Ah, Saudi Arabia! For those who’ve never been there, it’s from a different planet. Unlike most countries, it is defined mostly by what is forbidden rather than what is allowed. Everybody has heard of the country’s oil reserves but there is a lot more to the place than that.
So what is forbidden?
Alcohol, even though it is a word derived from Arabic, is forbidden in all its forms which gives medical staff and high class chefs problems.
Driving, if you’re a woman, is not allowed. Saudi is the ONLY country in the world not to allow women to drive. Hence there is a whole employment class of ‘Driver’ who can be anything from taxi drivers to chauffeurs.
Pork is banned which means that one of the great breakfasts of ‘bacon butties’ with HP sauce is off the menu. You can buy a substitute of ‘beef bacon’ but it’s not the same.
There is NO social mixing of the genders in the society. This extends even to weddings where the only man and woman to actually meet (sometimes for the first time) are the bride and groom. There are two receptions which are separate ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ events and it is not unusual for them to be held on different days.
All of the above derives from the fact that Saudi Arabia society is totally Islamic. Everything that goes on is tested against the template of whether it is Islamic or non-Islamic. This is all pervasive and governs all aspects of life. As the place where Islam started and the site of its two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, it is not really surprising that it is controlled by the tenets of Islam. So that will run through all of what follows.
So, do people mange to get around the restrictions? Some people do manage to get bacon into the country, usually for their own consumption, especially in the Eastern Province where people go over to Bahrain and bring it home in their cars. However the driving ban on women is, to all intents and purposes, total.
Social mixing is another matter. The Saudis decided a long time ago that the ex-pat western workers would be housed in compounds. These are of all sizes and are usually very comfortable. They are surrounded by high walls and have gates manned by security personnel belonging to the compound. Inside is a little bit of western life. So there are parties and social getogethers where you wouldn’t know you were in Saudi Arabia. Women dress normally and don’t need to wear the all-encompassing black abaya, which they are required to wear outside the compounds.
I would expect that many people have heard of the Islamic prayer call which happens five times a day. In truth, only four impinge on a daily life. And there are actually six prayers. The time of the prayers vary against the clock as they are determined by the place of the Sun in the sky. The earliest is one and a half hours before sunrise, which implies that the ancients must have had a great understanding of the solar day. After all they were predicting when the Sun would rise. The second prayer (which is never called) is at dawn. The next is at local noon, followed by the mid-afternoon prayer when the Sun is halfway to the horizon. The last two prayers are at sundown and then an hour and a half later. Everything closes at prayer, shops, petrol stations, restaurants and some offices. All this means that it is necessary to print the local times of these prayers in the papers to give people some help. There are additions to these times during the month of Ramadan and Friday prayers (with sermons) last longer than on other days. One of my pet complaints is that although the times of the beginning of the prayers are known, no-one seems to know when they finish.
I have a theory of how the times were decided and it all comes from the days of the camel caravans. This may get me into trouble but what the heck. The caravanners would break their camp in the hour and a half before dawn and would be sitting on their camels waiting for the dawn light. They would then stop when the Sun was overhead and rest during the hottest part of the day i.e. the early hours of the afternoon. They would then travel along until dusk and their camp would be up and ready an hour and a half later.
This story may be apocryphal. A western businessman (Swedish in the version I was told) was in Saudi for some meetings and was staying in a hotel. Unfortunately for him, his room was right next to the local mosque. Nobody had warned so when the early morning prayer call went off, he got the shock of his life, jumped up and looked out the window to see what the commotion was. He saw a few people wander into the mosque, realised that there was nothing to worry about and when back to bed. When he got into the office later in the morning, he was asked if he slept well. He told the story and the locals guffawed as they explained about the prayer call. The incident was forgotten as the day went on but the next morning he was disturbed again. When he got to the office, he asked if this prayer call happened every day. When he was told that it did, he asked if the racket was actually necessary when only a few people attended. Couldn’t the imam just telephone them?
Just to confuse things, although the prayers are determined by the position of the Sun, Saudi uses the lunar Hijra calendar. It runs alongside the ‘normal’ (Gregorian) calendar and, although day to day everybody uses the Gregorian calendar, anything official or governmental uses the Hijra calendar. The calendars differ by 11 days a year so the Islamic events, holidays and months get earlier by 11 days in the (Gregorian) calendar. In 2008, there were three Arabic years. Jan 1-6 was in 1428, the bulk of the year was 1429 and the last few days were in 1430.
Hijra means ‘flight’ in Arabic and the calendar started when the Prophet Mohammed was expelled from Makkah, as the Meccans didn’t take kindly to being told what to do, and fled to Medina from where he began the religion we now know as Islam.
The ninth month of the Hijra year is Ramadan which is celebrated by fasting. It signifies the time that Muslims believe Mohammed spent receiving the Koran from the Archangel Gabriel and/or Allah (depending on the source).
During Ramadan, Muslims should refrain from eating, drinking, smoking or having sex during the daylight hours. Although this is a personal thing, in Saudi it controls everything. What the locals do is change the days round so that they sleep all day and party all night. That’s an oversimplification but, believe me, it is strange going to the bank at 2 a.m. It is also an indisputable, ironic fact that during this month of fasting, most of the population gain weight. Working/school hours are reduced which had the consequence that all I remember from our first (and only) family Ramadan was early morning sex and plenty of it!
The one area of ‘forbidden fruit’ that is most commonly circumvented is around alcohol. There are no public bars, nightclubs or off licences in Saudi so where do people get their booze? They make it. Alcohol is not difficult to make if you have a rudimentary grasp of chemistry. Although alcoholic wine and beer are not allowed, all the necessary ingredients are available.
Let’s take wine. Grape juice is available (even in wire topped bottles) as is sugar (in 25kg bags!), water and yeast. If you were shopping in the UK for yeast in Tesco or Asda, I’d bet that you’d be hard pressed to find any yeast at all. However there are whole sections given over to yeast in Saudi supermarkets. Perhaps the locals bake a lot of bread at home.
Beer is even simpler. ‘Near beer’ (non-alcoholic beer) mixed with sugar and yeast yields a very strong brew. If you then dilute the resultant concoction with near beer, it is very palatable.
There is one other alcoholic drink which is made locally. There are two versions, one called ‘arak’ which is made (from a date base) and consumed by non-westerners, and ‘sid’, a favourite tipple of the western ex-pats. ‘Sid’ is short for ‘siddiqui’ the Arabic for friend as that was its original code word. You would be invited to a barbeque or party and be asked to bring your ‘friend’ along. Sid is a spirit made from a simple mash of water, sugar (remember the 25kg bags) and yeast. It requires distilling (at least four times) and the initial quantity reduces by about 90%.
The ‘cooking’ process also produces an unmistakable aroma which has led to many an illicit still being discovered by the authorities. The outcome of all this is that nearly every ex-pat home has wine &/or beer bubbling away with the makers vying with each other as to who makes the best. So parties always have suitable lubrication.
On the other hand, Sid is usually made by one or two people to whom you are introduced after you have been suitably vetted. The spirit is sold neat which is cut 50-50 with water or in some other suitable ratio. Saying that there are/were some industrial scale stills but every now and again they get raided and the entire product destroyed.
There is one other aspect of alcohol in Saudi – “real stuff ”. This is mainly whisky, in reality “Johnny Walker Black Label” which is smuggled into the kingdom. There are rings which bring it in and they have obviously paid some people to turn a blind eye. Hence it is expensive and litre bottles sell for the equivalent of USD$150-300. It is said that there are top Saudis have a taste for Black Label and a commonly stated statistic is that Saudi is one of the top export markets for Johnny Walker! Other spirits such as rum, gin, vodka are also available but are much scarcer.
What all this has taught me is many sided. One aspect is that the desire for alcohol is deep seated within the human race. Obviously there are people who react badly to it by becoming addicts or overly aggressive. But many people enjoy its social effects and like the way it makes them feel.
Secondly, even if it was banned everywhere, people wouldn’t take a blind bit of notice. Remember Prohibition in the USA?
Thirdly, the Saudis are missing a fantastic way of raising taxes. That may be frivolous as they’ve got all that oil but it is a fact. Of course you wouldn’t want anybody in Saudi drink driving as the driving is so bad that you would think that they must have been drinking anyway!
When I first went to Saudi (in 1993), the country was still very repressed. TV and radio were strictly controlled as was the press. You could get foreign magazines and papers but they had been censored to remove any ‘Un-Islamic’ content. Seemingly there warehouse of people going through every publication with a pair of scissors and a black marker pen. So you would buy a Weekly Telegraph with missing articles and pictures of women showing hair and bare arms blacked out.
The country was also still recovering from the after-effects of the 1st Gulf War. The US and Coalition Forces had been based in and around Dammam, Al Khobar and Dhahran Airbase. Stories of that time abound. I have a couple of favourites. One is that the old-age Saudi custom of not allowing women to drive came under serious threat. Not only were there women tank drivers and pilots in the coalition forces, the women who fled Kuwait as the Iraqis invaded also drove. Some Saudi women decided that they would drive through Riyadh. They were stopped and detained (notice that I didn’t use ‘arrested’) and their “responsible male” was told to attend the police station.
When they got there the women were turned over to them but before they left the men were told that if this (the women driving) happened again, the men would be serving time in prison!
Every woman in Saudi has a “responsible male” and that is her father, uncle, brother (older or younger) or husband. This injustice perpetuates Saudi society and is perhaps the main example of the ‘backwardness’ of the whole country.
The other story is an example of what happens when cultures collide. The incident happened just after Al Khobar had suffered a missile strike from the Iraqis so people were a bit skittish. One of the female US Marines was walking around the town. Dressed in long trousers and a T-shirt, she seemingly had her shirt sleeves rolled up to her shoulders. This is regarded in Saudi as almost being naked so a local Mutawah took it upon himself to berate her over this. However, as befits a religious fanatic, he didn’t think ahead. The Mutawahs’ usual opening gambit was to either poke or hit a woman with the ubiquitous short stick. They don’t want to contaminate themselves by actually touching a woman. This particular Mutawah made a couple of mistakes. His first was to come up behind the Marine and the second was to use his stick to prod her.
As I said everyone was a bit skittish and when she thought she was being attacked she let her training take over. As she turned round and hit him with a karate chop, he got the biggest, but unfortunately for him also the last, surprise of his life. He dropped to the ground, dead. The Marine was out of the country that night and the Mutawahs realised that these women were not the usual docile ones they normally dealt with.
I’d better explain what the Mutawah are. They are the religious police and they belong to the Commission for the Advancement of Virtue and the Elimination of Sin (CAVES). Sometimes the English transliteration is slightly different but I like the idea of them coming from CAVES as it fits. Their job is to make sure that no-one sins in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, sin has a much wider definition in Saudi than elsewhere. This leads to them interfering in everyday life. Ordinary Saudis have a dislike for them because of the interference and the ex-pats detest them. Known by some as the MB’s (the B can stand for anything you like), they are best avoided or ignored.
The MB’s are the front soldiers of the system of Islamic Sharia law which is the legal system in Saudi. It is NOT the fairest system in the World especially if you happen to be female or a non-Muslim. It still uses capital punishment for murder, rape and drug dealing. In fact the landing card one fills out when arriving in the country has “Death to Drug Trafficker” highlighted in red ink.
These death sentences are carried out in public, usually after Friday prayers. All Saudi cities have a ‘Chop Square’ and no; I haven’t been to a public execution. It is not my idea of fun.