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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Immorality in Riyadh

I miss Saudi Arabia. Yes, in spite of getting a criminal record there, I really rather liked the place. I now live in the UAE. In Abu Dhabi to be precise, But only for the past two months. Before that I had been living and working for five years in Riyadh – the capital of KSA, and in Jeddah before that. Until, that is, I fell foul of the Muttawain – the dreaded religious police.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking. What dastardly immoral act could this fellow have been committing to have been arrested and thrown in the slammer? Well, dear reader, I have to admit in all honesty I should have known better, but I must shamefacedly admit to giving a woman, with whom I worked, a lift in my car. You see, according to Saudi law, we were in a state of khulwa, since, dare I tell you, we weren’t actually married.
And I was reminded of all this when the Arab News – known locally as the Green Truth, due to the colour of the paper on which it is printed – reported recently about a Filipina lady called Abigail Valdez, who was a nurse working at the Riyadh Military Hospital, who was arrested by members of the Commission for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices (yes, that really is their official title!) for the highly immoral act of having dinner with a male colleague in a public restaurant. He was shackled at the ankles and led out to a waiting muttawah-wagon. She was dragged off to Malaz prison. The Philippines embassy was denied access to her and although her companion was set free a few hours later, she was locked away for a number of days.
I never did get to find out what happened in the end. Under Saudi law, an unrelated man and woman caught dining at a restaurant would normally be sentenced to four months in jail and 100 lashes. The same punishment applies to a man and a woman caught in a state of khulwa.
Racism in Saudi Arabia is enshrined in law. Your status depends on your nationality. To be a Nigerian or a Bangladeshi puts you in the unfortunate position of being at the bottom of the food chain. Filipinos are in the middle, whilst Americans, Brits and Germans are pretty high up the list. So I assume Abigail’s escort was a European since he apparently got off lightly.
Filipinos, however, are strongly resented by Saudis since they highlight the average Saudi’s incapacity for doing much useful. Ask a Saudi if he can do this or repair that, and the chances are that he will say mafi mushkillah (no problem), flick his fingers and throw it at a Filipino to fix. The same goes in hospitals. The vast majority of nurses are Filipina without whom most Saudi hospitals would grind to a halt. But far from appearing grateful, the Saudis are resentful of the perspicacious, resilient and hard working Filipinos and will do anything to get their own back; to prove to themselves that they are not really as inadequate as they make out to be.
I can see now that I was fortunate. From having been stopped by a policeman, removed from my car, had my phone and keys and iqama (ID) removed from me and thrown into a dog cage at the back of a muttawah wagon, we then sped off into the night without a word of explanation being given to me. Not that anyone spoke any English of course, but even so! And I don’t know if you’ve ever watched those American spy movies where a car accelerates towards a wall, which parts at just the crucial moment allowing the car to enter the non-descript building before closing firmly shut behind? Well, I kid you not, it was just like that.
Once inside I was led to a room and left – for two hours. I think they call that a cooling off period. Along the corridor drifted the sounds of women screaming and banging on their locked doors. I learned later that two of them had been picked up when they had popped out to the local fast food takeaway and had been approached by a Jordanian who started to chat them up. Too bad that they had left five young children on their own whilst they went to get supper. They were still banging on their cell doors five hours later and had to wait for the return of their spouses who were not due back from Jeddah until the following morning.
Finally an English speaking muttawah appeared and began to lecture me on how immoral I had been whilst thrusting pamphlets at me beguilingly entitled Islam the Tolerant Religion and other such catchy epithets. I would be sent to prison, he said. I would receive lashes, he added. And he shook his head at the enormity of the crime I had committed.
I don’t think he had ever heard biblical quotations such as “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and certainly didn’t understand the concept of immorality being in the eye of the beholder. I was obviously wasting my time trying to explain anything to him and agreed to sign a declaration that I would not act in an immoral way ever again in Saudi Arabia.
Then I was led to a room where I had my finger prints taken and was given another very stern lecture by a muttawah who had obviously had his sense of humour gene surgically removed at birth. And then I was locked away again until a few hours later around 2am my Saudi sponsor came to get me released.
He tut tutted with the rest of them, again shook his head in disbelief at such lewd behaviour on my part, signed a declaration that he would keep me on the straight and narrow in the future, and eventually I was released. No lashes, no prison sentence, but a stain on my previously unblemished character nonetheless.
It was on the journey home, but only when well out of sight of the vice cops station, that his face cracked up, he slapped me on the back, and asked me (again) when I was ever going to introduce him to some “nice ladies”. It wasn’t fair. He never got the opportunity.
I reminded him that the following weekend he was off to Bahrain where he would undoubtedly catch up on his drinking and womanising. Saudis, I should add, also have hypocrisy down to a very fine art. 

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Desert Roses in Qatar

I've arranged for us to go on a small outing to the desert roses fields, said Renee, as the two of us were contemplating the best way to spend a weekend in Qatar after I had made my way over on a 'business trip' from Riyadh
The monthly QNHS trip seemed an ideal way to spend a Friday; and as my car's air conditioning had decided to pack up the day before I left Saudi Renee arranged for us to get a lift from a Danish couple who had been in the sheikhdom for at least three months
We all met up at a garage on the outskirts of Doha where 41 cars of varying descriptions were already gathering ready for the big 'off. Unfortunately many members of the club had made other arrangements for the day but despite that, the self appointed leader shouted out in a loud voice that as we were going to be driving off-road, it was totally impossible for anything other than a 4x4 to come on the trip, so would everyone please arrange which car they would be travelling in.
Suddenly our 'small' trip got even smaller. There must have been 12 saloon cars in this motley collection, so the convoy was straight away decimated to only 29. We were lucky in having such a strong decisive leader as the next thing we learned was that each car should have a Post-It note strategically positioned in the rear window with a number on it so that everyone would know who to follow.
Unfortunately, ours blew off at the very first opportunity but amazingly, given the fact that we were at the very front of the group, the remaining 28 cars still managed to work this out.
Of course, as we would be travelling at least 50kms to get to our destination, everyone made sure they had enough go-go-juice in their tanks to get there and back. Just as well as we only passed three petrol stations on the entire trip, and eventually we snaked out onto the main road - sorry, building site.
One of the reasons that we were the lead car might have been that between us we had three GPS units, so despite the fact that we had to make at least four right angled turns on the journey, we didn't once get lost. (Later on, one of the party confided that he wouldn't dare go into the desert without a GPS. Imagine being stranded at least 3km from a road and not knowing which way to go. It doesn't bear thinking about.)
A good 12 minutes into the journey we were told to make sure we were properly buckled up and to hold on tight. We were about to go 'off road'!
Now, to the uninitiated who are used to the Saudi off-road experience, one's first reaction might have been "who swept that road last night?". There we were travelling at speed along a well manicured track with the occasional pebble lying carelessly abandoned to upset the unwary. Either that, or there are so few off-road tracks in Qatar that the constant thundering of 4x4s had pummelled this one dead flat.
Oh, OK, so we exaggerate a little. There was a small amount of 'wash boarding' on the track, and every so often our Danish Mrs would shout hysterically to her Danish man to watch out for the ridges. Thank goodness she was well strapped in!
We must have travelled a good 18km before we learned that we would shortly be travelling down an escarpment to the rosefields. Hold on tight, we were told as we descended the perilous 12ft slope to the plain below.
Horror of horrors, there was another group there before us! What to do? As the plain must have been no more than 3km wide it was obvious to all that the only thing we could do was to park a good 10m away from the first group - at which point our new party was once more up to 40 strong.
Ahead of us was what looked like the remains of a moles' extravaganza after a good night out. Could yet others have been there before us? Mafi mushkillah! Many in the party set to digging further down into the already made holes, rather than starting off new ones. Who knows? The previous 'excavators' might have missed a rose!
But what to look for? After half an hour of frenzied digging, our Danish chauffeur stood up in his waist-deep hole — which was beginning to look like a goldfish pond as he had already broken through the water table - and gathered everyone around; they were given a lecture on what a sand rose was, how to recognise one, and tricks of the trade he had learned when he had unearthed his first rose a fortnight previously.

Once again, fired up by this oratory, the party jumped back into their holes and set to at fever pitch.
I've found one, shouted someone and as everyone clustered around to look at this amazing specimen, suddenly more and more were being unearthed.
Renee had by now wandered off on her own, her pockets bulging with specimens she had picked up off the surface a few metres walk away. Well, you know what happens when you let out a careless comment. Suddenly it was like the Klondike all over again. Sweaty bodies who were already deep within their trenches heaved themselves to the surface and ran the 50m to the abundant supplies lying on the surface as Renee and I headed off for some well needed (Heineken) nourishment.
Sad to report that the gold rush was in such full swing that many people hadn't had time to start their lunch before the self-important leader declared it was time to move on to the fort.
Life really doesn't get much better than this. Two action packed outings in one day. Hold on tight and off we go....for at least three minutes, until we all corralled into a 4x4 laager at the bottom of another 'escarpment'.
"There's an easier way up from behind" proffered one kindly old gentlemen as he contemplated the prospect of clambering up a 3m high rock face to the 'fort' at the top.
The problem was that with the 100+ people having disgorged from their 40-odd cars, you couldn't actually see the fort as it had probably been built for a hermit. And when you did finally manage the incline to the top, what did catch the eye - well, maybe half of the eyes present - was a female in micro-hot pants posing against the fort wall for the benefit of her admiring suitor.
The remainder of the eyes were searching around the ground for pottery fragments and fossils (no dear, that's a stone) whilst Renee gave an exposition to those who would listen about desert hyacinths and dead men's thumbs (they remind me of a phallus, R said, though I assured her that I wouldn't be seen dead with one looking like that).
There were even the rusting remains of a bus, dating back heaven knows how many years, in which many were understandably anxious to have their photographs taken.
But all good things must come to an end. Our Danish couple set off in the lead once again - oh let's just show you this canyon on our left, Mr Dane said pulling hard over into a dead end. Unfortunately the followers and stragglers hadn't noticed and by the time we had extricated ourselves from the 'canyon' they had all but disappeared (should we, after all, have reinstated our Post-It note?) and were obviously too stupid to have worked out which way we would have led them.
Whatever the reason, we drove back to Doha in a convoy of one.
"Oh look", said Mrs Dane, "a camel!" But Mr Dane steered carefully around the handsome beast and we were left marvelling at this wonder of nature as we headed back into the capital.



Tuesday, January 9, 2007

A Survivor’s Guide to Driving in Saudi Arabia

I was driving through downtown Riyadh recently when in my rear view mirror I saw the fragments of a BMW and a Mercedes slowly descending to earth after yet another head-on collision. I say ‘yet another’ as hardly a day goes by without the Saudi capital being strewn with vehicular debris. And it got me thinking. Why is it that the general standard of driving in KSA is so very much worse than, say, in Dubai or Jordan or Syria?
Part of the reason has to be the fact that the majority of Saudis have never attended a driving school in their life. Instead, the would-be macho-man (women, of course, are not allowed to drive) either goes out into the desert for a dune-bashing weekend with a friend, or signs up at the nearest police station for a driving course where he is shown the basics - such as which pedal makes you go faster and which makes you stop; he is given an eye sight test – unless he wears glasses in which case he is deemed to have had one already; and he is then required to drive about 100 metres in order to get a licence to drive, irrespective of whether he has actually mastered the finer points of the highway code. That’s assuming there is actually a code to master in the first place.
Let me explain. Imagine you’re on a three lane highway and you wish to turn left at the next lights. So you move across into the left lane, right? Wrong! The left lane is for making U-turns (Saudi main roads have a series of service roads that mean you are obliged to drive in the opposite direction when you get to most junctions and then to make a U-turn at a later point.) So if you want to turn left you should move into the centre or right hand lane.
What if you want to turn right? That’s easy. You do so from the centre lane or the right lane. But if you’re in the left lane by mistake, don’t worry. You just have to edge your car slightly more forward than the next guy and rev up fast when the lights turn green.
If you want to drive slowly, then you drive in the centre lane. All lanes can be used for overtaking, so you might as well give the other chap a choice as to which side to use.
Speed limits are the next thing to master. If you pass a round sign with 120 written in it (in Arabic or Latin text) it means that others are advised to limit their speed to 120 kph. Saudi princes (of which there are an awful lot), important businessmen, freewheeling individuals and, of course, yourself are not affected by this ruling. This especially applies to the inside hard shoulder known locally as the lane of death where anything slower than around 160kph (100 mph) will be in the way of other Saudi princes, important businessmen, freewheeling individuals and so on.
Saudi drivers care about warning signs too: a pedestrian crossing is a warning to them that stupid pedestrians might leave a mark on their car if they don’t move out of their way fast enough.
Hazard lights are used when there is fog or a sandstorm, since Saudi cars do not have rear fog lamps. So as the forward fog lamps are not now needed for their original purpose they in turn are used to warn other drivers to make way for a Saudi prince, important businessman, etc etc.
The horn is used to let other drivers in front of you know that the lights changed to green half a second ago. If you don’t use your horn you are in danger of being thought of as a wimp - never a good reputation to have in the Middle East.
OK; let’s be serious for a moment. The authorities have recently brought in new rules and regulations aimed at improving driving standards generally. There is a new points system modelled on the points systems of many western countries. Get too many points and you’re banned from driving – unless you are a Saudi with plenty of wasta of course. Driving whilst under the influence of alcohol is an immediate 16 points deduction – enough to lose your licence in one hit. Drive without having suitable brakes on your car and it’s four points away. Drive your family goat whilst not having suitable brakes on your car and it’s two points away (presumably the goat can act as a buffer in the event of an accident?).
But the question on everyone’s mind right now is what will happen when women are allowed to drive. For the signs are there right now for all to see. A new driving school has recently been built in Riyadh. Half the building is up and running; but the other half is totally empty. Everyone assumes this is in readiness for when women are given the green light, so to speak.
The problem is a serious one. Embedded in Saudi law is the fact that unrelated men and women must not socialise or even be seen talking to one another. So what will happen when a car driven by a woman is involved in an accident? Do the two drivers not talk to one another? And who is to say that male Saudi drivers with their racing hormones won’t deliberately bump into the car of a female driver – especially an expatriate female driver - in order to chat her up? No-one is yet ready to offer an answer, which may be why no date has yet been fixed for female driving to be introduced, despite having been mooted for years.
There again, you should never forget the counter argument, made by many a religious zealot, that it shouldn’t be necessary for women to drive as it is both unnatural and unnecessary anyway, as a woman’s place is in the home. Which may be why it is very common to see what at first sight appears to be cars driven by themselves … until you look a bit closer and see a small boy, no more than 10 or 11 years old, peering over the steering wheel as he manoeuvres his mother and sisters to a pressing appointment. But that, as they say, could be the start of yet another blog on life in the Middle East.