Many travel bloggers explore the world between popular backpacker spots such as Siem Riep and Thailand. Some go to less well known locations such as Latvia or North Korea. Yet what if you went to somewhere not on the target list? Somewhere that restricts entry to those of a certain religion or who have a specific employment sponsor.
My modern day travel experiences began with such a journey when in May 2000 I went to live and work in Saudi Arabia.
This is what I learnt.
Religion in Saudi Arabia
Most people know that Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country; in fact it is the spiritual home of Islam. Mecca is the holiest pilgrimage location in the religion.
5 times a day the country comes to a halt as the people are called to prayer. Tannoys above mosques ring out with the sound of “Allah Al-Akbar” (Allah is the greatest) as all workers stop, shops and restaurants close and roads empty. The streets are silent for maybe 20 minutes or more as people pray.
Policing in Saudi Arabia
Sharia law is prevalent in the country and dictates what can and can’t be done. It is all encompassing and dictatorial. As a non-Muslim it meant that I could not openly practice my Christian faith. Only trips to diplomatic quarters allowed some freedom of religious expression.
A tourist spot for many western workers was a central square in the center of Riyadh; labelled by many as “Chop, Chop Square”. Yes this is the place where public executions by beheading took place on criminals against Sharia law.
Whilst never falling foul to breaching the laws of the land (I always respect the country I am in) I had to be aware of the fact there are two forms of policing in the country. There are the uniformed police then the religious police. Dressed in civil clothing they are known as “Muttawa”. Should any adult male wonder the streets with shorts as opposed to ankle length trousers then you’ll soon find a Muttawa near you.
Working abroad carries a range of risks and rewards plus potential loss of liberties. A lot of work in Saudi Arabia is done by foreigners. As was informally explained to me many Saudis see manual tasks as beneath them. They would much rather hire someone from a 3rd world country than become a cleaner themselves.
Employment law is strict. Many of these foreign workers have to concede their passports to their employer. It is only if their employer gives them back their passport that they can return home to visit a sick or dying relatively.
I was fortunate in that I worked for a 1st world employer and faced no such restrictions on my movement.
It is well known that Saudi Arabia is classified as a “dry country”. With that said rumors circulated extensively that it was the second largest importer of Scotch whiskey in the world (via diplomatic channels). I was always amused in Dubai airport seeing Saudi nationals lining up drinks of whiskey in the airport bars and lounges before getting a flight home.
Expats managed somehow. Typically helped with weekends away to Bahrain or Dubai where there is a more western culture.
In spite of this an expat distilled illegal alcoholic drink circulated. A clear liquid often referred to as “Sid” had to be watered down (4 portions of water to 1 of Sid) to be even drinkable.
My time there covered the period between 2000 and 2001. Whilst the events of 11th September 2001 were a shock to the world, should I have seen it coming? Well certainly not in the way it did but I knew those of us from the west were secretly detested by some. Little wonder most of the terrorists that day came from Saudi Arabia.
In my time in the country expats were targeted more and more. Hidden bombs were placed on or underneath cars or people targeted in various ways. As severe injuries and fatalities mounted the propaganda machine of the government tried to blame it on westerners as an alcohol run dispute.
The timing of my departure was fortunate for a reason too close to home. Less than 2 years after I left the very compound I lived in was attacked by Al-Qaeda resulting in many deaths.
The good times
A lot of what I said above may dissuade people from going to a country highly different to their own. I however found it a very valued experience.
I met a wide range of foreign workers and local Saudis. Like any culture they have a wide range of personalities. Some were true gentlemen who would do anything for you. They wanted to exchange ideas, knowledge and learn as much about us as we about them.
Some were distant and kept interaction to a minimum. Yet even still they would always great you with a welcome “Salam Alaikum” (Peace with you).
Saudi Arabia provided me with my first authentic experience of being an expat (expatriate). It was an immense sense of community even with people from countries vastly different to my own. My circle of frequent contacts included Americans, South Africans, Australians, Indians, Pakistanis and even people from Jordan. This home from home was a bond creating experience. Sharing those knowing looks of frustration over the locals or the way things don’t work as they should.
There were social events, trips away and sporting clubs. It all added to building this great connection. Something you never quite get the sense of when at home.
This was a guest post: Writing under the pen name of “The Guy”, the author has been running his own travel blog called Flights And Frustration.