In my previous post, I briefly wrote about some of the things that stood out for me during my time in Saudi. In this blog post I’d like to share with you my impressions of the people I met while I was there.
Upon arriving in Saudi at Dammam airport around 11pm, I was confronted with a three hour wait at customs for no real reason. The customs clerks sat with their mobile phones in their hand, texting friends and sharing jokes amongst themselves. Feeling like I was enrolling myself into some kind of penal colony for the foreseeable future, I was in no real hurry to enter the country, despite the wait being tedious. After about 2 hours stood with the queue not having moved an inch, an middle-aged English bloke pipes up:
“Fucking Saudis. They’re all lazy bastards.”
‘Charming.’ I thought to myself. Despite the lack of urgency I thought it was a pretty harsh indictment on a nation’s people, but I was prepared to meet a lot of those kind of people – or should I say those kind of expats. I didn’t think about it again until weeks later.
Almost all of the westerners who worked in the small oil town I based in lived on a compound. There were two compounds – one was for men only, the other was for men who had brought their families with them. Neither compound was particularly nice to look at or live in. Both compounds were remnants of the first Gulf war when Iraq invaded Kuwait – with the ‘rooms’ being trailers that were left by ground forces. These trailers had been compartmentalised, and were let by the day, week or month.
The compounds still had that military feel about them; surrounded by huge walls with barbed wire and guarded by a listless Saudi with a machine gun. They were home to newcomers and expat veterans. Some of the old boys who lived there had developed a siege mentality, and clearly didn’t think much of the locals – I often wondered why they’d stuck it out for so long.
I didn’t want to live on a compound. The idea of being sectioned off from the society I had come to work in seemed a bit weird. There was plenty of Saudi society that wasn’t open to me due to being a westerner – I wanted to make the most of what I did have access to.
So I moved into an apartment block in the old town. The apartment block had a couple of other westerners but mainly Saudis lived there, the old town, was mainly inhabited by Indians from Kerala and poorer Saudi families.
Despite many of my colleagues being western, the boys who I taught and spent most of my working days with were Saudis.
I met only Saudi men, aged between 18-22, of course, but what struck me was, they were just like anyone their age and fascinated by the same things. I had one corner of the room whispering questions to me ‘what are English girls like?’to others wanting to debate the merits of Real Madrid over Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga – telling me their favourite English team. Had I not known anything about football I would’ve been screwed, luckily however I am as football mad as the kids were. With the absence of pretty much anything to do, socialising is about watching football or ‘drifting’, which is what people do in the absence of alcohol, or in the west due to the abundance of it:
Football was a great way ‘in’ for me with the boys. It allowed me to build rapport with them and to find common ground. Many of the boys had come from places all over Saudi Arabia and it was not only there first time away from home, but also their first opportunity to meet a westerner. So it was as fascinating for them as it was for me.
They were fascinated by London and what life was like there. One guy in the class had been there as a kid for a few days, most had never been out of the country – or only to Bahrain.
Getting them to do any kind of work was a monumental task in itself. I thought back to what the English guy had shouted at the airport upon arriving – and it struck me that ‘the cultural norm’ cannot not be applied from one society that has developed over millenia, to one that is less than a century old – and founded on oil. Everything is so heavily subsidized in Saudi that not much money is required to get by. Added to that, outside big cities, people live very simple existences. Nevertheless, the idea that Saudis all walk around with Platinum credit cards and high-end sports cars is a western myth: poverty is very much present, albeit well hidden.
For decades Saudi has relied on foreign labour both skilled and unskilled in order to create, maintain and expand its infrastructure. In recent years, the Saudi government has embarked on a ‘Saudization’ programme in order to give its own people training and skills – and to ween itself off from the over-reliance on expat expertise.
When you’ve been in Saudi long enough, you begin to hear an array of stories where a company has hired a Saudi to fill its quota of nationals, only to find that the Saudi in question has no aptitude or enthusiasm for the job – so they are sent home and told to stay there, while remaining on the payroll.
Are Saudis lazy? Well, they’re not known for their work ethics per se, most westerners working in Saudi would probably say ‘yes’ to this question – I found that most of my students did little or no work in mine or anyone else classes. It was an accepted fact. That said, I had a couple of kids who were exceptionally bright and hardworking. I’ve also met other Saudis (outside of Saudi) who have been smart and driven.
It would be unfair to make such a generalisation about a nation’s work ethic when, from my own experience, my only meaningful contact was with kids who had been given a job for life with one of the world’s wealthiest companies.
As many of my students had come from small towns and rural areas, the idea of working for a huge company with a western organisational structure, albeit owned by the Saudi government, was perhaps overwhelming. The word that was repeated endlessly by the western middle managers was ‘acculturation’ and how they had to be ‘acculturated’ to the company culture and western work ethic.
What was fascinating for me most of all was the culture clash that these kids faced every day: apart from getting used to conforming to a company ethic that was imported by Americans on the discovery of oil in the country in the 1930s, they were grappling with the weight of modernity and digital technology encroaching on their traditional ways.
Living in a society where ultra conservative Wahhabi islam rules, they also somehow had to retain in their mind the doublethink of western liberalism that was on offer to them through their tablets, smartphones and laptops: another world of hip-hop, Hollywood and beautiful women with uncovered faces and revealing clothes.
As you’d imagine, they were fascinated by women. If it was possible for an 19 or 20 year old bloke to know any less about women than I did at that age, then these were good examples.
Although any website that has the slightest suggestion of titilation is blocked by the Saudi authorities, teenagers will always find ways around the rules. VPNs are used by practically everyone in Saudi in order to download films or check sites that might have fallen foul of the censor. They illegally downloaded hollywood blockbusters and porn and freely admitted it.
As far as meeting women was concerned, that would technically be out of the question until a bride was chosen for them. However, being a two-hour drive to Bahrain, many of them would drive down to Manama, the capital, (as many Saudis do every Thursday evening) to revel in a slightly more liberal society – where alcohol and prostitutes are readily available.
Without ever eliciting this information the students freely gave it to me, including the prices they paid for their brief education in female flesh.
One day, while doing a listening exercise with the boys in class, something happened that stuck with me. They were all using textbooks that had been vetted by the Saudi Ministry of Interior to make sure they were culturally appropriate in their material – there were pictures of women all of whom had their faces uncovered, but usually wearing a head scarf.
One of the boys while listening to the exercise, in an absent-minded reverie (he had tuned out of the exercise too) began sketching, with a pencil, the outline of a full face veil (niqab) onto the photo of a woman in the textbook. I quietly asked him why he had done it: ‘I don’t know’ he shrugged, and continued to fill in the outline with more shading.
One of the few locals from the area was my student and neighbour Sulaiman. He was about 20 years old, always had a smile on his face and was cheeky chappy in class. Despite doing very little work, he was very likeable. He epitomised Saudis for me. He loved talking and laughing – usually while smoking – and he was always friendly and very generous. Like most of the boys I taught, he was a good kid.
Sulaiman would always come over to me and say hello in the training complex where I worked, and if he ever saw me while I walked around town doing shopping, he would usually stop and offer to give me a lift somewhere.
He drove what Americans call a ‘land barge’ – huge American car from the early 1980s with a dark brown leather interior and that handled like a tank – they’re very common in Saudi. One weekend I decided to go to Riyadh on the train. He offered to drive me to Dammam train station, which was about 50 miles away, despite it being a Friday, the holiest day of the week. I learnt a lot about the people and the country
I’ll talk more about that car journey in the the third and final part of my notes on Saudi, where I’ll focus on some aspects of culture.