I’ve visited Saudi Arabia a handful of times now, staying for a week each trip. Read the following to live some of the feelings and thoughts I had on the most recent experience.
I sit in the Dubai Emirates lounge, and I work on my laptop. I have a couple of hours here between flights, and I’m grateful to be able to use their facilities – wifi, food and drink, desk space and power sockets. Everything a girl needs.
This trip is another milestone for me, as I’ll ‘achieve’ Gold status with the airline. What’s that, you say? It means I can use any Emirates lounge in the world, whatever class I’m flying. Helpful. And if I ever flew with another person, colleague or friend, I could bring them into the lounge with me. It also gives me fifty percent more air miles each time I fly. I’ve only ever used air miles once so far, but I keep meaning to do it more. One day, when I’m flying somewhere for myself, and not for work.
I’m multi-tasking on the laptop, which I know isn’t the most productive, but I can’t help myself. I check my book stats, as I released my novel a couple of weeks ago, I write emails, and I peek at Facebook (even though I know it kills my productivity even more than the multi-tasking). After a while, I’m tired, and I convince myself I’ve worked enough – I’ve already done an eight hour flight, after all, where I did a solid job of plotting my next book – and I watch an episode of Castle while I take advantage of the buffet. I consider an alcoholic drink, as Saudi Arabia is a dry country, but I decide against it. Too dehydrating. I don’t drink much.
The flight itself is business class, a treat for me as I normally fly economy. Usually in business class they greet you with champagne, but on flights to Saudi you’re offered a sweet fizzy grape juice, which I quite like. I settle into the huge seat with a little purr of satisfaction, and sip the faux-champagne while the plebs get on. Ahem.
Maybe you’ve been in business class, maybe you haven’t, but it’s pretty fun. This time, there’s almost no one else flying in this class, so I get a lot of attention from the cabin crew. The journey from Dubai to Dammam, Saudi Arabia, is only an hour or so, barely enough time for food, but they give you a fancy snack anyway. You get a white cloth over your pull-out big table, and proper cutlery. And a material napkin. It’s all, you know, very.
But they didn’t get my advance order for vegetarian food, so they panic a bit, perhaps because they know it’s my Gold flight. (They tell me they know this. I’m suitably impressed.) When I’m in cattle class, they couldn’t give a monkey’s if there’s no veggie food for me (actually, it depends on the airline, Emirates are better than most), but here, they make up a plate with salad and other bits and pieces, including a warm and delicious bread roll. I wonder whether being Gold status will change their interaction with me if I am in economy, or whether it won’t make any practical difference. I’ll let you know.
When the captain turns on the seatbelt sign for landing, I visit the bathroom to put my abaya on over my clothes. I don’t love this moment. But as it happens, I’m the only westerner in this section, and the Saudis on the plane all wear traditional dress – the white dish dash for men, the black abaya for women. A friend I was talking to here speculated that perhaps those who live in regions where most people wear national dress might be better at facial recognition, because you can’t rely on much else (even hair is covered for men and women) to tell people apart. I wonder what it’s like for children, who can only see the black and white robes, and how they tell their parents from strangers when they’re out, say, in the mall. I’ve certainly been grabbed by small children when I’m wearing one.
We land, I get swept up in the rush for immigration. As anyone in the know is aware you need to be near to the front as Dammam’s immigration is one of the slowest airports I’ve visited. I get into a queue with only ten people in front of me, but each person takes five to ten minutes to process. But after about twenty minutes – I’m reading my kindle, and I took a bottle of water from the plane, this isn’t my first rodeo – I realise that even though I’m still quite a way back in the queue, the immigration officer is pointing and shouting from his booth about ten metres away. I look up, startled, and flush as I realise he’s talking to me. He gestures to me to come forward.
I glance around, and I realise I can’t see any other women in the fifty or sixty people in the various queues either side of me. It’s hard to know why I’m being called forward – because I’m a woman, definitely, but whether it’s to remove me from the queue or as a courteous gesture, it’s hard to know. I stuff my things in my bag and walk awkwardly to the front, trying not to catch the eye of any other westerners especially. Saudis are in a different (faster) queue, so around me are all expats, from Indians and Pakistanis to Americans and Europeans. I’m stamped through quickly, though another immigration officer comes to join the one in my booth, seemingly just to look at me and laugh about me in Arabic with the guy in this booth, and peculiarly, winks at me. I’m not sure how to take that.
Waiting for my taxi, a young-yet-weathered American guy next to me comments on a skinny stray kitten that runs across the car park. He’s right, it probably won’t last long. I feel sad, for a breath or two, and impotent. We chat for a few moments – he’s a Texan engineer and works for a different organisation, so I won’t run into him again – and when I leave, he puts out his hand to shake. I almost don’t take it in this public place, because it’s probably considered inappropriate for men and women to touch here, but I do anyway. It will be the last time I touch anyone for the week. I feel awkward around men in this country in a way I never do elsewhere. I’m self-conscious, and oh so careful not to brush up against a man when passing one. I find it fascinating that this distance between men and women creates a culture where men are very comfortable with physical touch with each other, for example, kissing each other on the cheek, and long hugs. But they never touch a woman they’re not married to.
The journey to the compound is easy enough, a straight taxi run given it’s nearly midnight, and when I arrive, I unpack before going to bed. I don’t always in hotels, but I’ll be here for five nights, so it’s worth it. I like to be tidy. After all, I’ve spent nearly as much time in hotel rooms this year as in my own house.
Life on the compound is quite different from life outside it. I’m able to go for a jog in exercise clothes (leggings and a t-shirt), and I catch up over dinner with a friend I made here previously, a woman from London with a wicked sense of humour. I appreciate knowing her because I can check in with her to make sure I’m not inadvertently doing anything inappropriate. Which always seems like a risk.
I’m here with a (male) colleague, and we work together and eat together. The food’s reasonable on the compounds, and there are a fair few places to eat – there’s a big
canteen-dining room place which has an ok range of food, and then also a few cafes and a strange hybrid Indian-Chinese-Italian. There’s also a Costa, and I eat chocolate and peanut butter ice-cream at Baskin and Robbins. But there’s no food in the accommodation block I’m in, apart from a take-away coffee shop, so I make up a protein drink for breakfast.
The compound is strange, because it’s almost as if you’re in a little American town. Apart from the fact military jets fly over every few hours to show it’s under their protection. When that happens, my delegates joke they’re doing a run to Syria. It’s a little disturbing.
There’s always hint of spices in the air from the aroma of Arabic coffee, and from perfume, female and male – the latter being the distinct smell of Oudh. Fragrance is big here, especially compared to Thailand, where I rarely come across someone you can detect the scent of when you’re not up close. Here, there are some people you can smell on the other side of a room. At least it’s usually a good smell.
And then, after training twenty-nine men and only two women in the skills of competency based interviewing (glamorous), the week is over. I sit in the airport, and smoke from one of the many smoking areas (door open) seeps into the fabric of my clothes. I wait for a plane to Kuwait where I’ll spend the weekend with family, before I return to Saudi on Saturday. I’ve been away from Chiang Mai two weeks already this trip; I miss it.
I’m not a natural fit for this country.
Part of me is proud I’ve been able to adapt my style to work here effectively – running a training course, which is what I’m doing here, is a very different proposition from doing it in the UK, or many other countries.
Part of me is disturbed.
But all of me is grateful for the opportunity.