Letter from Arabia I: The More Things Change…

By David A. Andelman

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—It takes five or six passes before the four lights blinked green for the four fingers of my right hand, then the four fingers of my left, then my two thumbs. Smile for the camera. A flash. And I am into Saudi Arabia. Printed and mugged at Riyadh Airport—only the first of many changes since my last visit here six years ago, this innovation no doubt tit-for-tat reciprocity for the similar treatment Saudis are encountering on their arrival in America.

The road in from Riyadh’s airport, itself beginning to look just a trifle down-at-the heels, is flashy and new—eight lanes, straight as a drag strip. And the only reason it hasn’t become a challenge for young swells here in this land of 40-cents-a-gallon gas, are the flash lights at unseen control points, drivers slamming on their brakes just in time—they hope—to avoid the robot radar guns.

There is much that is new in contemporary Saudi Arabia—lots of skyscrapers rising from the desert, Twitter and Facebook all but ubiquitous on the urban, even exurban landscape—but just scratch the surface and fundamentally there is much that remains the same. The values of family and religion, the kingdom and the bedrock search for security in a deeply insecure world—little of this seems to have changed.

Big headlines in the morning edition of Arab News: “Prince Salman Prizes Awarded.” The Defense Minister himself, widely considered third in line of succession to the throne, awarded the 18 prizes for “Research and Studies on the Arabian Peninsula,” in a lavish ceremony at the King Abdulaziz Historical Center here. The top prize, not surprisingly, went to Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qassimi, one of the rulers of the neighboring United Arab Emirates. The Sultan presides over the emirate of Sharjah and is quite close to the family that has ruled the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since its founding between the two World Wars.

The ceremony and the self-congratulatory messages say a lot about this nation and its place in the region. As the Arab News reported it: “Sheikh Sultan was given the award in recognition of his service to the history of the Arab Gulf region and the Arabian Peninsula.” Prize in hand, the Sheikh promptly replied, “I am very happy to receive this prize which comes from the foundation, which is chaired by Prince Salman.”

Clearly the Emirates want to keep close and friendly ties with their large and muscular neighbor. Last year, Saudi troops actually crossed into another Gulf nation-state, Bahrain, to help its princely rulers put down a rebellion there. A rebellion that continues to simmer, unsettling the leadership of this nation just next door whose people are anxious to preserve tranquility along the Persian Gulf littoral. Lots of Saudis keep bank accounts in both the UAE and Bahrain and are known for heading across the border, especially to Dubai, to blow off steam. They also go there to drink—alcohol.

One member of our small band of brothers and sisters along on this trip is most pumped to discover that the hotel had thoughtfully stocked the mini-bar with bottles of cold Bavarian beer. Until he looks more closely at the label: “Holsten Classic is a premium non-alcoholic malt beverage.” Drinking?  Not in this kingdom.

The final award at the Prince Salman ceremonies is for the Book of the Year. There were two of them: Chambers of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and The Holiness and Merits of Mecca and Medina in Jewish and Christian Writings. There’s still little that goes on in this nation—host of the two holiest religious sites in Islam—that doesn’t make some reference to religion.

The title of the second of these two award-winning books takes me back to my last visit when we paid a call on a young Saudi day trader.  He was thrilled that the Saudi Stock Exchange had been so kind to him—doubling his investment in little more than a year (it cratered, of course, during the downturn and is still far from fully recovered), but his number one priority was our souls. My wife, Pamela, and I are both Jewish. And while we make no secret of it, we certainly don’t proclaim it in every home we enter. But our host seemed not only to be aware of our religion of birth, but was thoroughly prepared for his mission. He presented us with a copy of the Quran (in English and Arabic, clearly in hopes we might use this to brush up on Arabic while learning all the necessaries of the single true religion). He then proceeded to tell us a host of stories from the Quran, including such classic favorites as Jonah and the Whale. He was quite astonished to find that we knew them already—from the Old Testament.

SIM Card Source

The source of all SIM cards is a Bangladeshi waiter at the sister hotel to our own across the way. He’s been here 10 years and he’s Muslim to the bottom of his soul though he’s also reaching the end of his rope. I encounter him as I go in search of a SIM card for my unlocked international Nokia. From his shirt pocket, he extracts a wad of these cards, held together with an elastic band. “Which kind do you want? How many minutes?”  I opted for a Mobily card. It’s priced at 210 Saudi Riyals (about $60). “I charge 250 SAR,” he smiled sheepishly. He’s an entrepreneur. I get that. He’s largely able to pocket the $250 a month salary he pulls down since room, board, even health care are all picked up by his employer.

But after 10 years here, he sees no real path that might return him to the nation of his birth. “What is there for me back in my country?” he asks sadly. “There is nothing there.”  Indeed, Bangladesh ranks No. 155 out of 183 nations in per capita income—$1,693 a year according to 2011 IMF figures. Saudi Arabia’s $24,237 ranks it No. 39, largely a tribute to the largesse of its vast oil reserves, spread somewhat unevenly throughout the Kingdom.

Indeed for immigrants like my Bangladeshi coffee server cum SIM card vender, it’s more the absence of alternatives back home than any real attraction to the place where he’s spent more than a third of his life. “No alcohol, no women, only work,” he smiles wryly. He’s on duty for twelve hours a day, generally from 7 am to 7 pm (or 8 pm). But off duty, there’s not much to do at all. He saves money—tips at the luxury hotel where he serves coffee to rich Saudis who lounge carelessly in their immaculate, long white gowns for hours on end, or eager foreign businessmen who arrive to hire the Saudis’ in service of new enterprises and big profits.

Looking around the lobby restaurant, I ask my Bangladeshi friend who are his colleagues. “Asians,” he shrugs, “from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia.” And India, especially the wildly multi-ethnic state of Kerala with a host of Muslims seeking to make their way in the world. On board an Airbus jet flying the shuttle route between Riyadh and Jeddah are three stewards–two Indian women and one Philippino.  All are Muslims and they are all here for one reason only—to make more money than they could ever dream of back home. Though conditions are far from barbaric, even  at the bottom of the food chain, few Saudis would be caught dead in my friend’s snappy hotel out or slinging hash to infidels on board an overpacked shuttle flight. "This whole sponsorship system is worse than American slavery before emancipation," says one leading Saudi editor, who then asks rhetorically, "Did you know we still have slavery here?"

As Saudi expert Thomas Lippman points out in his recent book, Saudi Arabia on the Edge, “Saudis could be doing those jobs that the Pakistanis and Indians are doing now—if there were enough Saudis who spoke English and were willing to stand on their feet for hours at a time being helpful to strangers.”

A sandstorm blows in from the nearby desert after my afternoon encounter with my vendor of SIM cards, and I think back to the punch line of our conversation.

Ten years ago, he and Sumon, his best friend back in Bangladesh, decided the only way to make their fortune was to head abroad—Sumon to America, his friend, an even more fervent Muslim, here to Riyadh. Sumon now owns his own shop in New York City. The American dream. His friend is still seeking a path toward that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Sadly, there’s no rainbow at the end of a sandstorm.



David A. Andelman is Editor of World Policy Journal. He last visited Saudi Arabia six years ago. This visit was made under the auspices of the IRP Gatekeeper Editors program of the International Reporting Project.

[Image courtesy of IMP1.]

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