Wednesday, September 26, 2007


I offer up the following as a personal perspective, and before anyone says anything I acknowledge that this is my own personal opinion, is based on partial experience and does not represent a rounded view: being neither a Saudi nor a Muslim I am not privy to the family gatherings, celebrations, worship and soul-cleansing that are supposed to make Ramadan so important in the Islamic calendar, so all I can report on is what I experience as an external observer.

Ramadan changes life in Saudi in ways that I've never experienced anywhere else, and I guess the main point of this post is to illustrate to you how the country puts Islam above all else and that, while Saudis may feel the benefit, the expat resident seldom sees any positive indicators of the Ramadan Effect.

So, to begin let's cover the basics of what Ramadan is, and is about. The Holy Month of Ramadan occurs at the same time each year in the Islamic Hijri calendar, but because the Hijri calendar is based on lunar months Ramadan appears to "shift" eleven days earlier each year to those of us who use the Gregorian (solar month) calendar. As I write we are roughly halfway through, and it is expected to finish on or around October 11. Ramadan represents the time when the Qu'ran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed, and the festival is intended to bring Muslims closer to God (or Allah), which is supposed to be achieved by fasting during the hours of daylight, while also abstaining from other activities such as smoking and sexual relations. During the day then, the Muslim is free to contemplate Allah and become more "God-conscious". At sunset, families congregate for Iftar (Breakfast), followed by prayer and more dining. They stay up late, and rise very early to partake of a pre-dawn meal to help them get through the daylight hours. During this month Muslims are also encouraged to be extra kind and charitable.

That, in a nutshell, is what Ramadan is about. It is observed in every country that has a Muslim population, both in democracies with Muslim communities such as the UK and also in Islamic states such as Pakistan, but nowhere is it so strictly observed (and enforced) as in Saudi Arabia. As the home of "The Two Holy Mosques" at Mecca and Medina, Saudi is Islam's Holy Land and the guardian of Islamic ways.

As a non-Muslim expat living in Riyadh I am therefore disconnected from the private, spiritual and family aspects of Ramadan. I read about them and I know what is supposed to go on but I can't see it, so I have to assume it takes place and is meaningful to people. Instead, all I see are the practical, real-world differences that make many expats choose this month for a foreign holiday....

Business / Commerce
Because people are up late and rise early (to eat), and because they cannot eat, drink, or smoke during the day, they tend to be, shall we say, not running on all cylinders where work is concerned. Many businesses allow employees to keep shorter hours, service levels are allowed to slip, and many already-woeful work ethics take another downward step. As you know, I flew back into Riyadh last Thursday (with Saudi Arabian Airlines), but my luggage didn't make it with me. I guess that was to be expected given that I checked it all the way through at Salt Lake City airport, but had to exit Heathrow Terminal 3 and re-enter in order to check in (sans luggage) for the Riyadh flight (this because the London agent has to check my visa).

King Khalid International Airport

So, I waited until the baggage carousel stopped and all the other passengers had picked up their bags and left, then I walked over to the Baggage Services desk to report it. The guard there had me fill in a form and he gave me a case number and a phone number, and told me that they would call my mobile as soon as my luggage arrived.

"Will that be tomorrow?" I asked.
"Yes, tomorrow Insh'Allah or after tomorrow."
"Ah, OK thanks."

No word came the next day or the day after, so on Sunday morning I called the number he gave me. In all I tried calling that number five times over Sunday and early Monday morning, and each time there was either a busy signal or simply no reply. So by mid-morning on Monday I decided to drive up to the airport and enquire in person. Once at Terminal 2 I had to go through the usual airport security check before being allowed into the baggage hall. The disinterested security guard waved me through the metal detector, which immediately went off. I have done this before and last time they completely disregarded it's bleeping so this time I had my phones etc. on me. The guard called me back and said, "Metal, metal.", so I took out my two mobile phones, car keys, and coins and went through again. It bleeped again, probably due to my watch and/or belt, neither of which would set off a Heathrow detector. I looked back and again he said, "Metal metal." I waved my wrist at him to indicate my watch, he shrugged and smiled and I was on my way. Throughout all this he remained reclining in his chair.

I couldn't find a picture of the baggage hall on the internet, so this one of the (only) nice part of the terminal will have to do.

Once in the baggage hall I went over to the desk with my claim form, Diplomatic passport and ID card in hand. There was no-one there and the lights were off. There was a small office to the side with its door open, so I gingerly stuck my head in looking for signs of life. A guard was lying on a row of chairs with his shoes off, fast asleep. I coughed politely and he woke up, saw the piece of paper in my hand, and then called a Pakistani porter in a green boiler suit to open up the luggage store. I went in with the porter and immediately found my two bags, which had probably been in there for three days. I brought them back to the desk and signed a piece of paper which the bleary-eyed guard had pushed at me. He never checked my ID.

Some shops remain closed during the day until around 4pm, and some open but with different hours than normal, and each shop follows its own rules, so if you want to know when a certain shop will be open you have to go there and read the sign on the door. Once open in the evening all shops stay open very late, usually until one or two in the morning. Food and drink establishments like McDonald's and Starbucks do not open at all until after sunset. Having recovered from the "rigours" of their working day and with a now-full stomach, most Saudis spend the evening shopping like there's no tomorrow. Shopping Malls heave, traffic is fierce, and every restaurant in town is bulging at the seams. Many (although I'm sure not all) expats avoid the evenings like the plague, as the stress just isn't worth it, but of course there's very little shopping to be had during the day either, so for us, Ramadan = no shopping, and remember: shopping is the only thing to do here.

The Religious Police are out in force during Ramadan to make sure all the restrictions are being observed, and anyone -- including us -- caught eating or drinking in public during daylight hours will be arrested and may be jailed or deported.

Ah, my favourite subject: driving in Riyadh (search the blog for other stories). Riyadh driving is often a dangerous, seat-of-the-pants affair. It's dog eat dog, survival of the fittest. You have to have eyes in the back of your head, clean mirrors and plenty of power in reserve to accelerate out of danger, and good brakes. Young Saudis treat the roads like a demolition derby, overtaking and undertaking takes place at the same time, new lanes are invented when they get bored of the marked ones. Now imagine all that, only now with starving, nicotine-deprived, irritable and tired drivers all racing to get to Iftar, and Riyadh's roads in the afternoon are a battlefield. Karen and I went out yesterday and narrowly missed collision several times. The air is thick with angry horn blasts, and we even witnessed a Road Rage incident with two thobe-clad Saudis fighting by their cars at the traffic lights and causing an even worse traffic jam.

Talk about Good Will to All Men.

I am not wishing to disrespect anyone's Religious choice (noting that Saudis do not, in fact, have a choice), but I am glad that this is the last Ramadan I will have to endure for a while.


Dan said...

"and we even witnessed a Road Rage incident with two thobe-clad Saudis fighting by their cars at the traffic lights and causing an even worse traffic jam"

Chris, that's not Road Rage, you want real Road Rage come here to LA, usually there is a gun involved, and somebody ends up dead.

JVP said...

As an ex-Saudi expat (Jeddah though, which is much better than Riyadh - even Saudis don't want to go to Riyadh) what I used to enjoy during Ramadan is the morning hours at work with no distractions. Saudis and Muslim expats have shortened work hours and don't have to be in the office until 10am or even 12 noon so you have the office all to yourself and get a lot of work done. And if you drive to work around 8 or 9am, the roads are empty. But you're right about driving home - it could be dangerous with deranged and hungry drivers rushing to Iftar like there's no tomorrow.

Chris said...

Dan: no thanks, think I'll give LA a miss (unless someone else volunteers to drive).

jvp: did you have to hide in a stationery cupboard to eat your packed lunch?

Dvt said...

Hey chris, i've just stumbled on your blog and i agree with you on many things especially when going back before eftar that can be really dangerous!! seriously ! however, I also wanted to remark on the mattuwiS ( when I read what you've wrote the immediate picture was you driving and the mattuis are stalking you waiting till you sip some water to arrest you ), which in my opinion a funny representation, however as an foreigner its always some strange story about this and that. anyhow, to my knowledge as a normal saudi i honestly don't think that eating nor drinking will get you arrested let alone deported !! in fact I know that ! i've seen many people drink and sometimes eat, including saudi men who couldn't care less if its Ramadan or other month (off course this is never done in public), and women are by default exempted from fasting either for pregnancy or during their periods, actually many girls that I know do bring their meals with them to work or school (and eat it in private), while I truly believe Ramdan is most felt in saudi arabia yet i hardly think that out of 27 million every Saudi will be capable of fasting for 14 hours a day, people whom are sick and need to take some sort of medicationare required to break their fast.

my point is its okay for any one whose a non-muslim to eat or drink in broad day light, but with some respect, obviously you can't go wondering in malls with a big-mac in a hand and in the other a sign with " in your face " written on it!! Well if that ever happens I think you might have a slight problem with mattuws.

please accept my most regards to you dear chirs.

Take care


Chris said...


You are quite correct in that I have not personally witnessed the Muttawa zealously punishing someone for eating in public. What I wrote was based on advice from our Embassy and so we have observed the precaution, not wishing to test the Muttawa's patience. Having said that, I have not seen anyone eating or drinking around town during the day apart from small children; but then again, during Ramadan I don't go out much because the shops are not open.

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate it.