Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"I Can See Clearly Now..."

You know it's time to get your eyes tested when you can no longer read "BREAKING NEWS" at the bottom of the screen on Sky News, even WITH your glasses on. (I'm so glad we're still able to get that leading, incisive, trail-blazing news organisation's broadcasts out here so we can stay up with current affairs. Where else can you see the Saddam execution video on continuous loop for 48 hours, or be among the first to know that Shilpa won Celebrity Big Brother?).

Neither Karen nor I had had our eyes re-tested for a couple of years and, as I've said countless times before, there ain't much to do here of a Thursday afternoon, so last week we decided to spend the day shopping and seeing if we need new glasses (as if we didn't already know!).

Granada Mall in Riyadh has several opticians: Pearle, Magrabi Optical to name but two (the only two whose names I can remember), and from the outside they certainly look the part: lots of designer names displayed, "40% Sale!", and so on. The big difference with shop windows here compared with, well, anywhere else, is that they are completely lacking any human imagery. In an Optician's window in Europe, for example, you would see photos of attractive models sporting their eyewear while engaged in sophisticated pursuits, like haring round a mountain road in an open-topped Ferrari, or lounging in bikinis, cocktail in hand, on the back of a luxury yacht in Monte Carlo. Or even just a close up of a pretty face wearing equally pretty glasses. In Saudi, however, such images are strictly forbidden. We even once saw a large billboard-sized ad on the side of a brand new Timberland store depicting a rugged outdoor-type male standing on top of a rock formation in the mountains and wearing the tough boots, thick sweater etc. that you can buy inside the store, but his face had been blacked out!
So, apart from the lack of nice photos showing us what we could look like if we buy our glasses here, the store looked pretty competent and professional.

"I wonder if you can get new glasses same-day like in the UK?" Karen pondered. I very much doubted it. Based on previous experiences here things take their own sweet time, and there's nothing you can do to speed it up or slow it down. I told her we'd go in with low expectations, fully anticipating a wait of two weeks for any glasses we may order. We went in and were immediately approached by the Filipino Optometrist who, on hearing that we both wanted eye tests, ushered us to a nearby machine in the middle of the shop floor. It was one of those things that you sit at and look into a couple of lenses -- a bit like a fixed pair of binoculars, and the guy measures the vital statistics of each of your eyes. I was a bit worried that this was "it", all the eye test we were going to get, but afterwards he took us in turn to a room at the back that put me immediately at ease, because it was just like every other eye exam room I've ever been in, with the letter chart on the wall and everything. He took my old glasses out to another machine, and returned only about a minute later to predict that my prescription has hardly changed at all: just 0.25 in one eye. I said that I didn't care. I want another eye test and some new glasses anyway (I was feeling a bit flush that day and always feel good when I'm buying myself something new).
So, both eye tests done, it was time to pick out frames. I was expecting new glasses to cost us about £250 each, which is a pretty average price in the UK (for designer frames), so I had a total budget of £500, or SR3,500 in mind. But, as we started to browse through the designers: Prada, Boss, Armani, D&G, Lacoste, Converse, we found that they were much cheaper than we were expecting (everything was 40% off after all). The Optometrist also gave us prices for the lenses, which were again much cheaper than we were expecting, so to cut a long story short we spent up to our budget by buying two pairs of regular glasses each, and a pair of prescription sunglasses each. Karen and I each ordered a pair of Steppers (which I took to be their house brand), mine are a weigh-nothing, twist-and-turn-and-they-spring-back Titanium pair, and our second pairs are Dolce & Gabbana (K), and Converse (me).
The next pleasant surprise was that, although the sunglasses would take a couple of weeks, our new glasses would be ready in just over an hour. We went off and had some lunch and browsed a couple more shops (including 30 minutes of voluntary imprisonment in Carrefour during prayer time), and sure enough there were four brand new pairs of glasses waiting for us when we returned to the store an hour and a half later.
Six pairs of glasses in an hour, and for the cost of two in the UK? This place continues to surprise, entertain, and madden me in equal measure.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Struggle for Saudi Arabia's Soul

There was an interesting programme about Saudi Arabia on Radio 4 recently, which you can listen to on-line by clicking here.

Here's the synopsis:
"Ed Stourton travels to Saudi Arabia, where the first stirrings of democratic change have begun. He finds a deeply conservative country badly shaken by 9/11 and where the war in Iraq is sending would-be democrats scurrying for cover."

Doubly interesting from our point of view, as it includes extracts from an interview with Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, whose views on the subject are distilled by his extensive experience and knowledge of the country and its people.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A New Challenge for the Boss

You may have read/heard in the news recently that the UK Government is sending around thirty additional diplomats to Afghanistan to help prevent the country from suffering the same level of chaos and violence as Iraq.

It has also been announced that our current Ambassador here, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, will be heading up this newly enlarged mission, so we will shortly be losing our Ambassador when he moves to Kabul.

Seeing people come and go is one of the things I've had to get used to as a Diplomatic Spouse. All UK-based Foreign Office staff have overseas postings lasting usually two or three years, so at any large post there will be a regular turnover of staff. We've now been here in Riyadh for one year, and in that time we have seen about ten members of staff leave at the end of their tour, to be replaced by new people coming to Saudi either from London or directly from their previous posting. It's sad in a way becuase you can be parted from good friends, but also nice because you can expand your circle of friends and keep in touch with them, with always the possibility that you may end up working together again in the future (not sure how often this happens in practice). Some good friends of ours left Riyadh to return to London last September, so when we went to the UK for Christmas we visited them and spent a very nice evening reminiscing over dinner about our time together in Saudi.

So it looks like Sherard and Bridget are next in line to move on. We don't yet know who our new Ambassador will be but it should be confirmed soon. I enjoyed getting to know Sherard and Bridget very much and will miss them -- as I'm sure will everyone at the Embassy -- when they leave in a few weeks' time. Rest assured we're planning to give them a good send-off.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


A friend of mine (he's an Ambassador actually but I don't like to name-drop) pointed out the other day that I have some competition in the English-bloke-ranting-about-life-in-Riyadh stakes. I checked out his story (well you never know, do you?), and true enough, I found this other blog called An Englishman in Saudi Arabia. Head on over when you have time, because there are some quite funny stories about Saudi life. You'll hear more about the shopping, driving, women covering up, and the Muttawa (Religious Police). Margrave must be something of a Muttawa magnet: he's got several encounter stories already and has only been here a few months. Karen and I have only "been Muttawa'd" twice in our year here, and both incidents were minor (they just spit out the word, "Cover!" as they walk past, indicating that they would like Karen to cover her head during prayer time)... maybe we need to get out more.
It's a little bit mysterious; he doesn't give his name and as yet I haven't yet had a reply to the email I sent him a few days ago, but I'll keep trying to get in touch and will let you know how I get on. Perhaps he can take me out Muttawa-baiting at the weekend.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


It's been a bit of a birthday blitz since Christmas. Starting with Abigail who turned 12 on Dec 28. We'd planned our UK trip to finish on that date so we could celebrate with family before flying back to Riyadh later that evening. Abigail's favourite birthday present was her new mobile phone.

At that same family get-together we gave Sian her present, since we wouldn't be there for her birthday on Jan 1.

Once back in Riyadh the next one was Alix's (Abigail's best friend) on Jan 6, and Abigail gave her some nice cosmetics kits and a teddy bear, all in a glitzy gift bag.

Next it was my turn (Jan 11): you don't want to know how old I am. I don't even want to know but I can't help it! I did really well present-wise: Karen bought me a new pair of Rollerblades

(they're scarily fast! I think she may be trying to bump me off and make it look like an accident), some aftershave and some other smellies/shaving stuff. I got some nice DVDs and a couple of books on photography too, and also bought myself a professional and quite expensive tripod; not the most exciting of articles, but if you're a photographer your tripod is your next best friend after your camera, and quality matters.

It's a Manfrotto 458b, and in the world of tripods if it's not the King then it's definitely a minor Royal. We also had a few friends round for a party, where we played some fun games (Cranium, Who's In The Bag? etc.) and Karen made a fab curry. A jolly good time was had by all and we didn't fall into bed til around 3am (that's just the two of us, not all!). I'm normally one of those "don't want a fuss" types when it comes to birthdays, but I'm slowly coming round to the idea of being made a fuss of!

The next day Alix and Abigail had a joint birthday party so they could celebrate belatedly with their schoolfriends. Four hours, five pizzas, untold cans of pop and lots of loud music later, they emerged with big grins on their faces and struggling to carry all their extra presents, so I think it was a success.

(Catastrophe! I just went to add a couple of photos from the party but they've disappeard from my laptop! I'll get copies from Abigail when I get back and post them here then.)

As I write I'm in my hotel room in Wokingham (yes, another UK trip, but this time just me and for three days on business), and I've just come from Laura's (Karen's sister) whose birthday it is today (Jan 14). Her big pressie was a portable sat-nav unit which I helped her to set up, and which made me very jealous, since it's newer and better than mine; it does everything but make the tea, and it might even do that (didn't have time to read the manual).

That's all for now, we birthday boys and girls are off to play with our toys.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve is not traditionally one of my favourite annual events, mainly I think because I don't like being told when and how to enjoy myself, but this year (or should that be LAST year) I had a great time, as did everyone else at the Embassy.

A "Travelling Supper" was planned for the evening (more on this later), and to further fill the day for all the families who had teenage children over to visit during the holidays, Karen organized a quad-biking trip. She had also managed to be on Duty Officer watch that week (not sure whether by accident or design), which meant she had to stay near the Embassy in case of emergencies and therefore couldn't come with us, so she stayed home (and probably went back to bed for all I know).

We've been quad-biking several times before (as regular readers will know), but this was by far the largest group we had ever had, with about 35 people heading off from our house on New Year's Eve morning in a convoy of ten 4x4s.

The quad-biking dunes are around 50km Southwest of Riyadh, a journey which took our convoy about 40 minutes. Having arrived safely the next order of business was to negotiate a good price for our "bulk purchase" of 30 bums on seats, and Sherard did us proud here; dismissing the first group of Bedouin who had taken one look at our Diplomatic licence plates and had immediatly inflated their prices accordingly, wanting to charge us SR150 each (£20) for an hour, then moving further down the road to another group where he negotiated (in Arabic) a great rate of just SR50 (£7) each.

"Here come some ex-pat suckers."

Sherard with his negotiating hat on

We had the usual mix of experience in the group, with a couple of devil-may-care maniacs who shot off immediately, wondering how quickly they could hit a dune to lift them airborne, followed by the confident, experienced, but still sensible group (thankfully including my children).

"Whatever you do, don't press this button!"

I stayed behind to assist the first timers; some of whom just needed briefing on the controls and some who needed a little encouragement to mount up. As is usually the case, the nervous first-timers soon got to grips with the bikes and were then off whizzing all round the dunes.

...and they're off!

First-timers Gill and son Jack

Yours Truly with Alexander

Paul getting carried away

Abigail's an old hand now

Melanie had a laid-back approach to the whole thing

Sherard playing with the new camcorder he got from Santa

"Eat my dust!"

Megan (another first-timer) looking like a pro after just one session

The morning was a great success, and we returned to the DQ at around 2.30 in the afternoon, just in time to catch a power nap before getting ready for the evening's festivities.

A travelling supper is, well, a supper that you travel to. Each family taking part hosts a single course in their house, then the group walks to the next house for the next course, and so on. For us, this meant following a pre-determined route that Karen had worked out and that had to be followed with military precision if we were all to make it to the Ambassador's residence by quarter to midnight.
Thirty-eight of us (including all the visiting teenagers) had cocktails at 6 at Kevin & Louise's, then the starter (liver and fish pates) at Lynn & David's at 7. This was followed by an Indian main course at 8 at Ian & Carol's house and dessert at 9 at Karen & Adrian's (sponge pudding and custard!). Then at 10 it was off to Paul & Elke's for cheese and buscuits, then our house at 11 for coffee before moving to the Residence in time to see the new year in with some dancing.

Wonderful. Next New Year's Eve is going to have a tough act to follow.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Christmas in UK

Hello and Happy New Year to all. I don't know about you, but we had a lovely Christmas and New Year, and I've got lots of stuff to tell you about and lots of nice photos too.

As you know, we spent Christmas in the UK with family and friends there, before returning to Riyadh on Dec 28 (Abigail's birthday) to spend New Year's Eve with Embassy friends. Although the modern and well-equipped bungalow that we rented for our UK stay did in fact have wireless broadband internet access, I resisted the urge to blog and instead took another brief blogging break to focus on relaxing and feeling festive; both of which I did very well!

My favourite Christmas present (from Karen) was my new flash unit. Flash photos are not usually very satisfying, as camera-mounted direct flash lighting tends to be very harsh, and you get the familiar problems of bleached out faces and red eyes. Not so with my new flash, which is superb and perfectly matched to my camera: read all about it here.

Here are some photos taken on Christmas Day (at my Mother-in-Law's), Boxing Day (at my cousin's), and on Abigail's birthday (at my Sister-in-Law's). They show what a good time we had, and also show off what my new flash unit can do!

Mum & Dad out for the count after their Christmas Turkey.

My niece Isabelle, with two new-found friends

"What should I do Mum: Deal or No Deal??"

Elliot & Abigail with Isabelle & Lucas (he doesn't always wear funny hats; it's a Peter Pan costume).

See? Told you.

Me & Abigail


"Abigail -- don't look now but you're being watched!"

Laura & Karen

Get ready for the bang!

Typical Lucas: no trousers and a dagger in hand!

Isabelle on her first driving lesson.

My two.

Meet Luca, my cousin Ruth's little boy. Does that make him my second cousin or my great nephew or what? He's fourteen months old and this was the first time we had met him. He's so cute!

Lucas in his Sportacus costume (he likes to dress up)

...and here's the real Sportacus: the resemblance is uncanny isn't it?

Karen & Luca hit it off.

My cousin Tamar's son, Josh.

Isabelle with her Mum, Sian.

And finally, my favourite picture from the trip: Abigail & Isabelle together.