A mysterious land
Saudi Arabia – that far-flung land of oil, the Koran and Laurence of Arabia is a place that few people get to visit. It is not a holiday destination with most tourists travelling to nearby Dubai or Bahrain instead. In fact if you wanted to visit Saudi Arabia for a holiday you wouldn’t be allowed anyway due to strict immigration control. The only way to visit the Kingdom as a foreigner is to work there. I was fortunate that my late father who was a land surveyor landed a job working for the government in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Life in the capital
If Mecca is regarded as the heart of Islam, Riyadh located in the heart of the Kingdom is undoubtedly the enforcer of the religion. Compared to the more liberal Red Sea resort of Jeddah, Riyadh as a city strictly follows the practices of the Holy book. As in all parts of the country, this means that pork meat (including bacon) which is considered to be filthy is forbidden to be eaten. Alcohol is also completely prohibited within the Kingdom. The Matara (the religious police), pace the streets making sure that these practices are obeyed. If they are not heavy consequences can occur.
Women, who are considered as second citizens within the Kingdom, also have their own strict regime to obey. They have to keep separate from men in public, which means that romantic dining in restaurants is completely out of the question! In actual fact, public places such as restaurants are segregated in order to divide men between women. This even extends to public transport with women cramming in at the back of a bus shut off from the men by a division or wall. At the local zoo there are different days for men and women to visit. Once my mother arrived at the zoo on what she thought was women’s day, only to find out that it wasn’t. So whilst her family enjoyed the pleasures of the animals, she had to sit in the car feeling like an animal with everyone staring at her! Women are also not allowed to show their face or any part of their body (bar hands) in public. Instead under the boiling heat of the midday sun, they have to walk completely clothed in a black abire (a full length gown), which understandably attracts the heat. The same also applies to Western women living in Saudi Arabia. Although during the 1980’s expatriate women only needed to cover themselves in black from the neck down. However today, they also have to cover their hair as well. During my time in the country, my mother naturally respected and followed this conduct. However she was not without her fair share of problems. Once, we were shopping in a local mall with my father, when without realising it my mother’s leg slightly exposed itself through her abire. Without any warning she was pounced upon by a group of religious police who started hitting her against her legs with a long cane, prompting her to make sure she was covered up at all times!
A convoy of death
Women are also not allowed the honour of driving in the Kingdom. During the first Gulf War when the American troops stationed themselves in Saudi Arabia ready for the onslaught against Iraq, the local law against women driving ultimately provoked some tension. Many American female soldiers refused to obey this rule proclaiming that they were there to help defend the Kingdom and that they should be allowed to get on with their job. The government reluctantly agreed and so during the Gulf war US women could be seen driving their armoured jeeps around the Kingdom. Naturally, this caused a rift in the age old traditions of Saudi Arabia. A group of
Arabian women decided that this was the perfect time to stand ground and protest their rights against not being able to drive. So one day, the women ‘borrowed’ their husbands’ cars and drove a convoy along one of the main highways in Riyadh. Upon seeing this, one husband was so enraged that his wife could do such a thing that he shot her dead.
Money, money, money
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the richest nations in the world. Most expatriates flock there primarily to earn double the wage that they would have earned back in their native country. Even twenty years ago, Saudi Arabia was a well developed, modern country way ahead of itself. It was and still is a combination of Westernised infrastructure infused with a deeply religious heritage. Ultra modern skyscrapers and lavish buildings completely decked out with marble stand next to old mud forts; relics from the days of Laurence of Arabia. The King Khalid airport in Riyadh is the perfect example of opulence and extravagance. Upon arriving in the vast terminal completely covered in marble, the traveller descends the escalator surrounded by tropical waterfalls to be greeted by a huge fountain.
The weekly chop
Yet despite its contemporary image, one can still find barbaric acts that are straight out of medieval times. Most Fridays (the Islamic religious day) hundreds of people flock to the main square next to the Holy Mosque in Riyadh to witness a public execution. The prisoner is forced to kneel or lie down and then in broad daylight is beheaded. Children are pushed to the front of the crowds to observe this, with the hope that it teaches them a lesson. At the age of eight I was also invited to watch a public execution, but thankfully my parents refused! Beheadings are usually reserved for the most shocking of crimes such as murder and rape. However criminals convicted of petty crimes such as theft can endure other brutal punishments such as having their hands chopped off.
A unique life… under threat
Life in Saudi Arabia was and probably still is as different to life in Europe as one could imagine. There are many traditions and customs that an expatriate needed to learn to adjust to. One such difference is the fact that weekends in the Kingdom do not occur on Saturdays or Sundays but instead on Thursdays and Fridays. The British school that I attended followed this format so our school week began on a Saturday and ended on a Wednesday. Most expatriates live on compounds owned by their respective employers. They are housed in large villas surrounded by high walls and gates. Within these boundaries, life is pretty normal; one can relax by the tempting waters of the swimming pool, or burn off some calories on the basketball court. The compounds vary in size from ones like our small thirty-villa compound to huge complexes which are almost like separate villages in themselves. Sadly in our present, turbulent times these compounds aren’t as safe as they used to be. In 2003, terrorists targeted expatriates by detonating bombs which ripped apart several compounds in Riyadh.
An ‘Arabian’ Britain
The expatriates living in Saudi, tend to keep amongst themselves and many clubs and societies are formed, some which even try to restore some British elements in the heart of the Middle East. During my time, I recall fond memories of attending our very own “Last night of the Proms”, in which hundreds of Brits and other foreigners would cram into a hall and recreate their very own concert of much pomp and circumstance. With a sea of Union Jack flags and to such classics as “Rule Britannia” and “Jerusalem”, we would sing to our hearts’ content. Every year an English woman would dress in robes as Britannia herself and parade around the hall. One year, this honour was even bestowed upon my mother.
The natural beauty
One of the true natural beauties of Saudi Arabia is its vast desert which completely surrounds the urban metropolis of
Riyadh, much like how the Nevada desert encircles Las Vegas. It is not the Hollywood style desert of sweeping sand dunes and palm trees but a more rocky terrain with rugged cliff tops which is nevertheless just as breathtaking. The desert was a real unique magnet for us expatriates and every Thursday afternoon we would venture off into it for some pure adventure. My family were members of the Hash House Harriers, a group of intrepid Westerners who would congregate at some pre-planned meeting spot somewhere in the desert before dispersing off into two groups. One group went off for a run through the desert, which at times could be quite risky as the ground was mainly made up of loose rocks which often caused you to lose your footing. Most of the women and families opted for the less strenuous activity of a leisurely walk through the Arabian terrain. Some walks took us down sand dunes, through dried up river beds (known as waddis) and up into sheer cliffs such as the infamous ‘camel trail’, given its name as it was once the main route for the Bedouins and their caravan of camels. Known as the ‘ship of the desert’, camels can often be seen roaming freely in the desert. Although their main use is still as transport, camel milk and even meat are widely available in the supermarkets of Saudi Arabia. Camels are also used in one of the Kingdom’s most entertaining pastimes; camel racing. Crowds would line the desert track, some even clambering onto their vehicles’ roofs to catch a glimpse of the action, as riders balancing on top of their camels would gallop past. It had all the thrill and excitement of an English ‘Day at the Races’ but with a far more exotic and distinctive flavour!
With hindsight, Saudi Arabia was an incredible place to live. Full of mystique and splendour it offered a part of my life that I long to return to, but sadly realise that it would now be virtually impossible. That makes my time there seem all the more poignant and special.
Now in the 21st century, Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing change. As the country is becoming more liberal, women are starting to have more rights. Although it’s only the beginning, women can now mingle a little more freely and some have even started setting up their own businesses. In November 2005, two Saudi women were even elected in the country’s first ballot in which women were allowed to vote. Times are certainly changing indeed!