When I arrived in Saudi Arabia about 2 and a half months ago I had to spend a little bit of unspecified time in Dammam. This city is the capital of the Eastern Province, the most oil-rich region of the world and the base for the oil industry here in KSA. The metropolitan area surrounding Dammam is actually made up of three cities – Dammam, Dhahran, and Al Khobar, with Dammam being the city proper, Dhahran seemingly the industrial centre and Al Khobar being the more upmarket area, where the middle classes can wine and dine. Well, dine at least. Anyway I wasn’t there for fun, just to complete some ‘paperwork’ for my employer and then rendezvous down to Riyadh to hopefully start my job as soon as possible.
The residence for my stay in the city was the Dammam Palace Hotel, which I was informed of prior to my arrival, in the centre of Dammam. Seeing as this was not my first stay in a Saudi hotel I was a little skeptical as to the quality of room I would find there. On a previous visit to Jeddah I stayed in a hotel (I unfortunately can’t remember the name) which looked nice on the outside but when we got into the room it was as dingy as it could possibly be. Then after I pulled back the covers on the bed I noticed a rather large bogey that the previous guest had kindly left behind, presumably for the next guest to enjoy. My previous stay in Dammam was a little better but still left me with enough of a worry about what to expect. I decided to check the website, www.dammampalacehotel.com, the fact that it is one of the worst hotel websites I have ever seen didn’t do a lot to allay my fears. My favourite section is the picture gallery – vague to say the least. My fears did turn out to be unfounded however. I would describe the hotel as a standard 4star hotel, with clean rooms, clean bedsheets, a (very expensive) gym and room service that was cheaper than the food outside in some cases – my favourite being the shish tawook sandwich, with fries and some pickled vegetables, at a whopping 15Sr (about £2.50) it was a definite winner. Shish Tawook is some kind of cubed, grilled chicken covered in various spices and deliciousness. When I asked what they were, I was informatively told ‘tawook spices’. I decided it was better not knowing and left it at that.
As I’ve said, my reason for being in Dammam was paperwork. I’ve already spoken a little about my first day in the city in my first blog post, Riyadh take 2. The horrendous medical and Mr forgetful the driver taking centre stage. Another aspect of the day was at my contractors office, doing said paperwork and finding out a little information about the job. As I was there a day early, however, I had to return the next day to complete the paperwork for my work I.D and Iqama (residence permit). Because of this I was told to await a call informing me of further plans. Since I didn’t have a working sim card for my phone, they told me they would call the hotel. I didn’t really fancy waiting around in my hotel room for an unspecified amount of time for these guys to call so my driver, old Mr forgetful, said he would get me a sim card and bring it to me in a couple of hours, around 5pm, so they could call my mobile. I waited in my room for the next three hours or so before I finally gave up, and assumed he would call me the next day with the details. The next morning at around 8am I was woken by a call on the room phone –
Driver: ‘Are you ready?’
Me: ‘I just woke up’
Driver: ‘I told you we have to go to the office at 8am’
Me: ‘That was yesterday morning and you forgot who I was, you said you’d come by yesterday around 5pm’
Driver: ‘No, we have to go, 5 minutes’
So after a quick splash of water on the face, I threw on some clothes and I went and got in the car, quite bleary-eyed and slightly pissed off. The driver did at least have my sim card. After several feelings of deja vu, because I had a carbon copy of the previous day (minus the medical), I was able to sort out all my initial paperwork and find out a few snippets of useful information. My date of going to Riyadh was unknown. It was Monday, the mobilisation co-ordinator I was dealing with said: ‘I think you will go, maybe on Saturday, Inshallah, at the weekend’. ‘Inshallah’ is a word you frequently hear in the kingdom, it means ‘God willing’ and it peppers the spoken language here very frequently. Most teachers will tell you it means something like ‘I hope so but most likely not..’ i.e – ‘will you do your homework for tomorrow Khaled?’, ‘yes, of course teacher, I will do it inshallah’. Translated, this means ‘are you high? there’s no fucking way i’m doing it, I have way more important things to do, like go drifting and sleep’. Teachers often get in trouble for saying things like, ‘please not inshallah! Just say yes!’ Needless to say I was less than convinced by the ‘maybe on Saturday, inshallah’ comment from my guy at the office. I was also told that I would at least be paid for my time spent waiting for deployment, but only for a maximum of ten days. This left me a little confused:
Me: ‘Why did you fly me here on Saturday if now you can’t get me to Riyadh for another week, probably longer?’
Mobilisation guy: ‘Because we need to do paperwork.’
Me: ‘But the paperwork should have only taken one day.’
Mobilisation guy: ‘Yes, but it’s better to have you here and waiting.’
So I have to twiddle my thumbs while they get their arses in gear, Ok I understand now. Let’s hope they get me there in ten days so I can get paid for waiting around at least. It is a feature of business here that disorganisation reigns supreme. Another lad with me in the office was based in Dammam. They told us that while we were in Dammam our hotels were paid by them, but when we got to our location we only had a few days before we had to find our own places. He was a little concerned by this:
Colleague: ‘How many days do I have in the the Dammam Palace?’
Mobilisation guy: ‘You? 7.’
Colleague: ‘But I’ve already been here 3 days with no contact from you.’
Mobilisation guy: ‘Yes, you’d better start looking soon.’
Colleague: ‘Whaaaaaat? Where? How?’
The poor lad had never been in the kingdom before and was learning the hard way that nothing is organised here until the last minute. You wait for days doing nothing and then you have to do everything immediately all at once. He freaked out a little in the office but as I understand, he went to his work location the next day and probably one of his local colleagues would have helped him find a place, at least for the short term.
The other interesting information we got from the meetings was twofold. Firstly, that we would get a cash advance. This would amount to quite a healthy amount to get me through until my first payday and pay for any housing I would need. Secondly, was the news that we would have to hand in our passports in order to get our Iqamas. It is a common occurrence in the kingdom that foreign expatriate workers have to hand in their passports to their employers. It takes about 4-6weeks to get the Iqama, but after that they will keep the passports ‘safe’ at the office. I was already aware of this from my previous stint in the Kingdom, but this makes a lot of people, understandably, feel pretty uneasy. For myself, for example, I will be working in Riyadh but my passport will be sitting in a drawer in the office in Dammam. ‘What if the shit hits the fan and I have to get the hell out of here?’ Too bad, basically. As a western expat, I am afforded some hope in the knowledge that after my 3month probationary period is over, I can apply for a multiple exit visa (that’s right, you need a visa to leave the Kingdom too) and at which point I will have my passport given back to me, as it doesn’t make logistical sense for them to have to keep getting my passport to me every time I want to travel. They don’t like giving it back though, control of the workforce here is a key priority (according to the Arab News there are about 9.2million foreign expat workers in the country). Workers from other countries, The Philippines or Pakistan, for example, are afforded no such luxury. It’s worth mentioning the sponsor system here too actually. In order to work in the Kingdom you need to have a sponsor (your employer) issue you with visas, Iqamas and a reason to be here. Once you are here it is standard practice for your sponsor to keep hold of your passport. It is also illegal for you to work for anyone other than your sponsor. If you change jobs you usually have to leave the country and start the process all over again. The sponsor is the one who also has to get you your exit visas. This is a lot of power to hold over people. It can happen that workers fall out with their sponsors and then get refused exit visas because of disagreements over money and things, and then be stuck in the country illegally. As a British citizen, my nationality offers me a little protection from this. Workers from the developing world, Asia or the subcontinent are offered no such protection and are often completely under the thumb of their sponsors. I have no real experience of what they actually have to go through, but I dread to think what their living and working conditions are like, as they really have no say and no voice.
Anyway, after all the paperwork was done and all the information was given I headed back to my hotel to await the next phone call. I spent a total of ten days in Dammam. The Saturday was pushed back to the next Monday (which I was told about on Saturday afternoon) and I was left pretty much to my own devices. It was around 40-45degrees outside and I was pretty bored with ordering room service and watching the T.V, which had a fair amount of English movies and T.V shows. This made me think about the many contradictions of this country. One is that you cant look at women or talk about sex and things, but the T.V here is full of American shows and films that show and do just that. I mean the bad language and sex is comically edited out, but the censors seem suitably lazy and often miss things – I was watching ‘Me,Myself and Irene’ and the word ‘mothefucker’ was cut but ‘pussyfart’ managed to make it through. They often leave the word ‘cunt’ in as well, which usually makes me chuckle. I guess it’s not written on their list of bad words. Another contradiction became apparent when my colleague went to a computer shop to have his laptop fixed and they offered to sell him a VPN in order to circumvent the internet restrictions here. ‘Immoral’ material is prohibited online but the means to circumvent the blocks is sold legally in the shops. With my sim card, it’s illegal to get one without an Iqama, but my driver just got me one with his Iqama no problem. I didn’t even have to be there. It all makes no sense whatsoever.
After a few days of waiting for a call and spotting swearwords in movies I thought it might be nice to go out one evening to smoke some shisha (smoking the traditional Arabic water-pipe is one of the few vices that is actually condoned) with one of my colleagues instead. I had visited a nice shisha cafe on my last visit so I thought we could go and find one. When I asked at the reception I received an odd answer:
Me: ‘Where is the nearest shisha cafe?’
Receptionist: ‘There are no shisha bars in Dammam.’
Me: ‘Are you sure? I visited a nice one here about 2years ago.’
Receptionist: ‘There are no shisha bars in Dammam. About 5 years ago they were prohibited.’
Interesting, I thought. The guy was seemingly programmed to deny the very existence of the bars. I persisted with my argument for a few minutes saying that I’d been to one before and I know they have them in Riyadh, but he was adamant they didn’t exist and had been outlawed. I guess he was under specific instructions not to tell people about them. Anyway we just got some tea in the hotel and went back to our rooms, foiled for the evening. The next day I decided to get out and have a little explore around the city where I was. I had been told that the corniche promenade along the seafront was at the end of the road next to the hotel. I had a little look at the map and decided it was walking distance and set off, hatless and waterless, for my little walk. Thankfully I did put on a little sunscreen before I left. My walk turned into a 45minute trek down one long road in absolute searing heat. Fortunately, there were some shops open and I was at least able to buy some water and stay in the shadows of some of the buildings along the way. When I got to the end of the road I was faced with a mall on my left, and in front of me was a huge dual carriageway, probably 3 or 4 lanes wide in each direction between myself and the corniche. First things first, I thought to myself, I’ll go in the mall and buy a hat as my head is hotter than the sun itself. It was about 1pm and all the shops were closed. It’s quite typical for the shops, particularly in malls, not to really open until the late afternoon. I guess this is because the people here mostly sleep through the day as it’s so hot outside. So, no hat, fine, time to cross the road. The dual carriageway really was a beast of a road and there were no pedestrian crossings (pedestrians are non-existent here, hence no need for pedestrian crossings), but there was just a short railing on the central reservation and the road was offering some windows to cross periodically, so I just took a jog to the centre. When I got there I realised that the railing was metal. And black. ‘It’s probably hot’ I thought to myself, so I gave it a couple of taps with my finger to test it and it felt alright, so I thought ‘no problem’. I immediately realised my mistake in just tapping the metal. The feeling was quite different from pressing down with all your bodyweight in order to jump a railing. I was also wearing flip-flops, which got caught as I was jumping, as I was so distracted by the intense burning sensation in my hands. I finally managed to throw myself over and almost fall into the road on the other side. Thankfully, I still had half a bottle of water that I could pour all over my hands to cool down the burn. I walked over to the promenade but with the pain in my hands and feeling the onset of sunstroke, I really wasn’t that interested in the corniche any more .
The corniche is actually one of the nicest places I’ve been probably in the whole of Saudi Arabia, thanks largely to the the large grassy area along it. There is water too, I mean it looks and smells pretty dirty but you can’t have everything, can you? After I’d gathered my senses I decided I was pissed off enough to head back to my hotel. I definitely wasn’t walking or jumping the rail again, so I walked about 15mins until I found the end of the road, a place where I could cross without having to jump the rail. Then I picked up a cab and told him to take me home. When I mentioned that I had walked to where he had picked me up he looked at me like I was an alien. ‘Why would you walk anywhere here? Just get a taxi’ he told me. Because it’s 45degrees outside, I now see why this is the dominant attitude to walking, thanks to my dizziness and burnt palms. As we continued along the way home we started chatting, he told me he’s from Islamabad (most of the taxi drivers here are from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan with a few Saudis thrown in for good measure) and his name’s Arslan. He carried on to randomly tell me that he was desperate to see Tiesto in Abu Dhabi the following weekend. Fair play I thought, then I asked him about the shisha cafes or supposed lack of them, and he informed me that the shisha scene is alive and well and there was one about ten minutes away, which he kindly came back and took us to the following evening. That one was closed but we headed over to Al Khobar and there were a few to be found over there. The receptionist’s denial of their very existence was lost on the hundreds of people who we saw in the cafes (there were two or three right next to each other), it seemed like everyone in the city was there.
On another day I was told by one of the Filipino waiters in the hotel restaurant that the staff were all planning to go to the beach at Aziziyah after work when it is cooler. I declined to go to the beach as I had in fact been there once before, to the same beach at Aziziyah and it had been a monumental disappointment. We took a taxi for about 40minutes and when we arrived we were faced with a huge plot of sand full of garbage and people walking around with camels. The smell was just awful but the worst thing was all the cars. The people had driven all the way to water’s edge, the waves licking their front tyres.
Scenes at Aziziyah beach
It really was a disappointing beach, I think it was so disappointing because the Filipino guys who mentioned it to us had spoken so highly of it. It was also impossible for us to get a taxi home from that location so we had to hitch-hike back to Dammam. That would’ve been ok if the guy who picked us up (we thought it would be safe as there were three of us) hadn’t been an absolute mentalist. I think he only spent about 10percent of the journey looking at the road. The rest of the time he was trying to speak to my buddy in the front, or shouting racial slurs at Bangladeshi people out the window, ‘Ali Babar! Ali Babar!’ – I guess insinuating that they were all thieves or something. He tried to give us a gift of an in-car incense burner for the cigarette lighter. Presumably you just plug it in the lighter slot and fill your car up with smoke. Great, thanks for that. Finally, when we got back he told my mate that he wanted to come and ‘see his room’, we hadn’t realised he was ‘cruising’ until then, so we got him to drop us off and ditched him in a restaurant, as that’s not what we had in mind when we took the lift. I can say that it was an eventful trip to Aziziyah beach but one I was unwilling to repeat again.
One quite funny thing that happened, was when I got my salary advance. I got called by my mobilisation guy one evening and he told me he was in the reception with my money and that I should come down and get it. This was after I’d been in Dammam for about 5days. When I got down to the reception he asked me to take a seat and gave me the receipt to sign. The reception was quite crowded with people and workers and this guy proceeded to count out my money on the table in full view of all the guests and workers milling about the reception. Not a problem you might be thinking, it’s just that he was giving me about 15000Sr – the equivalent of about £2500. Now, of the 9million expat workers, about 85% of them are said to earn below 2000Sr a month (thanks again Arab News). For some of the workers staring at me while I was being handed this massive wedge of cash, it represented like 6months wages or something. I was embarrassed and a little worried to be the rich white guy in the hotel, because now everyone knew I had a fat stack of cash sitting in my room. Incidentally, I’ve been here for about 11weeks now and have just finished the advance. It really was an excessive amount for them to give me, in the most unprofessional way possible.
So, after ten days my time was up. I’d spent so long in the hotel room that I felt kind of like Morgan Freeman in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. I didn’t want to leave I’d become so accustomed to the hotel, sitting around doing basically nothing day after day – ‘I’m an institutional man now’. Still it was time to move on and get on with the the four hour drive into Riyadh.