Archive for June, 2009

I’ve never seen anything like Saudi Arabia.  I would not call it awe, or interest.  I would describe it as a dull itch looking for an outlet, an uneasy boredom.

Most of my exerience in the Middle East has been with more moderate countries:  Turkey, Morocco, and to a lesser extent Egypt and Jordan.  Honestly I don’t know if there is anywhere on the planet more “conservative” than Saudi.

“Conservative” is in quotes because honestly I don’t know if that is the right word.  I’m scratching my proverbial head here.  I can certainly describe the country, but I don’t know what to make of it.

Women:  This is what people generally want to know about, so here goes:

They do where abayas, which is basically a black robe that covers everything but the eyes.  Some of them even cover their eyes.  That has to suck.  They seem to start wearing them at puberty since the young girls wear regular clothes; I bet they cry the first time they put it on.   What must that be like for a mother?

Women can’t drive; they couldn’t vote up until a few years ago.  Where I work there are two separate cafeterias; one male, one female.  At the hotel, only men can use the gym.  The women do go to the pool…in their abayas…totally covered in black  They don’t swim.  They watch the kids swim.

To work women need permission (written) from their male guardian.  Over half of Saudi university graduates are women; a lot of good that education does them as they as sequestered away in the house, unable to leave unless escorted.  Many shopping malls have women-only floors.

Speaking of shopping, I’m amazed by the number of high-end women’s clothing stores, Gucci, Fendi, Benetton, etc, etc, etc.  Where the hell do they wear them?  The answer, I have learned, is that they are dressed to the 9s under that incredibly unflattering abaya.  Bizarre.

Speaking of unflattering, I do find somethin incredibly mystical and forbidding about the young women behind their veils.  In the West, men (including myself) look at women when they pass; we may look at any part of their body though, since most body parts are at least exposed in sillouette.  There is no personal connection when looking in this way.

The ONLY thing to look at when a veiled woman passes is her eyes; and that makes it personal.  She knows you looked at her, and she is obviously looking at you too.  Their eyes are dark, black pools…mysterious, cat-like…communicating something profound if only you knew the language.  There is something oddly MORE personal and intimate about it than I’m accustomed to.  Sometimes you can see a smile from under the veil touch their eyes;  the eyes tell alot. 

I wonder what they are thinking?  They know their life is restricted.  Are they happy with that?  Is it simply accepted as part of life?  I don’t like to judge other value systems….there is something odd about it though.

Regardless, the restrictions will loosen.  There is a huge shortage of qualified Saudi men for jobs (Saudi men will not take “menial” jobs).  They have the largest ex-pat population of any country I’ve ever been to.  They will be forced to start to employ Saudi women…or their country will be over-run by Philipinos, Pakistanis, and Indians….not that that would be a bad thing, but I’m sure the Saudis wouldn’t love it.

Wasta:  The only Arabic word I’ve learned is “wasta”.  It means influence.  It is the system of nepotism, favoritism, tribalism, etc. that is the politics of life here (this also applies to many other places in the world).  In Saudi it is ALL about relationships. 

I’m here consulting; why bother?  They don’t wish to be efficient.  They play fierce office politics, hoard power, blame others, play favorites, etc (of course this happens in all offices, but to a greater degree in Saudi).  I’m not saying those as a negative, that is simply life here.  It DOESN’T; however, add up to any kind of recipe for effectiveness or efficiency. 

Gas:  I figure it is about 50 cents a gallon.  The joke here is that gas is cheaper than water (which is true since it is a desert)…..3 times cheaper.

Life in the Cities:  Cities have vibes; they have life.  Barcelona has life.  NYC buzzes.  Paris is elegant and self-righteous.  Delhi is swarming, complex, and anachronistic.

Saudi cities are dead.  I have never been anywhere that lacks character like this.  Riyadh is simply one large shopping mall, bright…new…sterile…lifeless.  Jeddah is hardly better.  

Rude drivers, no sidewalks, streets filled with all men, dust hanging in the air, 100+ degrees with endless shopping malls filled with oil money (the whole country would be re-swallowed by the desert if not for oil.  They’d still be beduins with camels.)   

There is no music, no dancing (Viva Cuba!).  There is no alcohol.  The Internet is censored.  There are no women to look at to lift the men’s moods.  There is no fun.  I’m sorry…really.  It is bad.

People take their cars into the desert on the weekends to drive I’m told.  Saudis like picnics (it was 110+ degrees everyday last week).  Whooppiee!! It sucks.

In conclusion, when I first visited the Middle East over a decade ago as a young, brash kid I said, “The entire Middle East needs to get laid.”  I still think that is true; it would be the end of terrorism, and hopefully the beginning of some fun.

Comments No Comments »

Yes, I know that I never posted about Cuba (here are some pics).  I know that I haven’t written anything in a long time.

The fact is that I’ve been extremely busy, with work (about to leave for S. Arabia for two weeks) and being engaged (wedding Jan 2nd) and family drama (parents are getting a divorce) and house repairs (bathroom renovation) and tennis (USTA city champs!).

Comments 1 Comment »