This macabre process is fortunately no longer a requirement, which is good, as we really had to think that one over. As it was, we signed it and had no further incident. The comedy of errors and Saudi bureaucracy over the next 2 months getting my family over to Saudi Arabia would be another article in itself, so let me move forward to life in Saudi.
Working In Saudi Arabia
The main areas where Westerners work in Saudi Arabia are defense, healthcare, and the oil industry. IT, telecommunications and banking are other areas that employ substantial numbers of Americans and Europeans. Many professional opinions have been offered that if all the Westerners working in these industries either went home or were forced to leave the country that the economy of the kingdom would come grinding to a halt. Saudis are more than happy to pay large sums of money to have others do their work for them. There has been in the last several years an attempt at “Saudization”, turning jobs traditionally done by outsiders over to Saudis to reduce the reliance on foreign labor, but there are a number of jobs that either require skills they do not have or are types of work that the affluent Saudis simply will not do.
Most of the
menial and physical labor is done by Asian people such as Indians, Pakistanis,
Bangladeshi and Philippinos. The more technical work is done by Europeans
and Americans, although the huge salaries and almost unlimited benefits
of the 70’s and 80’s have been greatly reduced. Still, it can be quite
lucrative to work for a few years in the kingdom.
Islamic law also dictates 5 prayer times a day; sunrise, mid morning, just after the noon hour, midafternoon, and midevening. In most Middle Eastern countries when the mullahs give the prayer call from the many minarets dotting the cities, the faithful go to the mosque and perform their ritual prayers and then return to work or whatever they were doing at the time of prayer call. Businesses continue to operate, and life goes on as usual.
In Saudi, however, when prayer time comes, the entire economy comes to a screeching halt! Stores close, restaurants shut their doors, and things come to a complete stop until the prayers are over. Considering this happens 5 times a day, you can imagine how much of a hassle that becomes! Every westerner I knew carried a prayer schedule with them at all times; you planned any day out in the public or downtown around the prayer schedules.
If you were
in a restaurant or grocery store and prayer time was called, you were able
to be locked in and continue to eat or gather groceries into your cart.
The lights would be dimmed, but you were able to go about your business.
If you went to eat at night though you always carried a candle so you could
see your food when the lights went out during prayers!
Since there is not much in the form of Western entertainment, about the only thing Saudi and other families have for recreation is shopping and eating out. As such, there are several large shopping malls which are very close to Western malls in layout and selection. There are many restaurants to choose from, some local varieties but many Western chains such as McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Kenny Roger’s Roasters, Pizza Hut, and others. One of our favorites was the local Turkish restaurant. Turkish and Arabic meals accompanied by huge slabs of Turkish bread and several types of dip such as hummous (chick peas and olive oil with some middle eastern spices) and toubouli (a sort of middle eastern salsa) could be had, and all were excellent.
in the Kingdom included the computer, produce, and gold souks (markets).
Only 18 carat and above gold is allowed by law to be sold in Saudi Arabia;
anything less is sneered at. Gold jewelry can usually be purchased at lower
than the spot price of gold. This is due to the extremely cheap labor imported
from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Rolex and Seiko watches, jewelry,
and electronics are usually much cheaper than in Europe or the US. Computers
are higher than in the US, or were in the late 90’s.
Getting a travel letter for each trip doesn’t sound much of a hassle until you figure in the Saudi bureaucracy. One of the key words in dealing with the Saudis is “in-sh allah”, or “God willing”. This is a common answer when you ask when something will be done (“Next week, in-sh allah”). In other words, maybe you will, maybe you won’t! You should always request a travel letter at least 2-3 weeks before you actually want to go somewhere.
When leaving the country, whether on holiday or permanently, you must get an exit visa. If you are returning, you must get an exit/entrance visa. This too takes a few to several weeks to process; without it you cannot leave nor reenter the country.
During the spring of 1998, Saddam Hussein was again massing troops on the Kuwaiti border. As things heated up I purchased exit visas for my family and myself. Exit visas are only good for 30-60 days and must be turned in if unused. They are usually paid for by your employer when you go on vacation; in this instance I paid for them so we could make a fast exit from the country if need be. As it was things ratcheted back down and I turned in my visas. $200 was a small price to pay to avoid a last minute scramble through the clogged offices of the Riyadh government if things got hot!
The Saudis themselves were OK as a people; oil wealth has given many of them a false sense of importance, even arrogance, towards other Arabs and especially towards non-Muslims. Some of the nicest people we met were Egyptians in the produce markets; they were always friendly and almost always gave our kids free fruit or candy. The Arab culture places a very high esteem on children; one of the few recreational things available other than shopping and restaurants were amusement parks with the usual rides for kids. The Saudi women would often rub my son’s head; he has blonde hair and the Saudi women found him irresistible!
Saudi Justice System
One of the more gruesome parts of living in Saudi was “chop-chop square”. This was an open courtyard area just off the gold souks where each Friday punishment was meted out to the criminals convicted of serious crimes as robbery, drug dealing or murder. Islamic law requires a thief to have his right hand cut off; this punishment can be administered after one offense but is usually not delivered until after multiple offenses.
Persons convicted of drug-related offenses, rape and murder all are beheaded. This is done today just as it was a thousand years ago; with a large curved sword. A modern twist is often used in that the person is usually drugged and often has some of their blood removed just before execution so the scene is not so messy.
If a Westerner is near chop-chop square and an execution is about to commence, they are often shoved to the front of the crowd for a close up view of Saudi (or Islamic) justice. I never witnessed these events, but I knew some who did, and it wasn’t very pleasant. Regardless of your opinion of this form of “justice”, they do not have a very high crime rate in Saudi Arabia!
Shortly after the Iraqi standdown in the spring of 1998 we decided to come back to the US. The B-2 compound was showing its age and although a new compound was rumored to be almost completed, Boeing would not guarantee anything so we made the choice to come home. In retrospect, we made the right choice. I have two former coworkers who still live and work in Saudi; one lived on a compound that was bombed in May 2003, and the other returned to Saudi a few months ago. Both they and there families enjoy the luxury lifestyle and monetary perks that go along with work in Saudi and although recognizing there are dangers, believe it to be worth staying.
Life in Saudi is unique and often challenging, but if you have an open mind and are flexible to other cultures and their requirements, many people live and work in the kingdom for many years, traveling all over the world and banking large sums of tax-free income. If your wife absolutely has to drive and you simply must have an after dinner drink, you might want to think twice about moving there. If these things are not showstoppers and the current war on terrorism situation there doesn’t bother you, then life in Saudi can be a very interesting and rewarding overseas place to live.
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In North Yorkshire - In
The North Of England