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Postcard From Saudi Arabia – Salary Day: Time to Play!

November 30, 2014

Causeway

At an institution that I was visiting, a middle aged Saudi gentleman was wandering around the central atrium with a wicked grin on his face, urging all he met to “be happy, it’s Salary Day!” The line at the ATM was at least ten people deep. And yes, people were smiling, because it was the last Thursday of the month, which for most government workers is when they get paid.

I happened to be in Dammam – on the east coast of the Kingdom – on this Salary Day just passed. I asked a number of people what they were planning to do for the weekend. As I expected, “Going to Bahrain” was the answer from several.

They were not alone. Every weekend thousands of Saudis – families and young single males mostly – descend upon Bahrain from as far away as Riyadh. The young guys ditch their thobes, put on the shorts, Real Madrid t-shirts and baseball caps, pile into their Mustangs and souped-up SUVs and bomb down the highways at breakneck speed towards the King Fahad Causeway.

At which point everything stops. On Salary Day the causeway becomes so choked with Saudis trying to get into Bahrain that you are lucky if you get through customs and immigration in less than two hours. It’s partly because of the volume of traffic, and partly because the process is so brain-frying.

At the first set of booths you collect your little customs slip. Next, you, and hundreds of others, proceed to the Saudi passport booths on the Saudi side. If you’re lucky you’ll get someone who’s not on the phone or chatting to one of his colleagues. After that you hand your customs slip to a guy waiting at another checkpoint. Then you go to the Bahraini immigration stations. Assuming you pass muster there you line up for the customs inspection. Not that there are many illicit things you might want to export from the Kingdom, but anyway. You may be inspected, or you may not. The final hurdle is the insurance booths, where you are required to show insurance papers. Or not, depending on circumstances that have never been clear to me.

At this stage some of the younger Saudis are like corks ready to be fired from a champagne bottle. Inappropriate analogy, I know, but better than bullets from a gun. When they finally take off down the Bahrain stretch of the causeway, the signs imposing an 80 kilometre speed limit are gleefully ignored, and the whole thing resembles the start of a Formula 1 race. Onwards they disappear into the night. And Bahrain becomes a Saudi colony for the weekend.

The little island competes with Dubai as a favoured weekend destination for the Saudis. They love Dubai because of its bling culture, as well as the leisure facilities, which are far superior to those in Bahrain: indoor ski slopes, spectacular water parks, any number of malls and some of the world’s tallest buildings. But it’s expensive, and from most of the Saudi major conurbations it’s a long drive. So to get there you need to fly.

Bahrain’s offering is more modest: malls, shisha, restaurants, movies and various illicit pleasures denied to the mainland population. The more conservative elements on the island are doing their best to reduce the availability of wine, women and song, but there are too many powerful vested interests concerned with their continuance, so the efforts of the righteous bring limited success. And despite the country’s well-advertised political troubles, the Saudis still visit in huge numbers. In fact there are plenty of Saudis who have made Bahrain their home. Hardly surprising when you consider that to an extent the boundaries of the Gulf states are political rather than ethnic. You will find the same tribal names across the region. Many families are spread across the two countries.

In many ways, Saudi Arabia resembles Bahrain. Unlike the UAE and Qatar, where citizens form a small minority of the population, both countries – with 70% and 50% respectively, have sizeable populations of nationals. But whereas the Saudis, blessed as they are with massive oil wealth and generous social subsidies, can afford to be picky about the kind of jobs they do, the Bahrainis can’t. In both countries certain jobs – construction and cleaning for example – are off limits – but the Bahrainis are more inclined to get their hands dirty. Both countries have over the past few decades evolved a culture of reliance on domestic help, with unfortunate consequences. Stories of ill treatment of housemaids are no less common in Bahrain than they are in the Kingdom.

So would a majority of Saudis prefer to live under the more relaxed social and cultural mores they encounter in Bahrain? I doubt it.

For a start, they would not appreciate the perennial sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia. They themselves have a substantial Shia minority in the Eastern Province. Many Sunnis look on the Shia with attitudes varying between suspicion and outright refusal to accept them as fellow-Muslims. The sectarian issue in the east has been a running sore on the body politic for as long as Saudi Arabia has existed as a unified Kingdom. See my recent post on the Al Hasa attacks for the latest manifestation of the problem.

Also, for every fun-loving young Saudi who comes to party in Bahrain, back home there’s another who looks upon the pleasure domes of the Gulf states as Sodom and Gomorrah. As for politics, even the very limited version of democracy practiced in Bahrain – in which an appointed upper council can veto each and every decision by the elected chamber – would be a step too far in a society that is still in thrall to the religious conservatives, for whom democracy is an alien and unwelcome innovation. Or so it has proved thus far.

There’s another brake on the liberalisation of Saudi society that is not well publicised. Take a look at the comments on articles in the English language press – which is mainly read by the Kingdom’s South Asian expatriate population, and it will quickly be apparent that many Asian Muslims exceed even the ultra-conservative Saudis in their religious zeal. The madrassas have done their job well. A recent poll in the Arab News on whether Saudi Arabia should allow cinemas in the country revealed that by a small majority the paper’s readers would keep things as they are. Should the most extreme of the extremists ever get the upper hand in the country, I suspect they would have willing helpers among the faithful from the subcontinent.

But for all that, I get the impression that the Saudi authorities recognise that their youth need to let off steam. Western culture – in the form of products, clothes, TV shows freely available by satellite and movies downloaded through the internet are a tide too powerful for the religious Canutes to stem. So better for the more voracious consumers to take off to Bahrain and Dubai and gorge themselves their heart’s content, so long as they return to their sober and righteous lives back home.

And gorge themselves they do. Bahrain’s City Center Mall is never busier than at weekends. Families, still dressed in the conservative attire favoured at home, mingle with more exotically dressed youngsters in the queues for the latest movies. Blockbusters, crime and horror movies tend to be the order of the day. Romcoms less so, perhaps because boy meets girl doesn’t have much resonance in a society of arranged marriages.

As for shopping, every Salary Day seems like Black Friday. I find this strange, because it’s not as if the Saudis aren’t well endowed with malls of their own. The only obvious difference – apart from the cinemas of course – is that shops in Bahrain don’t close during prayer time.

At the seedier end of things, the Saudis throng the more traditional places of entertainment, such as Exhibition Road, which is lined with restaurants, kebab shops and Thai massage parlours. The latter establishments are no doubt highly respectable and decline to offer the delights to be found in some parts of Bangkok. But there are hotels that provide more than just room service.

By Saturday night the exhausted visitors – some of whom have had little sleep for 48 hours, start dragging themselves home. Some leave early on Sunday morning. The highways of Saudi Arabia, especially the road from Dammam to Riyadh, are best avoided at those times. The effects of tiredness and overindulgence on several fronts add further danger to what at any time is a hazardous drive. And of course there’s the causeway to contend with. The Saudi customs officers know their fellow-citizens well, so they tend to be pretty vigilant in their inspections of returning vehicles, especially those driven by shattered-looking young men.

As for the Bahrainis, whose city is taken over every weekend – well, they know how much the economy depends on their well-heeled visitors. There are those among the Shia majority who did not welcome the Saudi intervention in the crisis of 2011, when troops crossed the causeway to lend a hand to the Bahraini security forces who were struggling to contain the Pearl Roundabout protests.

But money is money, and there’s never been a backlash against tourists from the mainland, even though at the height of the troubles the Bahraini authorities turned back visiting Shia, and still do so on an arbitrary basis from time to time.

I was one of the thousands who crossed the King Fahad Causeway into Bahrain this weekend. I know the island fairly well, having lived there for four years. Unfortunately Thursday wasn’t Salary Day for me, but since I was close by in Al-Khobar, it was a good opportunity to pop over and say hello to some friends. On Friday night I went to a movie, and when the lights came up at the end I saw a guy surreptitiously collapse a metal pole on which he had fixed what looked like a mobile phone. I can’t be sure he was a Saudi, but if he was, I suspect that he and his friends will be watching Brad Pitt blasting the Nazis in Fury from the comfort of their own homes next weekend.

That’s soft power in action for you. The hand-wringing of politicians and denunciations from the pulpit will not stop the spread of what has become a global culture – not just western. And at the bottom of it lies the universal notion that people just want to have fun from time to time. Especially on Salary Day.

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