Observations of Saudi Arabia

Angela and I got to spend a little more than a month working in Saudi Arabia.  We lived in a compound, a walled enclave of western-ism in the middle of Saudi Arabiaís capital Riyadh.  These compounds are sort of a modern oasis in the desert, with a big wave pool, four small pools, basketball, tennis, and squash courts, itís own little store and restaurant and video store.  But these oasis are extremely exclusive, with one rule: rich (or at least well off) foreigners in, Saudi nationals out.  The guards make sure of that, and they are constantly vigilant for terrorist attacks.  They check under the cars with mirrors when you pull in, check in the trunk.  Thatís a two-edged sword, of course: you feel good that youíre being protected, but bad that you need to be protected.  Oh, and for those who find Saudiís prohibition of alcohol a bit rough to handle, some of the residents hold a special ďteaĒ party on Thursday nights in the basement of the main room.

(Note:  The suicide attacks that took place in Saudi Arabia were at similar compounds, but not the one we stayed in.)

We were staying in a nice compound, but there are many others which are not so fortified or as luxurious.  Some of the other folks we worked with are from other Islamic countries like India and Jordan.  The Indians played cricket to help themselves feel theyíre not so far from home, but Iím not sure it helped very much.  The gentleman from Jordan and his wife are Palestinians misplaced to Jordan and working in Saudi Arabia and wishing they were home (Palestine or Jordan).  The lure of not exactly easy money, but at least reasonable money pulls these people into a place very far from the lives theyíd like to live.  Their stories are more like young women brought to Amsterdam with the promise of good jobs and forced into prostitution because they have no way to get back home: hidden expenses, dependence on their employer for exit visas, etc.  Itís a sad story.  The Indians we were working with had hoped they were going to UAE when they signed up for their tour in the Arab world, but werenít that lucky.  Trust me, when you travel to Saudi Arabia, you should have a return ticket in hand.

There is a secret to driving in Saudi Arabia: do anything you want, because everyone expects idiocy and watches out of each other.  Of course, that ignores the definite possibility of two idiots colliding, which seems to happen on a very regular basis.  I believe I read there are more traffic accidents per capita in Saudi Arabia than in any other country.  Most people drive fairly sanely, but thereís a significant minority who drive as fast as their cars will go more or less all the time.  And thereís a certain disregard for little things like lane markers.  When stopped at a light most people are in their lanes, but as soon as the light changes they are wandering left or right as quickly as they can.  We rode from the airport to our compound with a taxi driver who refused to pick a lane and stick with it.  He stayed in the middle of two lanes all the time.  When we asked the guys we worked with about it, they said itís safer to stay in between lanes, because then you can move away from trouble if it occurs in either of those lanes. 

Well, itís a theory anyhow.

Speaking of the guys we worked with, it was an all male crew and they left training three times a day to go pray.  One of my trainees was one of three guys at work that got on the PA system and sang the call to prayers; my trainee was by far the best singer of the bunch.  Angela had to wear an abaya (a black robe) and cover her head with a scarf whenever we were not in the compound, and Iím pretty sure sheís the first female instructor any of these guys ever had.  I was very impressed with how smoothly the whole process went.  The trainees were never any trouble for Angela at all.  She had to have one of the menís bathrooms in the building reserved for her use, as sheís the only woman to ever work in the building.  The only time we had any trouble was when we were shopping one day and the Matwa (or religious police) told me to tell Angela to put her scarf back on her head, as the scarf was prone to slipping down around her neck.

Shopping seems to be the main recreational activity in Saudi Arabia.  The malls are large and frequent.  Just a few notes on the mall underneath the new Kingdom Tower, a big, flat building with a hole in it that resembles a coca-cola / beer opener.  It has a third floor thatís for ladies only.  Once on that floor, the women can take off their abayas and head scarfs and enjoy their shopping in peace.  It also has a Planet Hollywood, but the Matwa came through and put black tape on a lot of the descriptions of the memorabilia.  There didnít seem to be a particular pattern to it: not just violent movies, not just sexy movies, but just randomly chosen movies.  Odd.