Sunday, April 30, 2006


And there was me thinking the IT industry was the spiritual home of the TLA (Three-Letter Acronym)! The Foreign Office in general and the Embassy in Riyadh in particular is awash with the blighters: FCO, DHM, HMA, CLO, ECO, AMO, even stretching to four letters with RGBB, DSFA... the list goes on. I'm constantly having to stop Karen mid-flow to ask, "What does that one mean?"

For the last few weeks all the talk has been about something called the "QBP", which it turns out is the Queen's Birthday Party - the Embassy's National Day of celebration and a highlight of the Diplomatic social calendar, and with this year being Her Majesty's 80th, this year's party promised to be the biggest and best yet.

The Residence entrance

The QBP was held last week in the garden of the Ambassador's Residence and was certainly a glittering affair, with over 700 guests from the Diplomatic and expatriate communities, and of course many Saudi dignitaries including members of the Al Saud Royal Family.

Sherard with Prince Sattam bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

Sherard and Bridget with United States Ambassador James C. Oberwetter and his wife Anita

We were surprised and delighted when - a couple of days before the party - Sherard asked Elliot if he would like to attend as unofficial photographer. Needless to say Elliot was delighted and excited to accept and on the night the Embassy staff arrived at the residence early, the adults to don their red rosebud buttonholes (to identify us as Embassy staff and partners), and Elliot to receive instruction from Sherard on proper use of his very large and expensive-looking digital camera. Elliot's sporting a mop of long hair at the moment but despite that he looked quite smart and presentable, and his mission was twofold: take some official shots as Sherard and Bridget greeted their guests, and then wander around the party capturing some less formal, candid portraits.

Karen and me with some friends

I felt quite nervous for him but he seemed to be quite at ease mingling with Ambassadors, princes, and leading figures in the Saudi British expat community, including several teachers from his school.

Yours Truly with Australian Ambassador Ian Biggs

The guests enjoyed a balmy evening of drinks, exquisite finger foods, a small military band, speeches, and a ceremonial lowering of the Union Jack. Karen and I and the rest of the staff spent the evening mingling with and chatting to the guests, and I only saw Elliot a few times during the evening, but each time I did see him he was having a great time.

Listening to Sherard's address

Some Saudi guests

The event was a great success, in Sherard's opinion the best he's attended, and the next day he sent an email round thanking everyone for their contribution, mentioning, "our excellent new photographer Elliot Neal" by name.

Elliot with Principal of the British Internaitional School Dolores McNamara and her husband Bernie - Abigail's form teacher

Karen and I enjoyed it immensely and were very proud of the way Elliot conducted himself. I hope you enjoy these photos - all taken by my boy!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Kingdom to Kingdom

You know what it's like. There you are sitting in your office on a Wednesday morning, chatting to a colleague on the phone, when all of a sudden your office door opens and in walks the British Ambassador with Jack Straw, The Foreign Secretary. Oh, you don't know what that's like?? Karen does!

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw

We knew something was up when we got on the plane at Heathrow. Instead of the usual bmi experience to Riyadh - a mostly empty plane - there were about 50 single passengers, all British, nearly all male, and representing (from their appearance) walks of life such as politician, academic, journalist, and businessman.

They were all heading to Riyadh for the Kingdom to Kingdom Conference: the second running of an annual conference aimed at improving relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia, and this was also the reason for Mr. Straw's presence, as this Daily Telegraph article explains much better than I could.

On this particular Wednesday morning though, The Foreign Secretary was being shown round the Embassy, which was why the rapidly opening office door was accompanied by Sherard saying, "Karen, this is the Foreign Secretary. Would you show him round the Consular Section please?", to which Karen said (to the colleague on the other end of the phone), "I'll call you back!"

That evening we both attended a reception to see off the delegation at the end of the conference. Jack Straw wasn't there but we did also meet Baroness Symons - ex Foreign Office Minister and now the Government's special representative for the Middle East, who when introduced to Karen said, "We've met haven't we." She remembered meeting Karen about a year earlier when she was helping to organize a meeting in London to do with the Middle East peace process.

Baroness Symons

Not bad eh? In one day she meets the Foreign Secretary and is also remembered by another leading politician who had only met her briefly about a year earlier. It won't be long before I'll have to make an appointment to see her! :-)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Easter Trip

It's taken me a while to post this but since we got back it's been a bit of a social whirl here (more to come!).

Easter holidays and right after our desert trip with all the other families and their visiting teenagers it's our turn to go on holiday. We've arranged a triangular trip Riyadh-Bahrain-UK-Riyadh, beginning with four days in Bahrain (our first visit to the Kingdom) to chill out, relax by the pool, then six days back in the UK to visit family and friends.
The travel arrangements were a bit mixed, with us booking two of the flights and the accommodation on-line, and with my friendly local travel agent Isam booking the Riyadh-Bahrain flight for us. I like Isam but there are two problems with using him for travel. First, parking outside his agency office is a complete nightmare; the office is at the south end of Olaya St., one of the busiest in the city, and it's not uncommon to find vehicles double or even triple-parked along that stretch, sometimes occupying two-thirds of the road width. I actually double-parked myself once leaving Karen and the children waiting in the car, and almost got rammed by two angry Saudis. The other problem with using Isam is he cocks up a lot - a trait that you don't really want in a travel agent. Karen doesn't want to use him again but I keep giving him another go, partly because I like him and partly because he has local knowledge and language, and can arrange things that would be difficult for us to do on our own.

So, a week or so after booking the Gulf Air flight to Bahrain I get a call from Isam to say the airline has cancelled the flight. He didn't know why. He's going to come back to me with other options, such as flying to Dammam then getting a limo the rest of the way. I wait and wait but no call for days (this was going on while I was in Salt Lake City at BrainShare). Finally I call him and after some discussion I decide the best thing to do is to go to Bahrain by car. The journey is about 500km so about 4 hours by road. It's only a one-hour flight but once you add up the airport travel and waiting at both ends there's not much difference, and Isam arranges a chauffeur-drive company to provide us with a large saloon car and driver for SR1000 (about £150), which is much cheaper than flying and having a driver will allow us all to relax and enjoy the scenery.

The morning of daparture and our car and driver arrive on time - good start! I go out to meet the Indian driver (his English wasn't good and I didn't get his name, but for the story let's call him Sandy, for reasons that will become apparent). As I walk out to the car to say hello I observe Sandy pouring something over the front of the car. On closer inspection it turns out to be washing up liquid, which Sandy tells me is a good way to protect the car's chrome and paintwork from the sandstorm, which we are about to drive through for the next four hours. Great! So much for the relaxing, scenic drive. My initial suspicions about the car's boot being big enough for all the luggage are unfounded and we are shortly all on our way - three large suitcases and all.

"Are we there yet?"

Riyadh to the Eastern Province and Bahrain is the most boring drive I have ever experienced. 500km of dead straight road with nothing but sand to left and right (apart from the odd petrol station: did I tell you the petrol stations here are odd? ). Visibility is pretty poor and we can see the sand being blown across the motorway and can hear it hitting the side of the car as we drive along - thank God for Fairy Liquid that's all I can say! Along the way we see several other vehicles smeared with green slime, so it's not just that Sandy's a loony; it seems to be common practice so it must work. I've seen sand-damaged vehicles and it's not a pretty sight.
So with nothing to look at and four hours to look at it, we rely on our books and assorted electronic gadgets to entertain us; me - PSP, Elliot and Abigail - iPods and Nintendo handhelds, Karen - book, and we all have a bit of a doze along the way. These driving conditions are likely to make anyone drowsy, what with the straight roads and poor visibility - and nothing to look at even with good visibility, and I'm a bit anxious about Sandy nodding off at the wheel so I keep looking at him every few minutes from the passenger seat to make sure he's still awake. Sandy would make a great poker player, as his facial expression never changed the whole way there. I'm pretty sure he didn't even blink and I don't think he moved at all apart from steering and using the pedals.

After just under four hours we arrive at the Saudi-Bahrain causeway: a 25km-long road/bridge linking Khobar in Saudi Arabia with the island Kingdom of Bahrain. The causeway's pretty cool as all you can see on each side as you motor across is water. At about the halfway mark is a small island which is used as the border, and it reminded me a little of a car ferry terminal, with parallel waiting lanes and ten drivethru passport checkpoints side-by-side.

Once through immigration and customs we have a few more minutes on the second half of the causeway before we enter Bahrain's capital, Manama. If you want more details about the Kingdom take a look at this Wikipedia entry.

The Saudi-Bahrain Causeway from space

Just like Dubai, there's massive development going on here

Sandy takes a while to find our hotel and we have to call them for directions, but eventually we arrive at the Novotel Al Dana Resort. We check in, unpack, then have a walk around to get our bearings and after looking at the pool and the beach we find the bar - Finally we can have a drink in public!

Bahrain is an Islamic state but nowhere near as restrictive as Saudi. Alcohol is allowed, women do not have to wear the abaya and they have cinemas too! The hotel bar has an outdoor terrace overlooking the bay, and we spend an hour or so sitting outside and chatting, with the rummm, rummm, sound of speedboat and jetski engines as they bounce across each other's wakes. One speedboat is particularay noisy and is almost taking off as it bounces on the waves.

One of these sank 5 minutes after taking this photo

We return to our drinks and conversation when a few minutes later we hear, rumm...rumm...rumm...rumm...rumm...................then nothing. Everyone on the terrace gets up and goes to the wall to see what's happened and sure enough, there in the distance is the front end of the speedboat, sticking vertically up in the air, and as we all look on it sinks completely beneath the surface. There are other craft racing to the scene so there's nothing we need to - or indeed can - do, but I still wonder if anyone was hurt in the accident.

Later we decide to go to the cinema - which we haven't done for three months now. I order a taxi and we all jump in to be taken to the Dana Shopping Mall, which has a ten-screen cinema. Our taxi driver is a very nice Arab named Abdul. Abdul is in full Arab dress - as are all the taxi drivers here - and is very chatty, telling us about the city, his friends in Riyadh, and he shows us a photo of his kids on his mobile phone, which he then returns to its storage place: a kind of sock thing stuck to the dashboard with a picture of Tom & Jerry on it.
Abdul drops us off at the Mall and I take his mobile number and agree to call him when we come out. We go to see The Pink Panther, the new version starring Steve Martin. I like Steve Martin and the movie is pretty funny but it can never compare with the Peter Sellers originals. The Bahrainians love it though, the cinema rocks with guffaws of laughter throughout the film. Afterwards we look around a few shops then I call Abdul to take us back to the hotel. He says he'll be where he dropped us off in 10 mins, and sure enough as we walk about a few minutes later there he is. I catch his eye and wave, and he waves back, we all jump in and off we go. It's only as we're pulling out of the Mall car park that I notice the absence of the Tom & Jerry phone sock on the dash - this isn't Abdul! I have to call Abdul and tell him we got in another taxi by mistake - embarrassing, but I promise we'll call him next time we need to go somewhere. He accepts it in good humour. I guess it must happen to him a lot.
The next day (Saturday) we visit another Mall - Seef - to buy some clothes and have lunch. I let the hotel call us a taxi as I'm not sure about the logistics of my calling Abdul to pick us up from the hotel, plus I might not recognize him again. We have a nice morning's shopping and decide to have lunch at Chili's, an American Tex-Mex restaurant that I'm familiar with from my U.S. trips. Lunch is nice but way too big and alcohol-free as they don't have a licence; a fact that we only discovered after we'd settled into the booth and got comfortable. As I'm paying the bill I call Abdul and this time we get into the right cab and go back to the hotel. We spend the afternoon at the pool and true to form, Abigail spends the entire time in the water.

At one point I remark that I'm putting on a little weight, and Abigail tries to console me by saying, "Don't worry Daddy. There must be at least 20 people in Bahrain fatter than you." ONLY 20!!! I explain to her that in a place with a population of a million people, that's little comfort. How the others laughed. We spend the rest of the weekend pointing out fat people and saying, "Look, there's number 19!"

In the evening we have dinner at The Blue Elephant; one of a chain of very good Thai restaurants. There's one in Fulham (London) that Karen and I went to a few years ago and it was excellent. This one doesn't disappoint either.

It's beautifully decorated with plants and lanterns, there's a wooden bridge over a pond containing hundreds of fish and a fountain, and the waitresses are al l beautifully dressed in Thai silk dresses.

After a lovely meal I call Abdul to take us back to the hotel, and he says he'll be there in 10 minutes. 20 minutes later a taxi pulls up outside the restaurant but it's not Abdul, it's his brother whom Abdul must pass work on to when he's swamped. We're in Abdul's brother's taxi and on the way home when I get a call from Abdul to make sure we got picked up and that his brother is looking after us - that's what I call service! Something else that'sa little disconcerting about not only Abdul but all the taxi drivers here is that there is no fare structure. When you reach your destination, your, "How much?" will get the response, "Whatever you want, 5, 6, 7 is OK, it's your car". I found that quite hard to deal with because you never know if what you decide to give is short-changing them or if you're paying over the going rate. Still it added to the amusement of the weekend.

On Sunday we went to the old market shopping area.

A loud, bustling place full of narrow streets, large cars, fake watches and extremely keen salespeople who almost drag you phyisically in to look at their Breitlings, Omegas and Rolexes, all £10 each. We find an abaya shop that sells girl's sizes, so we buy Abigail a new one, as her old one is too short.

She picks out a snazzy number with white piping round the sleeves and down the front - very fetching. You know you've been in Saudi too long when you're looking at black cloaks and saying, "Ooh, that's a nice one!"

Next stop is the gold souq; an indoor and (thankfully) air-conditioned collection of small jewellers shops in a market-style setting.

Karen buys a ring and a couple of gifts, while Abigail fends off the advances of the Indian jeweller's young assistant, who keeps asking for her email address. She says, "I can't remember it" ... good girl!

"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"

Monday - our last day - is spent by the pool before going to the airport late at night for the overnight flight to Heathrow.

We had a nice but tiring six days in the UK visiting family and friends. We saw Karen's mum, my parents, Laura & Lucas, my brother Jes, with Sian and their daughter Isabelle.

We also did more shopping and went to the cinema again: Alien Autopsy - don't bother. We attended Easter Day mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in Langley and spent some time catching up with Father Kevin before the service.
Wanting to avoid Travel Lodge-style motels like the plague, we ended up staying at a large B&B called Upton Park Hotel in Slough. I found it on the internet and it had the three main qualities I look for in a hotel that I'm paying for myself: It had a room available, it was cheap, and they had wireless internet access. I was sold immediately on looking at the website but Karen remained skeptical. When we arrived we found that our "family room" was actually a two-floor flat at the top of a large terraced house which made up one third of the hotel. We had plenty of space but the floors were all bare boards and very creaky, there was even a kitchen (that we didn't use), and the bathroom was tiny and had one of those showers that you have to hold while you use it. Not great, but comfortable enough, really fast internet access compared with what I'm used to, and smashing fried breakfasts every morning BACON! SAUSAGES! We got our pork fix that week I can tell you.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

More desert photos

Thanks to Sherard Cowper-Coles (the Ambassador) for sending me some of his photos from our recent desert trip. Unfortunately for all of you that means I'm in front of the camera this time.

Captured for posterity: the only time I've had an escape of air without Karen complaining.

Setting up camp. Priority #1: food & drink!

On of the benefits of my camera is that it can be operated one-handed :-)

I took one like this but Sherard's is better >:-|

Lucy, Minna & Alice

"Where's the en suite?"

Sherard showing the younger generation how it's done

"Hello, is that the AA?"

Nearly time for us to go home and for the die-hards to start getting ready for bed.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Desert Driving

Most of the teenage children belonging to families at the Embassy go to boarding schools in the UK, so at the start of the Easter holidays (end of March) they all came out to Riyadh to visit their folks. The Ambassador's daughter and three sons were part of this influx, as was his brother and family. We're in the opposite situation – with Elliot and Abigail living and going to school here – and are about to return to the UK to visit family and friends, but before we go we have a couple of days with all the families together here, so Sherard (that's the Ambassador) invited us all on a trip to the desert – his family to camp there overnight, and the rest of us to go for the afternoon and evening, then return to the city.

We set off from the driveway of the Residence at around 2.30 pm, picking up a couple of other families en route. There were two lots of Cowper-Coles, us, and four other families, plus Sherard's Close Protection Team (bodyguards), which all in all made up our convoy of nine 4x4's, seven of which played Follow the Leader down the motorway as we headed Southwest of Riyadh, with the two guards' vehicles swooping in and out as we went along.

We left the motorway after about an hour and drove for another hour along more minor roads before finally turning right onto sand, where we stopped for about ten minutes to rendezvous and to let our tyres down.

We were about to go driving over the sand dunes of the desert; soft terrain in which it is very easy to get stuck so there are several common sense precautions you take. One is to always travel in groups of at least three vehicles, so that there will always be one not-stuck car to pull out another, a second is to carry digging out equipment such as shovels and sand ladders, but the third and most important precaution is to let some air out of your tyres – about half of their regular pressure. This has the effect of making the tyre's “footprint” on the sand flatter and larger, and therefore less likely to sink into the sand. So I – along with the other drivers – let my tyres down from around 30psi to 15psi, and off we went.

Our leader for the desert section was Simon, who is with the British Army here and highly experienced in desert driving, camping etc., so we felt in good hands. Simon snaked around the base of a large sand dune – with all of us following, then drove up the gentle side and rolled to a stop at the top so that we could all get out and look over before driving over the edge.

I now wish I'd taken a couple of photos from the top of the dunes as they look MUCH steeper from up there than they do in these shots.

We did about four of these large dunes and I was really enjoying it, but I did feel for Karen who – in the passenger seat and with no steering wheel to cling on to – was having less fun. I can imagine being in the passenger seat as the car dips over the top of the dune, and I don't think I'd enjoy it from there either.

The key is to keep up a steady speed up to the top, then to tilt over the edge slowly and then let gravity and the sand take you down, only putting the revs back on as you reach the bottom of the slope so that you power away from it without getting stuck. I got the hang of this quite quickly and was just getting warmed up when we moved off to find our camp site.

We “circled our wagons” at the base of a very large dune and as the adults began to unpack the equipment for camping, picnic etc. the children legged it up the dune as if it were just a gentle slope.

I tried it myself later and it's not gentle I can tell you! The bodyguards set up their own camp atop another dune about ½ mile away, from where they could keep an eye on us without being intrusive.

Sherard and I and a couple of others took photos and video of the children playing on the dune; me with my small but perfectly formed Sanyo digital camcorder and he with his big black Canon digital SLR and large zoom lens. He's actually a pretty good photographer and I'll ask him for a couple of photos from the day that I can post here for you to look at.

The rest of the evening went as it usually does; we ate, drank, chatted and built a fire as the sun went (quickly) down, then wrapped up as the wind picked up and the temperature fell.

The Cowper-Coles families were in for the long-haul and were to sleep on camp beds out in the open – no tents. I haven't done it myself yet but I'm told sleeping outside in the desert under the stars is a pretty incredible experience. That's for another time for us though, and at around 9pm the rest of us set off back to the city, taking about 30 minutes to weave our way back to the road between the dunes in the dark, then finding a petrol station where we re-inflated our tyres before driving the two hours back to Riyadh and a nice warm bed!