The Embassy has a team of drivers who are available to people who don't have their own transport (mainly women - who are not allowed to drive here, and newcomers like me who don't yet have the required ID documents to buy their own car). They'll take you shopping, they also do the school run every day. Our favourite driver of those we've met so far is Saleh. He's very nice and since he does the afternoon school pick-up every day he's got to know the children and gets on great with them.
Anyway, we want to make sure we can contact the children while we're out here so decided to buy them a mobile phone each. I mentioned this to Saleh last Saturday and he offered to take me to the mobile market in town, where his mate has a shop and he can get me a good price, so we arranged to go on Monday morning.
Once were in the car and on our way, Saleh said we'd stop off first at the new Carrefour hypermarket so that when we get to the market we can compare prices.
As we're walking into the supermarket Saleh started rubbing his chest and complaining of a burning pain. I said it was probably heartburn, which I get regularly so I know whereof I speak, and that he should get some Gavilast or Zantac or something. Unsurprisingly, he shook off this advice, probably because indigestion tablets here are called something completely different and he didn't know what I was on about.
Carrefour has a fair-sized mobile section and I quickly found the "budget" section for tight****s like me, and after some tyre kicking I settled on the Nokia 6030 in black, which Carrefour was selling for SR409, which is about £65. I thought it was an OK price, but Saleh - still rubbing his chest and with the facial expression of one who has just eaten a live worm - insisted that we should go on to the market, as the price will be better there.
The mobile market is a few miles away and is basically just a parade of scruffy shops, each housing about six mobile phone sales units: one or two men and a couple of display cases. We parked the car right outside the shops and started walking along the shopfronts, me feeling conspicuous as the only Westerner in sight and Saleh still pulling a face and moaning about his indigestion.
I need to digress here for a moment and explain how the mobile business works here. Phones and SIM cards don't come together from the network operator or their dealer, like in the UK. Here you have to buy your SIM-free handset (new or secondhand) from wherever, then get yourself a prepay or postpay SIM card direct from the network operator.
Back in the mobile market with Saleh and his heartburn, and after browsing a couple of shops and checking prices of the Nokia 6030 (would you believe, about 30 Riyals MORE than in Carrefour!), we end up at his mate's stall, where after some haggling I am offered two 6030s for SR420 each, including a 3-year guarantee. It's' still not as good as Carrefour but by now I feel obliged to Saleh for bringing me out here so we do the deal. Saleh says he wants to buy something for Abigail so he spends a few Riyals on phone accessories (neckstraps, bling bling attachments, that sort of thing; he's very nice and I thank him profusely.
Then it's off to Saudi Telecom for SIM cards. STC operate the Al Jawal network, and until recently were the only player in town. That is, until Mobily came along. Mobily are the new kids on the block and are doing lots of advertising and making sure they are more competitive than Al Jawal to win customers. I know there's a Mobily shop in the DQ, but first we check out what's on offer at Al Jawal. They charge SR70 (about £10) per month, but all calls and texts are extra. I know that Mobily have a tarriff at SR65 per month that includes 100 minutes of calls, so Saleh drives me back to the DQ and leaves me at the shopping centre, where I get the SIM cards sorted. This Mobily deal is so much better than Al Jawal, there must be a catch....
The children come home from school and are delighted with their new phones, and Karen and I spend the rest of the day listening to all the very pleasant and not-at-all annoying ringtones the Nokia 6030 has in its repertoire! They also like the straps and dangly tie-on things that Saleh bought them and I remind them to thank him when they see him the next day.
I tell Elliot that, although he doesn't get any text messages bundled per month, they're only 4p each within KSA and 8p international, so he can text his UK buddies within reason. He texts a friend and 45 mins later she informs him on MSN that she hasn't received it yet, so I call Mobily customer services in order to hear about "the catch". Because they're a new operator they don't yet have agreements with all international networks, and right now the only UK network they can send texts to is T Mobile. And of course T-Mobile is regarded as "a bit naff" among teenage brits, so he's stuck with either calling them or sticking with MSN.
Tuesday morning comes and it's not Saleh in the school car but Ahmed - not unusual, so I remind them again, "remember to thank Saleh this afternoon when he picks you up.". I take a walk up to the shops, and on the way back I bump into Sue, Brian's wife.
"Morning Sue, how are you?"
"Fine thanks, but did you hear about Saleh? He had a heart attack this morning!"
Saleh is OK. It was a minor attack - a blood clot in a vein or artery near the heart which has been treated without surgery, and he should be out of hospital in a couple of days.