ADVENTURES IN DUBAI: YOUR FAVOURITE NUMBER ONE BLOG BRITISH DESIGNER LIVING IN DUBAI TELLS (NEARLY) ALL
Monday, October 31, 2005
Getting Over It
Fear and Loathing in KSA I arrived in Dubai and booked into a hotel in deepest Deira. I phoned the flooring salesman that I’d met in Riyadh, and he picked me up and we went out on the town. I could barely handle it. Apart from the abundant beer, we finished up at a nightclub where a troupe of scantily-clad Russian dancers were gyrating onstage. Shocked I was.
The next day I moved to the Chicago Beach Hotel (which was to be demolished a few years later to make way for the Jumeirah Jumeirah Beach Hotel). I made a few phone calls and fixed up a few interviews, and within about three days I had secured what I thought was a good job offer. I arranged a flight back to the UK for the next day, and lozzed about on the beach at the hotel.
I will never forget my time in Riyadh, and while people may say I had a miserable time because I did not integrate, I have to say that I didn’t meet anybody in Riyadh who seemed prepared to help me do that. I dare say that if I had stayed longer I might have a different view of things.
I really only met one Saudi who treated me with any kind of warmth or compassion. He was Dr Client, and we actually spent a fair bit of time together over the year. I met his wife and kids a few times, went to his house, visited marble and furniture showrooms with them. It was all business-related, of course, but he called me ‘Abu Offspring’, and did the huggy-kissy thing when we met.
Mostly the Westerners I met had been there a long time and were not interested in helping a newbie – they were cold and aloof and above all, suspicious.
People talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome, and I would suggest that there is such a thing as post-Saudi stress syndrome. I was certainly deeply affected by my immersion in Riyadh, and BetterArf says it took me at least six months to even begin to get over it. I’m not suggesting that all of Saudi Arabia is as harsh as Riyadh, but that is where I spent my year, so that’s all I know about.
Free at Last in KSA The day I actually left was probably one of the most stressful of my life. I had a plan that said I was going to spend a few days in Dubai trying to find a job before heading back to the UK. I had bought myself a ticket to Dubai, and had booked several flights spread over 3-4 days after the end of my contract because I had no idea how long it would take Bongo & Co to finalise the formalities. Surprisingly, everything happened on time. On my last day at work, I got my pay cheque. It was, of course, too late to cash it, so the next morning I was up bright and early, expecting to be out of there by the end of the day.
As it happened, one of the engineers was also leaving that day, on vacation. He was a good guy, an Egyptian, and we headed off to the local bank together with our pay cheques. Naturally, their computer system was down, so they could not verify if there was any money in Bongo’s account to cover these cheques. We decided to head downtown to the main branch of this bank where the account actually lived. When we got there it was complete chaos. Because the computer was down, of course. We stomped into the manager’s office and I told him that I had to get this cheque cashed because I was leaving in two hours. Somehow it happened, but they were absolutely not going to give my Egyptian friend any money. I can’t remember the exact details, possibly he didn’t have his passport with him or he was Egyptian or something, but I signed a bit of paper that said I knew him and they could come and beat me up if it turned out they’d given the money to the wrong guy. Weird.
Anyhoo, loaded down with cash, we head back to the office. Now I have to get Ibrahim, the world’s laziest PRO, to take me to the airport. He has to do this because they have a piece of paper from the Government that needs to be signed and stamped as I leave.
Riyadh Airport is quite a way from the city. We are halfway there when Ibrahim realises he’s forgotten the piece of paper. We turn round and go back to the office to get it. When we arrive at the airport there’s only about an hour and a half before my flight leaves. I head for the check-in desk for Dubai. Ibrahim is deeply puzzled. As far as he’s concerned I’m supposed to go to London.
The check-in clerk tells me that I don’t have a booking. I explain that I most certainly do, and he tells me that I did have one, but the travel agent cancelled it. Damn! I ask him if there are any empty seats on the plane, and he says there are lots. So I suggest that maybe I can have one of those?
Sure, he says. No problem at all.
It was the best flight of my entire life. Ma’salamah Riyadh.
And in the case of Mr. Moosa's creations, what kind of tenants would clamor to nest in a swollen pyramid? In Dubai, a zany, oil-fueled boomtown afloat in plastic fantasy, unbridled ambition and rivers of cold cash, such questions are dismissed as the calling cards of the unimaginative. Mr. Moosa waves them away like sand flies. "Who wants to live in a pyramid? Everybody wants to live in a pyramid," he said with evident astonishment. "It's the only address in the world. Imagine your card: 'The Grand Pyramid of Dubai'! "
"The city is losing its authenticity. It's losing its past," said Abdel Khaleq Abdullah, a television talk show host. "Maybe in globalization, identity is irrelevant. That's what the government says. But in reality ... you're losing something very precious." In the heat of its frenetic boom, Dubai has developed a few tics. There is a preternatural fascination with how things will look when viewed from the sky. Then there's the obsession with breaking records.
What this is, apart from being a terrible photo, is a mobile phone mast disguised as a palm tree. You'd think it was real if it wasn't about four times taller than the normal Dubai palms, and didn't have the visible operational gubbins nestled in the foliage at the top. But what really gives it away are the rungs up the trunk, and the Etisalat shed at the bottom.
You can see this attempt at urban beautification beside the Burj Al Arab roundabout.
Feigning Liberty in KSA It’s a strange thing, but I never discovered Riyadh’s thriving but illegal pub scene until I was preparing to leave. With a month to go, a Brit flooring salesman came to see me. He said I looked like I needed a beer and said I yes, of course I did. He said he’d pick me up after work and we’d go for a pint or six. Naturally I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t.
We first of all went to his house which was on one of the fabled Western compounds that I had so miserably failed to gain access to. He said there was a bar there but it was only open on Thursday and Friday. He let me sample some of his home brew while he had a shower and got changed.
Then off we went and he blagged our way into a British Aerospace compound. All of the stuff for sale in the clubhouse there was home-made, but it was a million times better than the stuff I’d made. I had a pint, and then we went off to another place. When I left, my buddy put me in a taxi and told me to remember to bribe the driver with at least 50 Riyals, otherwise there was a good chance that he’d take me to a police station instead of my apartment. Ah, more paranoia.
Unfortunately (for me) the exercise was not repeated because this guy was leaving Riyadh in a few days’ time. Got himself a new job in Dubai, so he did.
Feeling Lugubrious in KSA About six weeks before the end of my contract I write a letter to Bongo, advising him that I will not be renewing my contract. He calls me into his office, and asks why I want to leave. I politely explain that I cannot continue living in a country where most of the things I like doing are illegal. He asks me to elucidate. Well, booze, art, concerts, cinema, theatre. He tells me he can’t do anything to change that, and I say I know he can’t and so it’s better if I leave.
A few days later he tells me he wants to set up a separate interior design division with an office outside Riyadh, and he wants me to run it. I ask him what location he has in mind and he says Jeddah. Ah, no, thanks but no thanks. Knowing that Bahrain or Dubai are completely out of the question, I suggest both these locations. I was right, so I don’t have to move on to phase 2 of my reasons for leaving which is that I hated every single minute of working for his company.
The word pretty quickly gets out that I am leaving, and I get several phone calls from other companies who are interested in hiring me. One of them is the company that B’astard works for. I go to several interviews, and am offered several jobs, but none of them has the kind of astronomical salary attached that would make me reconsider leaving.
I've been reading Jonny B's Private Secret Diary ever since I started blogging just over a year ago. In the last few days it has been absolutely hilarious. To set the scene a little, Jonny B has moved from London to a sleepy little village in Norfolk. He works from home, and his long term life partner (LTLP) seems to have a job outside the house. His neighbour is known to Jonny as Short Tony. One of the highlights of Jonny's week has always been the appearance of VDL - the vegetable delivery lady. Sadly, we learn, VDL has quit her job, and this will be her final visit. Go to http://jonnybillericay.blogspot.com/ and read the story posted on October 24th. Then go to http://cauliflowersandpeas.blogspot.com/.
The following day, Jonny B's short post said 'There will be no journal entry today, as I am sulking'. And one of the comments on that post: 'You are understandably feeling let down by the vegetable delivery lady. In fact, you must be feeling quite melon-cauli. You have to admit tho that the spoof blog is 24 carrot comedy.'
Just received this bizzare little email from Media City management:
CIRCULAR – PLANNED HAZARDOUS CONDITION This is to inform you that we are planning a maintenance activity in our network which could cause hazardous condition for Internet, Voice, Video and MPLS VPN services provided in Campus-1, 2 and 3.
This will happen for 3 minutes this coming Friday. So if you are planning to work in Media City tomorrow, make sure you've had your bird flu jab, wear your radiation suit, and bring enough food and drink to last a fortnight.
Furious Lackey in KSA The office had recently hired a junior architect. He had probably been with us about five weeks when we heard that he had been arrested and locked up. His crime? Well, it seems that his previous sponsor had spotted this kid in the street, claimed that he had absconded, and called the cops. I don’t know the ins and outs of the story, but I do know that this young man was incarcerated in a Saudi jail until his current sponsor (Bongo) came along and used a bit of wasta. Problem was, Bongo was visiting his money in Switzerland at the time, and it was a week before he returned.
Once Bongo returned, the lad was released instantly. No charges were brought. No case to answer. It didn’t help my mood though. Apart from the time when Ken the American engineer was almost arrested for crashing his truck into a car that had run a red light (and Bongo was out of the country for that event also), it made me realise how totally vulnerable us foreigners were. Anything could happen, at any time, and you had no comeback whatsoever. The response from the police would be to lock you up, and talk to your sponsor when he made an appearance. Yakk.
7 Days reports that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's new President, thinks it would be a really good idea to wipe Israel from the map. I don't think he's talking about reprinting atlases with a blank space where the Zionist state should be.
Oh dear, this is just the kind of excuse that Dubya and his neocon chums have been looking for.
Definitions: Iftar is the breaking of the fast after sundown during Ramadan. Sniftar is a poetic misspelling of 'snifter' to make it rhyme with iftar. A 'snifter' is a small portion of liquor.
This evening we went to an iftar feast organised by the Arabic department at BetterArf's school. It was wonderful. When the food had run out, the couple next to us departed, saying they were off for a 'snifter'. Hmm, good idea, we thought. We went with a couple of old friends to a certain English pub at the Jumeirah Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
We managed to get a couple of rounds inside us. The service was abysmally slow. When we finally got the bill we could not believe the telephone numbers we were looking at. We were being charged about Dhs 30 for each drink! I was aware that drinks used to be Dhs 25 at this establishment, which was about average for a 5-star hotel.
But this pub has always had a problem. It cannot decide whether it's a bar in a 5-star hotel, or whether it's a replica of an English pub. The two are pretty much mutually exclusive. As a compromise they have a Happy Hour from 5 until 7, when drinks are half price. The joint is jumping during Happy Hour, and then eveybody sups up and goes home or somewhere else. As we are in Ramadan, the Happy Hour seems to have been cancelled, and so we had to pay the full whack. Ouch.
We gave them a bunch of money, and waited for them to give us some change. Nothing doing. They seem to have a new policy. They assume that any money you give them is theirs to keep. If you are so cheap that you don't want to give them a 50 dirham tip for their truly lousy service, then you have to actually go and ask the cashier for your change.
Fekkin Lostit in KSA As you can imagine my return to Riyadh was awful. I tried to cheer myself up by counting down the remaining days – only about four months, but it was the most desolate feeling. There was no hope now that Bongo would ever move me out of the penthouse, but he did remember that there was a second bedroom there that was not used, so he started giving me flatmates.
There was an old German engineer who stayed for a fortnight, and an Indian architect who stayed for a month. I didn’t mind, it was a bit of company. But I had to stop attempting to make beer while these guys were around.
For the last few months I had been completely overloaded with work, and had been begging Bongo to get me an assistant. Eventually he agreed that if I could find a Filipino with about two years’ experience he’d hire him. I kept interviewing guys, and passing the good ones on to Bongo for a second interview. And then nothing would happen. I guess the money was wrong, or Bongo just didn’t make them an offer, but what it meant was that I was struggling to keep up with an impossible workload. Bah!
Bongo sent me one guy to interview, who had previously been working for Bongo, but had been 'laid-off’. Not sacked exactly, but no longer employed. This guy said that he would only come back if he was paid for all the time since he was laid-off. I reported this to Bongo, who went mental and told me it was none of my business and la-la-la.
Festive Lunacy in KSA One of the first things I had done when I started the job was to book two or three week’s holiday at Christmas. Bongo was non-committal on this for months and months. Eventually he told me that the company policy was for employees to work eleven months and then take their one-month vacation in one chunk. I explained that he was a git of the highest order and that if I couldn’t have a break at Christmas then I would resign immediately.
Finally Bongo agreed to my request and I booked my flight.
I arrived at Heathrow about 11am one drizzly grey day about a week before Christmas. I was met by my brother-in-law who lived nearby, Offspring and BetterArf who had brought me a nice warm coat to wear (not an abaya). First port of call, naturally, was a pub. I had planned to drink a few million pints, but I think I was under the table after about one and a half.
Needless to say I had a wonderful time, but the Riyadh-induced paranoia did not have enough time to wear off. I felt guilty about drinking alcohol, eating pork and seeing people holding hands and possibly snogging in public. I was also inclined to barter about the price of non-negotiable items like newspapers and stamps.I have no idea how I managed to tear myself away at the end of the holiday. I have never felt less like stepping onto an aeroplane in my life. As I got to the airport I saw guys in thobes and women in abayas and I just wanted to cry. In fact I probably did.
Feeble Libations in KSA I decided that one of the ways I might be able to ease the pain was to try making beer. I had noticed that the shops sell lots of Barbican (de-alcoholised beer) and I’d asked BetterArf to research methods of re-alcoholising it. Apart from the Barbican, the shops also sold one-litre bottles of red grape juice that had the kind of resealable cap you get on Grolsch bottles.
So I took to buying a couple of bottles of grape juice a day and pouring it down the sink. And I got me a case of Barbican, some sugar and some yeast, a small plastic waste bin, and set about turning water into wine. I mean turning no-alcohol beer into the real thing. Actually I might be lying about the yeast, I think that might be something you cannot buy off the shelf. I seem to remember spaghetti contained enough yeast to do the job. Anyhoo, I placed the concoction in my wardrobe, and waited. I made sure I locked my bedroom whenever I went out, because the tea-boy would occasionally come in and pretend to clean the apartment.
Ten days later it looked like the fermentation had stopped and I set about bottling the stuff. This proved to be a bit tricky because I couldn’t get any plastic tubing to use as a siphon and I had to make a funnel out of mylar sheet.
Finally, the beer was ready, and I gave it a good old test one Thursday evening. It tasted vile and I had an atrocious hangover the next, but it did the job!
Those crazy Europeans are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen tonight. I may not stay up for it. I know the ESC consists almost entirely of lousy songs performed by lousy performers, and it's total kitsch, but it's one of the things I miss about not living in Europe.
The voting process in these contests was always eccentric - anonymous panels of judges from each participating country would phone in their scores, usually in French. There was much political and tactical voting that usually meant that if, for example, the Brit act were doing well, the French jury would proclaim that they had awarded us 'nul points', and give the maximum number to the least popular performer - Liechtenstein or somewhere like that. Hah!
In the UK the contest used to have a big build-up where for months preceding the event a dozen hopefuls would be whittled down to one final entry. Sometimes nobody would be good enough so they'd just hire Cliff Richard. Tonight's gig features 14 songs that have been selected by interweb voting (the list is here).
The UK is represented by Cliff Richard doing 'Congratulations' (without doubt one of the worst songs ever written), and Brotherhood of Man doing 'Save Your Kisses For Me' (also one of the worst songs ever written). Ireland's Johnny Logan is going to be busy, he has two entries. And that well-known Swiss performer, Celine Dion, will also be taking part. And get this, Israel is in it too!
Funny Looks in KSA All too soon the visit was over and the family had to fly back to England. My flight left a few hours after theirs and I put the time to good use by attempting to drink the entire contents of the airport bar. I absolutely did not care what happened when I got to Riyadh in a state of obvious inebriation. Actually what did happen was that the immigration guy raised an eyebrow, said ‘been drinking, sir?’, smiled and sent me on my way. He must see dozens of people like that every single day.
I was still tiddly when I turned into the office for the afternoon shift at 4pm. Everyone remarked on how relaxed I seemed. Well, alcohol is a relaxant, so physically I guess I was a bit loose. But in my head I was screaming. I had no idea how I was going to get through the next three months until Christmas.
BetterArf excelled herself by taking me to Bicé at the Hilton Jumeirah yesterday evening. There was just the two of us, no surprises and no strippergram. But the food was brilliant, the service was excellent, the décor was splendid and there was a lovely little birthday cake with my name squirted onto the plate in chocolate. I wanted to keep the plate but they wouldn't let me.
By the way. Do not confuse the venue of our meal with the Jumeirah Hilton. First of all the Hilton Jumeirah is on the hotel strip that is currently blighted by the construction of Jumeirah Beach Resort. Neither of these things are actually in Jumeirah. Jumeirah Hilton is the colloquial name for Dubai's Central Jail, which really is in Jumeirah, but the food I believe is not up to Hilton standards.
Frolicking Lamely in KSA We took a morning flight to Bahrain and arrived at 10 am. Following our usual plan of not planning anything too much, we asked the taxi driver to take us to a reasonably-priced hotel. I can’t remember the name of it now, but it was very nice and had bars and restaurants overlooking the pool.
Now this is where it gets weird. This is the first chance I’ve had to get a beer in over four months so I immediately head for the bar. It must be some minutes short of 11 am, but the bar is not only open, it is packed with Saudi men! Not only that, but the hypocritical little bastards are all drinking beer! I am absolutely gob-smacked. I always suspected that the supposed piety of Saudi society was a bit bogus, and here was the proof.
I elbowed my way to the bar and proceeded to consume as much beer as I possibly could. We had lunch sitting by the pool, and once again the Riyadh paranoia was banging away at me. I shouldn’t be doing this. That woman in the tiny bikini should wear a swimming abaya. Those Saudis shouldn’t be here at all. That woman in the thong should cover her ass.
But you know what? The world didn’t end at that moment. Most of those people are probably still alive and well. I think my visit to Bahrain was a turning point in my attitude to the mad burghers of Riyadh. I had spent months trying to understand their culture, trying to imagine how it could make sense and how it could make them happy. Trying even to fit in. But it was no good. I now knew that it was all a sham.
I have given myself 'a day off' today, because it's Twisted's birthday. Oh, and mine, of course. And Tom Petty, Snoop Dogg, Jelly Roll Morton and Sir Christopher Wren. They're all coming round to partaaaay later I expect. BetterArf's in charge of the evening's entertainment so I don't really know what might happen.
BetterArf presented me with a beautiful radio/CD player to go in the big red Beemer, and at about 10 am we set off in the direction of Satwa with the ultimate goal of finding someone who could install the thing. On the way we had to stop at my office in Media City to pick up BetterArf's passport with its shiny new visa in it and also my card and prezzie from Offspring (which unfortunately seems to be 'lost in the post'). Then a brief stop at my bank (not the gorgeous HSBC, the other one) to see if they felt like giving me any money. They didn't. Then a stop at Spinney's Centre in Umm Suqeim where BetterArf had to do some extended business with her 'bank'. And finally to Satwa Racetrack, the home of all things car.
By the way, I was shocked and surprised to see a whole bunch of Ramadan violations both at Media City and Spinneys. I saw people variously smoking, eating sandwiches and drinking stuff. In public. In my 12 years in Dubai, I have never seen this happen before. During Ramadan us non-Muslims are expected to show a bit of respect to the fasting ones, and not eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours. In fact I think it may be the law. But we can usually do these things in screened-off restaurants or cafes, so it's not exactly a hardship. And of course what you do in your own home is your own business.
Anyhoo, I felt uncomfortable seeing these folks blatantly ignoring the rules, and if it hadn't been my birthday I might well have approached them and asked them what on earth they thought they were doing. But I didn't because I don't want to get my head kicked in and have to spend a few days in hospital and miss the strippergram.
We arrive at Satwa Racetrack, find a car accessories shop (Quite Easily Done), and get a guy to rip out the old and plop in the new. Except it isn't as simple as that - he wants to sell us new speakers. That's ok, not a problem, and we think we've agreed on a price. But he doesn't. He thinks he has to wire the radio into the old speakers so we can hear how bad they sound. This takes him about an hour, during which time BetterArf and I take it in turns to wander around Satwa, soaking up the authentic atmosphere of Old Dubai. (We used to live in Satwa and loved it to bits). He switches on the radio and it sounds like poo and we ask him when he's gonna put the new speakers in. Oh, you want the new speakers? Yesssss. So he sets about ripping out the old speakers and threading new cables around the place. Eventually he's done, and we are somewhat dehydrated.
I haven't mentioned up til now that the air conditioning in the Beemer has not worked properly throughout the entire week that I've owned it. I mean, it does work, but it needed some magic gas to make it blow cold. And where do you get a/c gas? Satwa Racetrack! We move on and get all gassed up, and then we head off for home.
We are both desperately thirsty, so we stop at a petrol station and get a couple of Pocari Sweats (I still don't know what kind of animal a Pocari is, nor how you harvest the sweat from it). We drink it all there and then in the car on the station forecourt, reckoning that we fall into the category of bona fide travellers - we've travelled 40 km without a/c and been out in the sun for two hours.
Time for a wee snooze before the evening's revels...
Family Life in KSA The big day arrives. I drive my little Chevy Sprint to the airport and meet the family. I am completely immersed in Riyadh paranoia by now and am reluctant to return my wife’s extravagant hugs and kisses in public. She is wearing the black nylon abaya that I sent her, but it is not done up, and her belly button is clearly visible between the crop top and jeans she is wearing. I hate Riyadh for making me think this way, but I have to tell her that she should fasten the abaya properly.
We get to the penthouse and BetterArf cannot believe how big it is (small English house paranoia). Later that evening the doorbell rings and it is Bongo come to say hello. I introduce BetterArf and find myself apologising for her lack of abaya and continuing belly button exposure. Bongo quite understands, in fact he seems to be having a good old leer.
During the days when I am at work, BetterArf and Offspring explore Riyadh a bit. She is only able to go out because her honour is protected by our five-year-old son. So that was a relief!
At the weekend we go for a drive into the desert. Well at least as far into the desert as you can get until you reach a police checkpoint and get sent back to town because you have no authorisation to leave. But we did see some sand dunes and some camels.
BetterArf had several culture shock experiences. First of all she was shocked at how Riyadh had changed me, how the formerly easy-going fun-loving bloke she had married had been turned into a totally paranoid freak who saw trouble lurking around every corner. Secondly, she was pissed off that she was not allowed to enter a record shop. If she wanted something she could wait at the door and someone would bring it for her. Finally, in Jarir Bookstore she was allowed to enter, but only up to a point. A large part of the stock is contained in a section marked ‘gentlemen only’. What’s that, the porn section?
BetterArf has been thinking that maybe we will all move to Riyadh at some point in the future, so she’s making enquiries about teaching jobs and housing and stuff. But I think I realised during this visit that this was no place for us to bring up our son. We could not endure the strictures of Saudi society even if we lived on a Western compound, and I absolutely did not want Offspring to grow up thinking that it was normal for women to be confined to the house all the time.
After a few days we moved into Ken and Barbie’s apartment, where there were pleasantly landscaped gardens, a huge swimming pool, and a relaxed atmosphere. Offspring mastered the art of swimming and probably spent all day every day doing it.
I was going to post a few weeks ago about the utter coolness of HSBC's SMS alerts service. Anytime any money goes into my account, I get an SMS telling me about it.
Just now I got an SMS from them wishing me a happy birthday. Aaaaah! Unfortunately they missed out the bit that said 'and because you are our favourite number one customer, we have bunged an extra Dhs 5,000 into your account. Luv and kisses, your favourite number one bank.'
To the 1/365s of the world's population who are sharing a birthday today (about sixteen and a half million of us), happy birthday!
Don't forget you're a Libran.
My Libran character traits are supposed to be something like this: Diplomatic (not) Intelligent (quite) Thoughtful (mmm) Sociable (after a few beers) Strong sense of justice (yepp) Likes change (dunno) Flirty (erm...) Visual (yepp) Sentimental (a bit) Optimistic (more often than not) Indecisive (more on this later) Charming (wife says I'm cute) Artistic (yepp) Harmonious (try to be) Idealistic (yepp) Self-indulgent (probably) Romantic (!) Over-generous (nope, I'm a Yorkshireman as well) Tactful (missed that one) Ambitious (yepp) Creative (yepp) Kind (I try) Peace-loving (yepp)
I sound lovely don't I? But here's the problem. I can be indecisive because I can understand and empathise with several sides of any argument. Even making simple decisions can be a problem. BetterArf says 'shall we go to see a movie?', and I say 'yes, no, yes, maybe, dunno'. This drives her nuts! After one such bout of ambiguity, she said 'isn't there a cure for being a Libran yet?'.
Anyway, according to astrologers, my 18-year-old marriage is doomed - BetterArf is a Scorpio, and Scorpios and Librans just don't work!
At last, they've started going through the motions of making this murderer pay for what he has done. The judge let him get away with far too much to begin with. And Saddam's buddies complaining about being deprived of their headgear. Of course, Saddam claimed that the whole process was illegal. As if legality had ever bothered him in the past.
Fast Lamborghini in KSA My original job offer included ‘a car or travel allowance’. Since I had been compelled to stay in the apartment behind the office, Bongo had decided that I didn’t need a car or travel allowance after all. If I had to travel anywhere on business then the cost of that would be re-imbursed, provided that I had had three competitive tenders from taxi drivers, and chosen the cheapest one. Eventually I got him to agree that the original job offer was very clear on this point and that he had an obligation. So a backdated travel allowance was paid, and a small car would become available in a few weeks time when one of their engineers completed his short-term contract and returned the Chevrolet Sprint the office had given him.
I spent a couple of days acquiring a Saudi Driving Licence, and then Ibrahim the Saudi PRO took me out for a couple of driving lessons. Of course, I knew how to drive in England, but driving in Saudi is quite a different proposition.
On the housing issue, though, I could not make Bongo budge. The job offer had only said ‘accommodation will be provided’, there was no mention of Western compounds, and really I should be grateful to have a luxurious penthouse apartment in Sulimaniyah, Riyadh’s answer to London’s Mayfair. Well, maybe I should have been grateful. If I’d had my family with me I probably would have been…
Fundamentalist Loonies in KSA I only encountered one Muttaween during my year in Riyadh, and that was plenty thank you. The American engineer had escaped from his site for a week because his wife was in town before they both went on vacation. We’ll call him Ken, and his wife of course is Barbie. They very kindly invited me to accompany them on a visit to one of the soukhs. After looking at lots of stuff together, Ken disappeared into a shop that I was not interested in. Tall, blue-eyed, blond-haired Barbie followed. She was wearing an abbaya but no headscarf. I waited outside and began rolling a cigarette.
Out of the blue this very scruffy looking Saudi came up to me and prodded me with a stick. I turned to face him and he said ‘your wife should cover her hair’. I was a bit taken aback and explained that my wife was in England. He looked totally confused for a moment, obviously calculating what the relationship might be. He dashed into the shop that Barbie and Ken had gone into, and came out seconds later. It seems they had disappeared (this particular row of shops could be entered from both ends. And exited too, of course). Mr Muttawa returned to me, told me I should not smoke (not completely stupid, then) and slunk off, muttering something under his aromatic breath. I spent an anxious half-hour looking for Barbie and Ken. I found them eventually and we went home.
Barbie and Ken lived in a place called Sahara Towers. This was a Western compound of about six apartment blocks in the middle of Riyadh. It turned out that they would be on holiday in Cyprus for one of the weeks that my family would be here, and they very kindly offered us the use of their apartment during that week. This was too good to be true!
Forward Looking in KSA As the arrival of my family grew closer, Bongo called me into his arctic office and gave me a flyer about Index, the big interior design exhibition in Dubai. He said ‘you should go to this’. I looked at it and realised that the dates were slap bang in the middle of my family’s visit.
I’d heard a bit about this Dubai place, about how it was so relaxed and you could get beer and you hardly felt like you were in the Middle East at all. Sounded like my kinda place!
The timing was a bit of a problem. I had no intention of losing 2-3 days of our precious time together. They couldn’t come with me because there was no time to arrange a multi-entry visa for Saudi. We couldn’t re-arrange their visit so that it started or ended on the dates of the exhibition because of UK work and school commitments. Regretfully I had to decline the chance of a jolly in Dubai, but it gave me an another idea which was that we would spend the final week of the visit in Bahrain, and the family could return to the UK from there.
Frighteningly Ludicrous in KSA It took about three or four months for Bongo to get my residence visa (Iqama) sorted out. Apparently there was some kind of quota system for various nationalities and professions. So a company might be allocated visas for five Indian civil engineers, two Egyptian structural engineers and so on. Bongo had not been allocated a visa for one British interior designer, and so eventually he had to go and see Prince Nayef to get the visa authorised. At least, that was what Bongo told me, and he expected me to be seriously grateful.
So finally I had the little green book and was able to open a bank account and, well, open a bank account. I was also able to sponsor my family to come over on visit visas.
This proved to be a very frustrating exercise, once again involving diplomatic bags, wasted trips to London, and a whole lot of money. One day, BetterArf went to the Saudi Embassy in London to see if any progress had been made. They said they did not have her passport. She explained that she’d sent it two weeks ago, and could they please have a good look. The person at the desk explained that it was impossible that they’d had the thing for two weeks because otherwise the visa would have been stamped in it and it would have been mailed to her.
At which, BetterArf took the only course of action that a sensible person could under the circumstances and burst into tears. Offspring helped. The commotion attracted the attention of a senior-type bloke who came out of his office to see what was going on. He immediately took BetterArf and Offspring into a room that contained several piles of passports, found hers and stamped a visa in it.
Foolish Lebanese in KSA B’stard left the company for pastures new a few months after I joined. I was somewhat relieved. He was replaced by a strange Lebanese guy who seemed to take a shine to me. When he arrived in Riyadh he was given a room for one night only at the Al Khozama Hotel. But when he tried to check-out the next morning the hotel insisted that he pay the bill. He explained that they should invoice Bongo, and they explained that Mr Bongo no longer had credit facilities with the hotel. So the Lebanese guy refused to leave the hotel and stayed there for about three days while Bongo scraped together the cash to pay the ever-increasing bill.
So not an auspicious start for our new GM. After a few days he came to me and asked where was all the nightlife, the fun, the cinemas, the theatre? When I had stopped laughing and picked myself up off the floor, I said ‘you’re joking right?’ He said he wasn’t. I said ‘how can you not know that these things don’t exist in Saudi Arabia?’
On our brief trip to Maul of the Emirates yesterday, we picked up a couple of things from Car4 that we don't normally come across. Namely: goat (got a small chunk of goat leg), and quinces (got 2).
I googled 'goat recipes' and settled on one for goat tagine. BetterArf found an Australian recipe for baked quince with orange syrup. The tagine took about 3 hours to cook. I was a bit disappointed because we do have a Moroccan tagine (ie the ceramic pot with conical lid) but I couldn't use the lid because it wouldn't fit in the combi-oven, and I had to cover the base dish with foil. I couldn't use the real oven because BetterArf had got first dibs on it. Anyway, the tagine turned out to be supremely disappointing - it should have had some dried apricots in it and I totally forgot to put them in. The goat meat was tender but flavourless. Moving on...
The quince thing. BetterArf thought the syrup recipe called for way too much sugar, so she used less than it suggested. The quinces are basted with it during the baking. To serve them you pour the remaining syrup over them and serve with plain yoghurt. But oh the sweetness of the quinces and the syrup was just overwhelming. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, and when I took my first (and only) bite of the quince I could feel all my fillings wriggling to get out and go live somewhere else. BetterArf responded in much the same way, and the dessert was consigned to the desert. Ack.
Faintly Lost in KSA One day, Juma from admin came to me and gave me an airline ticket and a letter in Arabic. I asked him what this was about and he said ‘you are going to Jeddah tomorrow to meet people at xxxx client site.’ It’s the first I’ve heard of it. ‘Abdul and Abdullah are also going and they will hire a car and take you to the meeting’. Oh great, and what’s this letter? ‘This letter is from Mr Bongo, authorising you to leave Riyadh for tomorrow only.’
That’s another amazing thing about Saudi – expats cannot leave their base without permission from their sponsor. They also cannot leave the country without an exit visa!
But I was puzzled about this sudden need to go to Jeddah, and why Abdul and Abdullah were being sent as well. Who was I going to meet? What to do? What was it all about? I still don’t know. When we arrived at the airport in Jeddah, A and A organised a very crummy hire car, and drove us to the client’s premises. After much confusion and difficulty getting into the building, it turned out that the main guy we needed to see, inshallah, was in Riyadh today. So we saw his assistant but it was a complete and utter waste of time. I asked A & A whether this meeting had been pre-arranged with the client and they said they didn’t know, Mr Bongo had just told them they had to go.
Anyway, Jeddah looked like a nice place – the women wore multi-coloured abayas, and the whole place seemed a bit more relaxed than Riyadh. It is also a much older city and there were some fairly interesting old buildings with intricately carved wooden balconies and mushrabiyahs. And, unlike Riyadh, it’s on the coast.
The UAE is suffering from serious inflation these days, and it has just been announced that fees for several Government services will be increased soon.
I'm still reeling from paying for a bunch of services that are basically a money-spinner for the Government, related to renewing my wife's residence visa. Now, I know that in theory I could get these things done a bit cheaper if I went and queued at the various departments myself, but TECOM offers a very good PRO service that saves you all the time and hassle. But the costs mount up alarmingly. Like this:
Blood test/health card renewal: about Dhs 360. Renewal pack (whatever that means): Dhs 350. Entry permit typing: Dhs 360. For typing about 10 words in Arabic? Somebody's having a laugh. Urgent stamping: Dhs 260. I asked what would happen if we didn't pay for urgent stamping. They said the application would just rot in a drawer.
And that's not all. There will be a fine of around Dhs 500 because the renewal is a bit late. Nobody bothers to use their wonderful computer systems to send out a reminder or anything, so when we did realise that the previous visa had expired (fortunately only a week previously) we had a bit of a panic. The passport is also due to expire in a few months, and they won't put a visa in a passport with less than six months validity remaining, so a new one had to be obtained before we could even begin the process. That took about ten days, and the cost of that has risen sharply too - just short of Dhs 500! Ouch.
I'm irritated by this because residence visas are only valid for three years. Why this should be I do not know. But basically what it boils down to is another invisible tax on expats.
The gigantic Mall of the Emirates opened about a week ago, and this afternoon we paid it a brief visit. It's another mall, what can I say? I liked the light and airy car park. I liked the spacious walkways. I liked the fact that it was about an hour and a half before Iftar, and therefore not insanely crowded.
Fear and Loathing in KSA One of the things that really got on my nerves was the amount and quality of censorship. I understand that Islam presribes modest dress, although how that comes to be interpreted as meaning women should cover every inch of skin, including the face and hands in solar-friendly black fabric is beyond me.
Whenever I bought a foreign newspaper I was appalled to find that perfectly innocuous photos and adverts had been vandalised by thugs with thick black markers. And that CD covers would be given the same treatment. I bought a CD once where the image of the female singer had been blacked out up to her neck and even her lips were blacked out.
I was also getting irritated by the way that women were treated. One of my local record shops was closed down by the Muttawa because a female customer had been allowed inside! Women were not allowed to drive, and could only leave the house with the permission of their husband and in the company of a male relative.
I quickly developed a form of paranoia. One of the reasons was the fact that after a couple of months I still had no residence visa, and as far as I knew my visit visa had expired. I always carried a letter from Bongo with me explaining that my visa was ‘in process’. So I was wary of encounters with policemen. Another reason was that I was a stranger in a very strange land. I began to practice a form of thought-censorship, trying not to think about how crap my personal situation was, and trying to believe that there must be some goodness and logic in all the censorship, the oppression, the apparent lack of warmth in human relationships. Whatever I said or did was always accompanied by me thinking ‘is this an ok thing to think/say/do in Saudi Arabia?’
I saw a car advertised yesterday that a) I could afford and b) I could afford and c) isn't made out of cardboard. I called the guy, arranged to see it this morning, haggled a bit, and bought it.
In view of what has been said on this blog article, I almost don't want to tell you what it is. OK then, it's a 7-series BMW. But it's a million years old and bits are falling off it, ok! It's just a way to get from A to B without having to wait for a bus or entrust your precious life to a taxi driver.
Completing the deal took all morning - we had to go from Jebel Ali to Deira to get the insurance transferred over to me. And then we had to go to the vehicle registration place in Al Quoz. They have a system there where you get given a queue ticket when you go in, but as we didn't get there till about 1215 they had stopped issuing tickets for that session - they close at 2pm, and it looked like it would take them at least until then to process the waiting multitudes. Undeterred, the Moroccan guy I was buying the car off went cruising around the building looking for any staff member he could try to pull some wasta on, or if that failed, bribe.
We got done in fifteen minutes and it cost an extra Dhs 100, but I most certainly am not complaining. So, sorry, no more bus and taxi stories - I'll just be whingeing about how naff it is to drive in Dubai from now on.
Fused 'Lectric in KSA It had become my habit to wheel my computer across the hall from the office to the apartment at weekends. This was not so that I could do work without entering those hallowed halls, it was so that I could play with it. I was mastering AutoCAD and 3D Studio. Oh and maybe playing some games. Maybe.
One week it actually happened – Bongo had got me a new PC with more RAM than anyone had ever thought possible, a whole 20Mb. And it was a 486! I was immensely pleased with it.
Come Thursday afternoon I trundled it across the hallway, plugged it in, switched it on and BANG! A big bang, a plume of smoke out of the back of the machine, and absolute panic from yours truly.
Saudi Arabia, for some utterly bizarre and inexplicable reason, has two flavours of electricity. Some sockets operate at 110 Volts, others at 220 or 240 Volts. The plugs and sockets are, however, exactly the same. Frequently you will get a few of each inside one house. These voltages are for guidance only though, the actual stuff coming out of the walls can be 15% more or less than what you expect. To counter this, all computer users in KSA are connected via a brown and beige box that stabilises the voltage. All computers sold in the Kingdom can operate at 110 or 220, and some can automatically detect what voltage they are being fed on. As it happens, my new PC did not have this auto-detection feature, and it was not switched to whatever the voltage was in the apartment. So the power supply in the computer blew up. I waited anxiously until early evening, when the computer soukh opened, and took the PC to a shop to be fixed. The guy laughed, he’d seen a lot of these. Come back in half an hour and it will be working. And it was, for maybe 30 Riyals. Was I relieved or what?!
Fully Lost in KSA Time for a little assessment of my situation.
After about two months, my wonderful boss had not given me the car that I was contractually entitled to. The ‘temporary’ accommodation was looking very much like it was going to be permanent. My iqama (residence visa) had still not been processed, and as far as I knew my visit visa had expired.
I had no friends, no neighbours, and no telephone. The only way I could speak to my family in the UK was to use public phone boxes, and these only took old-style coins that you had to buy from an old guy who sometimes hung around near the international call-boxes, and sometimes didn’t.
I had tried as hard as I could to meet people and to socialise with them. This basically meant being matey with the guys in the office, but this was by no means an easy thing to do. I can say that, without exception, they were all extremely jealous of me. I was the only one who got paid on anything like a regular basis. One of the guys had warned me during my first week that Bongo operated a policy of always keeping everybody a couple of months behind with their salary. I made it very clear to Bongo that I had commitments in the UK and that I had to be paid on time, and hinted that I might not be very productive if my pay was late.
The guys were also envious of my ‘fabulous’ accommodation. I had visited the homes of one or two of them by this time, and the contrast was astonishing.
I did get quite friendly with one chap who ran a curtain and fabrics business. He was a Brit who had been in Saudi forever, and he was as gay as a nine-bob note. So I didn’t get too close to him, nudge nudge, wink, wink.
Outside of work there was zero opportunity for meeting people. Usually in a new town you can meet people by joining a club of some sort, amateur dramatics or gardening or something, but if such things existed, they were kept very very secret. I was a deeply unhappy bunny.
Ooh, reading this article has made me all emotional for one of the (apparently) disappearing aspects of British kiddie kulcher. I can't remember the last time I saw or played conkers. Maybe I can get Spinneys to order some in and start a Conker League somewhere like Jebel Ali Cloob.
Frazzled Larrikin in KSA I began to venture out of the building I lived in a little bit. Almost immediately next door was quite a large supermarket. It had a decent range of stuff that was more than adequate for my simple needs – except for the total lack of bacon and other pork products, of course. I was in there one afternoon when the call to prayer started blasting out over the PA system. The shutters came down at the front of the shop and the lights started to go out. I found a member of staff to find out what on earth was going on and he said ‘it’s prayer time, sir, please wait’. Bloody hell, I’d only gone in for a loaf of bread and some cheese and was held prisoner inside the shop for half an hour!
In Saudi Arabia, the entire country grinds to a halt five times a day for prayers. The call to prayer is broadcast on the radio, through malls, and live in all its tuneless variety from the minarets of mosques. And everything stops. You can be in the middle of a business meeting, and people will rush off to pray.
It was something I never really got used to. Bongo’s office used the hallway outside the elevator as its prayer room. One day I was returning to the office after a meeting outside and I took the lift to the second floor. The lift doors opened. Fifteen of my colleagues were prostrating themselves before me. I had no idea what to do, but my legs wouldn’t move and after what seemed like a very long time the lift doors closed and I returned to the ground floor. A bit later the ‘imam’ came to yell at me. I asked him what I was supposed to do, and he said don’t enter the office during prayer time. I thought of explaining that I had work to do and deadlines to meet, and the lift didn’t have windows, but it didn’t seem to be such a good idea.
Farcical Lifestyle in KSA In the early months I tried to be nice to Mr Bongo and to get him to understand that the quality of my work was directly proportionate to how happy I was. But he was not a guy that I could get close to – he did all the standard boss-worker stuff like having midget chairs for visitors in front of his desk, ignoring me for the first few minutes when I entered his office, etc.
Sometimes he would wander around cubicle-land to see what folks were up to. One time I was designing something by hand, working on tracing paper placed over a grid. We do this so that we can draw freehand lines that are fairly straight, and also get a sense of the scale of the thing we are working on. Bongo looked at this grid and said ‘that’s a cross!’ So what, I thought, it’s only a work tool. And actually there are multiple crosses in the grid, why are you getting so worked up about it?
That was my first clue that I was dealing with a madman. But he loved to show off his new toy (me) to any Saudi guest or client who came into the office. ‘Genuine English!’ he would say. One day Dr Client came in, and we were talking about the design of his new house. He said he wanted a staircase similar to the one in Bongo’s house. Which kinda put Bongo on the spot because he certainly did not want us poor mortals to a) know where he lived and b) see how he lived. But he was trapped and invited me for dinner the next night.
Bongo said the dinner would be a bit formal, and I never did work out what he meant by that. But what I took it to mean was that I should wear a suit and a tie. Big mistake – we sat outside by Bongo’s pool for two hours before eating – I was somewhat warm, I can tell you. There were a few of his cousins, some kids, and Bongo’s granddad. All male. There was endless small talk, and then everyone rushed into the dining room at about 10.30. I was starving – I normally have my evening meal around 8pm, and had not eaten a thing before I came out.
The food was delicious – what we ignorant westerners call a ‘mutton grab’. But when I saw this whole roast sheep on a mountain of rice with its head placed on top I really thought that this was going to be my ‘eat the sheep’s eyeballs’ moment. However I was spared that because Granddad grabbed them, saying ‘they’re the best bit!’. (Only joking). But still no women! Were there any? Where did these kids come from? What was going on?
Fortunately this was not the first time I’d attempted to eat like an Arab, so I used a fork. Granddad thought this cutlery lark was most entertaining and told me that while I didn’t know whether the cutlery was clean or not, he certainly knew where his hands had been. And then all the food was gone and everyone buggered off or went to bed. And I completely forgot to look at the staircase so I had to go back the next day.
Secret Dubai has raised the issue of the Thursday/Friday vs Friday/Saturday weekend again.
The UAE adopted Thursday and Friday as the official weekend for government and schools (because how can the education ministry supervise the schools when the ministry is closed?) about five years ago. This caused lots of problems for lots of families where the breadwinner continued to have a Friday/Saturday weekend.
And it continues to cause difficulties for businesses who have lots of dealings with the rest of the world, because they only have three days a week when both parties are actually at work. I've been having a problem with this myself recently because I am working on an e-commerce project where guys from a local bank are trying to interact with a very large financial organisation in Australia. As it happens, the bank has a Friday/Saturday weekend, but that still only leaves four days a week for the stuff to get done.
Anyhoo, the comments section on SD's article is very interesting - a poster points out that both the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, and one created specially for Muslims, Pakistan, both have Saturday/Sunday weekends, with Muslim workers being given extra time off to attend Friday prayers. I was amazed to learn that!
So if it works for them, why couldn't it work here?
Feisty Librans in KSA I was introduced to my colleagues, and pretty quickly spotted that I was the only paleface in the office. I was told that there was another one, an American, but he was working on a site about 100 kms away and only came into the office on Thursdays. Hmmm. The staff were Egyptian, Indian, Pakistani, and one Jordanian (let’s call him Ramez) who was a spy for the boss and who tried to make my life as hellish as possible.
Bongo’s company was originally involved in civil engineering. He had bolted on a couple of architects, and had recently won a couple of interior design contracts with the stipulation that the designer be British (c’est moi). On my second day I was introduced to Dr Client, who was the Minister of SomethingorOther and actually a very smart cookie.
Ali Bongo owned the company, and his personal office was almost as big as the main production area that contained about 16 architects, engineers and draughtsmen. Quite right too. How else would anyone know who was in charge? Second in command was the General Manager and Chief Architect, let’s call him B’astard, and it turned out that he had been the bane of Charlie’s life in Kuwait. I mentioned to him that we had a mutual acquaintance, and he just sniffed.
My first weekend arrived (Thursday afternoon and all day Friday), and I was wondering what I was going to do. Foolishly, I asked Ramez what one did on a weekend in Riyadh. Like a shot he promised to pick me up early on Thursday evening and show me the sights, maybe have dinner, drink some wine and go to a nightclub. I was fairly certain that these last two activities would not be happening, and I was right. We ended up mooching around the big shopping mall in Olaya district (I think it’s called the Akariya Center, but I could be wrong). I was horrified. Actually I was bored rigid, but Ramez seemed to be getting some kind of a buzz out of it. He obviously had x-ray vision because he was ogling (presumably young) ladies in their abayas and I don’t know the name of bag over the head, and, I don’t know, maybe he had a good imagination.
Exhausted by the thrills of the mall, we went to a restaurant. Ramez drove us in his fairly new car and this didn’t seem at all remarkable to me at the time. It was only a few months later when some of the Indians started trusting me that they told me he’d been given the car by Bongo as a reward for a particularly outstanding bit of spying he’d done. The restaurant was nothing special – kebabs done on an outdoor barbie, rice, fresh squeezed juice from any fruit you could imagine, hummus, tabbouleh, moutabal. I had my first shot at eating Arabic-style, using the right hand to scoop stuff up. I had been led to believe that the left hand was considered unclean. But guess what? I’m left-handed. Trying to use the right hand was just a complete disaster, two years olds can eat more tidily than that!
According to a feature in today's Gulf News, around one in six (16.6%) websites are blocked by Etisalat's proxy. This compares with less than 1% in Bahrain.
The plain fact is that Etisalat blocks numerous sites that cannot be considered offensive in any way. They have on occasion blocked commercial rivals, eg Skype and various SMS gateways. For some bizarre reason translation sites are also blocked. Almost every day I come across a blocked site.
Now, I know that a lot of people in the Emirates appreciate Etisalat's proxy as a kind of free kid-filter service. But I also know that it drives me crazy (and most of the serious adult web users that I know) . If you want to see dodgy sites, there are numerous ways to do it, proxy or no proxy. If you just want unfettered and speedy access to the Internet, then you should have the option of not using the proxy.
The Gulf News feature mentions the possibility of TECOM, Nakheel and Emaar subscribers being brought into line with Etisalat (ie the first lot get a proxy). And the less likely scenario of Etisalat being aligned with the others (no proxy).
But, for sure, if TECOM gets a proxy it will do enormous damage to the global reputation that the Internet and Media Cities have worked so hard to cultivate.
The posts with the green headlines and italic text are instalments of what happened to me when I lived in Riyadh from May 2003 to May 2004. How it made me a bitter and twisted person. How I completely failed to enjoy myself for an entire year. How I still have serious misgivings about the place.
I'll be publishing a little bit every day for about the next month. This is written almost entirely from memory, although BetterArf has just found a file of letters we wrote each other during that time. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
This is not intended to be an attack on Riyadh per se. It is simply an account of a simple bloke to make sense of a hostile place.
French Lessons in KSA I arrived in Riyadh at about 1am.
I wasn’t too impressed with the ancient one-eyed taxi driver and his equally old motorcar, but he somehow managed to get me to the hotel in one piece.
Bongo’s office had booked me a room at the Al-Khozama Hotel, and I would have had a good night’s sleep had it not been for the copulating couple in the room next door, the very thin walls and the 5am call to prayer from the huge modern mosque right across the road.
A driver from Bongo’s office picked me up at 7am, and I went to meet my new employer. The company occupied the top floor of a 3-storey building. My accommodation was across the stairwell from the office. It was a 2-bedroom apartment – recently refurbished, quite large, pink nylon carpet. I was a bit bemused by it. I had asked that I be housed in a Western compound, and Bongo had said he would see what he could do. In hindsight I realise that meant ‘not a chance, you stupid git’.
Before arriving in Riyadh I had several consultations with Charlie, who had enlightened me on a few things to do with living in the Gulf. Paramount among these was that you didn’t want to live among the hoi-polloi, you wanted to live on a Western compound. This was a strange concept for me to get my head round, but basically these compounds are like housing estates complete with shops, pools, schools and social clubs, surrounded by a wall, guarded by security guys and basically off-limits to the police and Muttawa. I thought it all sounded a bit fascist and couldn’t really see what would be so bad about living where everybody else lived. Until I got there.
Funky Lobsters in KSA Before arriving in Do Buy about twelve years ago, I spent one miserable year in Riyadh, Saudiland. I seriously regret not keeping any kind of a diary of this time. It was certainly a year that I will never forget, but I cannot actually place the events into any realistic order. Here’s what happened…
I was happily working away as an Interior Designer in England, when the entire country was besieged by a recession. Clients stopped commissioning new projects, half of the registered architects in the UK became unemployed and the company that I worked for went bust.
I struggled on for a bit doing what freelance work I could get. It wasn’t nearly enough to sustain our obligations. A former colleague of mine (let’s call him Charlie, he worked in Kuwait for about 10 years) called me and said he’d heard of an opportunity in Riyadh, was I up for it? Well, I had no Middle East experience and really didn’t know what to make of it, but times were hard so I followed through. I submitted my CV, and about a week later I had a phone call from the owner of the company in Riyadh. For the sake of brevity we’ll call him Ali Bongo (his real name is Ali Bongo Bin Bongo Al Bongo). He asked me a few questions and told me to go to a certain architect in London for a bit of an interview. It turns out this company had done some work for Ali Bongo, and he trusted them to evaluate that all my senses were working, that I had the requisite number of limbs, and, most importantly (I found out later), that I was a paleface. The architect explained that his seeing me was not to be taken as any kind of endorsement of Bongo, and his company would not be held responsible for anything that happened.
A week later I got a fax from Riyadh offering me the job. I had to go to London again (we lived near Manchester at the time) to apply for a visa from the Saudi Embassy. I already had my visa number (by fax from Bongo), but they were not remotely interested – the only thing that worked for them was the shit in the weekly diplomatic bag.
The diplomatic bag with my visa in it took about two weeks to arrive. Two days after that, my passport bearing a Saudi visa of some sort plopped through the letterbox. The deal was, it was a one-year, bachelor-status contract. I was less than happy at the prospect. I would be leaving BetterArf and Offspring, who was only five at the time. But I had no alternative. I called Bongo’s office to arrange a flight, and shortly thereafter I was on it.
Yesterday wasn't the complete unmitigated disaster I described in the previous post. I got a taxi home, and the driver wanted to know exactly which building I wanted to go to. I told him there was no point in me telling him, because he wouldn't know where it was, and would just try driving around until he stumbled across it.
Try me, he says.
So I tell him the number and he reels off the exact directions, word perfect. Yow. He got a big tip!
Bloggers are a bunch of whingeing gits. I know, I am a master at it. In fact I am probably extra-qualified because Brits are known for expressing their feelings of unhappiness the world over (unless they have the stiff-upper-lip thingy) (gene?). Anyway, what follows is a whinge, moan, gripe, call it what you will, so if you don't care to read such things, feel free to move on now, and thanks for the hit.
There's actually two intermingled stories here. The first concerns one of my absolute best clients, and the second concerns my least favourite bank.
A bit over a week ago I had a meeting with nearly best client and took a briefing for three websites to be done in the near future. The first of these is to be done immediately, so I work out a quick price, it's accepted, and come and get the cheque for the upfront money. I go to their office after my pointless trek round Git Ex, and pick up the cheque. It is only when I get to my least favourite bank to try to slap it in the next day that I realise the damn' thing is not signed!!! Aargh. So I call nearly best client, who is very apologetic and promises to try to swing by Media City or something. The next day I get a call from nearly best client's administrator who says they'll do a new cheque and entrust it to a courier for delivery. OK, that's cool.
The next day, Wednesday, I'm in the office, but no sign of a delivery. I try to treat Thursdays as a bit of the weekend, but I'd asked the DMC staff to give me a call if the delivery showed up. No call. This morning I went into the office and there was a voicemail message 'Hi Sir, this is ****ex, what is your location?'. This message had been left Thursday morning. ****ex are usually pretty good with in-town deliveries, and in this case I would have expected them to revert back to the sender and get my location and/or mobile number. But they didn't. They just binned the delivery.
Anyhoo, I know from the message phone number that Aramex (oops, I meant ****ex) have an office in Internet City. I'm planning to pass that way because I need to withdraw some cash from National Bank of *****. So, as I am still a wheel-less enviro-warrior, I decide that I will take a stroll over to the Aram** office, because the undelivered package is bound to be there, isn't it.
A small aside. The entire Media City / Internet City / Knowledge Hamlet site is currently split in two by the construction of the access roads for the Jumeirah Palm. The building that ****ex is in is on the other side of this building site. I approach the site with trepidation and explain to the guy at the barrier that I want to get to that building over there. He lets me into the site and off I go. When I finally get to the ****ex office, I am sweating like a sweaty thing and can barely talk.
The chap in the office brings up the record on his screen, and I see instantly that one digit of the office phone number is incorrect. So I wonder how the courier managed to leave a message on the actual number? And more to the point, gimme the package. Tappety-tap at the keyboard. 'It's not here, sir'.
'It's at HQ in Za'abeel'. Excellent. Truly bloody marvellous.
I suggest to them that they didn't try hard enough to contact me, and that they should stick it in a taxi, right now this minute, and send it to National Bank of **** where I will be waiting in a queue. They decline. They will deliver it after 4pm. I tell them to make sure they do, and advise them that I will not be there at that time but they can leave it with the peeps on reception. Sheesh.
I trek back through the blazing desert heat to the National Bank of *****. It's closed! Unlike any bank I've ever been in in the UAE over the last 12 years, this branch does not open on a Saturday! Unbe-bloody-lievable.
The other story concerns National Bank of ***** and some couriers. A bit under a year ago I opened a business account with NB*. It seemed like a good idea at the time. They had what looked like a fully-functioning branch in Media City Phase 2, and that seemed to be pretty convenient. We all make mistakes. A few weeks after opening the account I asked them where my ATM card and online banking login details had got to. They looked at me as if I'd asked for a grilled stoat on ciabatta. First of all, they never give ATMs on corporate accounts. 'Oh really, every other bank on the planet does' I say, but they are unmoved. Bollox. OK, what about online banking? Umm, OK, fill in this 20-page form.
I fill in the form and a week later a courier calls me asking for my location. Well, I'm currently at a meeting in Dubai but you can leave it at reception in DMC. Oh no, sir, you have to sign for it. Bugger. I tell them to deliver it the next morning. I get the delivery, and it's approaching Thursday luchtime so I toddle off to the pub to get the weekend started. The minute I walk through the hallowed portals of the Alamo the phone rings. It's a courier wondering what my location might be. I'm not expecting a courier delivery, but he says it's from NB*. Oh, I laugh, I've already had that. No sir, says the courier, that was your password. This is your PIN. Oh for God's sake you cannot be serious. I tell him to burn it. No I don't, I tell him to deliver it to the Media City branch of NB*.
I'm really really busy the next few weeks, and every time I go to NB*, so are they, so I don't manage to collect the PIN until about three weeks later. Ah, says the lovely Fatima, you didn't collect it, so we destroyed it. Thank you very much, say I, that's really bloody helpful. 'I can request another set if you like'. Well please do, and get them delivered to this branch. Don't even think of trying to co-ordinate my presence in the office with two separate couriers!
Eventually. Eventually, I manage to use the assorted gubbins and get online. The first thing I do is change my password like they tell you to. The next time I try to login it won't play. I try logging in a couple of times and then I decide that it might be fun to waste a few hours trying to get through to a tech support person. Long-suffering call centre operator tells me there's been three bad login attempts today, so the account has been blocked. Ah, OK, that was me. So can you unblock it please? No sir, we have to issue a new password and PIN. Marvellous, send it to the DMC Branch.
That was back in July. I picked the stuff up, but never used it because I was going on holiday that day. When I got back from holiday I could not for the life of me find this info. But I found it this morning! I have a new lappie bag so I was transferring the contents from the old one and there were these unopened password and PIN envelopes!
Awright, let's give it a go. Doesn't work. Give it another go. Doesn't work. Call the desperation line. 'Try logging in again', she says. I do so. I get locked out because there's been three bad login attempts in one day. 'Send it to the DMC branch then', says poor long-suffering Keefieboy. Round about lunchtime she calls back 'just checking that was the Rashidiya branch, yes?'. Ohmigawd.
I never expect banks to ever give me anything that I actually want, (and please, Gulf-ites, the nationality of this bank is irrelevant, I have equally crap stories about UK banks that I might bore you with in the future), but I am really, truly, astonished at how difficult NB* have made it to access information that I am entitled to. And also money that belongs to me - the only way I can get cash from this account is to go and physically queue at the branch.