewage eventually ends up. It’s blue, shimmering and fish live in it – or try to. Worse still, sewage has polluted the ground water, and some farmers use it to irrigate their vegetable patches. Not good.

Another perennial source of tut-tutting in the media is the youth of the city. Full of energy but short on outlets, young men cruise the streets looking for excitement, which, according to a recent story in the Arab News, often takes the form of harassing women. Those with a more creative bent devote much of their time to customising their cars, sometimes with outlandish results – an art form for which Jeddah has become famous. If anyone doubts the inventiveness of Saudi youth, you should check this video out. You would never describe these guys as feckless wasters.

For all its problems, I still love the city for its vitality, its ethnic diversity and for the relentless good humour of its people. You can sample the cuisine of dozens of countries, you can still go for a walk by the sea and there are still empty beaches to the north and south to which you can escape, and where you can sail, dive and snorkel without too much risk of encountering things that started out from a porcelain bowl in the city. And if you hanker after a biblical vista, you can drive up to Taif in the south, and look down from the top of the escarpment at the Tihama plain, a view that will have changed little since the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

The people of Jeddah are still proud of their city and of their regional identity. A Saudi born in Jeddah, Mecca or Madinah will be far too tactful to say that they are from the Hejaz first, and Saudi Arabia second, and there are no obvious signs of any separatist sentiment. But ask them about their history and they will speak of their city’s central part in the network of commerce and devotion that stretches back well before the Islamic era. The dominance of Riyadh, until not so long ago a small oasis settlement in central Arabia, covers but a small portion of remembered time, even if the unification of much of the peninsula under the Saudi banner has brought the western region unprecedented wealth and prosperity.

Because of its long history as a centre of commerce and transit port, Jeddah is also more cosmopolitan than most other parts of Saudi Arabia. You can see African, Asian and European faces in the national dress. The proportion of women wearing face veils is far lower, though greater than it was when I was a resident. Access to the performing arts is limited – as is the case elsewhere in the Kingdom – but you can still find home-grown theatre both among expatriates and Saudis. Jeddawis appreciate sculpture, painting and graphic design. There are plenty of bloggers (take a look at the Jeddah Blog, for example), video makers, writers and fashion designers, and the two main English-language dailies have their headquarters in the city.

Jeddah has the feeling of a city that will survive the worst and still come up smelling of roses – provided, of course, that Musk Lake doesn’t overflow. And the next few months are the best time to visit. The temperatures are cooler, with none of the suffocating humidity of the summer. If you also visit Mecca or Madinah, friends who hail from those cities tell me that this is a time when the locals rediscover their neighbourhoods now that the flood of pilgrims has subsided after the Haj.

As for me, I’m heading back in a few days. As always I’m looking forward to saying hello again to a city where I spent one of the best decades of my life.

Communications in the Middle East – Am I Getting Through?

Philae

As I read updates on the progress of poor little Philae, the lander perched on a comet millions of  miles from home, its batteries fading and its messages taking 28 minutes to reach us on earth, I can’t help thinking of my struggle to communicate in a place much closer than Comet 67P – the Middle East.

Forget about all the cultural nuances that get lost in translation. Most people who travel to the region – except possibly for libidinous estate agents from Essex – are aware of the potential faux pas that can leave you cast into the outer darkness. I’m talking about the more basic forms of communication. The kind of stuff for which the Arab world is well equipped and yet sometimes seems incapable of using in a way that connects with western expectations.

Business people here have the same plethora of devices as we have in the west: desktops, laptops, tablets and smart phones. Reliable telecoms systems and passable broadband. Smart phones are pervasive. No self-respecting business person in the Gulf will have less than two phones. Some have more – a phone for every occasion.

So that being the case, why do messages from west to east seem so often to fall into a black hole – somewhere in the Mediterranean perhaps, or bouncing off the stratosphere and heading off into deep space?

I can only speak for myself, but if someone from the Arab world with whom I have a business relationship sends me an email or an SMS, I respond. Maybe not always immediately. There are times when I might pause to reflect for a day or two. And if that’s necessary I usually send a holding message: I hear you, and I’ll get back to you shortly.

Yet at the other end, I’ve lost count of the number of times when I send an email in response to an urgent request and hear precisely nothing. Not a thank you, nor any acknowledgement whatsoever. Eventually, when it suits the other person, I might hear something back. Or not. I’m starting to get into the habit of routinely sending every important email twice. The first time to all available email addresses. After three days I send the same message again, suggesting that perhaps the person didn’t get my first effort. This is an opportunity for the other party to excuse themselves for not replying earlier on the basis that the problem was with the transmission rather than any failure on their part to respond.

It would be insulting to suggest that this dilatoriness is down to “Arab time” – the so-called Inshallah Factor. No, there’s something else at play here. Could it be that my humble communications are far too trivial to warrant the courtesy of a fast response? Possibly. Could it be that the recipient is so busy that a large queue of emails sits waiting for their attention, and your chance of a response depends on whether your message is near the top of the stack at the moment when the person has five minutes to sit down in peace? Also possible. Or could it be that many people are still wedded to the paper document, and discount the seriousness of any other form of communication? Unlikely, though paper still holds sway more than in most regions.

I mostly put it down to a tendency to live and think in the present, and to respond to things when they rear up at you – like someone coming at you on the wrong side of a highway. So if my present doesn’t correspond to your present there’s a gap into which ill-timed communications fall, never to be seen again.

Another dynamic that comes into play is power distance. To quote from Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions theory, this is “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”. Middle East cultures are generally quite high on the scale of power distance; the boss, the father and the ruler do not expect to be challenged or contradicted, and the timing of communications tend to be at their discretion rather than yours if you happen not to fall into one of those categories.

In my case the inequality is not one of hierarchy – more the power gap between buyer and seller. If I’m buying from you, I have the money, and therefore the power, at least in your mind. The prospect that I, the seller, might decline to supply if not treated with what I see as due respect often doesn’t occur to you, the buyer, until I come to the conclusion that you are too difficult to deal with and start making noises about walking away. Which is where the car bombing towards you on the wrong side of the highway comes in.

It’s best to avoid that kind of situation, especially as there’s rarely any malevolent intent behind the failure to communicate. So if I really need to get through to the person, I will resort to combination tactics – follow-up email, phone calls and SMS.

SMS is generally the most effective tactic. If you call, you might catch the person at the wrong time and you’re back to square one. An SMS is like an arrow to the heart, which is where at least one of the person’s smart phones resides. Short, sweet and hard to ignore because most phone users in the Arab world check text messages far more often than email, and therefore the queue is much shorter.

I would not advise spam-like techniques to attract the attention of the target, though. Messages that begin with “if you value your grandmother’s life, read this” do not fall within the wide radius of the average Middle Easterner’s sense of humour. Nor should you let slip your irritation at your correspondent’s comatose approach to communications. There are subtler ways to induce shame than to mention that this is your fifth attempt to get in touch, though sometimes I struggle to find them.

Life can be even more complicated if you’re dealing with the kind of person whom I would describe as old school. He (for it is usually he) might have a laptop or a gargantuan monitor on his desk, but that’s mainly for show. He never uses it. Instead he relies on his secretary to select emails for his attention, print them out and lay them on his desk for further action. The panjandrum duly annotates the printout – eventually – and the secretary reverts to the sender – in due course. Due course can mean several days, especially if the secretary has not inquired of his master as to the urgency with which he should treat the missive. The default is not urgent. In that situation an SMS direct to the panjandrum is usually the only option, since being an important person he will rarely be available to speak to you.

There have been moments when I’ve considered less conventional means of getting my message across. Gift-wrapped premium dates perhaps, or maybe a box of his favourite cigars with the message appended. Or maybe even an impressive-looking Rolex watch (bought for $10 at the local souk but without an indication of its origin) with the message “Because you’re worth it”. But I’ve yet to encounter a life-or-death situation in which such extreme tactics might be justified.

The odd thing is that 90% of situations that one considers urgent become less so with time. Once a deadline’s gone it’s gone, and with luck you can resurrect it. Therefore in the end the wisest approach is often to go with the flow. If the matter isn’t urgent in your correspondent’s mind, then downgrade it in yours. Save your brain cells and accept what you can’t change.

In case you’re wondering whether I have specific people in mind as I write this, well yes, I do. Gentlemen, you know who you are. Much as I respect and admire you, there are moments when you make me feel like a box the size of a washing machine sitting on a frozen lump of rock a long way away, with my batteries of enthusiasm for your cause fading away as each day goes past without a precious word from you.

So now you know.

Gideon Raff’s Tyrant: Dallas in the Desert

Tyrant

Ashraf Barhom and Adam Rayner

 

I’m currently on a quick trip home between visits to Saudi Arabia. When I’m in the Kingdom I never watch TV. I get my news via the local newspaper, the web and the London Times IPad app. Sitting in a dark hotel room browsing channels for something worth watching is not my idea of fun. When I’m not meeting people I’d rather read or post to this blog.

But when I get home I tend to go into catch-up mode. I still don’t watch that much TV. I record loads of stuff, and then watch it drop off the hard disk unwatched. What I do watch often disappoints me. I’ve had it up to here with crime series. Left to my own devices, I avoid watching violence, acts of mental cruelty, psychopaths, food programmes, football matches and Formula 1 (unless I want to go to sleep). And don’t even mention the aliens and neo-conservative conspiracies.

So what’s left? Retrospectives of musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Robert Plant. News, history, science, and occasionally a dash of comedy. The odd current affairs show. Perhaps a side-effect of approaching senility is that just as the choice of programming has massively increased over the past ten years, my preferences have reduced by the same factor.

However I do follow a few series, partly because they give me the opportunity to watch stuff with my wife, and partly because it’s not difficult to succumb to series addiction, though sometimes reluctantly. In the reluctant category I would include the work of Gideon Raff, the Israeli producer responsible for such shows as Homeland, Prisoners of War, and his latest, Tyrant.

Prisoners of War was interesting because it offered an Israeli perspective on the endless Israel-Palestine conflict The plot is pretty typical of the “national security” genre: conspiracies, interdepartmental rivalries and secret operations within the security apparatus. Brutality and collateral damage on the ground. But in its portrayal of the damaged individuals caught up in plot and counter-plot on both sides of the divide, the show offers a glimpse of Israeli society not often seen out of the country: secular, paranoid, similar to the west but not of the west. I get the same “familiar yet alien” sense when I listen to Israeli spokesmen speaking in perfect American-accented English about Gaza or the settlements. Reasonable words set in a twisted narrative.

Homeland I only caught up with during the last series, so I missed much of the early plot about Brody, the erstwhile central character, captured by an Al-Qaeda-like group and converting to Islam. Much of the focus of the past two series has been on the travails of the bi-polar CIA operative, Carrie Mathieson. Spending an hour in Carrie’s company is enough to leave me reaching for the Prozac. Her face is an ever-shifting map of insanity in waiting. Despite the calming effect of the medication, you also wonder at the sanity of her CIA boss in entrusting his operation in Islamabad to her. Not surprisingly given that the series was inspired by Prisoners of War, stable characters are not Homeland’s hallmark.

And so to Tyrant. Basically the recipe is this: take a prime cut of Syria, add some Libyan flavouring and a large dollop of pureed Saddam-era Iraq. Simmer in a broth of Truth, Justice and the American Way, and before serving stir in a soupcon of Gulf opulence.

The principal dramatis personae are the father, a durable dictator with blood on his hands, his brother, a Chemical Ali clone, the elder son, an amalgam of Uday Hussain, Maher Al-Assad and Mutassim Gaddafi, and the younger son, who escaped from his nasty family a couple of decades ago to become a paediatrician in California.

Dad dies during a family reunion, and Jamal the psycho takes over as president. Bassam, the younger son (known to his American friends as Barry – shades of Obama) is visiting with his family when Dad pops his clogs. He’s a straight shooter, in more ways than one, as becomes evident as the series unfolds. He valiantly tries to act as a moderating influence on his murderous brother. Meanwhile revolution threatens as the oppressed people of Abbudin seize the opportunity presented by the old man’s passing. Wicked uncle Tariq readies his torture chambers and lines up the troops to clear the city’s equivalent of Tahrir Square. And things develop from there.

Just about every caricature of the post-Saddam Middle East makes a cameo appearance – the tribal sheikhs, the scheming American diplomat, the exiled insurgent leader and his hot-headed son who leads the opposition within the country, manipulative wives and a palace that looks like a seven-star hotel in Dubai, in which much drinking and various deviant sexual practices take place.

Curiously enough, two ingredients in the Middle East recipe are missing: Islamism and the nearby influence of the Zionist Entity, as even politically moderate Arab politicians like to call Israel.

Ashraf Barhom, who played the dignified police colonel responsible for investigating the terror attacks against westerners in The Kingdom, the 2007 movie set in a fictional Saudi Arabia, does a fine job of portraying Jamal, the unstable elder son. Adam Rayner, all blue eyes and chiselled jawline, less so. As Bassam, the second son who rejects his Arab family and becomes an all-American version of Bashar Al-Assad, the noted former London ophalmologist, he fails to convince you that there’s an expatriate Arab under the skin, let alone the brother of a psychopath. Far too po-faced.

If you ignore all the grating “oh come on” moments of inauthenticity, some weird casting and all the usual stereotypes that so madden educated Arabs, it’s not a bad series. Think of it as a tale of a feuding family; avoid being seduced into confirming your prejudices about the Arab world and think of Tyrant as a modern Dallas without the stetsons, and you should have enough decent plotlines to keep you engaged for the duration. Actually I suspect that the worlds of Saddam, Gaddafi and the Assads were (and in Bashar’s case still is) far more mundane, yet at times far more brutal, than anything you’d see in Gideon Raff’s glossy confection.

But having sat through all these convoluted tales of betrayal and brutality in this very bloody year – and I almost forgot to mention The Honourable Woman in the list – I’m ready for something different. The horrible reality of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Gaza speaks too loudly.

If we must return to dysfunctional dictators and feuding courtiers, there’s a ten-part series that’s begging to be made: the story of Stalin’s final two decades. Now that would make Tyrant look like an minor domestic spat. And speaking of Russian autocrats, I should have thought that Ivan The Terrible was well overdue for a remake.

Mr Raff should look to the golden domes of the Kremlin, and leave the Middle East to its all-too-pervasive suffering for a while.

Postcard from Saudi Arabia – The Road from Al-Hasa

Al Hasa

Do you want to read negative stuff about Saudi Arabia? How about “Ten Reasons to Disapprove of Saudi Arabia”? Executions, misogyny, mistreatment of domestic staff, the vagaries of the justice system, feckless driving, materialism, wasted energy, wasted food, environmental pollution, religious extremism?

If that’s all you want, you’ve come to the wrong place. And anyway you can look elsewhere and find plenty of horror stories that will make you purse your lips in righteous disapproval. To the US for example. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which national traits I’ve quoted above are largely absent in the Land of the Free. Not many, I’d argue.

You won’t find shock horror in this blog because my livelihood doesn’t depend on making your lips purse, or indeed giving you fodder for bad dreams. I’m not a journalist, nor do I wish to be. Besides, I consider the Saudis – or most of them – to be my friends. And with friends, you appreciate the positive and recognise the negative. You don’t go around belittling them in front of others even if on occasions they might richly deserve your criticism.

In my line of work I meet hundreds of ordinary Saudis, both men and women. Quite a lot of expatriates too. I used to be one of them. Now I just visit the country for a few weeks at a time. On my current trip, which is about to come to an end, I thought I’d post a few snapshots of the country. I particularly wanted to look at some of the changes it’s going through, and what those changes might mean to the ordinary people who live here.

So as I pack to go home, I’m delivering my last Postcard from Saudi Arabia. For a while anyway.

At this time of the year the weather is getting cooler. No more of the roasting heat of the summer. The thoughts of urban Saudis turn to the outdoors. Drive from Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport towards the city and you will take the Prince Salman Road, a newish highway that in places has been cut through some hilly terrain. Look right up the cuttings and you will see cars parked at the top. Groups of people, many in their workaday thobes, sitting cross-legged on the ground, maybe sharing some gahwa – Arabic coffee – from a thermos, or cans of Pepsi.

If you could look further into the desert you would see tents where people gather at the weekend. Many like to sleep under the stars. Late October and November is the golden season. It’s not too hot and not too cold. Young lads come out to escape their parents. Families barbecue, kids play. People chat, maybe kick a football around, maybe listen to music, maybe smoke some shisha.

A guy I met yesterday told me that he likes to take his horse out at weekends. And then there are the camel-owners who go to inspect and cherish their beloved beasts. Poor camels – prime suspects as the source of the latest coronavirus that has been troubling the country for the last couple of years. Too valuable to cull, so now the authorities are talking of vaccinating each and every one of them. Providing, of course, that a vaccine can be developed.

Back in the city, weekend life goes on. No rest for the housemaids, the cleaners, the street sweepers and the waiters. At the other end of the expatriate spectrum and at the wealthy end of Saudi society, people are getting out their tennis rackets, hitting the gym and maybe getting ready for some social occasion in one of the city’s many walled compounds or impressive-looking villas. Round the side of the houses, live-in drivers are busy washing the sand and dirt off their employers’ SUVs.

This is the rhythm of everyday urban life in Saudi Arabia, at least in the more prosperous areas of the city. There are other parts where poor people – Saudi and expatriate alike – struggle to make it through the day. Where petty crime is rampant. And where young men dream of Syria.

Out in the rural villages, accessible not from six-lane highways but single roads, life can also be pretty basic. Mosques, minimarts and dusty dun-coloured houses where nothing much happens except births, marriages and deaths, with occasional visits from sons and daughters who have left to make their fortunes in the city, or maybe even abroad. People dream of Syria there too.

So life trundles on – dolce vita for some, careworn for others.

Then suddenly, BOOM. Something happens that shakes everyone up. Causes them to question the future. Something of that nature happened this week. In Al-Hasa, near the east coast of the country, five people are no longer alive because a car load of young men with long beards stepped out of a car outside a mosque where a throng of people were celebrating the Shia festival of Ashoura. The gunmen sprayed the crowd with machine-gun fire, got back in their car and drove off.

It seems that the ringleader of the shooters was a young Saudi who had been fighting in Syria and Iraq. ISIS? Al-Nusra? Who knows? Within hours, a number of suspects were arrested or killed in gun battles with the security forces in six locations across the Kingdom. Two of the soldiers were killed, one of them the father of a five-month-old daughter. All in all twelve people died, including five members of the alleged terrorist cell. Among the dead and wounded in Al-Hasa were teenagers and young children.

I leave the political dimension to the journalists. Here, for example, is a thoughtful analysis from Bill Law in the Middle East Monitor. I’ll summarise by saying that there is a long history of sectarian unrest in the east of the Kingdom, where most of the country’s million or so Shia population live. The vast majority of Saudis are Sunni. But this was the first attack by an armed group against the Shia population. It bears the hallmarks of ISIS or one of its affiliates.

I prefer to focus on the human impact. The deaths in Al-Hasa are a drop in the ocean compared to the orgy of slaughter, bereavement and grief that seems to be taking place every day in Syria and Iraq. But judging by a report in one of today’s local newspapers, the event has come as a deep shock to the people of this country, who are more routinely accustomed to grieving at the untimely deaths of loved ones in road traffic accidents.

It certainly shook me up. I was in Al-Hasa for a couple of days, and I left for Riyadh a few hours before the killings. I come to the town quite often. Most of the Hasawis I have met are kind and friendly people. Despite the grievances of the Shia, it’s not a community divided by sectarian differences. Sunnis live and work alongside Shia. I hate to think what these killings will do to disturb the equilibrium of life there. Will sectarian barriers form? Will friends stop speaking to each other? I saw that happen over the four years I spent living in Bahrain. Sectarian conflict is tragic to behold. Much depends on the attitudes of local leaders. The government can only do so much to calm inflamed passions. Action is needed on the ground, too.

What of the impact further afield within the country? I haven’t had the chance to discuss the situation with many Saudis because the events have only unfolded over the past couple of days. And anyway, most are reluctant to disclose their innermost feelings to foreigners. But I could read the shock on the faces of the few I have spoken to. No wonder they are reticent. After all, they have to live with an uncertain future in their homeland, whereas people like me can go home.

What of the expatriates? Most of them will be keeping their heads down and hoping not to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Among the westerners, the reaction will depend upon the length of time they have been here. I know a number of people who have been here for twenty or thirty years. In a way, I’m one of them. I first came here in 1981, though unlike them I’ve had long periods living in other places. The veterans will have lived through 2003 and 2004, when there was a wave of attacks on westerners. Compounds bombed, attacks on the street and in offices, many people killed. That generation of terrorists also went after the government. Those attacks resulted in mass arrests and widespread security measures to protect government installations, hotels and compounds.

Security is much tighter now, and for a decade the authorities have, barring one or two exceptions, managed to keep the lid on things. However I have noticed that over the past five years security has loosened somewhat, particularly around all but the most expensive hotels. That might change soon.

Most of the veterans will keep cool, despite ISIS leaders encouraging their followers to attack the west and westerners wherever they find them. They will tell you that in Saudi Arabia you have a far greater chance of being killed on the roads than at the hands of a gun-toting terrorist. That was the feeling when I lived in Riyadh five years ago, and the other day one of my long-term resident friends repeated the sentiment.

Those who did not live through the events of the mid-2000’s will, I suspect, be less sanguine. Much depends on what happens now. If the attack in Al-Hasa turns out to be a one-off, and is not followed by attacks on foreigners, it’s likely that there will be no significant exodus. A repeat of 2003-4 would be a different matter.

As I said earlier, the reaction around the country has been one of deep shock, though perhaps not surprise. The usual religious authorities have, quite rightly, been quick to condemn the attack as an attempt to destabilise the country. But I wonder how much notice the younger people pay to the pronouncements of the sheikhs who point out that the philosophy and actions of ISIS are an affront to the true nature of Islam.

The population explosion, the generation gap, and the social media are all factors that contribute to the young paying less respect to the old. Young people, it is said, increasingly regard the religious establishment as being out of touch. And that includes not only people attracted to ISIS, but also at the other end of the social spectrum those who feel that the sheikhs are acting as a brake on progress.

A westerner like me will rarely hear such sentiments expressed directly. But if you listen carefully you will hear subtle allusions. As one young Saudi said to me the other day: “in our country, if we want to recognise great achievers we wait until they are dead. Then we name roads and buildings after them”. A little unfair, perhaps, but you get the drift.

The deaths in Al Hasa have barely made a ripple in the international media. The world’s attention is focused on Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. On Ebola, on tensions in Israel and on the consequences of the mid-term elections in the United States.

As a geopolitical junkie, I’m keenly interested in all those things. But I can’t stop thinking about the dead children lying in a pool of blood outside a mosque in a country that has been a gracious host to me for more than three decades. I think of the lines of traffic heading for work every morning, and about the simple pleasures of those who like to camp out in the desert at weekends. About millions of people going about their daily lives, doing stuff they might be ashamed of as well as things of which they should be proud. Whatever their shortcomings as human beings and as a society, they don’t deserve the fate of Iraq and Syria, and I’m sure that no more than a tiny minority in their hearts want that for themselves and their loved ones.

Let’s hope the road from Al Hasa leads to reconciliation and progress without violence, rather than across a cliff into chaos.

Postcard From Saudi Arabia – The Beautiful Game, Saudi-Style

Hilal

Saudi Arabia is in mourning today. Well, not all of it – but certainly a goodly proportion. The reason? Last night Al-Hilal, the pride of Riyadh, narrowly failed to win the Asian Champions League in front of 70,000 passionate fans at the King Fahd Stadium in the nation’s capital.

Yes, I’m talking about football of course. The Saudis love football. As much as the Brazilians, the Germans and probably even the English. But like the English of late, and unlike the other two, they rarely have much to shout about when their club teams compete on the international stage. And the national team haven’t shined for a while either.

Which was why last night’s match was such a big deal. Hilal were up against Australian side Western Sydney Wanderers. They had lost the first leg in Sydney by a single goal, so hopes were high. Even in Al-Hasa on the east coast, where I am for a couple of days, interest was feverish. My hotel had arranged a soccer’n’shisha event on the terrace restaurant for Hilal fans to watch the match in the open air. 35 riyals ($10) and all the shisha you can smoke. It was packed, even though someone assured me that half of the people were rooting for the Aussies, so much did they dislike the team from Riyadh.

Sounds familiar? Think of the local rivalries in the UK, where Liverpool fans could never bring themselves to support Manchester United in Europe, and where the Scots would always back whatever opposition the England team might face.

In Saudi Arabia, the equivalent of the Liverpool-Manchester United relationship is between Hilal and Al-Ahli of Jeddah, the country’s second city. And United’s rivalry with their noisy neighbours Manchester City has its equal in the battle for Riyadh’s bragging rights between Hilal and Al Nasr, who actually won the national championship last year.

Thus far all that I have described would sound familiar to the European soccer fan, especially as Hilal were held to a goalless draw, and the home fans felt robbed by four penalty decisions that didn’t go their way.

But what would not be so familiar was the absence of female fans in the stadium. They are not allowed. The authorities apparently also refused entry to any fans wearing the colours of any other Saudi team for fear of unseemly behaviour. Not the kind of pitched battles that used to erupt in English matches, you understand. Insults hurled back and forth are a no-no.

It’s also rather difficult for fans of the away team in international matches to get to games in the Kingdom. I’m reliably informed that apart from a smattering of Aussie expatriates, a mere 13 Wanderers fans actually made it to the match. The fact that getting a visit visa to Saudi Arabia is far from a formality, combined with the cost of a flight from Sydney for a single purpose might explain the paucity of opposition fans. But no grand European occasion, such as the European Champions League final, would take place without huge contingents of fans from both sides.

While in Europe there’s a large body of opinion that modern top-flight football is played by ludicrously over-paid spoilt brats, and that the international game is presided over by a secretive and deeply corrupt organisation – FIFA – the Saudis have to contend with different kinds of critics of the national game. Every so often, one of the deeply conservative clerics pops up to denounce football as haram – in other words against the principles of Islam. You can read about an example of their attitude in an earlier post.

But although the pronouncements of the religious conservatives are taken very seriously in other areas – it’s largely thanks to their opposition that women are not allowed to drive, for example – I suspect that this is one argument the conservatives would never win. In fact I have a feeling that many Saudis would rather lose the disapproving clerics before they would give up on their beloved game. Anyone who witnessed, as I did, the joyous street celebrations in the 80’s when the national team made it to the World Cup finals would be convinced of that.

Looking forward, expect the Saudis to make strenuous efforts to qualify for the 2022 World Cup tournament in neighbouring Qatar. And whether or not they succeed, there will be a vast throng of fans making use of the chance of a lifetime – to witness a World Cup in a country just a hop across the border.

If they do fail, expect the disappointment that followed Hilal’s goalless draw against the Aussies last night to pale into insignificance compared with the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth that would take place at the prospect of little Qatar lording it over world football without a Saudi presence on the pitch. Quite unthinkable.

Watching the Saudis go crazy about a football match provides a counterpoint to all the controversy about the Qatar tournament. Whatever shenanigans may or may not have taken place that resulted in the Qataris winning the battle to host the tournament, the fact remains that all across the Arabian peninsula there is a deep and widespread love of the game. I for one would hate to see the fans in this region denied their day in the spotlight, whatever difficulties the hosts might encounter in staging the tournament.

Football, after all, should be about the fans, and there are plenty of them around here who can’t wait for 2022 to arrive.

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