“I need your wine bottle back sir.”
It’s the third time I’ve been asked. “I gave it to one of the other cabin crew,” I explain.
He looks unconvinced, scanning the seat-pockets and the floor. “I need the bottle top too.”
“You have that too.”
“I do not have it.”
“Yes, you collected it after you gave me the wine.”
Later I learn why they are so preoccupied. K has gone to the back of the plane to cadge more tea. We aren’t far from Riyadh. She finds the staff painstakingly accounting for each bottle. Every top must be replaced before the whole lot is placed in giant plastic containers. A single drop of booze on the loose, a single unstoppered bottle, means a fine of twenty thousand pounds.
By now I am nervously filling in a landing card, even though Riyadh is only a stop en route to our final destination in Saudi Arabia, Dammam. Nervous, because I shouldn’t really be here. White lies, shall we say, have been told at each end. Saudi permits visitors to its Western expat community under the strictest conditions: you must be either an immediate blood relation, or married to one. K and I are not married. A hastily arranged wedding seemed a tad excessive for a Christmas catch-up with her parents. I am travelling, therefore, as her cousin.
Even this was stretching it for the Saudi authorities, who initially refused my visa application because a cousin is not immediate family. Girlfriend’s Dad pleaded exceptional circumstances – a nephew he never sees was his line, plus a nod at the sanctity of Christmas to Westerners. Why is the kingdom so impenetrable? One reason, in my case, is that a foreign non-Muslim single male (which, unmarried, is how I am categorised) could trick a Saudi woman into falling for an infidel.
The cabin crew are back. This time they want every newspaper and magazine we brought on. “We’re thinking of keeping some,” I protest. I imagine the looks of admiring gratitude on the faces of K’s parents as I produce with a flourish the comforting sight of good old British papers, with their shrieking hysteria over how a little snow has brought the travel industry to its knees (we were, in fact, two hours late leaving Heathrow). But these too must be returned and accounted for; again, BMI would face massive fines if it landed in Riyadh without the inflammatory and unholy British press consigned to sealed rubbish bags. K meticulously turns the pages of the National Geographic she bought at Heathrow, opting to rip out images of exposed flesh rather than surrender the entire magazine.
At Dammam airport, what hits you first is opulence, or at least a stab at it. The long corridors from disembarkation to immigration are lined with marble, or marble effect; there are feature light fittings every five paces. It is shiny, clearly new, but aiming for a look of classical wealth. It reminds me of a department store.
The hundred or so people from the flight preceding us into Dammam are waiting to be processed. Men – only men – stand in lines so straight you could measure for shelves with them. When a new passport kiosk opens, some hurtle across the vast immigration hall in the hope of an improved position, locking immediately into a new, equally rigid, queue. Like iron filings drawn to a magnet. These are not Saudis, I later discover: they are probably economic migrants from Bangladesh. In Saudi they can earn many times what they earn at home. Perhaps this explains their smiling tolerance in the face of the painfully slow immigration process. The Saudis on our plane, meanwhile, walk straight through an apparently unmanned lane.
“You might want to close your eyes,” warns Girlfriend’s Dad. It is past midnight. We have veered off one motorway, flanked by dark, flat desert, onto another. “The driving here is a bit special.” Sure enough, on a sharply curved single lane flyover, we are overtaken on both sides, even though our dusty 4X4 is emitting the warning beeps that indicate we are over the speed limit. A city looms into view. Colourless concrete blocks, interspersed by pools of familiar neon logos. McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks. Downtown Dammam.
“That’s where that terrorist thing happened,” remarks GD a little later. We are passing a large walled compound, surrounded by several rows of metal fencing, all topped with barbed wire. Floodlights and barriers. “They took an expat outside, tied him to the back of a car and dragged him down the road.”
When we reach our compound we drive through two checkpoints. GD hollers a friendly “salaam” to each of the guards. One shines a torch around the perimeter of our dusty 4X4, inspecting its underside with a mirror. Then he nods us through, into a grid of tree-lined roads and two-storey terraced houses. There are flashing Christmas lights and neon Santas. A mock-British red post box. 4X4s in every driveway. “Home,” says GD.