Christmas in Saudi Arabia is a clear, bright day, perfect winter weather for a desert kingdom, so warm that you feel obliged to sit outside and enjoy the midday sun. It is only that we are doing so with authentic gin and tonics in hand that marks this as a special day in the expat calendar. Openly drinking alcohol in your front garden anywhere else in Saudi would represent a massive breach of both law and custom, but behind the high walls of our compound, where the Mutawa (religious police) have been swapped for private security guards, anything goes.
Expats are not short of places where they can drink. There are, in fact, unofficial bars on every Western compound. What they lack, usually, is raw material. The procuring of booze – in this case a genuine bottle of Gordon’s – can be a fraught and complex challenge. If you are caught with alcohol beyond the perimeter of a housing compound you will almost certainly lose your job, as well as potentially facing the horrors of Saudi prison. Pork smuggling is an acceptable risk. Girlfriend’s Dad has regaled me with stories of buying bacon and sausages in the neighbouring island country of Bahrain (the trick is to remove the labels, then hope the checkpoint guards on the giant causeway that links the archipelago to Saudi are sympathetic. Confiscation is the worst case scenario nowadays.) But smuggling even small amounts of alcohol, despite the creeping Westernisation of this realm, incurs the harshest penalties. GD has seen plenty of colleagues summarily expelled for flouting this law during. So seriously are these rules taken that I was advised to remove a label on a scented candle I had bought Girlfriend’s Mum for Christmas: it read “elderflower champagne aroma”.
But the thousands of Brits and Americans whose careers have led them to Saudi are resourceful addicts, and home brewing is a quietly celebrated artform. On Christmas Eve, as we returned with a locally procured takeaway dinner of roast chicken, rice, hummous and bread, GD unveiled a discreet walk-in cupboard behind his garage. Rows of shelves, lined with glass flasks and recycled plastic bottles of every shape and size. In each, a liquid: some red, some golden, both dark and pale, clear and cloudy. Small handwritten labels taped on some, often with no more than a date written on them. “You’ll have to help me with some of these,” he said, beaming. “I can’t remember which ones are any good.”
Our home brewed experience began with “Mitch’s beer”, a light and refreshing lager brewed in the kitchen of one of Eric’s colleagues, served from an old 2 litre Pepsi bottle. It would hold its own in a British pub, I thought. It was only as I drained my second glass that I realised this was the only beer GD had; it had been saved for a special occasion. By way of digestif, GD began a tasting tour of his speciality, the homemade spirits gathering strength in the cupboard. Made from local fruits, some were reminiscent of sherries or sweet port, others more fiery than any brandy I know. GD introduced one small flask with the gleeful proclamation: “This is 140 proof!”
There are jokes among expats about a now-legendary home brew known as Jeddah Gin, but the bottle of Gordon’s we sip on Christmas Day is the real thing. K’s parents acquired it, as well a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, on the black market. They paid around £100 for each bottle.
We are joined by three other expats for Christmas lunch. They create a diversity I didn’t expect. P– is Indian, brightly dressed and a lively conversationalist; her husband, who owns a chain of Saudi restaurants, is away on business. They live in a nearby compound but plan to move to Canada, where they have a second home and a son at university. T— is a teacher from California. He regards the glass of Jack Daniels thrust into his hand in silent awe. His wife A– is Turkish. Though they live on the same compound, and thus a few hundred metres away, T— and A– have driven here.
Our Christmas lunch is emphatically traditional; much of it, I learn, was sourced in Bahrain, where there is a well-stocked Marks and Spencer. There are even Christmas crackers. Historically Saudi shops are forbidden from selling Christmas paraphernalia, though this has softened in recent years.
The centrepiece of the lunch, though, is the homemade wine which T— has brewed for the occasion. “Genuine Californian red,” he announces, brandishing a reused water bottle with a rubber stopper. P– is transported. “Oh, it is wonderful!” she exclaims after her first mouthful. “It’s one month old,” says T—, though I am not sure if this is a boast or an apology. The wine isn’t bad – light, easy drinking, on a par with a French vin de table. I ask what grapes he used. “No grapes!” he replies. He leans forward: “Supermarket grape juice is the secret. Then you add raisins, yeast, a little vanilla for flavour… ta-da!”
I ask T— how he came to be in Saudi. “In my late thirties I re-entered adult education,” he begins, leaving the pages of his life before this blank. He tells me that he studied botany at a New York university, then decided to spend a year travelling through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In Turkey he encountered visa problems and became stuck for several months, long enough to meet A–. Lacking income, he began teaching English as a foreign language. One day someone told him he could earn more doing the same thing in Saudi. At first T— came alone, living on a bachelor compound. As he tells it, he was teased by expat mechanics and pilots because he was a teacher, which is perceived as a soft option. “They kept saying, oh, you must be homosexual,” says T—. In time, A– joined him and they moved to married quarters. She teaches yoga around the compounds; by the end of the meal I have promised to attend her next class.
When the economic conditions are right, T— and A– will leave Saudi for America, where they plan to buy a home. There is a certain feel to the few expats I’ve met in Saudi: that they’ve reached the end of the line, and know it. Everyone seems to be biding time in an unfulfilling but well-remunerated job, or making plans to leave. Paradoxically, as the kingdom has become more Westernised, the expat population has dropped. I sense that job satisfaction has become a problem for Westerners as many of the big companies here pass increasingly back into Saudi control.
P– promises to take us around the Aramco compound; somehow, she has a pass. Aramco is the Arab-American oil Company, though it is now Saudi-owned. Theirs, I sense, is the busiest, liveliest and perhaps wealthiest compound. There is talk of ice rinks and bowling alleys, though no-one is quite sure what’s still there. By now Girlfriend’s Mum is emerging from the kitchen with a flaming Christmas pudding, one of GD’s more potent but less drinkable attempts at brandy fuelling the flames. “This is such a long time to be drinking,” exclaims P– happily. T— produces another bottle. “We’re not done yet,” he says.