Saturday, 9 January 2010


It’s the same city, and the same country, but briefly, I’ve entered a different world. The décor may be old Arabia – long low benches lined with brightly coloured cushions, carpets hanging on the wall – but the vibe is new Saudi. A young man in jeans and shirt sleeves holds sway over an array of coffee and tea options that makes Starbucks look like a jar of Nescafé. Below the giant TV screen next to the counter sit Nintendo Wii controls. The magazine racks are bursting with back issues of Wired, New Scientist and Oasis, a new English-language magazine about contemporary Saudi culture. Pinned to the wall is a computer-printout headed 80 Ways To Know You’re A Caffeine Addict. Item 56: You go to AA meetings for the free coffee.

Women sit with men. There is no screened-off family area, to which we have been consigned for every other meal or drink out. Most startlingly, the women here remove their veils (though the hijab remains in place). I witness something I have not seen anywhere else: a young man and woman sit across a table from each other, smiling, staring into each others’ eyes.

For two weeks, I feel, I have been looking for this. Partly, the mythical Arabic coffee house that I have only read about, the social hub where you catch the pulse of what is now and next. For two weeks I have looked, but found nothing more than drive-thru Starbucks. But also, buzz: a sense of how the younger generation here wants to see itself. This place is, y’know, cool.

This little haven – it does not seem to have a name – is located discreetly, if rather surreally, above an interior design shop. Desert Designs lies in what seems an affluent part of Khobar, and is a rarity in itself: quietly classy, free from the garish ostentation that dominates elsewhere. Its furniture is modern, a nod to Arabic heritage with a wink at Scandinavian functionality. Cupboards, coffee tables, free-standing drinks counters. Expensive carpets, but quality ones. This is the only shop I’ve visited where you cannot barter over price (apart, that is, from a Baskin Robbins ice cream stall, and a giant supermarket called Lulu, modelled on a French hypermarché). Most of the furniture customers appear to be expat wives. But in the coffee shop, we are the only Westerners.

I’m told the Mutawa – the religious police whose remit is to uphold public morality – visited this place not long ago, threatening closure unless the lack of segregation was addressed. The café’s answer has been to hang a few cloths from the ceiling, so that some benches and tables can be concealed. But when we visit, these cloths have been pulled back and tied to the wall.

You can get used to anything, and in just two weeks I’ve become, if not accustomed to, at least familiar with a segregation that cannot be a million miles from apartheid. A fast food joint in downtown Khobar renowned for a local speciality – a soft, fresh bread base topped with cheese, egg and herbs – reserves its pleasant, naturally lit shopfront for men, consigning women to a grotty, window-less box room in the back. A traditional Saudi restaurant in Dammam’s Heritage Museum shuts families inside one of a dozen ‘cells’ – small rooms, again windowless, filled with carpets and cushions – so that diners cannot witness a woman, to whom they are not related, eat. Even the more cosmopolitan hotels – the Carlton in Khobar and the Sheraton in Dammam – position wooden screens around tables with female diners, though the Carlton does boast a large, mixed “family tent” where groups of women can share Sheesha Pipes without chaperones. Even banks have separate entrances for women.

But if women are overtly limited in what they can do here, I do not sense that men are overwhelmed with activity. There just does not seem a lot to do. There are no cinemas here (though satellite television and the internet are in the ascendent); there is no live music scene, no dance scene; there is no theatre, opera or ballet; there are not, as far as I know, any art galleries in Khobar or Dammam, though there are two in Riyadh. There is a striking lack of public space, and the few small parks or gardens I have seen seem poorly maintained; they are often accompanied by vast billboards warning people not to play ball games or light barbecues. I have not even seen leisure centres, though hotels have gyms, spas and swimming pools. I thought I would find coffee and Sheesha houses of the sort one sees in London around Regents Park and Edgware Road, albeit for men only, but Girlfriend’s Dad knows of none and we do not discover any on our many driving tours.

Instead, life is dominated by the mosque, and the five daily prayers. I have seen more than one hundred mosques (from the outside, of course); the rule of thumb is that wherever you are in a Saudi town, you should be within walking distance of a mosque. There are mosques inside industrial works, or at the outskirts of shopping malls. Though the call to prayer is considered chanting, not music, to my ears the air is often full of song. Wherever you are, at prayer time you hear the voices of three or four imams piped through crackly loudspeakers, floating towards you from different directions, never in synch. The mosques themselves are often startlingly beautiful, sometimes in contrast with otherwise run-down areas.

For a religion to supply architectural, even cultural excellence is not unusual, but what fills the other hours? The only leisure activity I have seen Saudis performing en masse is shopping, primarily at the vast, lavishly designed malls, most of which are owned by (and named after) princes. In Dammam, those who cannot afford upmarket designer chains go instead to the sprawling complex of thrift stores. A giant honeycomb of adjoining pound stores, most sell identical factory-made toys, clothes and trinkets. Shops close during the afternoon but stay open late into the night. The sight of dozens of Saudi families passing their evening traipsing through a grubby lattice of shops offering everything from Qur’an fridge magnets to bootleg Manchester United tops is an enduring image.

Deeper into the night, young men with money attack their boredom in a different way. Extreme driving, both on and off road, seems virtually a rite of passage for Saudi teenagers whose fathers can afford to write off a car or two. Living at the edge of a compound that backs onto a highway, we could hear this ourselves – brakes screeching, engines revving. Further out of the towns, tarmac is scarred with tyre marks crossing every lane, the residue of countless handbrake tricks. The desert sand is remapped every night with a fresh wave of criss-crossing tracks. Sand dunes buckle under the onslaught of cars attempting to master them.

So the trendy coffee shop above Desert Designs is an intriguing oasis, a glimpse of how a more relaxed Saudi Arabia could develop out of the energy and appetites of its young. Outside, we walk back to the main road. Across six lanes of jostling American cars sits yet another McDonalds. The contrasts are so sharp here; I want to capture this. An older man in a parked car spots my camera, and at once begins waving his arms and sounding his horn. I put my camera away. Old Saudi.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010


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.

Monday, 4 January 2010


It’s New Year’s Day. I’m sprawled on a sofa in the upper lounge of K’s parents house on a compound in Saudi Arabia. K is half-sitting, half-lying beside me. We are watching Morgan Spurlock’s somewhat ill-conceived documentary, Where In The World Is Osama bin Laden? It is the section on Saudi Arabia. A man in a thobe is talking about his many friends who went off to fight jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Outside, darkness is falling quickly, the way it does here. We have not been out today and have no plans to leave the house, let alone the compound. I’m no stranger to remorse for the bottle, but it is not often that I have seen my girlfriend in such a state. She has been bested by booze in a teetotal kingdom. I’m not far behind her on the pain stakes, though I did manage the celebratory New Year brunch. Illicit bacon and illicit black budding, smuggled in from neighbouring Bahrain. But it is last night’s mixture of illicit homebrew and black market booze which has reduced us to this sofatose state.

The main problem was Sid. Sid is short for sidiqi, which, ironically, is Arabic for “friend”. It is the local version of Moonshine, a home-distilled alcohol which is the most readily available spirit. Last night we drank several large measures of something called Wild Bill’s Homemade Bourbon, which was little more than neat Sid with artificial bourbon flavouring. On top of several homemade wines and beers, and a large (but genuine) gin and tonic, it ruined us.

The damage was done in half a dozen gulps half an hour before midnight, during a gathering at the villa lived in by T–, the Californian English teacher, and his Turkish yoga-enthusiast wife A–. Sid kicked in, hard, shortly after midnight. By now we were in the compound’s semi-official bar, which resembles a student bar whose inhabitants have suddenly turned middle-aged. NYE on our compound had been designated a Wild West night, and around us, men and women, most in their 40s and 50s, somewhat overweight, steaming drunk and adorned with cowboy hats or Indian facepaint, danced or exchanged rowdy banter in small, closed groups.

It is the second time K and I have visited the compound bar. On our first visit, earlier this week, the bar was quieter, but equally impenetrable. There are barely one hundred villas on this compound. Everyone knows everyone, and we are new faces. We are more stared at by compound expats than by Saudi nationals, but less spoken to. Our attempts to strike up conversations during the previous bar outing met with minimal response, even though we often clocked the twenty or so drinkers glancing at us in puzzlement. At the NYE bash we feel invisible. Perhaps it is just as well that Sid brings our revels to an early close: we stagger back in darkness and drunkenness around 12.30am.

What I sense among the seasoned expats is ennui at least, but sometimes something darker. Take G–, a robust Scot with whom Girlfriend’s Dad arranges for me to play tennis one day. G–’s wife has never followed him to Saudi, even though he has worked here “on and off for the last two decades”. She is back home in Fife. “This is no place for her,” he says. As we play, G– issues himself a string of stinging rebukes. “You’re weak,” he shouts after netting a service return. “You’re throwing it away, like you do everything.” Later, after a double fault: “Always this sun, blinding me. I hate this fucking sun!”

Or take R–, a portly, softly-spoken Brit whom we meet in the bar of another compound. He is an old friend of GD. Once I am introduced as GD’s nephew, he opens up. He tells me has spent his life teaching English abroad. “Cyprus was best,” he reminisces. When I ask him why he is now in Saudi, he cites obligations to his family. “It’s all very well when you’re younger, but when you’ve got a wife and son…”. He trails off. How old is his son? “Oh, he’s 35 now.” R–’s eyes wander to the cricket on the television screen behind me. We sip pints of homemade beer in silent contemplation.


It begins when K discovers the train line connecting Dammam to Riyadh. It turns out to be the only train line in the country. 400 kilometres away, Riyadh is inaccessible to us unless we fly, which we would not be allowed to do. It is simply too far to ask Girlfriend’s Dad to drive. But we both yearn to go. It is the capital. It has been the focus of some of the grandest public building projects of a kingdom which loves to show off. And it is several measures more traditional than Dammam and Khobar, the nearest cities to our compound, which betray the creeping Western influence on Saudi life. But these are the very reasons why GD is adamant that we do not even consider strolling down to the station and enquiring about a return fare.

“I don’t mean to scare you,” he says. “But if you two go on that train, you might come back with fingers missing. It only needs one person to take exception to you. The police will be called, and they’ll throw you in jail while they try to figure out who you are.”

There are two sorts of lockdown that occur in the life of an expat in Saudi Arabia. The first is when a security scare means you have to retreat behind the walls of your house and hide until the terrorist threat passes. The second is more elusive: the sense of virtual lockdown that everyone who has been here for a while begins to feel. It is infectious, and it is depressing.

It is immeasurably worse for women. When we make our first excursion into Khobar, I witness a bleak reality of daily life. To leave the compound, K and her mother must don the abaya, a floor-length black cloak that envelops the body from the neck down, masking a woman’s flesh and figure. Abayas are big business here. The better ones are made of lighter materials – you can even buy silk abayas – which somewhat mitigates the oven effect of stepping out in desert heat with your entire body swathed in an extra layer of black material. There are abayas with lace trimmings or modest decorative swirls. But essentially, they are black and all-encompassing. It is strange to see my girlfriend, who might normally wear high-cut shorts and a tshirt in this climate, fastening herself into this alien cloak, with its many ties and buttons to guarantee it does not flap open. At first it reminds me of a university gown. Or even a wizard’s cloak. At certain angles, if you glance briefly enough, you might think it was a lavish black ballgown. But it does not take long for comic novelty to wear off.

The Al-Rashid is a vast shopping mall in Khobar. Like Dammam airport, the interior is disarmingly lavish, with giant chandeliers, marble-effect tiles and water fountains. Across three brightly-lit levels, among endless parades of shops and cafes, Saudis enjoy the sort of brash, capitalist experience unthinkable to their parents’ generation.

Here the gender divide becomes grossly apparent. K and her mother’s abayas represent an appropriate modesty for a Western woman but fall short of what is expected of their Saudi counterparts, whose hair is covered by a black hood, the hijab, which hugs the perimeter of their face like a tightly tied parka. Most also have a black veil across the face itself. Only their eyes are visible. But while some men dress in correspondingly traditional clothes – the long white thobe topped with the keffiyeh (headdress), held in place by a circular black agal – many men seem to have jettisoned custom in favour of Western fashion. Designer jeans and chinos abound, as do surprisingly loud shirts, particularly among the younger men. I spotted a Bob Marley tshirt; Girlfriend’s Dad told me he’d recently seen one celebrating Ché Guevara. Whether these are deliberate acts of subversion towards a drug-free, far-right state, or merely naive attempts at modism, is unclear. The contrast of a cloaked, veiled woman trailing behind a man who would look equally at home in a Shoreditch boozer is unsettling.

Most Saudi couples promenading through Al-Rashid are mobbed by their brood; often the wife carries a baby while two or three youngsters flit about her. The children run in and out of shops, hiding in window displays, or weave through the fountains in the water features. I have not seen a Saudi mother publicly rebuke a child; I sense it would require more authority than women possess in public. Nor have I seen a father appear to notice his children’s behaviour as he marches ahead. Girls can dress in Western clothes until the first signs of puberty, at which point they must wear an abaya. Girls at abaya age no longer run amok: they fall dutifully into step with their mother.

Throughout our visit to the mall we are warned to keep watch for the Mutawa – the religious police, who can be identified by their brown robes and the whips they carry. Though we do not see any on this visit, Girlfriend’s Mum says they are notorious for sudden, sweeping raids on malls, finding fault with the tiniest details of dress or deportment. On a previous visit, GM was at the receiving end of a furious verbal assault because she had loosened her abaya while sitting in a cafe, even though she was sat in the separate, partitioned, women’s section. The whips they carry are theoretically for lashing exposed flesh, though I’m told such a punishment is increasingly rare.

The shops themselves are a striking contrast. They are home, predominantly, to Western fashion labels. Karen Millen, Armani, Gucci, Guess… Some have mannequins in their windows sporting outfits no woman could wear in public – bras, bikins, skimpy tops. The only presentational difference I can see between here and, say, Westfields in London, is that these mannequins invariably have no heads. Unless, of course, decapitation as punishment for vice is the intended message.

One large shop, which sells everything from cut-price laptops to books and DVDs, furthers the sense of moral confusion. There are Jackie Collins novels and 18-rated American films alongside books about the Qur’an and CDs of religious songs. There are British newspapers, even though we had to surrender ours when our flight entered Saudi airspace. There is a rudimentary attempt at ethical censorship: a picture of a woman on the front of the Daily Mail sports a white sticker which covers the flesh exposed below her knee-length skirt. But inside the newspaper, similar pictures go undoctored.

On a subsequent excursion, GM takes K and I by taxi into downtown Khobar. It is modern, urban, but inconsistent: around the corner from a row of gold shops, you find an alleyway lined with cockroach carcasses, full of tailors stitching robes. The desert provides a thin layer of dust everywhere. There are many building sites, but they often appear unmanned. Sometimes, I’m told, building projects are halted midway because a religious objection has been lodged. K is rebuked for taking a picture of some men resting at the edge of an otherwise derelict site.

Shortly after 11.30am, the late-morning call to prayer wafts through the air from mosques in every direction. At once, the shops switch off their lights and pull down their shutters. They will remain shut until late afternoon. But I see only a few men walk into the nearest mosque. Men in thobes remain on the pavements long after the chanting has finished. The constant, aggressive traffic along the main road in and out of Khobar barely abates.

When our taxi delivers us back to the compound gate, GM is pulling off her abaya before she has crossed the threshold. “I hate this fucking thing,” she says.

K’s parents have been in Saudi for nearly two decades. There is little novelty left here for them, only frustration and boredom. They talk every day of the Spanish villa whose construction GD’s tax and expense-free salary has underwritten. Though both make a touching effort to show us their semi-adopted country, I sense their struggle to feel enthusiastic about a life they have mentally left behind.

This is why K and I are broaching independent travel. But GD is vehemently opposed. Even a trip into downtown Khobar unaccompanied by one of Kelly’s parents is ruled out. Saudi military is supporting neighbouring Yemen in strikes against rebel forces who have taken control in northern Yemen; meanwhile US and Saudi fighter planes are jointly targeting areas of Yemen said to be new Al-Qaeda strongholds. The two interests may overlap. The upshot is that threat of a terrorist backlash in Saudi increases with each fresh report of Yemeni civilian casualties. These are, of course, gleaned from the internet: little of this appears in national newspapers. Twice, now, we have found ourselves queuing in spontaneous roadblocks as Saudi police inspect the occupants of every vehicle.

As it is his own daughter’s safety at stake, not to mention his job, we must cede to GD’s fears of Al-Qaeda kidnappers, which are not without precedent. GD says that he and GM were warned to stop going for evening strolls along the corniche, a tree-lined boulevard in Dammam, because militants were driving by taking pot-shots at Westerners. And although we carry passports, visas and security passes everywhere we go, GD is concerned that the site of two young people, of opposite genders, who are neither married, siblings nor permanently resident here, would be sufficient to merit arrest. “Saying you’re cousins is not good enough for them,” he tells me, as I bite my lip and nod my head. “What you have to remember is that you’re not supposed to be here.”


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.

SAUDI BLOG 0… (a problogue)

It is shortly after 9am when we arrive at Heathrow. Terminal One is swarming. Though there has been no fresh snowfall overnight, what snow remained on the ground has hardened to ice. Around a third of flights show delays.

We make for the BMI check-in desks. They loom in the distance when we hit the queue. A vast collection of human beings, laden with luggage, snakes around the floor. We join the back. Everyone else, from their black skin and loose, colourful outfits, seems African. We step out of the queue and scan to the front. This is not a check-in queue. It leads to a single set of scales. By the scales what looks like an entire family is on its knees. They sift through bags, boxes and suitcases, transferring items from one place to another. Only when they have passed this lo-fi inspection are these passengers waved forward, to join another queue for the check-in desk. Their flight is bound for Sierra Leone.

Beyond the scales, a second group is massed within a sealed-off area, a long rectangle marked out with the metal posts and extendable cordon beloved of airports. Here, again, is a certain consistency of appearance: most of the men wear kippah skullcaps. Their flight is bound for Tel Aviv; so severe is its delay that BMI is not yet willing to check them in. Newly arrived travellers march up to an unsmiling official in blue uniform at the edge of the enclosure. “Tel Aviv?” says a tense-looking man, also wearing a kippah. He is staring directly at the sealed-off area. “Where do I queue for Tel Aviv?”. “Where do you think?” I hear someone mutter.

We are waved through to the automated check-in computers. I scan my passport, key in codes, then scan my visa. “Error: invalid visa,” replies the computer. My heart sinks. I know that my right to travel to Saudi Arabia is tenuous at best, that I am doing so under muddy pretences, though not malicious ones. I call over another blue-uniformed official. “You’ll have to join that queue then,” she says, gesturing to a mercifully short line.

The shortness of the line proves false reassurance. It is short, but it does not move. It is feeding a single check-in desk, at which four young Arabic men in designer tracksuits are arguing with the clerk.

To our left, Sierra Leone-bound travellers who have progressed from the luggage scales are inching towards check-in. They lean on trolleys, or perch on taped-up cardboard boxes.

Behind me is a rotund bearded man who I surmise will be on our flight; with him, a woman in a black gown and headscarf. “This is ridiculous,” he says. “We are not even moving.” We all smile and shake our heads.

In front of us is a fair-haired, fair-skinned family. Two young children loll and tug at their parents’ clothes. Their father loses patience and crosses to the one of the blue-uniformed officials. When he raises his voice in complaint, I discern an Irish accent. I never discover where is bound, but his complaint works. Nodding as if she has been commanded by a superior, the official diverts our queue to a different desk.

“Finally,” says the man behind me.

The visa problem turns out to be computer error. When I look back, ticket in hand, on the way to security, I see that several Tel Aviv-bound passengers have stepped out of the enclosure and are vigorously arguing with officials. I do not stay long enough to see whether their lot improves. The queue to the Sierra Leone luggage scales stretches around a corner, out of sight.