It’s a typical moment of my trip, and, I reflect, a moment that typifies modern Saudi Arabia: to my right, the golden dome of a mosque, to my left, the twin golden domes of a McDonalds sign. “McDonalds and mosques,” I say, as we wait for the lights to change, secure behind the tinted windows of our 4X4. “That’s all you get out here,” chimes in Girlfriend’s Dad.
That’s when it hits me. What do I really know about this place? Have I achieved anything more than a fleeting glance at its surface? Am I ladening my impressions with a typical Westerner’s arrogance, measuring “progress” in terms of how closely this society resembles my own, while quietly mocking the kingdom for borrowing American brands while maintaining an ideology of faith that is alien to me?
Take that word, “Westernisation”, which I have used in previous blogs, and which crops up in everything you read about Saudi. Is “Westernisation” just a tacit way of saying “modernisation”? Abandoning irrational old ways and embracing our version of enlightenment: the free market economy and – Dubya’s magic word – “freedom”?
Part of the problem is that we are seeing the country through the eyes of expats who have been here too long. At both ownership and middle management level, businesses that were run by Brits or Americans are increasingly moving into Saudi hands. Expat workers are line managed by Saudi nationals, and the resentment is palpable. An American expat’s wife cannot shop without an abaya, nor drive a car, yet her husband’s Saudi boss wears Levi’s, drives a Chevrolet and eats Burger King.
But is that Westernisation? Any more than the prevalence of curry houses in Britain is Indianisation? Is it ideology, or just the trappings of a wealthy global player that likes to pick and choose?
Later I am standing in the midst of the vast outdoor market in Qatif, a small town half an hour’s drive north of Dammam, where there are no compounds, and no expats. Around me, spread out in all directions, are bird cages. Some hold a dozen tiny, brightly-coloured budgies. In others are doves or parrots.
It is crowded, but friendly. Traders squat by their cages. Almost everyone around me is male, dressed in white or brown thobes. We are clearly the only Westerners here today. People smile at us. Those with enough English say hello. “What is your name,” asks a man my age, his thobe and kaffiyah offset with designer sunglasses. “Adam,” I reply. He points at the large African parrot we have both been admiring. “You get this bird, he will say, Adam, Adam, Adam.”
I realise I don’t have a clue why all these people are here. I vaguely know that birds are important to Saudis. I do not know why. I do not really understand this culture. Nearly all the Saudis I have encountered have been shopkeepers. It is, quite simply, hard to meet any others. The lower rungs of the service industry – supermarket cashiers, taxi drivers, waiters – are often from the immigrant labour force: Indian, Bangladeshi or Filipino. A Saudi shopkeeper is as loquacious as any around the world when he wants to sell you something, but reveals little of himself.
We move away from the birds, into the main market. Vast jars of spices, handmade baskets, fruit. Live chickens and turkeys, boxes of freshly caught fish swarming with flies. Clothes, some traditional, some modern. Rugs lined with trinkets: Arabic swords, antique binoculars, Bedouin coffee pots. Some authentic, some clearly fake.
There are stalls run by women. Here, black veils cover the entire face: women look at you through cloth. Bartering is tricky when you cannot even see the eyes. Many count prices on their fingers rather than speak.
After a while I notice what makes this so different to a street market in England. Back home, market barter is laced with sexual banter. Standing in the midst of Qatif market, I realise that it is not just women who are desexualised by the traditional robes. I do not sense even the mildest flirtation here. It is not posh: there are no airs to a place where the non-wealthy sell poultry and spices to their fellow citizens. But it is emphatically civil.
Qatif is Shia heartland. Shias are a minority in Saudi, whose dominant sect is Wahabi Islam. I am told that Shias are, if not persecuted, certainly less favoured. As we drive through Qatif, along the east coast of Saudi and onto the adjoining island of Tarut, you see none of the ostentatious wealth of Dammam or Khobar, but you do not see slums. Apartment blocks, which appear run-down but functional, then quieter outlying streets lined with large front walls, in which are set discreet front doors. Goats stand in the back of weathered pick-up trucks. From time to time we stop the car to take photographs, careful to avoid pointing the camera at people, which is taboo here. Though we see no other Westerners in this region, we are met with neither curiosity nor hostility, just smiles.
In two weeks here I have encountered little sign of crime – of the non-terrorist variety anyway. The streets are desert-dusty, but Kilburn High Road, round the corner from my flat in London, is dirtier. Its litter, graffiti, broken windows, street fights and opportunist muggings I cannot imagine here. The only beggar I have seen in Saudi Arabia was a solitary woman walking amidst cars at a busy Khobar intersection.
As we drive around eastern Saudi, I notice billboards which appear to be public announcements sponsored by the Mutawa (religious police). The writing is predominantly Arabic, but the main message is translated. “This is not the place,” reads one, next to a picture of a father and son lighting a barbecue in a park. “Stop! Do not play here,” reads another. A third sticks with me, a rebuke to people unknown, for a transgression I cannot see. Its confused English adds to the pathos, the sense of the moral bafflement of its author. “Way you vandaleese?” it reads.