Saturday, 26 December 2009


It’s Boxing Day morning and I’m sat in the upper lounge of my girlfriend’s parents’ home on a compound in Saudi Arabia. It is sunny but not hot. Through the window I watch palm trees shimmy in the breeze. Downstairs, Girlfriend’s Mum is putting away the remains of the Christmas crockery. The giant flatscreen television is tuned to the security channel, which is currently running a slideshow of names and faces of personnel in different compounds. Bizarrely, the Manic Street Preachers plays as accompaniment.

Knowing the current security level is vital to daily life, perhaps more so since a neighbouring compound was attacked a few years ago. It is discussed on noticeboards and in weekly compound newsletters. K and her mother have plans to head to one of Dammam’s giant shopping malls shortly, to exchange a Christmas present – a not-quite-right skirt. This is only possible if conditions allow. The current security level is Amber, which is considered good: it means there is a clear and present danger, but not a specific threat. Red is less cheery news but most dreaded is Lockdown. This means shutting yourself into your house, securing doors and windows, closing every curtain, then making for your designated “safe room” until the all-clear sounds.

Girlfriend’s Dad has already gone to work. It is, after all, Saturday, which is the first day of the working week here. We were lucky that Christmas fell on a Friday, which is the Saudi equivalent of a Sunday, though it meant revels could not continue too late. GD, who is a teacher, leaves for work before 6am: for much of the year, the desert heat is too stifling for work by early afternoon. The early start also compensates for time lost to the late morning prayer.

K and her mother have donned abayas and left, by taxi, for the mall. Women are not allowed to drive. Technically, they should not be seen in public without a male chaperone but this is one of many rules which is starting to be relaxed in Saudi, and especially in Dammam, with its large expat population.

Our Christmas day celebrations merit their own blog: suffice to say that I am not hungover, but have learnt a lot about homemade wine. Right now, a silence has settled. The only sound is the white noise of traffic on the highways just beyond the perimeter of the compound, and the occasional chirp of birds. Many compound residents are at work, I suppose, and others may have secured time off to spend Christmas with family back home. Still there is a striking quiet to this place.

There are perhaps a hundred houses here, identical two-storey blocks with flat roofs, short driveways and garages, arranged in a tidy grid like the suburbs of an American town. On Christmas Eve, our first full day here, Girlfriend’s Mum took us on a walking tour of the compound. K has lived in Saudi before, spending her early teens at a nearby international school, but her parents have recently moved to this new compound; the houses – open-plan rooms with sliding French windows – are considered a step up from normal expat accommodation. Like other compounds, ours has a pool and a gym. Both were deserted. So too the indoor tennis court, the aerobics room and the restaurant, which, with its series of pre-laid long tables, looks like a village hall decked out for a wedding party. In fact, apart from the occasional Indian-looking man in a light-brown jumpsuit tending one of the immaculate clusters of shrubs that punctuate the compound, there is a ghost town feel to our tour.

Until we meet S–. A small, energetic Brit of around 50, he had bounced out of his car, a vintage Cadillac, and up the steps towards the recreation centre. He greeted GM as an old friend; we inferred he was visiting from a neighbouring compound. Within seconds, he was telling us about an incident in a hotel in Cairo where he was drugged by a barman who wanted to rob his room. “I want to go back and kill him,” he says. “My dad was Special Forces. It’s in the blood.”

S—, like GD, is a teacher; his students are new recruits, training with the Royal Saudi Air Force. Elements of training are outsourced to BAe Systems. S– recounts a story about an environmentally-minded colleague: “He’s talking about saving the planet. We’re working for a company that makes things that kill people!” S– wavers between hating expat life then “getting happy again”. He has just filled his car with petrol for 35 Riyals – less than 6 pounds. As we leave, he refers once more to the Cairo barman. “I want to kill him,” he calls after us. “I want to kill some Muslims!”

Then, as we look back with nervous smiles: “I’m only joking!”


“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.