Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ma' asalama

I've probably misspelled that, but it's Arabic for goodbye.

Today is our last full day in Saudi and although it's sunny and the sky is blue it's only 18 Celsius, which for Saudi is flippin' cold. Still, helps us prepare for returning to the UK. Karen is at work and I am sitting in an empty house crossing things off my to-do list. I still have to return borrowed DVDs to the library, close the bank accounts, sign some forms to do with the house, and hand the car over to Karen's successor. Tonight there is a party at the Wadi Club, where we will say our last goodbyes to everyone, and we depart for pastures cold and grey tomorrow morning.

I feel like I should be writing a retrospective about the last two years: the highs and lows, things I will always remember and things I want to forget, but I can't find the words for that today. My mind is still buzzing about leaving logistics and packing (I was wide awake at 3am this morning). So, here's the plan. This will be my last posting from Riyadh but I will continue with NoA for a while once we get back to UK. That will give me time to properly summarise a remarkable and memorable two years, and to give you my first impressions of returning to life in England. It will take another few weeks for Karen's next job to be finalised too, so I'm going to give myself that time to "finish" this blog (for want of a better word), then decide on my blogging future once we know what our working future will be.

So for now, it's Ma' asalama and I will write again once we're settled in cold, dark Berkshire.

RiyadhCam: The Final Episode (Really)

Had to share this. I went out shopping this morning for the final time, just to get some Paracetamol and Antacid tablets from the pharmacy. When I asked the pharmacist for some Rennie this is what he gave me:

The Rennie Gift Pack

Two jumbo pack of 48 Rennie tablets, in a gift box, complete with free cutlery set. And all for 17 Riyals (£2).

Back of box

Only in Saudi!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Neal Of Arabia

Yes, the time has finally come to reveal the true Son of the Desert. Little did you know it, but all the while you've been thinking of me as a blundering ex-pat looking quizzically at life in Saudi, whereas in reality I'm a true native and have been wearing a thobe and ghutrah for the last two years. I can hold the steering wheel with my knees, and drink coffee, smoke, and text while driving with the best of them. I have a different-coloured set of prayer beads for each day of the week and I like nothing better on a Friday afternoon than picnicking with my family on the wild fringe of the Dammam Highway, sat cross-legged on the dusty ground in the lee of our 4x4.

All of which is my twisted way of trying to tell you how I felt when I donned a thobe for the very first time the other day. I selected one of Riyadh's hundreds of traditional clothing stores almost at random: I'd been given advice as to which part of the city to go to, but from then on it was all my own work.


I told the two Pakistani assistants that I wanted the full kit, and before I knew it one of them had whipped his tape measure out and was taking my vital statistics. He measured my height shoulder to ankle, followed by my waist. They must keep the "fatty" sizes out the back because he immediately walked past a wall filled floor to ceiling with boxed thobes and through a curtain to get one from the store room. There are several collar styles, with the main two being a high, round collar and the other a more conventional shirt collar. The accepted norm here seems to be that the round collar is preferred by the Young Bucks, while the older men wear the regular one. I chose the round one, however, partly because I didn't want to be lumped into the Old Man category and partly because I think it looks better. Besides, the Young Bucks leave theirs unbuttoned, so as long as I button mine up I'll look respectable and not mutton dressed as lamb -- at least, it's a theory.

Hmm, which to choose?

The next dilemma was choosing a ghutrah. With hundreds on display and all subtle variations of a single standard pattern, there wasn't much of a choice to be made, so I just said, "I want a ghutrah" and accepted the first one, presented in a nice box, that they offered me. To that I added an iqal -- the black ring that goes above the headdress, and a skull cap that goes on the head and helps stop the ghutrah from slipping. Also in the pile were white undertrousers and T-shirt. I was quite impressed with the packaging. Although shopping very much at the budget end of the market, the ghutrah, iqal and thobe each came nicely presented in their own, substantial boxes.

"I'll take it!"

The whole lot came to just over 200 Riyals, which is about £26. I could have spent a lot more and had a thobe tailor-made, but I'm running short of time and will probably only wear it once in a blue moon anyway.

I made my way home expecting none of it to fit. I hadn't tried anything on and the chaps in the shop had made some pretty snap assessments of my size, but I should have known better than to worry. When I got home and tried it on it fitted perfectly; they know their stuff alright. The only thing that felt a bit odd was the iqal, which felt too small, but then I don't know how one should feel so it might be normal. Not worth worrying about and I don't have time to go back and exchange it.

I toyed with the idea of having it on when Karen came home from work as a surprise, but thought she might have a heart attack and press the panic button on being confronted by a Saudi in the house, so I waited for her to return and then gave her the fashion show. She managed to keep a straight face too as she snapped these photos in our back garden. Do I look like a natural Arab or a fool with no self respect?

"Salaam Alaykum. Is that KFC Delivery?"

The mobile phone is the ideal accessory for posing like a Saudi. The image would have been complete with a cigarette in the other hand.

Thobes are really comfortable. It's like being able to wear your pyjamas outdoors!

So if you're in Royal Windsor anytime in the next couple of months and you see a Saudi walking down Peascod St. wearing light blue Crocs, come and say Hi, because I expect everyone else will be giving me a wide berth.

Monday, November 26, 2007

RiyadhCam: Final Edition

Time to unload the latest -- and last -- collection of pictures from my mobile phone. RiyadhCam has been invaluable to me as I wander around this place; small and light enough to use anywhere, allowing me to capture images of Riyadh that would otherwise be very hard to get in a city where photography is strictly prohibited in some places, and merely frowned upon in others.

Anyway, here's the final batch:

Granada Mall at prayer time.

Doesn't have quite the same ring as New York or Milan.

Examples of the finery Saudi women wear to parties and weddings. Their unveiled form is for relatives' eyes only.

...and again. Some malls have dozens of shops like this all in a row.

By the cash desk in Debenhams.

Of course Christmas is not allowed to be celebrated publicly, but that doesn't stop expat-friendly supermarkets from displaying certain provisions in a certain arrangement.

And finally, the famous sign at the entrance to the Diplomatic Quarter. Spot the typo.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Neal Soon-to-be-no-longer Of Arabia

Things are really busy at present, what with packing, arranging the sale of the car, making arrangements in the UK and so on, but there is one thing overarching all of that. One thing that is keeping me awake at night (not really). And that is... what am I going to do with this blog once I cease being Neal of Arabia? We could go somewhere else exotic or we could be heading for two years plus in London. Who wants to read about life in London? I'm starting to worry that being Neal of Arabia is all that makes me interesting to my thousands (well, dozens) of readers.

I will certainly continue blogging -- it's so much a part of my life now that I can't imagine not doing it anymore, but what to blog about, and what to call it? Should I change the name, or put NoA into hibernation and start up something new? Will my loyal fans follow me on this new venture? Would anyone care if I were to swap RiyadhCam for RuislipCam?

Looking at the prospect of setting up home again in UK the thing I'm least looking forward to is having to deal with all those call centres: Sky, BT, car insurance, gas, electricity, water board. Why is it that, whatever time of the day or night I choose to phone a call centre (ANY call centre), I get, "You have called at a busy time." How inconsiderate of me, and how nice of them to put me in a queue until the next agent becomes available. I'm so lucky that they have deigned to allow me to use their services. Right, last-minute check: bill, account number, password, mother's maiden name... don't want to get caught out when my turn finally comes.

As you can see, call centres are a pet hate of mine and the mere thought of having to deal with them all again is making my blood pressure rise. Perhaps a Call Centre blog is just the ticket: a place where I can blow off steam and so hold on to my sanity. It's you, the poor reader, I feel sorry for. Maybe I'll rethink and create a new blog about nice things. Something you can visit every day and get a little ray of sunshine to put that spring in your step as you head off to work. Of course in reality it'll probably end up being a bit of both, and just like NoA except without the "A" stuff.

PS I bought my Arabian outfit this morning: thobe, undergarments, iqal, and ghutra. Trouble is I haven't had time to try it on. I did try on the iqal (the black fanbelt-thing that goes on the head) but it feels too small. Have to swap it tomorrow for an XXL one. Anyway, pictures to follow some time between now and Thursday.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Karen on TV

As mentioned in an earlier post, Karen recently appeared on Saudi breakfast news TV talking about the new Visa Application Centre that she helped to open in central Riyadh. I managed to get hold of a copy of the recording, so here it is for your viewing pleasure. Karen answered questions for several minutes but in the final clip they only used a few seconds. The TV world is so fickle...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I went to the Riyadh offices of Gulf Air this morning, with three objectives:
  1. Change our exit flight to an earlier time
  2. Book the (included) Chauffeur Drive option at Heathrow
  3. Get a refund for two of our tickets back from Dubai the other week being downgraded.
1 & 2 took about ten minutes. 3 took fifty minutes.

There were two rows of double-parked cars, as usual, outside the Gulf Air office, so I copied everyone else and blocked someone else's car in. After a wait of around ten minutes it was my turn to be seen, but no sooner had I sat down than an Arab asked me to move my car so he could get out. I let him out then parked in the space he'd vacated, then returned to the agent's desk.

When we returned from Dubai a few weeks ago Elliot and I had to come back in Economy, because Gulf Air had oversold Business Class and had only two of our four seats available. I was told at the time to keep the ticket stubs and obtain a refund from my local office. On hearing this the agent's first gambit was to say he needed to email the head office in Bahrain to enquire if a refund is in order, then he would phone me when the answer came back. This was totally out of order and I told him so. It was they who had oversold the flight, I had proof of purchase for four Business Class tickets and two Economy stubs for the same flight in my hand. Of course a refund was in order. I told him I was not prepared to come back again to get my money and that I wanted him to sort it out now, while I waited.

He went off to speak to someone, taking all my paperwork with him, then returned a few minutes later carrying three thick, carbon-papered receipt books. He asked for my Iqama (I.D. card), which he gave to a little man in overalls. The little man disappeared and came back a couple of minutes later with my Iqama and a photocopy of same. The agent then told the little man to collect his computer printouts from the printer on the other side of the office, which he did, then he disappeared again. Two minutes later I saw the same little man walking out from the back office carrying a cup of coffee, which he took into another office and put on the desk. This chap is apparently the Office Gopher, although his dark blue overalls make him look more like a cleaner. Back at the desk there is much tapping of keys and stapling of paper, then the agent starts filling in a (detailed) form, in one of the books, in triplicate. Then he gets me to sign and date it, and leads me to the cashier's office to get my money.

I didn't know it at the time but the refund in question was SR88 per ticket, about £12, so I'd hung around for fifty minutes and witnessed a mess of paperwork, all to get less than £25 back.

I finally got out about an hour later to find my car had been blocked in, so I had to go back in and find the right driver to let me out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mush For Brains

I'm back from my trip to sunny (and partly rainy) Orlando, and I'm sitting here with a somewhat mushy outlook on life. I put this down to three things:

1. Jet lag.
2. Trying to re-train my brain to speak English again instead of American.
3. Ten days to go before leaving Riyadh for ever.

I left Orlando at 2pm local time on Sunday, which is 10pm Riyadh time. A two hour flight to Washington Dulles Airport (horrible place, what I saw of it), a two-hour layover, then a seven hour overnight flight to Heathrow (bought a Business Class upgrade with my miles: Thank you United! Bmi won't let you do that), then a five-hour layover, then another seven hour flight to Riyadh, arriving at 9pm local time on Monday. So a twenty-three hour trip airport to airport, more like twenty-five door-to-door. I took a sleeping pill and went to bed at around 11.30 last night, and woke up at 9am. Better than I'd hoped, but let's see how I feel come sunset.


  • Restroom = Toilet
  • "Can I get...?" = "Could I have...?"
  • Check = Bill
  • Candy = Chocolate
  • Fillet ("Filay") = Fillet ("Fillet")
  • Appetizer = Starter
  • Entree = Main Course
  • "Let's go ahead and get started" = "If I could have your attention please"
  • "Wahder" = "Water"
  • Trash = Rubbish

We leave Riyadh on Nov 29, in nine days' time, and before that we have to pack up all our possessions and get them collected by the right people at the right time, to be sent to the right place. Apparently (I didn't know this before) there are two different companies shipping our UAF (Unattended Air Freight) and our Heavy Baggage, and the survey that was done before I went to the U.S. was just for the UAF. The guy must've thought it was his birthday as I made him list out everything we own. But no. Apparently there's another company moving the Heavy Baggage and there survey is happening on Tuesday at 10am. Hang on... today is Tuesday, and it's now 1040... Where are they?

I'm a bit worried about all our things getting to us at our new location (wherever that may be). We're going to UK for six weeks to spend Christmas and New Year with the children and family, and for Karen to finalise her next posting. During that time we only need our UAF and don't want to see the Heavy Baggage until we have a new permanent address. I'm also fretting about being able to transfer money out of our Saudi bank account and into a UK one, about canceling the broadband internet connection late enough that we can still use it but early enough so we don't pay a month's fee for nothing.

Oh yes, and I have a load of follow-up work from our Kickoff meeting in Orlando. ...think I'll just drink my coffee and continue staring into space for another ten minutes, then I'll "go ahead and get started".

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Counting Down

It's almost time for us to pack up our things and leave Riyadh for good. Tomorrow I fly to the U.S. on a business trip for eight days, so when I get back we will have only ten more days in the Kingdom, with our final day being on November 29.

We've had the Garage Sale and now we are starting to run down the grocery stocks by consuming whatever we happen to have left in the cupboard/fridge/freezer rather than buying more food. Should make for some interesting meal times: what could you conjure up with tinned tuna, frozen peas, baked beans, fish sauce, four half-empty packets of pasta, and a nearly full family tub of Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream?

We're also starting to plan the packing, and this morning I had the local DHL agent round to do a survey of our belongings, which leave post in three consignments. First there's the luggage we take with us, enough for around three to four weeks. Then there is a larger consignment called Unattended Air Freight or UAF for short. This will contain the remainder of our clothes and some other items that we will need in the first couple of months. The last, and largest, consignment is the Heavy Baggage. The HB contains all the rest of our effects, including computers, TV/Hi-fi equipment, kitchen crockery, pans, utensils, framed pictures, CDs/DVDs, board games, Karen's craft gear and so on. This will take two to three months to follow us because it goes by ocean container. Showing the DHL guy round the house with his clipboard and tape measure reminded me of the last time we did it, back in our house in Berkshire, and I'm not looking forward to receiving/unpacking at the other end either, as my report of the baggage arriving here will attest.

So now I'm off to pack my suitcase, then tonight is my last Poker game with the gang, then I leave for the airport at Midnight for the overnight flight to London and then on to the U.S. I doubt that I'll have time to blog while I'm away, but you never know. It's quite usual for the jet lag to leave me wide awake in the middle of the night, in which case you may get some wee-small-hours ramblings, but if you're lucky there won't be anything more until I get back to Saudi.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

15 Minutes of Fame

Have you ever been on TV? If not, you may know someone who has. Well now you know a few more.

The Embassy is going through a major change programme at the moment, to do with the visa application process. Part of the process -- the bit where the applicant comes in, submits their application and documents, pays for, and later collect their visa -- has this week moved to a brand new Visa Application Centre (VAC) in the centre of town, run by a commercial partner. The completed application forms are then sent to the Embassy and Karen and colleagues process them, with the resulting issued visas being delivered back to the VAC for next-day pickup. This move is being done in conjunction with a biometrics initiative, so applicants now also have their fingerprints and a photo recorded, for security reasons.

These changes are not unique to Saudi Arabia. The British Government is rolling these two changes out worldwide, and this week it just happens to be Saudi's turn. If you want to know more about the project check the UK Visas and British Embassy Riyadh websites. As part of this new VAC going live, we have had several visitors this week from UK Visas in London, to deliver training to the new staff on Visa applications, and to new and Embassy staff on taking biometrics information from customers.

I expect you're wondering what the heck this has to do with the title: "15 Minutes of Fame". Well I'll tell you, now that you have the background. Karen has been performing the role of Change Agent for this project, and has been fully involved all the way along. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the VAC last Monday she was interviewed by the local Saudi TV news station, who had also come to see Riyadh's answer to David Beckham: recruited to lend the proceedings a celebrity air by being photographed giving his biometric details. There was a Reception for the visitors from London the following evening (Go-Live Day for the VAC), and after dinner the conversation turned to TV appearances. Karen, naturally, recounted her experience from earlier, and I told the group about my winning appearance on the game show Bob's Full House in the mid-1980s. It seems like a lifetime ago but it's a nice piece of ammo to have in your arsenal for occasions such as this.

Bob's Full House

For the benefit of my non-UK readers, Bob's Full House was an 80's game show hosted by comedian Bob Monkhouse and based on the game of Bingo. Each time a contestant got a question right they could cross off a number on their bingo card, and the rounds were: completing the four corners, middle line, and finally the full house. It sounds really naff as I write about it, but at the time it was very popular.

Bob Monkhouse

Anyway I won a holiday, which became our honeymoon, as the show recording took place a few months before Karen and I were married. I have the show on video tape, so if you want to know what I looked like at 25 years of age and wearing 80's clothes you would have to a) be invited round for dinner, and b) get me very drunk. Upon hearing this, one of the trainers from UK Visas revealed that he had appeared on The Crystal Maze back in the late 80's too. I won't bore you with an explanation of the show's format but it was a bit of a cult hit in the UK.

The Crystal Maze

Mark's show was in the original, golden, Richard O'Brien years and not in the later series that were hosted by Ed Tudor Pole. Richard O'Brien is the thin, bald, totally cool character who wrote The Rocky Horror Show, and starred in the movie version (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the butler Riff Raff.

Richard O'Brien as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

His presence as the Crystal Maze's host gave the show the same kooky, spooky, spaced-out air, and we used to watch it more for Richard's performance than for the puzzles themselves. Mark boasted that he had won a crystal, but refused to be drawn by my question: "So did you get locked in?" I took that to mean he had but didn't like to talk about it. Karen was a big fan of TCM, so her eyes lit up at this revelation and she wouldn't stop asking him questions about it.

The next morning one of the PR chaps at the Embassy came into Karen's office to say her TV interview had been showing every hour on the Riyadh equivalent of GMTV, and that he had recorded the latest bulletin. Karen and the London visitors ran upstairs to watch the recorded news item, and cheered each time they saw one of their number standing in the background. When Karen came on, speaking through an interpreter, there was an even bigger cheer, and part-way through Mark leaned close to her and whispered, "This doesn't beat The Crystal Maze!"

I haven't seen the clip yet, but I'm going to ask if it's possible to get a digitized copy, and if successful I'll post it here.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Halloween Party

When we lived in the UK the thing that scared me most about Halloween was not the ghosts, ghouls and goblins that might be out and about but the hoodies, yobs and chavs prowling residential streets, armed with eggs and demanding treats with menaces. No Trick Or Treat in Riyadh (at least, not that I am aware of), so this year we had to look elsewhere for our spooky thrills.

Three things I like about Linda are: that she's a great laugh, she organised a fancy dress Halloween Party last Wednesday, and she lives only two doors down the road. So, we had a great Halloween night, in good company, and had only twenty yards to stagger home afterwards -- what more could you ask for?

There are probably several shops in Riyadh from which we could have got fancy dress costumes -- you can buy pretty much anything here if you're willing to look hard enough -- but we decided to play it safe by ordering Halloween costumes from a UK company on the internet. I had my "Scream" outfit and Karen's Gothic Vamp dress delivered to Karen's sister Laura, so that the children could bring them out in their suitcases when they came for half term. However when the package arrived Laura found it was five foot long. In my enthusiasm I'd ordered a plastic Grim Reaper Scythe and a Devil's Trident without really thinking it through from a packaging perspective.

"Where's me scythe?"

Laura did what anyone faced with such a conundrum would do: she cut them in half and put them in the suitcases in bits, to be re-assembled at the other end of the journey. We didn't use them in the end, mainly because to repair them looked too much like hard work to me. Anyone want to buy a two-foot scythe? Damn, we should've put them in the Garage Sale. Filipino children look angelic to me, but I'm sure they must have their demonic side too.

Anyway, here is the party in pictures. Plenty to be scared of here, I think you'll agree!

Here's "Carrie" with a limp-wristed zombie.

Mr. & Mrs. G. Reaper

Gordon's always been a bit of a Hellraiser.

"Give us a kiss luv!"
"Not likely! Look what happened when you gave me a Love Bite!"

I've got more photos, but Blogger won't let me upload them. They've got a bug somewhere :-(

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Garage Sale

Our Garage Sale on Friday was a success. I had created a poster and the Embassy emailed it to all the families, drivers, domestic staff and so on to help get the word out. Karen and I had been sorting stuff to sell all week and we had huge piles of it all around the living room.

The Build-up

Apologies to any Family members who might spot an old Christmas present or two.

We borrowed some tables from the Embassy and early Friday morning set up our stalls in the yard outside, ably assisted by our maid Gina and her husband Rick.


Gina and Rick also helped bring in the punters -- most of the Filipinos who turned up seemed to be their friends. I had been concerned that no-one would come and that we'd have to pack all the stuff away again, but I needn't have worried. A busy two hours followed, during which we sold about three quarters of the goods. We had bikes, clothes, books, CDs, DVDs, board games, shoes, camping equipment, ornaments, crockery, even my old rollerblades went. My iPod and speakers were playing on a table behind the counter to create some atmosphere, and I almost fight them off from wanting to buy that too. How could I sell my beloved iPod, especially as it had proven its durability in The Gym Incident ?

The two tents we had for sale didn't attract any interest, and neither did the books nor my unwanted CDs: I guess our musical tastes must be incompatible. There's me trying to sell a Killswitch Engage album and they're asking for Julio Iglesias. Oh well.


After the customers had gone we gave Rick and Gina their pick of what was left as a thankyou for helping us, and by 12 noon the yard was completely clear again. You'd never know such a bustling market had been there not an hour before.

Karen counted up the dosh and we made around SR2,500, which is just over £300. Not a bad haul but the trouble was it was mostly in small denomination notes: SR1 is about 14p, and we had a huge pile of 1 Riyal and 5 Riyasl notes on the dining room table. In the evening we decided to go out to dinner to celebrate, and I thought it'd be an opportunity to get rid of some of these small notes, so I put a big pile together and handed them to Karen to put in her handbag. She thought it was too much and peeled about a third off the pile, stuffing the rest -- still a wad the size of a housebrick -- into her bag, dinner bill for payment thereof.

I wanted to try Tokyo, a Japanese restaurant that had been recommended, but when we got there it was closed (doesn't open on Fridays). Now in the mood for Oriental I consulted my trusty GPS and it led us to the Radisson Hotel and it's Shogun Teppanyaki restaurant. I was a bit underdressed for this place (wrinkled shirt, jeans, Crocs), but then a high-class joint like this hadn't been part of the plan when we'd left the house. The staff took my appearance in good humour though, and we were admitted without a punch-up.

The meal was OK but no better, and when the bill came Karen delved into her bag for the Small Note Mountain she'd brought. The bill was SR411, and after about five minutes of counting we concluded that our pile of small bills came to precisely SR409. DOH! Can I just say at this point that it was I who had assembled a larger pile and it was Karen who had skimmed some off? Just for the record. I paid the bill with a SR500 note (got even more change) and Karen refilled her handbag with the pile.

Only slightly embarrassing.