Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

(1985 - 1987)

In 1985, we moved temporarily to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Gene worked there as the director of a project to modernize and expand the ambulance services provided in the Kingdom by the Saudi Red Crescent Society. Ellen worked as a librarian at the Saudi Arabian International School in Riyadh (SAIS-R), the "American School".

We were there under the sponsorhip of the United States-Saudi Arabian Joint Economic Commission, also known as "JECOR", for "Joint Economic Commission Office in Riyadh. For more information and some personal reflections and thoughts on JECOR, go here. The Commission provided American government assistance to Saudi government agencies requesting it by sending US goverment employees or contractors to work with the Saudi agencies. They were accompanied by their families and provided housing as part of the package. JECOR handled all these arrangements, from negociating the contracts, to finding the "experts" on the American side, to relocating and housing families, and so forth. There was a lot of money involved.

When we first arrived, there were over a hundred US families under the Commission sponsorship, most located in Riyadh, in about twenty housing "compounds" of from 4 to 30 homes. There was a central JECOR office which had a small cafeteria serving American food for homesick Americans.

Riyadh's location made it a great jumping-off place for travel to Europe and Asia, and travel was one of the major "hobbies" of many of our colleagues based there. When working abroad, there is a tax advantage to living outside of the US, and that limits the amount of time one can spend back home in the States, so that is another reason to take advantage of the travel opportunities, spending time in other parts of the world to avoid spending more time in the U.S. than tax law permitted. We spent family vacations in England, Spain, the Canary Islands, and Kenya.

There are many pictures and stories of our time there. It was a chance to see and become involved with a very different and interesting and ancient culture. And we carry many fond memories of our time there and the friends we made there.

Pictures of our life in Saudi Arabia are here.

Pictures of visits to the Asir are here.

Pictures of our several vacations are here.

A bit about the history of the Kingdom and the House of Saud.

The story of the Saudi Red Crescent Authority and the REDCRES Project.

Notes and information about JECOR here.

Some information on the Saudi military here.

Thoughts on Yemen and the many Yemen wars here.

A few stories, some factual, can be found here.

We left in 1987, around the time of the large attack on the Holy Mosque in Mecca by Shia extremists. A good time to leave. There is more information about that episode here.

Gene returned in the mid 1990s as a consultant and spent time in the southern region, the Asir or the highlands, which we had not seen on our first tour. Things had changed in the country after the "Gulf War", however, and the country was struggling with many issues, political, social, economic, and secular religious problems. In many respects, the problems of the country at that time and even now were presaged, if not created, by events and actions taken in the 1980's, some during our time there. It will be intresting to watch the evolution of Saudi Arabia from this time forward.

But first, some pictures that show aspects of the Kingdom which may suprise you.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

This is the Saudi Arabia of popular image.

desert camels in the desert

And yes, these pictures are from the area just to the west of Riyadh, where the cliff at the edge of the city gives way to large and small mesas reminescent of the US southwest, and then to the drifting red sands of the desert. And yes, there are a lot of camels in Saudi Arabia.

But Saudi Arabia also looks like this:

Red Sea at Jeddah Terraced farms in Baha

And this.

Strip Mall in Riyadh Night time traffic in Riyadh

More on our experiences living there is here.

The Saudi Red Crescent Society Development Project, "REDCRES"

We were in Saudi Arabia working with a JECOR project to develop and modernize the Saudi Red Crescent ambulance service along the lines of U.S. systems.

Our team was initially a small group of people with Emergency Medical Systems management and practice experience. The original team members included myself, Dan Manz, Dan Bahr, and Steve Johnson. We all had in common experience working within the Maine state EMS System. Our employer was Medical Care Development, a small firm located in Augusta, Maine, with a track record of developing healthcare related programs and projects in the U.S. and abroad. They also had an International office, located in Washington, DC, and were looking to expand their international activities, mostly through contracts through USAID sponsored programs or non-governental companies.

The project was to be a comprehensive development and training program for the Saudi Red Crescent Society. The Society was similar to Red Crescent and Red Cross Societies in other countries in that its mission included providing relief and medical care to civilians in natural or man made disasters, but in Saudi Arabia, the Society was a quasi governmental agency, receiving financial support from the Saudi government and being subject to the same rules and regulations as other government agencies.

The Saudi Red Crescent Authority

Red Crescent Societies are the equivalent in Muslim nations of Red Cross organizations in other, usually nominally Christian nations. Both are members of an international body known as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies which is, in turn, part of a global organization known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which meets on a regular basis to coordinate relief efforts worldwide and also to meet with nations that are signatories to the Geneva Convention and to monitor compliance with that agreement.

National organizations share the same fundamantal goal of providing relief and aid to people in need regardless of race, religion, gender, or national origin in order to promote and bring about world peace. The organizations are sometimes charitable entities and sometimes partially governmental agencies, as in Saudi Arabia.

Early in the history of the Saudi Red Crescent organization, it provided services to pilgrims during the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haaj. Before air travel and before the growth of highways and the expansion of sea travel to Jiddah, that port city on the Red Sea was the main entry point for people traveling on the Haaj Mecca or Medina, both short distances inland from Jeddah. Mecca and Medina are two of the most holy cities of Islam, the third being Jerusalem. Overland travel over mountainous terrain and through deserts is arduous at best, especially in the severe heat of summer. The date of the Haaj differs each year slightly, because it is determined by the Muslim calendar, which is lunar-based and has 360 days in each year. Therefore the dates of the Haaj shift slightly each year as it moves from winter time to summer time and back. Performing the pilgrimage, the Haaj, is one of the requirements of Islam if the pilgrim can afford it and is in good enough health to make the trip. Therefore each year millions of pilgrims make the journey. And the number increases each year as the number of Muslims worldwide increases.

Because many Muslims believe that one's sins are forgiven by making the pilgrimage and because the journey requires a large amount of money and takes a long time, most people perform the Haaj later in life. Many pilgrims are therefore in poor health or otherwise frail and there are numerous deaths among pilgrims each year for these reasons. The Red Crescent Society had the duty to tend to pilgrims along the land routes to Jiddah/Mecca and also to tend to the health needs of pilgrims at the holy sites in Mecca and Medina during the massive gatherings there when the pilgrims perform certain rites and rituals in unison. From this obligation evolved a network of small medical aid centers along the Haaj travel routes, some of which also provided ambulance services. Similar facilities and services also existed on larger scale at the holy sites themselves and around the two cities.

It all began in 1934 when a group of private individuals formed a Relief Association to provide aid to pilgrims but mostly to provide aid and medical services to military personnel wounded in the war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen then ongoing. After that war, the organization continued to provide medical assistance to pilgrims during the Haaj.

After WW2, income of the individual benefactors decreased but the need for services to pilgrims increased, so in 1964, by Royal Decree, the Saudi Red Crescent Association (now Authority) was created. At around the same time, it applied for and received recognition as a member organization of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Association.

With the development of relatively inexpensive air travel, the construction of major highways within the Kingdom, and the wider availability of motorized mass transportation the routes the pilgrims traveled changed. And the health problems that pilgrims developed or brought with them also changed and became in general more severe, since the less arduous modern travel enabled frailer and older people to make the journey. The increasing numbers of pilgrims, their shorter travel times, and the intense crowding of the pilgrims in tented camping sites and at holy shrines also increased the liklihood of infectious disease outbreaks.

The Kingdom underwent rapid growth and expansion during the oil boom years. Larger cities built major medical centers. Smaller cities built smaller centers, and yet smaller cities built hospitals. Most of these medical facilities operated on the "western" model. Many were staffed by personnel from the U.S., Britian, and British Commonwealth nations. Most of thes facilities realized quickly that they needed to offer ambulance services for their patients, as there might be no local services available or the local services lacked capacity to handle the growing patient population or the more severe cases. In urban areas multiple ambulance services of variable capability and capacity with often overlapping service areas developed independently, while rural areas, and the relatively unpopulated stretches of major highways remained without ambulance service or medical care facilities.

Creation of The REDCRES Project

Some years after the creation of the Saudi Red Crescent Authority, which was part of the Ministry of Health, it was given the responsibility for all ambulance and emergency medical services in the Kingdom as a way to coordinate, regulate, and develop the patchwork systems then operating. As part of this new, larger reponsibility, the leadership of the Red Crescent looked at pre-hospital (EMS) systems in various nations. After this review, the decision was made to adopt the model used in the United States, in which specially trained EMS technicians and paramedics render care to patients under the direction of medical personnel at the local hospital or within the EMS system itself. This was a different approach than that used in some European countries, in which specialty trained physicians staff the ambulances and render advanced care at the site of the emergency before the patient is transported or while in transit to the hospital rather than emphasizing rapid patient transport by relatively less skilled personnel to the nearest higher level of care. The leaders of the Saudi Red Crescent realized that the Kingdom had a shortage of doctors but there were already available personnel trained as nurses or willing volunteers trained in first aid employed by the Red Crescent, who could be further trained and form the basis for a comprehensive system of pre-hospital care.

Once the decision had been made to develop the Red Crescent ambulance services along the U.S. model, the Red Crescent leadership through the Ministry of Health contacted JECOR for assistance in creating a development project to this end. JECOR, operating as it did, by pairing a Saudi Ministry (Health) with an equivalent U.S. Department, chose to work with the United States Public Health Service initially to create the project. This first effort did not go well, and was soon abandoned, sometime in the early 1980s.

The Public Health Service recognized it lacked the internal expertise in EMS development needed for this project and opened a competitive bidding process inviting external contractors to submit proposals for the project. One of the proposals submitted was from Medical Care Development (MCD) headquartered in Augusta, Maine. MCD had been an important player in the development of the Maine state EMS system and well acquainted with people still working in that system. After a first round review of submitted proposals, in 1985, MCD was one of two finalists, the other being Harvard University. As the final selections step, a delegation from Saudi Arabia, in particular the Director of the Authority, Dr. Hamed Sughair, came to the U.S. for a round of formal presentations by each organization and to meet with the prospective team members.

Shortly after MCD was notified it was a finalist in the selection, the emergency physician, who had been their candidate for Project Director, withdrew from the project, citing his wife's reluctance to live in Saudi Arabia as the reason. The CEO of MCD, after consulting with his team, called me and asked if I might be interested, but cautioned me to check with my wife first. I did check with Ellen and she said "Sure, Why not?" and we then became part of the team.

Our final, formal, presentation to Dr. Sughair was pretty informal, with team members addressing the group using hand made paper flip charts as visual aids. I am sure that the Harvard presentation was much slicker and more academic. But we had the advantage that the people on the team were all working in the field and all had direct, personal, hands-on experience training EMS personnel and developing local and regional EMS systems.

MCD was awarded the contract.

Some years later I was discussing the selection process with Dr. Sughair and he made comment, something along the line, that "Saudis are largely rural people. Your team had experience training and working with rural people. And were rural people". He felt it was a better match for what was needed at that time.

Then, after some months of preliminary development of training programs and interviewing additional people for the team and a nail-biting wait for the final approval and transfer of funds from the Ministry of Health to the U.S. Treasury Department, we all started packing for the move to the Kingdom. MCD worked during that time recruiting and hiring additional people for the project, either to join the team early or a bit later, after the initial start up and settling-in period. Those of us who would make up the first wave and our families attended a wonderful week of training in Arab history and culture at the Arab Institute set up through the Foreign Service Institute. This was the training program for State Department personnel being assigned to Saudi Arabia or other Arab nations. We also met with "old hands" who had experience working in the region for advice on how to operate in this environment. We got a great deal of good advice, most of which we ignored. Particularly the more important parts.

The first group of us arrived at the Red Crescent headquarters in Riyadh and were shown to several empty offices, which would be our work area. We were five non-Arabic speaking Americans installed within a Saudi organization with a mandate to transform it from the ground up in order that it could provide modern emergency medical services to an entire nation. While, of course, the host organization continued to perform all the many other duties the Red Crescent was obligated to. Although we had support from the host organization and through the home offices of MCD and had additional strong local administrative, financial, and logistical support from JECOR, we were really starting from almost nothing. We hardly knew what to ask for, since we knew little about what we needed to be doing.

Our first tasks were getting things like desks and chairs. Then we needed information. There are many stories of our gradually finding out how many ambulance stations, first aid centers, and ambulances the Red Crescent had. And finding out the numbers and training of staff. All this basic data, needed for our planning, seemed in constant flux, and that constant change remained one of the fundamental constants of our work. Fortunately, we were a group long accustomed to making critical decisions based on inadequate information. The EMS trainers were also developing and piloting a basic level Emergency Medical Technician training course for the Red Crescent ambulance personnel. And obtaining basic equipment and supplies needed for the training and later, for the trained personnel to perform the most basic EMS work. And we were also working to develop more advanced levels of training and methods of planning for future system growth.

In essence, once we had offices and had met our Saudi counterparts, we fell back on what we knew best and what we knew was needed. Training. The basic course we first implemented had been developed by our EMS trainers by modifying the U.S. standard Basic EMT curriculum. They had eliminated material which was enrichment or background information on the "why" or "how" something is done, retaining only material they knew to be relevent and useful in the field. They ended up with a skill set, which could be taught through hands-on demonstration and practice, virtually eliminating lectures, and resulting in a nearly language-free program. The initial batch of Saudis selected by the Red Crescent to become trainers learned the content quickly and easily and proved to be excellent teachers themselves

Once into the training, the next needed steps became obvious. The basic tools and supplies needed to perform the actions in the training were largely lacking or insufficient within the orginazation's ambulance corps, so that became a priority. Since we now had developed a group of trained Saudi Trainers, they could carry that message back inside the organization and up to the decision makers. And we were off and running.

And running it was. The first year the team and Saudi trainers trained thousands of Red Crescent ambulance staff. The ambulances had been staffed with drivers, who only drove, and "nurses", who rendered medical aid. We worked to get training to the drivers so they could assist the medics at the scene when needed. As we got out into the country to train in other cities and in outlying locations, we learned more about the existing system and the issues and problems the medics faced in performing their work. We identified areas of need in education of the public, both on common emergencies and about the role of an EMS system and how the public can access it and work with it. Our Public Health Education specialist, Bill Burgess, worked on the education projects in coordination with Saudi counterparts in the Red Crescent and the Ministry of Health. As we learned more about the Red Crescent, the ambulance services it provided, about the healthcare systems in the nation, and about Saudi society in general, we incorporated these findings into the development planning for the project. A couple of areas were identified early and were of particular importance.

One need identified early was the matter of communications. Our communications engineer had extensive experience working internationally. He began by finding out what systems already existed and how they worked together (or not). Not surprisingly,The radio systems in the Kingdom used for medical and other emergency responses had developed in patch-work fashion and for the most part did not communicate with each other. There were also issues related to security, as the military had communications systems as well as the several law enforcement entities in the country and these entities were not easily persuaded to share resources. Further, the phone system in the country had been developed and installed by Canadian Bell and was not compatible with phones built to U.S. specifications. Our engineer had a giant project just to understand the many issues and document existing systems and worked diligently to design and recommend an integrated communication system for the Red Crescent. This took years and was not adopted during the time I was there due to budget constraints. I suspect that subsequent events, including the "Gulf War" may have resulted in improved coordinated communications systems.

We also had a specialist in logistics, supply, and contracting. This position proved to be very important, especially as he was experienced in U.S. government contracting regulations and ended up facilitating purchase of vitally needed emergency equipment through the project. Because our funding was "extra-budget" and not part of the budget for the Red Crescent through the Ministry of Health, this was an excellent way to get needed materiel without going through the internal budgeting process of the Saudi Government. And once we had trained our first classes of ambulance technicians, they, and we, faced the problem of not having the equipment we had trained them to use available in their daily work. All we had to do was show that the equipment and supplies we were ordering through the project were necessary to support the training and development goals of the project, and we could move ahead with acquiring it.

We also quickly added more EMS training and development people. In a relatively short time, the EMS training and development component added Paul McNeil, Don Wood, Dennis Simmons, Rob Mathias, and Dave Loudon. This is the group that trained the core Saudi EMS trainers and together with them delivered the evolved and modified basic EMS training course to nearly 5,000 people in the first couple of years. As the project grew,,we also added an office Administrator, Omar Abul-Hosn, a translator, Rawhi Suleiman, a secretary and an Executive Secretary. Our Executive Secretary, being female, was located at our office in JECOR, as women were not allowed to work in the Red Crescent Authority headquarters building.

We had computers (IBM XTs, later AT's), dot-matrix printers, word processing software, and FAX machines. Gradually we got something of a handle on the physical and human dimensions of the Red Crescent Authority. And got to know and become friends with many of the people in the Red Crescent. We also established satellite training centers in Jeddah and Dhahran and trained in Medina, and Buraydah (Gasim Province).

Looking back, the amount of work done by the team in the first two years is astonishing.

It was not all work, however. Here are a few pictures of the team at meetings and at various picnics, both in JECOR settings, and at camp sites in the desert.

Camping trips with JECOR colleagues.

JECOR Cars parked at the base 
of the escarpment Our team on a desert trip

team camping team members in desert

Our first camping trips with the family and JECOR colleagues were pretty simple affairs and we used tents similar to those we used back in the states. We had sleeping bags and basic camping equipment, but overall, conditions were pretty limited when we went with other Americans. Which was fine with us, as we had always liked camping in the 1950s, before travel trailers, generators, and satellite dishes.

Later, we went on desert trips with people from our host organization. Some of the trips were for men only, but on others, we could take our wives and children. Most Saudis and men from other nations working in the Kingdom were very much aware of the differences in customs of Saudi versus U.S. societies and we found that once we were out of the city with our Saudi colleagues, and away from the "watchers", things relaxed considerably. The Saudis are a very hospitable people, something deeply ingrained in their culture and probably rooted in the severe conditions of living and surviving in a desert environment. They loved to host us for a good time and a large meal.

The traditional Arabic group meal is "Kebsa", a spiced rice dish, similar to the Indian Biryani dishes. Arabia was originally one of the major thoroughfares of the spice trade, until European sea exploration opened sea routes to the "Orient" around Cape Horn. So Arabic food took full advantage of myriad spices, and the markets had a selection of spices, fruits, and nuts that was impressive. Kebsa was generally served with a meat, such as chicken or lamb, only occasionally something else. Chicken Kebsa, "Kebsa dejaj", was probably the most common meal served in Saudi homes, probably daily, but on special occasions or weekends, lamb or mutton was the preferred meat. Kebsa with lamb was prepared with freshly slaughtered lamb/sheep. The Muslim method of slaughter is analgous to the Jewish traditional method. The Muslim preparation produces meat that is "Halal", compliant with multiple conditions, and cannot be from a pig or reptile. In general, Kosher meat is acceptable to a Muslim. The lamb is often left whole after the skin removed and is boiled in a huge pot until tender. The rice is then cooked in the same water, along with spices and an assortment of vegetables and dried fruits. On particularly special occasions, or for honored guests, the sheep of choice to serve is the "fat tailed sheep", a variety with a large pad of fat in the animal's tail. When Kebsa was made with a fat-tailed sheep, the tail was left on and the copious fatty tissue was a delicacy.

Meals were communal affairs, with the diners sitting on the floor around a huge platter of kebsa, eating with their right hands and sometimes with bread. Eating was always done with the right hand, unless a person was left-handed, because the left hand was used only for "ignoble" purposes, such as when washing after using the bathroom, and was never proffered in greeting or used for other purposes.

Camping with Saudi hosts was a much more elaborate and comfortable affair. The tents were large, often with standing height, supported by tent poles and anchored in the sand by long ropes secured by stakes. The top and sides of the tents were double layers of cloth, with the inside often being ornately patterned. The "floor" of the tents was carpet, often numerous carpets laid out in overlapping fashion, with pillows and carry-bags along the perimeter, so one could lie back against them in the shade of the tent.

These campsites also included a generator or two, and boom boxes for music, and sometimes a television and VCR player. On some occasions, when on a male only camping trip, the evenings were spent watching videotapes of singers and dancers from Lebanon or Egypt. Nothing pornographic or even risque by U.S. standards, but also something not part of daily life in Saudi Arabia, as the women in the video tapes were un-veiled and did not wear burkah or abayah.

There was often a campfire, and late in the day, after dark, the men would gather and sing and dance and play drums. That part was incredibly lovely and interesting to see. The singing of traditional songs, accompanied by drums and the men dancing about the campfire, was exciting and there was a fierce-ness that seemed to underlie it. I remember thinking to myself that one should not mess with these people, who seem so gentle, but have a long history of survival in extreme circumstances and have a culture based on that survival and a equally long tradition of war. War of the guerilla style, based in tribal alliances, sudden surprises, and the aims of protecting family, land, lifestyle.

Following are some pictures of camping, Saudi style. The first one shows a typical campsite, with a large tent and a huge water truck. There was also a small flock of fat tailed sheep, which provided a supply of fresh meat, as well as milk, for the several days of camping.

Mornings began at daybreak with cups of hot sweetened tea with sheep's milk added. This while the cooks prepared breakfast. Breakfast was often a variant of "foul" ("fool medammos"), traditionally fava beans in olive oil with cumin and other spices, but in the versions we had, more likely red or white kidney beans, cooked in olive oil with chopped tomatoes, chopped onion, cumin, parsley, and sometimes other spices. It was also eaten communally, using pieces of freshly baked pita bread to scoop up the food.

a desert campsite fat tailed sheep

Tea at daybreak.

tea at daybreak morning tea

tea at daybreak camping in the desert

Meals (kebsa), conversation, and smoking the Hooka ("hubbly-bubbly) water pipe.

Kebsa for dinner Kebsa for dinner

Kebsa for dinner Kebsa for dinner

water pipe Dan tries the Hooka

Our Home Life in Saudi Arabia

Our home was in Riyadh, where the Red Crescent headquarters is located. As part of the JECOR support package, each family was provided a fully furnished villa. Each villa was located in a walled, gated compound containing from about 4 to 30 villas. We were allowed to air ship 500 pounds of personal belongings to customize our villa and make it more like "home", an effort perhaps to avoid home-sickness.

One of the excellent pieces of advice given to us during our orientation was to always have one or several familiar objects at the bedside or in the bedroom, objects from our home that we would immediately recognize on the occasion(s) we awoke from sleep disoriented and frightened because we were in an unfamiliar place.

Our first villa was in a small compound of six homes. The residents were a mix of American personnel from differing projects and people from other countries, who were working within JECOR projects. There were not many children there, but several of our children's closest friends were from Pakistan, which was certainly something very new and different for children from a farm in rural New Hampshire. That part was a good thing.

The homes in that compound had been designed by an architect from California, and were built around a central courtyard/atrium, with windows in the living room and bedrooms looking onto the courtyard. In our villa, the courtyard had been planted with bougainvilla, trained up the wall and onto a wooden trellis partially covering the courtyard opening, providing a small amount of shade from the sun. The bougainvilla also provided an endless cascade of the red bracts which covered the courtyard paving and needed sweeping up every few days.

Here are a few photos of our first villa.

living rooom= dining room

team meeting in villa team meeting in villa

our courtyard patio courtyard

cook out by the pool with team  Ellen at the pool on a quiet day


After about a year, we moved to another house in a larger compound with thirty homes to be closer to other team members and to provide the kids with more playmates. It also brought us in contact with more of the people who were working on JECOR projects and their families. This had positive and negative aspects

Our project was integrated into our Saudi host organization, and all our personnel interacted with Saudi colleagues pretty much all the time. We had gotten to know many of them and, in some cases, their families. The Saudis we worked with were, for the most part, intelligent, motivated, and hard working colleagues who were interested to learn what we could teach them that was useful to their jobs. And they were also interested to learn about us and about life in the U.S.

We genuinely respected our Saudi colleagues and quickly developed a deep affection for them.

But when we moved into a larger compound, with residents almost entirely American, we found that attitudes among those Americans about our host nation and its citizens were very negative. This negativity was evident in everyday conversation within the compound, but also showed in behaviors and comments exhibited by the residents when they were out and about in the city. The American women, in particular, seemed personally offended by Saudi tradions about the role of women in society and the "rules" of dress.

Because our team members and spouses had received Foreign Service Institute training and orientation prior to our deployment, for the most part, we simply accepted the Saudi cultural practices as "different". Not as "right" or "wrong", just different. We tried to learn what the practices were so we could be aware of them and not give offence, but we recognized that we were not there to re-make Saudi society. And that the Saudis were not interested in having their society re-made, but were highly interested in the technical knowledge and practical practices were were there to share with them.

Alas, that was not the prevailing attitude among most of the Americans we encountered, who worked in other projects. And, in retrospect, was a harbinger for the difficult "culture clash" that happened when large numbers of U.S. military personnel encountered large numbers of Saudi citizens on a daily basis.

The negative and racist attitudes and comments from the adults were difficult enough. But the experiences of our children were perhaps worse. The children of our team members were a very small minority among the children in the large compound. And because we were contract employees, not entitled to shop at the military base commissary, and not entitled to the smuggled alcohol allowance, the children were additionally marginalized. And bullied. For our kids, growing up in an isolated rural environment with just a few close playmates, probably close becase they were few, it was a very difficult change to an urban environment with many children from urban or suburban backgrounds where they were treated badly because they had only the European version of Capri Sonne, purchased locally, not the American Capri Sun, purchased at the commissary. And also, just because.

Looking back, the JECOR policy of having many small compounds scattered throughout the city neighborhoods in the hope that American residents would get to know their neighbors and the city better, was, in theory, a good one. It's just that the Americans, for the most part, did not want to learn about Saudi Arabia or Saudis. For most of them, their work in Saudi Arabia was for a short term and they were looking forward to getting home. Most Americans working for JECOR would have preferred one very large compound with all the U.S. staff in one place, along the model of the western compounds in the Eastern Province, where the oil company personnel lived. The larger compounds had golf courses, a commissary, and streets where the American women could drive cars.

There was one such compound in Riyadh, occupied at the time by the Canadian Bell Company employees installing and maintaining the Saudi telephone systems. Although it was smaller than the huge American compounds in the Eastern Province, it was coveted by many JECOR personnel.

And eventually, when Canadian Bell finished up in the Kingdom and the First Gulf War happened and Iraqi SCUD missles were landing in Riyadh, JECOR did take over the former Canadian Bell compound and move its personnel there. For security.

An exclusively American compound in a foreign country has perhaps some logistical and security advantages. But it has some significant disadvantages, too. Such an arrangement becomes an echo chamber and an amplification chamber. And, unfortunately, it tends to echo and amplify attitudes and behaviors of Americans, which are not pleasant or favorable to the host nation.

In the end, it comes down to priorities and goals. Is the purpose of having American projects in another nation to build and foster positive relationships and mutual cross transfer of knowledge and information, or does the safety and comfort of the Americans become the primary consideration?

Not an easy question to answer, particularly when familes are involved.

Looking back, there were plenty of good experiences and fond memories, especially of the kindness of others, both American and Saudi. It was a different experience for our children, however, as they were abroad at a time in their life when they are beginning to find their own unique identity. That's harder when you are in an environment that is so different from where you came. And when you return to an environment once familiar, but now different because you have changed. No easy answer.

A picture of one of the REDCRES team, Dan Bahr, visiting with the children and playing a game with them. They still remember Dan.

Dan with the kids

The kids (briefly) took Karate lessons from a Korean instructor. Mostly what they got from the lessons were the outfits. Somehow they missed out on the discipline part.

Karate Kids

And here are some really nice photos of two of the kids, taken while we were in Saudi Arabia.



Our new home in the larger American compound was also in a different neighborhood, Olaya, an area with many European residents as well as Saudis. We understood the name to mean "European", but it probably was a corruption of a name of Greek derivation meaning "well spoken" or the equivalent, perhaps named after a developer's family member or a reference to the general higher level of education of the residents there.

At any rate, there were many interesting restaurants and small shops in the area, many within walking distance of our villa. This was an improvement over our first location, which was in a traditional residential area near a major mosque on a major arterial roadway. That mosque, as most of the larger ones, had amplified loudspeaker systems to broadcast the daily calls to prayer and also used the same public address system to broadcast the Friday addresses to the congregation by the Imam. In this case, the particular mosque and Imam were more traditional and conservative than most, so the Friday addresses tended to be more of a harangue and something of a rant about the creeping influences of decadent, irreligious western culture. The new home was free of this.

Because the sale or consumption of alcohol is outlawed in Saudi Arabia, there were many "juice bars" in the city. These stores sold a wide array of fresh squeezed fruit juices, some much like today's "smoothies" and some more like an Italian soda flavored with fresh fruit juice. One simply went into the store and selected the fruit you wanted from a display of chilled fruit, and the chosen fruit went into a large juice making machine. Some people added simple syrup or water and some just had the juice mix. These drinks were delicious. One store even had a special machine which ground sugar cane into a drinkable syrup. The machine sat to the side of the main juice bar with a basket containing 6 to 8 foot long cane stalks. When you ordered a sugar cane drink, one of the attendants would turn on the machine, select a stalk, and feed the stalk into the mouth of the grinder on the front of the machine. You drink then poured from a spout just beneath the grinder jaws as the stalk fed into the machine. These were tasty drinks, but unbelievably sweet.

There were also the equivalent of "fast food" eating establishments everywhere.

Riyadh had a huge population of foreign workers, or Third Country Nationals (TCNs) as they were known at JECOR. This was because the Saudi native population was so very small. There were not good estimates of the population despite a JECOR project to perform a census. The initial census estimates showed only a few million Saudis, but the figure was revised upward significantly at the request of the King. Whatever the real number was, there were simply not enough Saudis to meet the employment needs of this nation which was on a massive infrastructure build up. The Kingdom was not only building roads, cities, hospitals, water purification plants, oil refineries, petrochemical plants, farms and food processing facilities, homes, and apartment buildings but also creating personnel-dependent financial and administrative systems in banking, retail sales, and government services, including police, fire, and medical services. The labor required was enormous and met largely through the use of millions of foreign workers. In the early days of the Kingdom's modernization programs, many of these workers were from the U.S., British Commonwealth, and European countries, particularly in the healthcare, oil exploration and refining, and financial areas. But as the programs expanded and the labor needs increased exponentially, the contracts implemented permitted more and more the use of labor from other countries. The Saudi authorities initially required, later requested, the use of labor from countries that were predominantly Muslim - Pakistan, for example, and regions of the Philippines. But by the time we were there, large numbers of workers from Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other countries were living and working in Riyadh. These were in addition to the large numbers of Yemeni, who seemed to be everywhere integrated into the society. At that time, Saudi Arabia and Yemen had a close relationship, and Yemeni were free to enter and exit the Kingdom without visas. They were a large and vital part of the fabric of daily life there and were, in many respects, indistinguishable from Saudis.

These millions of foreign workers, almost all of whom were men, were often housed in group facilities or living in crowded apartment buildings in the outskirts of the city. They created a need for restaurants and other services. And many also worked in providing the services. In traditional Arab culture, most socialization occurs in the home. Although there may be bakeries and some restaurants, it was the large number of foreign workers, lacking families, that probably drove the proliferation of eating establishments of all kinds in Riyadh.

The shawarma shops were legendary. Many baked their own bread, and you might see the pita bread emerging on a conveyer from the oven, puffed up into a spherical shape the size of a child's play ball, then flattening into a proper pita shape as it cooled. The filling of the shawarma was either chicken or beef. The marinated meat was impaled on a long skewer, about a meter in length, interspersed with other things such as fat or other flavoring aids, then mounted (by two men) in a vertical gas fired roaster where the skewered meat rotated close to the glowing red furnace like roasters. As the meat cooked, the attendant would use a large knife to shave off small bits from the roasted and charred edges, letting these bits fall into the shallow tray beneath the spit, into the accumulating fat and drippings from the roasting meat.

When you ordered your shawarma, the cook would open a pita, spread it with a small amount of a garlic tahini sauce, then spoon in the meat, either chicken or beef, and add the other ingredients, which varied from shop to shop, but usually included a slice of pickled turnip, some shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, and sliced onion, fresh parsley or basil, or some combination.

Most people who worked in Saudi Arabia left for home with a life-long shawarma addiction. In our case, we have occasionally found a local source for shawarmas, including a particularly fine one in New Orleans, but at their best, they have never matched those at our favorite shop in Olaya. On one consulting trip back to the Kingdom, Gene brought about ten shawarmas back in his carry on luggage. They were as good as remembered, even after 24 hours of travel.

Many fast food restaurants also served other Arabic favorites, such as hummous, baba-ghanoj, kibbeh, filafel, and on and on. One place even had a brain salad, though that was something we never tried.

There were also more traditional sit-down, dine-in restaurants. These ranged from very simple Pakistani restaurants run by Pakistani cooks and frequented by working class Pakistanis, through Asian restaunts operated by and for Koreans, another large group of foreign workers, all the way to elegant French, Swiss, Italian, and American style restaurants in the major hotels in both Riyadh and Jeddah. We did not get to any of the fancy hotel restaurants, but did spend a great deal of time in several favorite Pakistani and Asian restaurants. The "Student Cafe" in Jeddah was a particular favorite. The kitchen was set up in the former front display window of a retail store, with the flooring removed, a tandoor oven dug into the ground and a couple of propane burners. There was also an open wood and charcoal fire pit in the large courtyard behind the storefront. The courtyard was ringed with tables and chairs and seated perhaps 50 or 70 people. All men, of course.

In Riyadh there were also a few examples of American chain restaurants, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken some pizza places, and a couple of clones of burger restaurants. These were not frequented by Saudis, but largely by homesick Americans.

There was also an exciting street food scene in Jeddah. Late in the evening and into the night, food venders would set up along the streets in an industrial section of the city. The cooked over open charcoal fires, on propane burners, or on grill tops made from old steel drums. The foods were varied and tasty. Some were familiar versions of Arabic or Pakistani food. Some were entirely mysterious. There was probably a similar local in Riyadh, but we never found it.

Shopping in Riyadh and Jeddah was famous among the expatriot community. There were high end retail stores in the many malls in Riyadh selling goods from all over the world, but the appeal for most people, and especially for any folks visiting JECOR families, were the "souks", the more traditional markets. The markets in Jeddah were pretty amazing, but those in Riyadh were even more interesting for several reasons.

Riyadh was more conservative socially than Jeddah, so the markets reflected this. The women, even western women, were expected to dress conservatively and to preferably wear an abayah, the traditional black cloak that covered up from neck to ankles. And there were often Mutawah around to remind visitors to cover up their arms and legs and hair. American women were often offended by this request (demand really) and either stalked out or insisted on going ahead with their shopping, knowing that the religious police did not harass Americans as they did Arabs. What the Americans did not know, is that in Saudi and Arab tradition in general, a woman only exposes her hair and wears it down when she is ready for or soliciting sex. Some of the same American women who insisted on shopping in the Riyadh souk with their hair uncovered and down were then doubly offended when they were pinched or groped in the market. Culture clash.

The markets in Riyadh were also older, or at least not much updated in recent times, compared to the Jeddah markets. One side of the Riyadh market complex backed up to a cemetary wall, and mid way along that wall, was a set of huge clay water bottles for public use. The clay vessels were about 5 feet tall and about 3 or 4 feet in diameter, more or less conical in shape, suspended by ropes from a wooden frame, with a small spigot near the bottom of the pointed end. They were made from terra cotta like clay, probably low fired or unfired, and because they were porous, the water seeped through the walls of the vessels and evaporated, cooling the water. And promoting a great growth of green algae all over the vessel. There was a metal drinking cup with a long handle for public use. The setting of the water bottles, the bedouin women sitting along the cemetery wall selling things laid out on carpets, the people in traditional dress, took the visitor back centuries in time. No pictures of this magic little spot, of course, but it would have made a wonderful Hollywood set.

The Riyadh markets had pretty much everything. The vendors set up in small cubicals along narrow winding passages covered with metal roofing or tent canvas. Vendors selling the same or similar goods clustered together. There was a "gold souk" and a "silver souk", for example. In the gold souk, the vendors displayed their wares in display cases, of course, but also openly on the tops of the cases, or hanging from wires across the ceiling. They sold 14 and 18 caret jewelry from Italy and other European countries, but also sold 22 and 24 caret jewelry, which was in demand locally.

As an aside and to explain why the souks had 24 caret gold jewlery, a brief digression into Saudi culture and traditions. When a woman in Saudi Arabia is married, she receives money, a "bride price" as it is known locally. The price does not go to her family, it is entirely hers. This money is sometimes called "alimony in advance" by Saudis and the amount depends on the social standing of the young woman getting married. At the time we were there, the bride price for a Saudi woman exceeded $50,000 and was oven higher by several multiples. One of our colleagues, unable to afford a Saudi bride, married a Kuwaiti instead, paying a lower bride price, about $40,000. Most of our younger Saudi colleagues were still unmarried in their late 20s and they and their families were saving money for a bride.

It was more or less traditional at that time for the bride to invest the money received when married. Generally half was spent on purchasing property, often rental property, and half was spent on gold, often 24 caret gold jewelry. Hence the local demand for the pure gold jewelry. But we were told that Pakistani and Indian people also preferred 22 and 24 caret gold jewelry and that in part added to local demand. It also was the connection for the sources of the jewelry, made in those countries not in Europe. When traveling domestically in Saudi Arabia, when passing through luggage inspection, it was common to see a Saudi woman open her carry bag or brief case to reveal a massive casche of gold jewelry, as it was also traditional to take your wealth with you when traveling.

There were spice markets, with bins of ground spice as well as nuts and dried fruit. Saudi Arabia had been on the overland spice trade route and their cooking reflected access to a wide range of spices not known to Europeans until the late middle ages. There were open bins of ground spices, shelled and unshelled pistachios, dried apricots and hundreds of other items, many completely unknown to us. The smells along were worth the trip to get there.

There were also merchants selling carpets, both in the traditional souks and at fancier locations in commercial sectors of Riyadh. The carpets available were spectacular. At the larger merchants, it was common to see huge hand-knotted carpets from Iran. Carpets made to fit huge meeting halls and lobbies, thirty and forty feet across. Stacked by dozens, along smaller carpets from Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus region. We bought some carpets from one of the large carpet merchants, but preferred to browse for carpets in the small carpet shops in the Afghani Quarter of the city. Because of the war then going on in Afghanistan, many people had fled. Often they took their carpets with them, sometimes as the only "wealth" they had, and sold them when they landed in another country. These carpets were cruder than the sophisticated Iranian and Turkish carpets, but were of interesting design and sometimes included images of war. Occasionally, we found a carpet of Azeri or Azerbajani origin or perhaps from another region in the Caucasus.

Here's one of the Turkoman carpets we got there. We still have it. carpet

There was even an area where falcons were sold. Often these were birds captured and trained by Bedouin, who then brought them to Riyadh to sell. There were never very many on display at a time, but at the price point for falcons (tens of thousands of dollars), there was not need to sell many. And besides, they are somewhat testy birds and don't like crowds. Of people. Or other birds. While in Kingdom we did meet a man who worked as a falconer for a Saudi. He described in great detail the mating process for the birds and the technique he used to collect semen samples from the male birds for sale abroad to other falcon breeders. The amounts of money at play was astounding.

As mentioned, many women visiting JECOR personnel or on short term assignment with JECOR wanted to go shopping at the "souks". Since women were not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, it thus fell to the male host to take the visiting women shopping. Most men hated doing this. I, on the other hand, was happy to volunteer my services and drive the visiting women to the souk and guide them around and watch them spend their (husband's) money, often great amounts of money. I did not have to spend a cent and had the pleasure of touring the markets and finding new shops and seeing new things.

While living there, we did buy carpets, and some gold jewelry, and a nice selection of "Bedouin jewelry". The latter jewelry is of silver, often "German silver", silver made from melted coins, and set with glass stones or beads. Occasionally amber, but usually glass or plastic. The workmanship was somewhat primitive but the designs were interesting, and similar to folk jewelry elsewhere in the region, from Yemen to the south to India to the east.

This is some of the Bedouin jewelry we found in the souk in Riyadh.

Bedouin Jewelry

Let's continue our tour of the country.

Riyadh is in the north central part of the country and is "high desert", with a markedly dry climate and the daily wide temperature ranges familiar to residents of the US mountain southwest. The Arabian peninsula, which is mostly Saudi Arabia, lies at the junction of the tectonic plates of Asia and Africa, and there is a massive rift lying just west of the city of Riyadh which is, to locals, known as the "escarpment" (Tuwaiq). This cliff like, abrupt cleft is several hundreds of feet high at Riyadh and runs from the agricultural region, Al-Qasim in the north to the edge of the vast desert, The Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali), to the south. To the east of the clef the land slopes very gradually, and theat is where Riyadh is located. The the west of the cleft, the land is level and gradually changes from exposed sedementary rock mesas and outcroppings to sandy desert.

There is a lovely modern highway now cut into this cliff, making the descent easy, and we would sometimes go camping at the bottom of the cliff, and explore for fossils in the rock face and in the many "mesas" and "buttes" nearby, reminiscent of the U.S. desert southwest. There are many "wadis" (dry water channels like the arroyos of the U.S. southwest) that cut through the face of the cliff that create nice camping areas with some vegetation supported by the infrequent rains and run off. Once off the main road, we could easly drive our JECOR-issued Chevrolet Caprice Classic sedans on the hard sand almost to the base of the cliff, where we would set up our tents and stay ovenight. We did our camping in the "winter" months, as the weather any other time of year was too extreme to be comfortable. But even in the winter, it was warm and dry and one needed to drink enormous quantities of water to avoid dehydration.

The cliffs are sedimentary rock, limestone and sandstone, left from the days the desert was ocean floor. When we camped in the area, we were surrounded by fossils of marine life and coral of many forms. The fossils were not petrified enough to make good specimens, as they were sandstone and soft limestone in composition, but they were fun to explore.

desert desert mesa

There were plenty of camels around. These were not "wild" camels, but were owned by individual Saudis. Sometimes they would be accompanied by a herder, mounted on a camel, with the herder dressed in traditional garb, and the camel with extensive decorative harness, bells, water bottles, and such. Again, an encounter out of the past or perhaps a Hollywood set. When talking with "old hands" at JECOR, we found out that until the late 1960s or early 1970s, camel caravans still crossed the desert from the Gulf shore, skirting just above the "empty quarter" from the east, terminating at a rail head south of Riyadh, Al Karjh.

camels roaming the desert camel up close

It was possible to get far out from the city, into the area of open sand dunes, with a short drive. Sometimes we slept in the open so after dark we could gaze at the desert sky, filled with stars. There was not a dark section of the night-time sky and the sight was deeply moving. It was easy to understand how three of the world's major religions arose in the desert.

Here's a picture of morning in the desert. It was cold! And a picture of Tom, walking along huge sand dunes outside Riyadh. We had friends who took up, perhaps invented, sand-ski-ing. It was a great deal slower than ski-ing on snow, but the landings were softer. See more below.

sleeping on the sand tom on sand dunes

Tom on the rocks

Being Americans, sometimes on single status, JECOR people and folks from other nations got together to have some fun. We explored the desert and also sometimes imported our own particular hobbies and interests and adapted them, when possible to the new environment. There was more to do than just camping.

Below is a picture of our "heavy Chevy", the Caprice Classic sedan JECOR provided us. It was heavy enough to provide protection in Riyadh traffic, but it also did well in the desert, as long as we stayed on the hardpack and avoided the softer sand. We called it "four-wheeling in a Chevy". Having a car really gave us much more access to the many things to do and see in the country and a freedom to get out of the city with friends for activities that reminded us of home.

Some folks golfed in the area. They carried small pieces of out-door carpet with them to use as a surface to place the golfball on and moved it about as needed. There were plenty of sand traps, to be sure. The golfers among us envied the (alleged) existence of real golf courses (irrigated) in the large foreign housing compounds in the Eastern Province.

Some of us even tried "sand skiing" on the dunes in the Red Sands area. You needed a very steep slope to get any downhill movement at all and really moved mostly by pushing with the poles. More like Nordic than Alpine skiing, but it looked good in photographs!

climbing up the dune sliding slowly down the dune

While there, I took up building stick and paper rubber powered model air planes, along with a friend who had similar interests and childhood hobbies. This soon grew into building radio-controlled, gas powered aircraft, and we hooked up with a local RC airplane flying group, made up of expatriots from many countries as well as local Saudis. The group members were quite experienced and guided my through my first flights of the plane I had built. But I did not go further with the hobby once I found out how difficult it was to control the airplane, which had a tendancy to submit to gravity's pull and crash. My friend, Howard, however, became quite accomplished at RC flying and continued with the hobby for years after his return to the U.S. I went on to RC controlled boats, finding them less likely to sink than the aircraft were to crash. The RC group met just outside Riyadh at an abandoned building site where there were extensive paved roadways we could use for runways. I don't recall for certain, but believe the site had been intended as a small airport, but it may have been designed for housing. Either way it was a great place to fly the air planes. And every session involved at least one or more crashes, but since there were no buildings or any other structure nearby, it did not matter.

our JECOR Chevrolet Caprice Classic rubber powered airplane

RC powered flying club RC powered flying club

Further west from Riyadh, along the highway to Jeddah, the rock outcroppings gradually diminish and the landscape becomes sand with small mesas and isolated rocks. This area is known as the "Red Sands". After the shifting sand dunes begin dominate the landscape, and the larger outcroppings disappear, there is "Graffiti Rocks", Qaryat Al-Asba, several large boulders partially covered with petroglyphs. The age of the markings is not known, but some of the animals pictured have been extinct for thousands of years. There are other similar sites in the Kingdom, often along ancient travel routes, and they seem to document a markedly different, more verdant environment, populated by grazing animals and human hunters. There are multiple such "graffiti rocks" in the Ha'il region.

Perhaps the most famous rock art site in the Kingdom is Mada'in Saleh where there are ornate tombs carved into the rock by the Nabateans, the people who built and lived in Petra (Jordan) in the early years of the Christian Era. Mada'in Saleh is the site of the Nabatean's second city, Hegra, and was near the southern end of the spice route dominated by the Nabateans in those years. It is far more grand and sophisticated than the multiple petroglyph sites and is notable for the rock carved temples and nearby settlement built of sun dried mud brick.

Here are some picures of the Graffiti Rocks near Riyadh taken on one of our visits to them.

graffiti rock

graffiti rock graffiti rock

grafitti rock

grafitti rock

graffiti rock

graffiti rock

Rich at graffiti rock

Rob and Ellen at graffiti rock

graffiti rock

graffiti rock

Further west from grafitti rock and the "red sands", the highway continues all the way to the west coast of the Kingdom to Jeddah. For many years, the major trading and entry point into the country, Jeddah is older and more cosmopolitan than Riyadh, almost "wordly", if that can be said of any Saudi city. The name comes from the Arabic "Jaddah" or "grandmother" and got that name because it was believed to be the location of the tomb of Eve, the "grandmother" of humankind. It was early on an important trading center and, with the emergence of Islam in the sixth century, Jeddah also became important as the entry point for travel to the nearby holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Riyadh was the capital of the country, but that was because it was the city where the orginal king of the country, Abdul Assiz ibn Saud, ("ibn Saud")chose to live. More information about the story of the House of Saud and the early history of Saudi Arabia here.

When we were there, Jeddah was more "westernized" than Riyadh, and the many embassies originally located there were only slowly relocating to Riyadh, preferring the less conservative Jiddah to the more traditional and restrictive environment of Riyadh. But the Saudi government had built a "Diplomatic Quarter" on the edge of Riyadh which offered significantly upgraded security and protection, so with the increasing security concerns of the time, most embassies were speeding up relocation plans. The U.S. Embassy relocated to Riyadh in 1984.

Jeddah has interesting architecture and wonderful markets (Souks). People in Jeddah, particularly westerners, are not constrained by traditional Saudi dress codes and are free to wear more casual fashions. Some women do chose to wear veil and cloak (Abaya), but those who do not are not hasseled by the Mutawa.

The Saudi Religious Police (aka "The Society for Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice"), or "Mutawa", seemed omnipresent in Riyadh. Our Saudi associates called them "Watchers" and avoided them if possible. The Mutawa often stopped people who they felt were violating codes of dress or conduct and sometimes arrested and interrogated them, although for the most part they left Americans alone, except to caution about dress of women. They did, however, exert great influence in policing/censoring publications and goods, including toys, in the Kingdom. When we entered Riyadh at the airport, a very polite Saudi speaking flawless American-accented English, went through all the books and magazines in our luggage, using a large black marker to black out any objectionable material (think female skin) or confiscating items. He even fast forwarded through our training videos, just to be sure we were not hiding pornography within. Fortunately, most of our training material was shipped separately, arriving under diplomatic courtesy protection, and subject only to perfunctory customs inspection. In 2016, the Saudi Council of Ministers severely restricted the authority and powers of the Mutawa, during the period of reforms attributed to Mohammed bin Salman.

Our project was headquartered in Riyadh, but did a great deal of work and training in Jiddah, so we maintained a small townhouse residence for team members to use when working in Jedda, or when visiting for pleasure. We also had access to the private beach owned by the "Al Bilad" hotel, one of the Moevenpick (Swiss) Hotel chain. Because the beach was private, we could wear "western" swimwear. At adjacent private beaches, owned by Saudis, next to the Al Bilad beach, women went "swimming" in their full "Abaya" and veil covering. While cabin attendents from European aircrews, who also stayed at the Al Bilad, cavorted in Bikinis. Just one of the many interesting and sometimes amusing contrasts in that country. And nobody, at least in Jeddah, minded a bit what the other was doing or how they were dressed. There was only one "incident" involving the neighbors at the Al Bilad beach. The Saudi owner contacted hotel and informed the management there was a "problem" at the beach. After initial worry and subsequent conversation, it turned out the problem was that the small shipping container that had been converted to the men's changing and shower room, had a door which faced the neighbor's house, and the folks at the house could see the men changing and ahowering. The neighbor was simply requesting that the container be repositioned or the door altered so the naked men would not be visible to the ladies next door. Done.

Jeddah also has lovely beaches and major coast hugging highways with sculpture in the roundabouts. The highway along the Red Sea coast is known as the "Corniche", an allusion to the seaside highway and promenade in Beirut, Lebanon, also known as the Corniche. Because of the Islamic strictures against representing the human form in art, the scupture along the road was quite abstract or represented other aspects of life. One of the roundabout displays, for example, is a DeHavilland Vampire military jet mounted on a pylon. The Vampire was an early British jet fighter aircraft that premiered in 1946, and was also operated by the Saudi Air Force in the 1950s.

Jeddah along the DeHavilland Vampire display

Just outside the city of Jeddah, the highway continues north and south and it is easy to drive to isolated, readily accessible beaches for swimming and skin diving. To divers, the Red Sea is as highly regarded as the Great Barrier Reef, especially the Saudi side of the Sea. But, it is not readily accessible, as the Kingdom, until very recently, did not permit people to visit the country except on a work visa, as someone accompanying or briefly visiting a resident or person with a work visa, or someone entering the Kingdom temporarily for the annual Haaj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. There were SCUBA divers among the many foreign workers, and even a "Desert Divers" club based in Jedda. We had great times snorkeling the reef along the shore to the north and south of the city, and only found out later, from SCUBA divers, that there were six to seven reefs, one after the other, extending out from the beaches, each one deeper and more magnificent than the previous. The fish were glorious, and after a day of diving, we would stop in at a "Saudi Fisheries" store where we could buy fresh-caught reef fish to grill back at the compound.

Here are a couple of pictures of the beach operated by the Al Bilad Hotel in Jeddah. The beach was on the Red Sea coast, just a bit north of the city. A small but lovely getaway, it also was the Jeddah headquarters of the "Desert Divers", a group of SCUBA enthusiasts who dove the Red Sea reefs and also taught and certified folks who wanted to learn to dive. Most of the preliminary training was done is swimming pools in Riyadh or Jeddah, with the later dives in the Red Sea.

Al Bilad beach scene Desert Divers dive shop

Following are some photos of the Red Sea on the drive south to our favorite swimming site. And of our team at one of our trips to snorkel in the Red Sea. Following those are a few pictures of the fish and other creatures in the reef closest to the shore.

shoreline along the Corniche

wading out to dive lounging on a Chevy

reef fish reef fish

reef fish reef fish


We will end this section with some brief additional comments and pictures. There are not many photos of the city itself, as security was pretty tight in Riyadh, and one needed to be careful taking pictures. In particular, it was forbidden to take pictures of mosques. And one would be foolish to take pictures of military installations. And taking pictures in very conservative neighborhoods, or in the "souks", or of women in public would have been unwise.

There were hundreds of strip malls in the Riyadh, as well as a few large, very elaborate commercial malls, rivaling anything we had seen in the U.S.. Many of the Saudis we met were quite entrepreneurial and thrived in business. There were many small shops of every imaginable kind through out the city, and, as in the "souks", stores selling similar products were clustered together. There was a neighborhood with dozens of shops selling construction materials, tools, and hardware, for example. Another area had many shops selling bootleg computer software for the early IBM and other machines beginning to flow into the country. The "747 Express store, among many others, sold bootleg audio cassete tapes and was a favorite stop for the returning or visiting college students. In the Middle East, there was no tradition of protection for intellectual property or existing or enforced copyright law, so breaking a security code to make copies of a product was not illegal or even considered wrong at that time. This has changed, of course, but then shopping in Riyadh was a great way to get inexpensive software, games, and audio tapes.

strip mall strip mall

A couple of photos from around town. The "Panda" supermarket was a favorite among the local people and the expatriot community. One often saw Saudi couples shopping there. The man, presumably husband, who had driven the women, wife, to the market would push the grocery cart and the woman would point to the items she wanted to buy, and the man then put the items in the cart. Since Saudi families were large, the carts were full to overflowing. The male then took the cart through check out, loaded the bags into the car and drove home. Wealthy Saudis had drivers and other servants who did the driving and shopping, but the ordinary, middle class Saudi couple, did their own.

There is no letter "p" or sound of that letter in Arabic. Farsi has both, but not Arabic. So most Saudis we knew did not pronounce the letter P. They shopped at "Banda".

the Panda supermarket streetscape Riyadh

Downtown Riyadh, along one main street which we called Airport Road, there were tall buidings housing various governmental Ministries. At that time, a tall building was perhaps 12 to 15 stories tall. I took no pictures of governmental buildings, of course.

That street was known then as Airport Road because it led to the site of the former Riyadh commercial airport, by then replaced by the huge new King Khalid International Airport about 20 kilometers outside the city. The old airport was being used for military purposes and was where the AWACS and the supporting tanker aircraft took off and landed. The AWACS planes switched out about every 12 hours, with the replacement craft taking off and taking up position before the other plane landed. They were very noisy and audible over the entire city.

Our "Airport Road" certainly had a formal, official name, as did all the streets in Riyadh. The problem was that each street had a common name as well, by which the local people knew it. The official names seemed to exist only on offical maps. Furthermore, there were no streets signs in most of the city. There was an effort underway to place street name signs throughout the city, but it was slow going. And local people sometimes found it confusing, thinking perhaps the names being posted were newly created of just wrong. Either way, the common names prevailed for the most part.

Which made ambulance dispatching difficult. A call to the Red Crescent ambulance service would likely give the location the ambulance was needed in terms of local, colloquial street names coupled with landmarks such as a particular shop or business on a corner where the ambulance needed to make a turn.

So the Red Crescent preferentially hired former taxi drivers for their ambulance service.

There were mosques everywhere. Some of the Saudis who had visited the US commented favorably that there were so many churches in US towns and cities - "just like home". But in the Kingdom, non-muslims were not permitted to enter a mosque.

mosque mosque

Night in Riyadh. The traffic never stopped. Driving there was quite an adventure, but not so bad as Boston. Many American women complained bitterly about not being able to drive in Saudi Arabia and included that fact among the list of things about the country that were "backward". Ellen, on the other hand, after one ride in Riyadh commented "Who would want to drive in this traffic?. And later observed that "I can pick up the phone, call JECOR and request a car and driver anytime I want. What's not to like about that?" We had a favorite driver and usually requested him for any trips. He was a delightful fellow from Yemen and, after a vacation trip back home, gave us some pictures of himself at home, his wife and family. Here's a picture of Ali as our JECOR driver and one of Ali at home in Yemen.

Our favorite JECOR driver Our Driver at home

On the topic of driving in Riyadh, there are a few additional observations. First, there was small regard for street lane markings. At an intersection, a four lane road (four lanes each way) often became seven or eight cars wide, as drivers inserted vehicles into any space that appeared wide enough to accomodate them. Then, when the light changed, there was a chorus of horns announcing the change, before everyone made an accelerated dash to be the first to claim a lane on the other side of the intersection. Except, of course, for those drivers making a turn. With such little regard for lane markings, it was not unusual to see a car in the extreme left lane make a right turn, and vice versa. The driver had to be fast to avoid the drivers heading straight sprinting out in a solid phalanx. And to avoid the drivers making turns in the other direction.

Most drivers also felt that when making a U-turn one did not pass through the intersection, there was no need to stop if the light were red. This was such a commmon problem, that the city began putting up "No U Turn on Red" signs, which seemed to make small difference, if any. That's the sign in the picture below.

Riyadh street at night No U Turn sign

Arab Bank

Saudi Hospitality

We had occasion to visit in Saudi homes and there are a few pictures of meals in private settings. Men and women dined separately, of course, in the more traditional Saudi households. The younger boys would spend time with either the women of the house, in the area known as the "haram" (or "forbidden"), or with the men, who ususally were found in the "maglis", the "sitting room", equivalent to our living room. But when the boys got older, perhaps nine or ten, they were expected to stay with the men. On one of our visits, our eldest son, Tom, who was ten, was going back and forth between the kitchen, where his mother was visiting the women of the house as they prepared the meal, and the living room, where his dad was talking with the men. One of the older men present commented on this and said that perhaps Tom "was young", meaning, I guess, that he did not understand the customs. Later, when the meal was ready, the women laid it out in the adjacent dining room and knocked on the door connecting the two rooms and retired to the kitchen. The men waited a few minutes, then opened the door to the dining room, ate, then went back to the living room, knocking on the kitchen door to let the women know they were leaving, and the women entered the dining room to eat. when just the family was present, of course, they all ate together and women did not wear veils, all the above was just when non-family visitors were present. In the maglis and the dining room, we all sat on the floor and ate together with our hands from the communal serving platters.

When Saudi families visited our home, they adopted our customs. The women did not wear veils and we all ate together.

In the homes of some Saudis, when they were entertaining westerners, they adopted western ways, and the women mingled with the men, and we all ate together. We all sat on chairs and used knives, forks and spoons. The most notable difference was that the host, rather than the hostess, was the one that kept serving us food and encouraging us to eat more. We had to learn that if we cleaned our plate, it would be interpreted as our being still hungry and our plate would be refilled. Failing to "clean your plate" was not an insult to the host or negative comment on the food, but a compliment that you had eaten your fill.

A similar conundrum arose with tea and coffee. A Saudi man is responsible for making the tea and the coffee. And each is very proud of his recipe for coffee and the individual unique result.

The tea is served hot, with plenty of sugar, in small handled glasses, resembling a mineature beer mug. The glasses are refilled endlessly, much as a plate when dining. You can end up drinking a great deal of tea, if you keep emptying your glass. In the mornings, in the desert, the tea was also served with fresh milk. The milk was from the sheep corraled nearby. The sheep were later slaughtered for dinner. Sheep milk is about 30% butterfat, in contrast to cow's milk which is 2 to 4% butterfat, so the morning tea on the desert was very rich, and when served with dates, made a spectacular way to "break the fast".

Arabic coffee is very different from American coffee. Arabs probably discovered and "invented" coffee, likely in Yemen. And Arabs were the first to cultivate the coffee tree. There is some additional information on coffee growing in Yemen in that section.

The most notable difference is that in Arabic coffee, the beans are not roasted beforehand and are not roasted to the extent that they are in western coffee. Rather, the green coffee beans are heated in a pan over a fire or burner, just a bit. The remain green, but do swell a bit and brown slightly. The beans are then crushed in a mortar and pestle and mixed with one or mmore spices, usually cardamom with something else. The particular spice mix is the choice of the host, and is something he is as proud of as an Oklahoman is proud of his barbeque recipe. The mix is boiled in water, producing a greenish brew, a slurry of the coarsely ground green coffee and the ground spices. This brew is poured into an Arabian coffee pot, some dry sisal placed in the spout to filter out the particles remaining, and the coffee decanted into small handle-less cups on small saucers before the guests. The cups are only slightly larger than thimbles.

When drinking coffee, a guest should (must) have three cups. Why three? Because no one can judge a man's coffee by having just one cup, so a second is necessary. And, if one approves and likes the coffee, he will have a third cup, signaling that approval. But to have a fourth cup would be greedy and somewhat gluttonous.

The "don't clean your plate" rule applies to coffee drinking, too. When you have had your third cup, you place the inverted cup back on the saucer to indicate you are finished.

Arabic coffee, being made with green coffee beans and mixed with spices is very rich and heavy with spice, particularly the cardamom. It is a very distinctly different drink from what Americans are accustomed to. It is also very low in caffeine content and has almost none of the stimulant effect seen with western coffee, for although the caffeine content per bean is about the same in green versus roasted coffee, the servings of Arabic coffee are very small. In contrast, the typical 8 ounce cup of western coffee contains probably 4 to 6 times the volume and therefore of caffeine. Something a few of our Saudi friends found out when studying in the U. S. and drinking several cups of American coffee at one sitting.

Saudi living room

Saudi home coffee is served

It all made for interesting socializing. The overarching impression, however, was the sensitivity to the customs, culture, and ways of the others. And the incredible hospitality of the Saudis.

In summary, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, during the time we were there, was undergoing profound changes in all aspects of life. The massive influx of money enabled rapid progress in development of agriculture, transportation, government services, private enterprise, and virtually every aspect of life that touched the citizens.

For whatever reason, probably because of the long standing defense agreement with the United States, Saudi Arabia did not go on a militaristic binge, did not expand their armed forces into a potentially offensive force. Rather, the government there spent the massive income largely on programs for the benefit of its citizens. After, of course, a large proportion went to the royal family. This meant that water and utilities were subsidized and virtually free to Saudi citizens. Education, through graduate level university was also free, and when studying abroad, included support for living costs for the student and family. Interest free loans were also available if a Saudi wanted to build a home. And there were many more "perks" for the citizens.

This government "largess" perhaps originated with the long-standing traditions around leadership among the bedouin Arabs. A leader, even a "king", was judged by how well he took care of his followers. In many cases, the king was chosen by the followers and could be deposed by them. Another motivator to keep one's subjects happy.

In the case of Saudi Arabia in the mid to late 1980s, this matter of taking care of the ordinary citizen seemed to drive many government policies and actions. The "royal family" there was quite large. At the time, there were perhaps over 3,000 "princes" and "princesses" so pretty much everyone knew one or more "royals". And, with another bedouin tradition being the "maglis", the "sitting together", a form of an audience, in which the king, or any other royal, would be available to meet with any citizen who wished to bring something to his/her attention or request some assistance, most Saudis felt their government was responsive to their needs and would help them if they required it. That attitude seemed the prevailing one, although the citizens also recognized and talked about the subsidized lifestyles of royal family members, were aware of the favoritism and corruption in government and business, and complained about the ultra- religious Mutawa. Somehow, the latter negatives were seen with good humor and as tolerable.

Many things changed with the new decade of the 1990's.

Although the earlier Iran-Iraq war had heightened security concerns in the region including Saudi Arabia, and there was increasing U.S. military presence in the area, there were no permanent or even "long term" military personnel in Saudi Arabia. This changed with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. persuaded the King of Saudi Arabia to permit U.S. military based to be established in the Kingdom and thousands of U.S. military personnel began to interface with ordinary Saudi citizens. This inter-cultural encounter did not go well. To most Saudis, the U.S. personnel were rude and disrespectful of Saudi culture and traditions. Which they were.

Increasingly negative attitudes about "Americans" among the formerly pro-American Saudi populace, deteriorating relations with neighboring Yemen, whose government supported Iraq, with the sudden expulsion of all Yemeni citizens from Saudi Arabia, and the return of battle experienced "Mujhadeen" combatants with knowledge of modern weapony combined with fundamentalist Islamic beliefs combined to create the perfect environment for the emergence of a home-grown, home- based Saudi terrorist network. The results were announced to the public on September 11, 2001.

Another factor, perhaps less recognized, was the increasing financial burden to the nation of supporting the royal family. The Saudi birth rate is high, and the royal family was not an exception. A recent estimate found in Wikipedia is that the family now numbers over 15,000 persons. This is a conservative estimate. The enlarging royal family combined with reduction in government revenues and the necessary increased spending on defense, resulted in less money available to continue social programs for the ordinary citizen. Decades of free advanced education had also produced a vast number of highly-educated, sometimes world-traveled, citizens for whom there were few or no prospects for suitable employment in the Kingdom. The additional factors added to the "powder keg" environment in the country.

The on-going story of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and in particular, its relationship the the U. S. will be one of the most important global histories when it is finally fully understood and documented.

Highlands of Saudi Arabia, the Asir

The Asir

The western coast of Saudi Arabia has a fertile plain backed by mountains with inland desert, much as the US coast of California. To the south, the mountains become more prominent, and this region is know as the Asir. The lowlands (the Tihama) were plagued by malaria and other tropical diseases. In the mountains, the region knows as "The Asir", the pulmonary diseases of high altitude are common. Not at all desert, this region was called "Arabia Felix" (Happy Arabia) by the Romans, and blends into Yemen to the south.

Gene spent some time in Al Baha, and these pictures are from that region. Here is a photo of the hospital complex where he was working. The hospital included residential housing for all the employees working there and was completely self sufficient, with its own water supply and sewage treatment system. It had been built on contract for the Saudi Ministry of Health to provide comprehensive medical services to a large area, comparable to a county in the U.S. The facility was originally staffed by American healthcare workers, then by British Commonwealth staff, and at the time of the visit, but physicians from Arab nations, largely Egypt, with nurses from the Philippines and India the later under American supervisor.

While there, I joined others of the staff for weekly hikes in the nearby land. The hikes were organized and led by the Director of Nursing and they were strenuous as they were long, often up and down hills, and at an elevation of about 7,500 feet. But the surroundings were lovely and green and interesting for the terraces, houses, wells, and watchtowers.

hospital complex hiking in Al Baha region

The earlier inhabitants of these mountain valleys built terraces and irrigated the land from wells and springs to farm it. The wells were dug by hand through solid limestone, sometimes 30 or 40 feet down to water. A wooden frame over the opening served as the hoisting point for buckets to bring the water up to the surface. From there, it was distributed by shallow canals or channels carved in the rock surface or the ground. The terraces are everywhere, and are only just now giving way to the expanding towns and cities. Many of the wells are still in use, some with pumps and modern plastic piping installed.

Terraces are made of dry laid stone. You can get a sense of the height of these walls from the flat stone steps set into the walls. Sometimes stairs in a house were similarly inset into the wall.

terraces with steps terrace steps

One of the many irrigation wells, hand dug, sometimes to incredible depths, in the solid rock.

well well

These are some typical older houses of the region. Both these were lived in, but younger Saudis favor modern homes with air conditioning and running water.

home in the Al Baha area al Baha home

Everywhere, there are watchtowers where the men would keep lookout for raiding parties from rival tribes. Today, the towers are crumbling from neglect, but the wells are still used to irrigate crops.

watch towers watch tower

The Marble Village

Several hours drive from Al Baha, in the mountains, is an old village built on an outcropping of white rock and called by its nickname, the Marble Village. I had not heard of it, but when visiting in the city of Al Baha, I struck up a friendship with a local Saudi. He asked if I had seen it, and when I said I had not, he offered to take me there, and the next weekent, we went. It appeared deserted when I toured it, but there is a working banana plantation just below it, well tended and irrigated from a spring that gushes forth out of the rock above and behind the village. The outflow from this small spring was cleverly channeled down the hillside to and through the banana palms. Whether or not it may have served as a water supply for the village itself, I do not know. But it supported a lush growth of trees and other vegetation around the village. This is one of the most mysterious, lovely, and remarkable places on the planet.

The Marble Village

Also known as Dhee Ayn, it is a 400 year old abandoned stone settlement built atop a marble hill. It is 24 km south of Al Bahah along Al Aqabah Road. The village is surrounded by Palm groves, banana, vegetable and herbal plantations, a permanent stream and natural wilderness.

The Marble Village

The Marble Village

The "source" of the irrigation water

And a final picture.
tree along the canal

Some personal notes and thoughts about Yemen

The Asir of Saudi Arabia blended with the adjacent highlands of northern Yemen. Many of the peoples, families, and clans in that area lived on both sides of what is today the "official" border between the two nations. But for centuries, that boundary was fluid at best if not downright theoretical, as tribal loyalties determined geographic control of the lands. As mentioned above, in the history of the Saudi Red Crescent Authority, that organization began in the 1930s in part to care for soldiers wounded in the war then on-going between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. There have been many wars between the two parties in the decades since despite a "peace treaty" defining a formal border in 2000.

Yemen has a long and complicated history of internal conflicts often exacerbated by "assistance" to one or more of the warring parties by outsiders, not unlike the present day War in Yemen.

This complex history can be partially understood by series of "half-truth" about the country.

The northern part of Yemen is mountainous and populated by tribes with fierce loyalties and long history of inter-tribal warfare. Through most of recent (20th century and beyond) history, the capital of this northern part of Yemen has been Sana'a, an ancient city at the foothills of the mountains. It was where the first "king" of modern Yemen, Imam Yahya, lived and ruled from, who was recognized as king by Italy in 1904. His reign was marked by isolationism, supression of dissent, and neglect of development of infrastructure and education. This king was succeeded upon his death in 1948 by his son, Imam Ahmad. Ahmad relocated the capital to Ta'izz and began a program of economic and social development. But, upon his death in 1962, there was a coup led by the military with the death or exile of many of the royal family and the capital was returned to Sana'a. Rural hill tribes opposed the new government, and with the support of Saudi Arabia (and Britan and Jordan) launched the North Yemen Civil War, opposed by the "republicans", backed by Egypt and the United Arab Republic. The civil war ended in 1968 with the victory of the republicans and the declaration of the Yemen Arab Republic, a socialist entity, but conflict among various parties continued for years afterward.

In the meantime, there was a British "Protectorate" in the southern part of the country. The British had seized the port of Aden in the mid 1800s to serve as a coaling station for the British East Indian Company ships sailing to and from the "far east". The British had also made alliances with multiple adjacent tribal entities, to provide a buffer zone of thousands of acres protecting the port and creating the Aden Protectorate. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the rising tide of Arab Nationalism threatened the stability of the Protectorate. That, plus the loss of former British colonies (India) made the usefulness of the port of Aden marginal at best, and the British withdrew from Aden in 1967 without arranging follow up governance. After the British withdrawal, the Yemeni National Liberation Force took over and proclaimed the Republic of South Yemen, later the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen, a socialist nation.

Relations between the two Yemens varied from quietly hostile to open warfare, with each side receiving support from outside sources. In the late 1970s, the Arab League brokered a peace treaty that included committment to unification of the two states. But civil wars among various partied continued in both the north and south and between the two.

In 1990, the two governments agreed on a plan for joint governing of Yemen, and the countries merged in May 1990. The leader of north Yemen became President and that of South Yemen, Vice President. There was a unified parliament formed and elections held in 1993.

But after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Yemen's president opposed military intervention by any non-Arab nation, and Yemen, a member of the United Nations Security Council at the time, voted against the use of force resolution before that body.

But as mentioned elsewhere, the U. S. and Saudi Arabia had an agreement by which the U.S. would defend the Kingdom if it were attacked. At the point where Iraqi forces seemed poised to move into Saudi Arabia, the U.S. intervened in the coflict.

Yemen's opposition in the U.N. Security Council to several resolutions amounted to support for Iraq in Saudi eyes, and the Kingdom abruptly expelled the nearly one million Yemeni living and working in Saudi Arabia as punishment for the Yemeni government position.

Before that time, Yemeni had been free to move easily to and from Saudi Arabia and they constituted a large and valuable part of the expatriot workforce in the Kingdom. They were suddenly (and remain) persona non grata and were forced out.

Political instability increased in both Yemens, and in 1994 a civil war between the North and South broke out with Saudi Arabia supporting the South Yemen forces. The South lost the civil war and most of its leadership fled the country.

By 1999 there was a unified government again under the elected president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of North Yemen, who governed from Sana'a. But political unrest continued and by 2000 there were multiple terrorist attacks, generally by al-Quada affiliated groups, Sunni Muslim fundamentalists.

In 2004, a Shia group termed the "Houthi" for their leader Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi began an uprising against the Yemeni government alledging discrimination and government aggression against the Shia.

The Shia insurgency in Yemen began in June 2004 when dissident cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, head of the Zaidi Shia sect, launched an uprising against the Yemeni government. The Yemeni government alleged that the Houthis were seeking to overthrow it and to implement Shi'a religious law. The rebels counter that they are "defending their community against discrimination" and government aggression. Ultimately, the Houthi drove the government out of Sana'a to Aden

The Yemini military has been conducting a war against the Houthi forces since that time. Al Queda remains active in Yemen also and generally opposes the Houthi rebellion but concentrates largely on U.S. targets. Saudi Arabia joined the conflict in 2014, supporting the Yemeni government agains the Houthi.

The Yemen war thus evolved into a proxy war between the Sunni Muslim nation of Saudi Arabia and the Shia Muslim nation of Iran, which supports the Houthi.

And the Yemeni pay the price.


Brief History of the House of Saud

The al-Saud family was originally from Ad-Diriyyah, a small town to the north of Riyadh, but they fled that town around 1890 when a rival tribe, the Al Rashidi allied with the Ottoman Turks, raided and destroyed Dariyah and captured Riyadh. The Saud family fled to Kuwait where they lived in exile for nearly 20 years. Abdul Assiz al Rahman Al Saud, (later known as "Ibn Saud") the son of the deposed emir, returned in 1901 and worked to unite tribes of the desert region to the east and south of Riyadh, the "Nejd", building alliances and eventually recapturing the city of Riyadh in a daring nightime raid on January 15, 1902.

After the return of the Saud family, they remained in Riyadh and did not rebuild their former home. Diriyyah was preserved a ruins and was available to tour as a reminder of that part of the history of the House of Saud and the treachery of the Al-Rashidi in allying with the Turks.

The ruins of Diriyah

After the capture of Riyadh, many additional tribes joined Ibn Saud and over the next several years, his forces recaptured most of the Nejd from the Rashidis, who then appealed to the Ottoman Empire for military aid. The Ottomans sent troops into Arabia to assist the Rashidi, but Ibn Saud waged a successful guerilla war against the Turks and they withdrew. By 1912, Ibn Saud controlled the land all the way from Riyadh to the eastern coast of the peninsula, on the "Arabian Gulf".

Throughout this time, Ibn Saud worked closely with the strict, ultraconservative, Islamic religious order, the Wahhabi, founded in the 1700s by followers of Mohammed Wahhab of the Nejd. Mohammed Wahhab had earlier formed an alliance with Mohammed ibn Muqrin Al Saud, the emir of Ad-Diriyyah deposed by the Al Rashidi and father of Ibin Saud. Diriyyah was an agricultural community and the ancestral home of the Al Saud tribe.

After the conquest of the Nejd, Ibn Saud founded the Ikhwan, a military-religious brotherhood which assisted in his conquests combining the zeal of conservative Wahhabi Islam with his military needs of the day. This union and continuing close relationship of the Saud family and the conservative fundamentalist Wahhabi was critical to the expansionn and creation of what became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and has implications and repercussions stil.

During World War I, the British government established diplomatic relations with the newly formed "House of Saud" and its new King, Ibn Saud. The British provided financial and military support to the new "nation" as Ibn Saud contined his war against the Al Rashidi, allies of the Ottoman Empire.

As an aside, the activities of "Lawrence of Arabia" and his guerilla warfare to distupt Ottoman Turkish supply lines took place in the western part of the peninsula, also known as the Hijaz, where Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah are located. These raids were often directed at the "Hijaz railroad" connecting the port of Aquaba at the top of the Red Sea with Jeddah a port along the eastern coast of the Red Sea and a major shipping point and access to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. During this time, the lands west of Riyadh and the Hijaz were not under control of the House of Saud.

After World War I, Ibn Saud continued his war against the Rashidi, the latter now without the aid of the Ottomans, defeating them at the Battle of Hai'il in 1922. In 1925, Ibn Saud completed his conquest of the western provinces by capturing Mecca. and on 23 September 1932, united his dominions into the "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia", with himself as its king.

As another aside, the Holy City of Mecca had been under the control of the Hashemite clan ("Hashimi"), direct descendents of the Prophet Mohammed, for seven centuries. In 1908, the Hashemite Hussein bin Ali was appointed Sharif of Mecca, an honorific term denoting a ruler who is a direct descendent of the Prophet. The Hijaz was then under control of the Ottoman Turks, and Hussein gradually developed ambitions for an independent Arab Kingdom in the peninsula. During World War I, this interest in Arab nationalism among Hussein and his sons, Abdullah, Faisal, and Zeid, led to their involvement in the "Arab Revolt" against the Ottomans in 1916, an uprising that had been discussed and negociated with the British since at least 1914.

Hussein had big ambitions and wanted to have the entire Arab peninsula, Greater Syria, and Iraq under his family's rule. He looked for British support for this idea, but found no support for his grand plan although the British probably did promise to support a smaller kingdon in the western provinces. The Arab revolt, an Anglo-Hashemite venture, finally broke out in June 1916. Britain financed the revolt and supplied arms, provisions, direct artillery support, and experts in desert warfare including the famous T. E. Lawrence. The Hashemites promised more than they were able to deliver, and their ambitious plan ultimately collapsed for lack of support among other Arab nationalists, especially in the areas later Syria and Iraq. But the guerilla war against the Turks was effective in tying down Ottoman resources, and Hussein's son Faisal was a commander of Arab forces working in collaboration with Lawrence and the British.

After the war, the British devised a "Sharifian Solution" to partially fufill some of the conflicting committments they had made to various Arab groups. This "solution" proposed that Hussein's son Ali would succees him as Sharif of Mecca and two other sons of Hussein would be installed as kings of two newly created countries across the Middle East: Iraq and Transjordan.

Abdullah, became the Emir of Transjordan in 1921 and King of Jordan in 1946. His descendants continue to rule the kingdom known ever since as the "Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan". Abdullah was assassinated in 1951, but his descendants continue to rule Jordan today.

Faisal, briefly proclaimed King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria in 1920, until he was removed by France, who wished to remain in charge of Syria. Faisal then became King of Iraq in 1921. In Iraq, the Hashemites ruled for almost four decades, until Faisal's grandson Faisal II was executed along with the crown prince and other members of the family in the 1958 British-backed military coup d'état. This was the definitive end of the Hashemite dynasty in Iraq.

In case you were wondering where the messiness of the "Middle East" came from: blame the Brits. And the French. They drew up the national boundaries without regard for tribal, ethinic, or religious loyalties and continued to keep things stirred up to benefit their national and imperial interests. The U.S. has simply continued this long sad story.

Photos from our vacations

We went to or through England a few times, both to and from Riyadh or on the way to other places. Here are a few pictures from London area and Brighton just to show we were there and did all the tourist things. We even saw some theatre there, on memorable time was taking the kids to see "Starlight Express", the entire cast on roller skates zooming around the entire theatre as they enacted the story of Rusty, the obsolete steam engine, who dreams of glory by winning a great train race against the diesel champion. The show was by Richard Stilgoe with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. On a later trip, I got to see the original London production of "Phantom of the Opera", another Stilgoe-Webber pairing.


Beefeater at Tower of London

castle  London Bridge

castle   Shopping in Brighton

Brighton Beach

The Canary Islands

One very nice, relaxing trip was to the Canary Islands. We traveled first to Spain, spending a little time there, before traveling on Iberia, the national Spanish airline, to the Islands. Flying on Iberia was very nice and the food was great. Once on Gran Canaria, we spent most of our time on the beach.

Many years later, after we moved back to New Orleans, we found out about the "Islanos", an ethnic group of people descended from Canary Islanders, who were brought to the Spanish Lousisiana territory in the late 1700s. There were perhaps over 1,000 individuals settled in the lands downriver from New Orleans, in part as protection from a possible British invasion of the lower Mississippi River area. Over time the original settlers intermarried with local populations and eventually lost their Spanish language and culture. Perhaps the most prominent Islano was Leander Perez, the infamous "judge" who ran Plaquemines Parish from the 1930s thorough the 1960s, known mostly for his extreme racist views and the ruthless fashion in which he enforced segregation in Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes. When we lived in New Orleans in the 1960s, Gene worked at the Public Health Service Hospital, the "Marine Hospital", in New Orleans. The active duty military personnel who worked there or were patients there could not even buy gas at service stations in Plaquemines Parish because the U.S. Army had been integrated in the 1950s. A strange thread of connection among parts of a life.

The time on the Canary Island beaches was a great change from living in Riyadh. Most of the tourists on the beaches at that time were from Europe, mostly Spain and Germany, as the Canaries were a favorite, low cost, vacation place, easy to get to on Iberia Airlines. The topless sun bathing women were a notable change from living in Riyadh, also.

beach on Gran Canaria beach

beach on Gran Canaria beach

beach on Gran Canaria beach

at the beach on Gran Canaria sand castle

fun in sand fun in sand

fun in the sand beach


On one of our vacations, we traveled to Kenya and went on a ten day safari. The trip had been arranged through a local travel agent in Riyadh, who had booked our excursion with one of the many Kenyan "safari companies" based in Nairobi.

We traveled by air to Nairobi, arriving late at night, and were met by a representative of the safari company and taken to a lovely hotel for that night. The next day we met our driver, Barak, and our travel companions. The trips were in a Nissan mini-bus with a maximum capacity of eight people. We were five, and were joined by a very nice young British couple who were living and working in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. They were, fortunately, also very kind and patient about traveling with three young children.

The next day, we traveled north to Samburu Lodge, where we stayed a day or two. The Lodge had a night-time observation station by a waterhole there, and adjacent land in a game reserve was teeming with animals. Barak threaded us through herds of elephants and giraffes and sought out other animals for the photographers in our party. The lodge was also a fine place to stay and relax after the rather long drive up from Nairobi.

Then we headed south, stopping at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. The "Club" was a grand hotel, now a Fairmont Hotel, which started its days as a hunting lodge in the early 1900s. Sometime in the 1950s, William Holden, the American actor and some friends bought a large parcel of land including the lodge and founded the Safari Club. Sometimes called "Hollywood in the Wilds", it became a luxury resort providing game hunting safaris to the wealthy. It was a lovely, if over the top, place, and the dinner buffets were beyond compare. Entertainment there included bird-watching, game-watching, and people-watching. There was even a troupe of local native dancers-drummers on the huge lawn in the afternoon.

From there, we headed south west to the Masai Mara, staying at Cottar's Camp. It's the oldest lodge in Kenya's Masai Mara wildlife reserve, with tented bedrooms, a luxurious main lodge, and a bar and lounge in a covered pavillion without walls, overlooking the open bush. In the afternoons and evenings, there was a large fire in a fire pit near the bar above the rows of tents where we sat and watched huge herds of animals on the plain.

There are animals everywhere, and they freely wander through the camp and among the tents, especially at night. The staff at the Camp is largely local Masai and they serve as guides for walking safaris as well as security, especially during the night. The white guides carry huge caliber rifles or shotguns. The Masai men carry only their six foot long wooden spear.

The Cottar family was perhaps the only white family given permission to establish a safari camp within the huge Masai Mara game preserve, due largely to the patriarch of the family, a prominent American "white hunter", who was known for his good relationships with the Masai anf for befriending local tribal communities. His son founded the camp in the 1920s and was later fatally gored by a rhinocerous. As he lay on the ground bleeding to death from his mortal wound, his companions rigged a sun shade for him to make him more comfortable, but he asked them to remove it, as he wished to die looking at the African sky. If you stay at Cottar's Camp, you will understand this.

Overall, the experience was a strange mix of left over elements of the days of Colonial rule in Kenya in the main lodge and the bar, coupled with the feeling that here, the animals are in charge, and it is only the Masai who are truly adapted to and comfortable with, that world.

After a few days at Cottar's Camp, Barak asked us if we would be interested in visiting a Masai village. We, of course, were happy to do so. At the time, we hardly recognized what a splendid and unusual opportunity this was. Evidently Barak had found us suitable to arrange such a visit. He had sought out a nearby Masai women's village and made (or renewed) the acquaintance of one of the women there. Barak spoke several languages: the language of his own tribe and village, Swahili, the cobbled together trading language combining Arabic, several local languages, and a bit of English, and, of course, English. Our hostess at the village spoke Masai and enough Swahili to communicate with Barak.

We drove to the village and spent a few hours there. This was a "Woman's Village", and only women and young children lived there. More on this later.

The houses were made of saplings plastered with dried cow dung. Since the area is dry most of the year, except for a brief rainy season, the homes were weather tight. The women built and maintained the homes. Each had a small cooking stove which also provided heat. There were perhaps twenty women living there along with many children. The houses were surrounded by a fence of rolled up and twisted thorn bushes, with a gate opening at two locations. The fence also kept the goats, the only livestock there, corraled and safe from predators. At night, Masai men, who lived in their own village nearby, came to the women's village and secured it for the night by rolling additional thorn bush barriers into the gate openings.

The women and children were as curious about us as we about them. Our middle son, Rob, was heavier than our other two sons, and the Masi were quite interested in him and kept touching him, as they had never seen a child before who was not as skinny as they. Barak explained their interest in Rob to us later. Rob, however, later told us he had thought they wanted to eat him.

The Masai separation of the sexes was interesting to us, paralleling in a way, the Saudi traditional customs, but more extremely so. What we learned follows.

The Masai believe they are God's chosen people. The evidence for this is that God has given them cattle. Cattle are therefore sacred, and the duty of the Masai is to raise the cattle, see they are fed, and protect them. Although Masai do drink the blood of their cattle for nourishment, they rarely slaughter one except for special occasions. The adult men are responsible for tending the cattle, acting as herdsmen, and moving with the cattle to various locations as the animals graze the plain. The men do not farm the land, for to do so would break up the soil and kill the grass, which is what the cattle eat. Adult males are also members of a society into which they are initiated at puberty. Formerly, one final rite of passage was for the young male (a "junior warrior") to go into the bush armed only with the short spear and to kill a lion. Although when we were in Kenya, this practice was said to be abandoned, the Masai men all still carried such a spear. They were clothed in a red cloak and we often saw them against the sky in the cloak, with the spear across their shoulders.

Once, when we were driving in the area, we saw several lions who were hunting. A short distance away, we saw two Masai men along the roadway and Barak stopped to tell them there were hunting lions nearby. After several minutes of conversation, we were again on our way down the road. When asked about what the Masai had said when informed there were lions about, Barak quoted them as saying "We do not fear lions."

Masai women lived in separate villages as described above. These villages were relatively permanent in location and the women did some food gathering in the area and some gardening, within the village confines. The women bore their children in the village, and, after that, the woman remained in the village with the child, nursing, for at least two or more years, not seeing her husband during that time. Aferward, the woman would begin to see her husband again, spending time with him at the men's village until pregnant again, when she returned to the women's village.

Children were raised in the women's village until near the age of puberty. At that time, the boys became "junior warriors" and would leave the village to spend time with the adult men, the "warriors". The girls remained in the women's village until they developed menstruation, at which time they were initiated as adult women and married a junior warrior.

Both boys and girls passed through several stages of maturing into adults, the boys with the adult men, and the girls with the women. These stages included learning about the duties of an adult and also multiple rituals and trials, including circumcision for both males and females. Individuals passed through each stage of maturation with a peer group of other of the same gender and approximately the same age.

At the time the boys left the women's village to live as junior warriors and begin the path to adulthood, the girls of similar age became sexually active. The young girls and young warriors would meet together outside the women's village and during this period, usually would select a life partner for later marriage. But once the girls experienced menarche and pregnancy was possible, their initiation into adulthood was completed and they were married to the partner of their choice. The new couple would then live together in the man's world until the wife became pregnant. At that time, she would return to live in the women's village and the cycle would repeat.

In a land with scarce resources incapable of supporting large human populations, the Masai way of life seemed to combine prudent population management with careful management of resources needed to sustain life.

Some picures at the Mount Kenya Safari Club - the fireplace in the main lodge during the cocktail hour, and the dancers drumming on the lawn below the lodge.

Mount Kenya Safari Club Mount Kenya Safari Club dancers

Samburu lodge and the game preserve adjacent. Many of the pictures of the animals were taken with a 200 mm lens, so we were not a close at it would appear. At least not dangerously close. The only animal Barak feared was the rhinocerous, an animal Barak regarded as ill-tempered, stupid, and unpredictable.

The first pictures are from Samburu. Then there are pictures taken on our travels down to the Masai Mara, then pictures from the Mara and finally, pictures from our visit to the Masai village.

Barak was a wonderful guide with great knowledge of the animals and the country. At one point, we came across two young male lions who were being persued by two or more young male buffaloes. Barak explained that the buffalo and the lions were enemies and that the buffalo protected their young from lions by herding together with the young in the center. The herds consisted of females and the young and a dominant male. Young males, who might be a threat to the dominant male were excluded from the herd and lived on the outskirts of it. These young male buffalos also protected the herd from lions. In the case of the pursuit we observed over an hour or more, the buffalo were chasing down two young male lions. The lions were males similarly excluded by a dominant male from the pride they had originated in. They were out hunting on their own and also looking for a mate. The buffalo had chased them away from the buffalo herd and as we watched, the buffalo chased the lions over perhaps a mile or more. The lions, which do not travel large distances rapidly but are specialized to make short runs at bursts of high speed, were visibly tiring from the continuous chasing of the buffalo, which could trot briskly over long distances without fatigue. Barak explained that the outcome of this chase would be the death of the lions. So much for the "king of the beasts". We did not stay around for the end, however.

Samburu Lodge Samburu Lodge

common Oryx Oryx

lesser Kudu giraffe gazelle Gerenuk

Dik-Dik female Imppalas

Thompson's Gazelle Wildebeest

buffalo buffalo

elephants elephants

There are nine species of giraffe, each with differing markings. In Kenya the three species found are:

The Masai Giraffe (most common, perhaps 15,000 individuals) located in Amboseli, Masai Mara, with dark, irregular, jagged, star shaped blotches that extend to the hooves.

The Reticulated Giraffe (aka Somali Giraffe) perhaps 8,000 individuals) located in northern Kenya (Samburu) with clearly defined polygonal liver-colored spots, often dark, separated by bright white lines and a pattern that may extend to the legs.

The Rothschild Giraffe (aka Ugandan Giraffe) perhaps 1,000 individuals) in protected areas of Kenya. Markings similar to Masai Giraffe but less irregular and of lighter color, separated by a more cream colored border. Legs are white.

On our trip, we saw the Somali Giraffe in Samburu and the Masai Giraffe in the Masai Mara.

giraffe giraffe

giraffe Masi giraffe juvenile

hyena African Wild Dog

wart hogs Wart Hog with baby

Leopard Leopard

lion lion

The photo on the right, below, shows the two male lions being chased by young buffaloes as described above.

lioness young male lions

Mother Rhino with calf Genet Cat

There are three species of Zebra, two of which are found in Kenya:

The Plain’s Zebra (aka Burchell’s or Common Zebra) weighs about 450 – 550 pounds, has a heavier body and shorter legs than the Grevy’s zebra and is found in the south and east of Kenya (Masai Mara). It has wider stripes which cover the belly and tend to be more curvy than those of the Grevy’s Zebra.

The Grevy’s Zebra is an endangered species found in northern Kenya (Samburu). About 2,000 individuals remain of the 15,000 present in the 1970s. It is larger (750-950 pounds) and taller than the Plain’s Zebra and has thinner stripes which are straight, larger ears, and a white belly. The stripes do not extend across the belly.

The third Zebra Species, the Mountain Zebra, is found in south and south-western Africa. It is intermediate in size between the other two species and has a white belly like the Grevy’s Zebra.

zebras zebras


Coexistance on the plain another generation

Masai Village

One of the more remarkable parts of our trip to Kenya was the opportunity to visit a Masai women's village. Here are some pictures of the visit. There is more information on the Masai and our visit above.

Masai Womens Village Our van at the Masai village

Our hostess' home Greeting in style

Barak and our hostess Masai village

Masai Village Masai Village

Other tourist photos from Kenya trip.

at the equator pop and two kids

The US-Saudi Arabian Joint Economic Commission (JECOR)

JECOR is mentioned in the excellent book "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" by John Perkins (2004), which provides a truthful, if unfavorable, look at the organization, and some of the shady aspects of its early days.

The origin stories that circulated among the "old hands" at JECOR during our tenure are helpful in understanding how things really operated and the purpose of it all. In this version of reality, the Joint Economic Commission was created during the "oil crisis" of the late 1970s, when the price of oil skyrocketed and a massive flow of money gushed into the little Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and other oil-producing nations. The transfer of wealth during that era rivals that of the flow of wealth (gold and silver) to Spain during the conquest of the Americas. In the case of Spain, that nation embarked on an ill-fated militarization and wars of conquest, with disastrous results, long and short term. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the nation did not embark on military mis-adventures but rather began an ambitious program of infrastructure building, reform of agriculture and diversification of the economy, and huge social support programs.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the reasons for it's not spending on a military build-up extend back to the time between WW1 and WW2, when the new country of Saudi Arabia, a "Kingdom", was largely ignored by the European powers, but was treated with respect by the United States, particularly under Franklin Roosevelt's administration. During that time, the Americans obtained a virtual exclusive lock on Saudi oil through the joint venture "ARAMCO". Today's Saudi Aramco, also called Saudi Arabian Oil Company, was formerly the Arabian American Oil Company, the oil company founded by the Standard Oil Company of California (Chevron) in 1933, when the government of Saudi Arabia granted it a concession. Other U.S. companies joined after oil was found near Dhahran in 1938.

In addition, later negociations between the two nations resulted in an agreement that the US would protect Saudi Arabia if the later nation ever needed defending in a military way. This agreement was in exchange for Saudi Arabia consenting not to build up its military. This agreement was widely viewed as a protection for the new state of Israel.

Sometime during this massive transfer of wealth from the US to Saudi Arabia, shortly after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, American leadership, in the person of Henry Kissinger, moved to develop improved relations with the Arab nations. Since by that time, the price of oil had increased from about $1.39 per barrel to $8.32 a barrel, there was also a need to find means to return these "petrodollars" to the US, which was bleeding cash to the oil producing nations. The actual scheme was developed and implemented by William Simon, the Treasury Secretary during the Nixon and Ford administrations. That scheme was the Joint Economic Commission.

The Commission’s objectives at the time it was created: “Its purposes will be to promote programs of industrialization, trade, manpower training, agriculture, and science and technology.” The participating Saudi government agencies were the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance and National Economy, the Ministry of Commerce, and Industry, and the Ministry of Planning. On the US side, the managing agency was Simon’s Treasury Department. This was an unusual arrangement, because such international government to government assistance programs would fall under the Agency for International Development, part of the State Department.

This difference was very important as it placed the operations of the Joint Commission outside the arena of diplomacy. As things evolved, there was little communication or cooperation between the two US departments, Treasury and State. This was because the basic issue was about money. Most non-military "foreign aid" is US government funded with funds allocated by congress funneled through the State Department and the Agency for International Development. In the case of the Joint Commission, the entire cost of all the programs was borne by the Saudi Arabian government, and all the funds to support the programs were transferred from the Saudi Ministy of Finance to the US Treasury Department each year in advance of the annual program implementation. This was an extra-budgetary transfer of billions of dollars without any congressional or other oversight. The Treasury Department then administered the money and generally made certain that much of it flowed in ways that routed into that department and its personnel.

The whole process was largely run through the Joint Commission office in Riyadh, JECOR, with of course, plenty of supervison from an office in Washington created for that purpose and headed by a "Deputy Under Secretary of the Treasury".

It was supposed to work something like this. When a Saudi government agency felt it needed some manner of assistance from a counterpart U.S. government agency, JECOR staff would work with the Saudi agency needing assistance to develop a "scope of work". JECOR then identified a US government agency with the staff and expertise to address the stipulated need(s), prepared a work plan and staffing requirement for the project, identified necessary local resources and then worked up a budget for review and approval by the Saudi agency, the Saudi Ministry of Finance, and the U.S. Treasury Department. Once the plan and budget had been approved, the money was transferred to the US Treasury Department from the Saudi Ministry of Finance. At Treasury all the JECOR money was kept in an interest bearing account, with the interest earned being retained in the account.

It should be noted that money for a JECOR project was "extra budget" for the Saudi Agency as well. Thus, there was incentive on both side to develop and implement projects.

There was a lot of money at play. Multiple billions of dollars. To get a sense of how much money was involved, consider this "factoid". The Saudis finally pulled the plug on the Joint Commission sometime around 2000 at the time the Kingdom began to first run significant deficit budgets, (something JECOR planners had taught them how to do). Even the Saudis felt they could no longer afford the Commission. The Joint Commission however continued to operate with money remaining in the Treasury account. The accumulated interest on those prior budgets funded continued operations for nearly ten years, at annual budgets of billions, as the various projects wound down. And all that money was simply the interest earned on all the Saudi money that Treasury had kept on hand through the decades before.

Throughout its existence, JECOR maintained a headquarters of its own, separate from the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia. It managed an extensive network of support for the many projects (dozens) it operated including housing for staff, both U.S. citizens and local workers. It operated a fleet of cars provided to project staff as well as cars and drivers for staff and families, as the U. S. staff there were in country with families and were provided full support from housing and transportation to schooling for their children. It was a pretty cushy life and the increased pay and favorable tax regulations made it a very good assignment for mid-level government employees.

The Saudi Military

There were plenty of U.S. military personnal in Saudi Arabia at the time we were there. Many were there in a training capacity. There was a major training facility in Riyadh, known to us as "USMTM" - for U. S. Military Training Mission. It was established in 1953. The trainers there dealt with the Saudi Army and Air Force personnel.

Saudi Arabia at the time did not have much of an army. There was a small force, staffed largely by paid personnel mostly from Pakistan, which operated the armored units that were part of a defensive force. The Kingdom did have a small air force, flying American aircraft and trained by American trainers, who privately told us that the Saudis made excellent pilots. In addition, Saudi Arabia operated a fleet of AWACS (Airborne Warning and ControlSystem) aircraft. These operated out of the military airport in the northern part of Riyadh, and there was one in the sky at all times. Although the crew on the aircraft were Saudi, there was always a U.S. co-pilot and electronic warfare specialist on board. It was rumored that intelligence from the Saudi AWACS planes was shared not only with the U.S. but also with Israel.

The kingdom did however have a "National Guard". This was the personal army of the King made up entirely of men from bedouin tribes which had pledged personal loyalty to the King, renewed every year. This Guard was organized by tribe and service in it was voluntary. The Guard was trained by U.S.trainers at a huge base just outside Riyadh, known as OPM/SANG, established in 1965. Our project team got to know the health team at the hospital there during our time of stitching together an emergency medical services system for the area and coordinating ambulance care locally. The SANG hospital was an excellent top level trauma center, due largely to the frequent training mishaps there.

It was the National Guard that defended the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1987 during the attempted take over of the shrine by Iranian backed Shia Muslims during the annual pilgrimage. Privately, we heard that the Guardsmen had stood their ground against a huge, armed crowd, ultimately preventing the entry into the mosque and killing large numbers of the crowd, despite heavy casualties of their own. The American trainers we knew were very proud of their trainees and told us that there were over 1,200 people killed during the episode. That number has never been confirmed by any official source, and the bodies were reputed to have been buried in mass graves in the desert and the individuals simply reported as "missing".

One important principle of US - Saudi military cooperation was that there would be no US (or any other foreign nation's) combat troops stationed within the Kingdom. This was a very important aspect of the relationship and important to Saudi Arabian leadership to show their Arab neighbors that the Kingdom was not a pawn of the United States.

This "understanding" was still very much inforce during our time there in the mid 1980s. The Iran-Iraq war had greatly heightened security concerns in the region and there was a US Naval presence in the Gulf. And the AWACS operated by the Saudis were an important part of efforts to monitor and influence the outcome of the war. But, although US personnel flew aboard the AWACS aircraft, for example, they were in the Kingdom for short term roations, about 6 weeks, not permanently stationed there. The only long term US military personnel were trainers.

Things changed with the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990. U.S. President Bush's administration prevailed upon the King of Saudi Arabia to allow U.S. combat operations within the Kingdom. Although the agreement to permit this was short term, until the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, on-going concerns about Iraq's intentions prolonged the stay. This presence of U.S. forces and the behaviors of U.S. troops, who were not always sensitive to the conservative traditions of the Saudi populace, led to a strengthening of the deeply conservative fundamentalist Islamic Sunni factions in the Kingdom. These people had always been critical of the royal family, mostly for their "western" ways and their opulent lifestyle, but the criticism gained little traction among most of the population, who enjoyed relative economic prosperity and security through the policies of the government. But the tensions around the presence of foreign combat forces shifted the dynamic and resulted in increasing support for the most conservative elements in Saudi society.

That shift in societal attitudes about "Americans" coupled with the return to the Kingdom of Saudi nationals, who had fought with the "Mujahideen" in Afghanistan against the Soviets and the Soviet-backed Afghan government during 1980 - 1990 created fertile soil for a home-grown, Saudi led, Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movement. The Saudi government had always had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the more conservative elements of the society, the Wahhabi, but found itself faced with a new fundamentalist movement prepared to use terrorist tactics to bring about the downfall of the royal family government and the expulsion of all foreign troops from the country. And this new movement had plenty of participants who had combat training (mostly by the U.S.) and experience in Afghanistan. And, as well, they had a network of contacts with like-minded people outside the Kingdom. The mix proved to be deadly and led to the 1995 car bomb attack on the headquarters of OPM/SANG in Riyadh, killing 7 and wounding 70, the 1996 truck bombing of the military facility at Khobar Towers killing 19 and wounding over 400 and later in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

Various Stories about Saudi Arabia, some even true

Mystery Air Bases

After we had decided to go to Saudi Arabia, but before we left, Gene had a chat with Ronnie Kinville, one of the Kinville brothers who ran the local gas station/auto repair shop/ used car dealership and also a construction company, which Ronnie headed. We did a lot of business with them and were always satisfied with the results and treated fairly. Before Ronnie had moved to New Hampshire to work with his family, he had been a consulting engineer with Brown and Root company. When he found out we were likely going to Saudi Arabia, he revealed that he had been there in the 1960s and had traveled extensively throughout the country. He job had been to scout sites for approximately six military airports for use by the US Air Force as forward bases should Saudi Arabia ever be attacked and the US had to defend it. According to Ronnie, he identified sites, Brown and Root built the bases, and then the bases were covered over with sand until needed. In the time of the "First Gulf War", I recall hearing about US Air Forces operating out of bases in Saudi Arabia which had suddenly become available and always wondered it these had been the facilities Ronnie had sited.

There were a lot of similar stores in the Kingdom. The government did a great deal of planning and something like that would be entirely plausible.

Mystery Oil Reserves and Refineries

In the first years we were in Riyadh, other folks working with JECOR were involved in some aspects of the construction of major oil refineries in the city of Yanbu. Yanbu is in the western province, well north of Jeddah, and has been a significant port for hundreds of years. During the First World War, it had been taken from the Turks by Arab forces and was one of the places captured by T. E. Lawrence and his "irregulars" and was later used by the British as a staging area for fighting in the area.

The Americans with JECOR talked about how stupid the Saudis were to build major refineries in the Western part of the country when all the oil was in the Eastern Province.

I will remind you that not long after that Saudi Arabia build a major oil pipeline from the East to the West and Yanbu is now a major oil and petrochemical shipping site.

Furthermore, in the second year we were working with the Saudi Red Crescent Society, a new "secretary" joined the Society and had an office adjacent to our work area. This person said he was the son of the mayor of Riyadh, but we did not know Riyadh had a mayor. In one of our many casual conversations, he also said that the Kingdom had already discovered massive oil reserves in the Western Province, possibly larger than the known reserves in the Eastern Province, but that the government did not want to tap the Western Province reserves, but preferred to take oil from the Eastern Province first, because the Eastern Province was politically the most unstable part of the country. This latter statement was, and is, true, as almost all of the small Shia minority in Saudi Arabia live(d) in the Eastern Province and was in communication with and, to a degree allied with, their Shia brothers in Iran.

After the Iraq invasion/capture of Kuwait, when the US was beating the war drum and there was talk by U.S. authorities of Iraqi forces massing for an attack on the Saudi refineries of the Eastern Province and the industrial city of Jubail on the coast of the Gulf (untrue, as it happens, even though the U.S. supplied satellite photos to supprort the claim) the Saudi Oil Minister at the time announced the "sudden" discovery of oil in the Western Province. He reassured the world that the flow of Saudi oil would not be interrupted by any Iraqi invasion of the Eastern Province. And settled the jittery oil market and stabilized prices.

Stuff like that happened all the time there.

Saudi Arabia's massive oil reserves and low cost of production (many of their wells are under pressure and the oil flows without pumping), estimated as somewhere around 50 cents to two dollars a barrel at the time (1986) means that the Saudis control the world price of oil. And to some degree, peg the price somewhere close to what the Americans wish it.

When the price of oil fell to around twelve dollars a barrel in 1986, and then to just below $10, due to oversupply, it represented a crisis for U.S., British, and Norweigian producers. In 1980, the price of oil had been $35 per barrel, drifting down to about $27 by 1985. New oil production came on line, such as off shore wells in the North Sea and along the US coast and production increased in older fields, such as Alaska's North Slope, and the US Permian Basin fields. But these wells had higher production costs, for practical purposes, around $12 a barrel. A price of $10 - $12 per barrel was a disaster.

In the midst of this crisis, Vice President George H. W. Bush came to visit Saudi King Fahad. The visit was described by the U.S. as part of a diplomatic tour of the area. But the local Riyadh English Language Arab News ran a front page headline: "Oilman Bush Calls on King". And a couple of days later, the King was quoted as saying that $15 a barrel was a reasonable price for oil, and that same day the Oil Minister of the country announced production and negociated with OPEC an official fifteen dollar per barrel oil price.

U.S. Pledge and Saudi Security

Above there is mention of the long-standing agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that the U.S. would protect the Kingdom if ever it needed military assistance or were invaded.

This policy was at the center of a "Security Briefing" at JECOR headquarters sometime in 1986. The U.S. Embassy was to provide these security briefings on an annual basis, although they were less frequent occurrances. The Embassy Chief of Security came over to JECOR and addressed the people sponsored by JECOR and their families about what the "evacuation plan" was for Americans in Saudi Arabia, should a war or other even require it.

The Officer, an old hand who had been in charge of security at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, started his talk something like this. "This is my favorite security briefing, because it is the easiest. The Evacuation Plan for Saudi Arabia is simple; there is none. The country will be defended. That is policy. If the balloon goes up, you are to go back to your villa and within 72 hours someone from the U.S. Army or Marines will knock on your door or gate and ask if you are OK. You can depend on that."

After an audible gasp, the audience had plenty of questions, but the bottom line was that the policy that the U.S. would defend Saudi Arabia if attacked was still in place. That policy was put into effect in 1991 with the "Gulf War", but that American military intervention was not the first.

Around 1962, while Gene was at Ursinus College, a close high school friend of his, Tim Lemke was also a student there. Tim had a room mate, a fellow from Yemen, named Mohammed, a member of the Yemini royal family. One day, or night, Mohammed got a call telling him that the King of Yemen had died and there was a coup happening and most of the royal family had been killed or fled Yemen. He was to remain in his room and within hours, there was a constant body guard stationed outside the dorm room until the danger had cleared.

This was the start of the North Yemen Civil war in which the royalists/loyalists were supported by Saudi Arabia, Britain, Jordan, and Israel, and the revolutionaries were supported by Egypt (Gamal Nassar) and the later United Arab Republic. Egypt and the UAR supplied troops and weapons for a large invasion of the northern part of Yemen. Mohammed entertained his college friends with tales of how the Yemini tribsmen, loyal to the king, would defeat the invaders despite their modern weapons. The tribal methods included guerilla warfare and torture and all sounded quite scary. Mohammed left college not long after, presumably to return home or aid in the war there. And eventually, in 1968, the revolutionaries succeeded and proclamed the Yemen Arabic Republic. Around the same time, the British abandoned Aden and together with the surrounding territory of the British Protectorate, Aden became part of South Yemen, later the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen. The two Yemens had a troubled relationship but were finally united in 1990, although the troubles continued and the region remained unstable. There were multiple small civil wars and regime changes, and in 2012, the Houthi, a Shia Islamic clan in the northern area of Yemen captured Sa'ana and began the civil war, which contines to the present, with Iran backing the Houthi and Saudi Arabia supporting the former Yemini government with and invasion. Fundamentalist Sunni groups generally oppose the Houthi but also oppose the Saudi-led invasion. It's a mess.

But now the connection. Shortly before I left Saudi Arabia, I was invited to a farewell party for the U.S. Air Force General who had commanded the U.S. training mission there. The party was at a large and luxurious villa, the general's residence there, complete with indoor swimming pool. I noticed a scrapbook lying on a coffee table, and began to look through it. It was full of photos of U. S. Air Force personnel and aircraft. The host, the departing general, noticed me looking at the book and came over to chat. I think he was somewhat flattered that someone might be interested in the book. He explained that the photos were from his "first deployment" to Saudi Arabia. In 1962.

You see, as the troops and armor of Egypt and the UAR invaded north Yemen in 1962, they had air cover from the Egyptian Air Force. The Egyptians had overflown Saudi air space, something that would be difficult to prove as the boundary between Saudi Arabia and Yemen was not officially recognized until the Treaty of Jeddah in 2000, but in this case, close was good enough. When the Egyptian jets returned the next day, they were met by U.S. Air Force aircraft and turned back.

That had been the general's first deployment to Saudi Arabia. I wonder if he made it back for a third time during the First Gulf War.

What's in a name?

In the Arab world, it is said you can tell all you need to know about a man from his name.

In general, a person has a personal name or names and a family or tribal name. For example, the name Mohammed Ghatani or Mohammed Al-Ghatani, identified the person as Mohammed from the family (clan, tribe) the Ghatani. Note that the name Ghatani is also transliterated/spelled as Qahtani.

In Saudi Arabia, most people know which tribes pledged loyalty to the founding king, Abdul-Azziz, "Ibn Saud", and if you are a member of one of the earliest families to do so, you are regarded with greater respect and regarded as more trustworthy.

Also, many names are associated with particualar regions of the country there. In the example above, the Ghatani (Qahtani) are a people from the south- western part of Saudi Arabia, in the Tihamah, the coastal plain, or the Asir, the mountains there. The Ghatani are found both in Saudi Arabia and adjacent North Yemen.

To further identify an individual, the name may include the name of the persons father as part of the individual's name. The first king of Saudi Arabia was named Abdul Azziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud. Which roughly translates as "Abdul Azziz, son of Abdul Rahman, of the Saud family". Women can be identified similarly. The mother of Abdul Azziz, wife of Abdul Rahman, was named Sara bint Ahmed Al Sudairi. This translates as "Sara, daughter of Ahmed of the Sudairi family". King Abdul Azziz had multiple wives, one of which was Hussa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi. He had more sons with Hussa than he did with any of his other wives. Although the King had a total of 45 sons of which about 36 survived to adulthood along with many daughters, the seven sons with Hussa are known as "The Sudairi Seven". Although only two of the seven have become King, Fahad and Salman, the group has been and remains extremely important and influential in royal politics.

Complicating things a bit is the common use of nicknames for Arab men and women. The first King Abdul Azziz, for example, was frequently known as "Ibn Saud". Ibn is a variant of "bin", so this roughly translates as "Son of Saud".

Another common alternative name, nickname, uses the word "Abu", which means "father of". So a man with an eldest son named Khalid might be known as "Abu Khalid".

First names are often aspirational, based on some hoped-for characteristic, or the Arabic equivalent of the name of a character in the Bible or the Quoran. Abdullah, for example, means "servant of God". Mahmoud means "Worthy of Praise". Hamdi has a similar meaning, but also means "one who remains close or steadfast". Saifan means "Sword of Allah". There are feminine equivalents for all these as well as humdreds of other names for girls. Aliya (Gift of God), Jamilah (Lovely), Fatima (Captivating, also, one of Mohammed's daughters) and so forth.

Also, there are biblical names such as Ibrahim (Abraham), Yusif (Joseph), Daoud (David) for boys and Sara (Sarah) or Mariam (Mary) for girls.

And, of course, within families, or among friends, individuals have other names, based on some characteristic or behavior. Ibrahim is often shortened to "Brahim", for example.

Christian Arabs often use different first names or variations of spelling of the names. Also, there are different ways of saying "son of" or "father of" among Christian Arabs. Use of the connector "Abi", such as in Daoud Abi-Nader, indicates the person is a Christian, likely from Lebanon or Syria.

In a conversation with a physician colleague at the American Embassy in Riyadh, he played the Middle Eastern "name game" with me. His name was Daoud Kantalflas and he asked me to tell him the origin of the name, and thus his birthplace. The first name was Daoud, the Arabic for David. The family name Kantalflas, was of Greek Origin and refers to the "candle-lighter" in Orthodox Church services. An Arabic first name and a family name of Eastern Orthodox origin? He was from Jerusalem, born there before the 1947 war in the days when people of all faiths and all ethnic origins and all nations lived there and co-existed peacefully.

I once met a man with the last name / family name of "Al-Andes" and we talked for a while, going back some generations to trace the names to see if there was some connection. Our name is a version of a name found in Germany and spelled variously in the U.S. as Andes, Antes, Andis, Antis. Although there are hints in the family oral history that it may have originated in ancient "Gaul". Caesar's Gallic Commentary mentions a tribe by that name, the Andes. My Arabic acquaintance however, traced the origin of his family name back only for a few generations, to a grandfather, or perhaps a great grandfather, who acquired the name as a nickname as a child. It meant something like crybaby or one who fusses a lot as a child. The name stuck, and his progeny then became the Al-Andes tribe.

Two quick thoughts on the Arabic language releated to names and the origin of names.

The definitive article in Arabic is usually transiterated as "Al" in English. So in the story above, the tribe mentioned would be the Al-Andes. If you refer to the door, it is Al-Bab. And God is Al-Lah (The God, the One God). But the definitive article changes when the word following it starts with an S or an R. So, the city of Riyadh is actually spoken or written as Ar-Riyadh. And the family name Sughair would be As-Sughair, not Al-Sughair. So, to be strictly correct, the royal family name would be As-Saud, not Al-Saud, although the latter is more commonly used, even in Saudi Arabia.

Also among Arabic speakers, there is a different time sense than among westerners. This is perhaps a function of the language, which indicates future tense and past tense by adding a prefix to the root stem of the present tense. The past tense is amost always a past pefect tense, indicating the action has been completed. Also, verbs are modified to reflect such things as mood, active or passive voice, and others. Sometimes the differences are subtle, such as the doubling of a letter or using a different vowel, and sometimes there is no difference in how the word is written, only in pronounciation. Because everyday written Arabic includes only the consonants and omits the vowels, it renders the language somewhat imprecise at times. Only in the Koran are all the vowel markings always present, as the language in the Koran is not to be misunderstood. So, spoken Arabic often omits or elides some of the verb prefixes and suffixes and speakers tend to use the present tense stem of a verb in casual conversation. This practice often slides over to the English used by a native Arabic speaker. So we learned that when a Saudi colleague at work described some event seen on the street on the way to work, he may be talking about something that had happened to him that morning, something that had happened to him at some time in the past, or something that had happened to a friend or relative today or sometime in the past. This different sense of time is an important thing to remember about the Arabic culture. It keeps the past fresh and part of daily life. And also keeps alive past wrongs or grievances from generations ago.

Remember that most Arabic Muslims can recite the names of their direct ancestors all the way back to the time of the Prophet, Mohammed.

Saudi Traditions - Origins and Changes in Culture

One day at the Red Crescent headquarters, the chief of the neurosurgery department arrived for an EMS planning meeting. We were chatting before the meeting and he shared with me that he had recently taken a bus in Riyadh and had been surprised to see several people on the bus reading the local paper and was delighted by this. I did comprehend his happiness over such a simple and, to me, commonplace thing. He explained that many aspects of Saudi culture and customs were rooted in the nomadic life style of earlier generations. Nomads don't have books, other than a Koran, because they are so heavy to carry about. They don't have furniture, either, which will lead to the next paragraph. Although the literacy rate in Saudi Arabia was pretty high, most people still had not developed a habit of reading. So my acquaintance had been very happy and hopeful to see ordinary Saudis reading the paper on the bus. Something, he said, that he would not have seen even a year or two earlier.

Probably for similar reasons, in the more traditional Saudi homes, there was little furniture. In what would correspong to the living room, the "maglis" or sitting room as it was known, where the men hung out when visitors came, most homes were furnished with carpets on carpets and large bolsters and pillows along the walls. You can see two examples of a sitting room above in the section about Saudi hospitality. In the adjacent room, often separated from the Maglis by a set of double doors or pocket doors, the dining room was also sparsley furnished. There was no dining room table and chairs, as meals were served on great trays placed on the carpeted floor and people sat on small cushions to eat.

In homes of more "westernized" Saudis or homes of Saudis who frequently entertained westerners, the furnishings were much the same as in an American home, with large couches, chairs, "coffee tables", lamps, etageres, knick-knacks, and sometimes family pictures. Dining rooms had large tables with chairs, side boards, and so forth, and meals were served individually with guests seated at the table, provided with plates, and all the knives, forks, and spoons you would find at home.

Sometimes, when dining in a traditional home, or when eating Kebsa on a camping trip, one might be offered a spoon, or find one discreetly placed just to the right hand of where the host was to sit, the spot where you, as honored guest, were to sit. It was a point of pride to either decline the proffered spoon, or ignore the spoon found at your seat. On some occasions, the host might select the best, most tender and tasty portions of the meal and hand them to you. This was a way of honoring the guest.

In many respects, the ordinary Saudis tend to look back on their former desert life through a romantic lens. Saudi families commonly go camping or picnic in the desert around Riyadh, perhaps to capture some of this remembered past. Even though few Saudis today were true nomads, Bedouin, the desert and the severity of life in a desert setting permeated every aspect of life in the Kingdom for many generations. Even the Saudis who lived in their cities interacted and interfaced constantly with the desert and desert dwellers. Even those who lived and farmed in the fertile coastal plains in the west or fished the Red Sea or the Gulf, always lived a precarious existance.

There are other ways in which the early history of survival in the desert affects the culture. The generous hospitality of Saudis, the sharing of food, and the genuine desire that a guest be taken care of to the best of the host's ability probably stem from the basic need to take care of other people, even strangers, when in the hostile environment of the desert. It is said in Saudi Arabia, that if you are camped in the desert and a stranger approaches you, it is your duty to provide the stranger with food and water and rest for three days. At the end of the third day, it is permitted to ask politely whether the stranger will need any provisions to continue his journey. This hospitality is to be offered even if the host recognizes that the stranger is in fact a mortal enemy or member of an enemy clan.

In warfare, there was another tradition. Should a raiding party fall upon an encampment of an enemy clan, it was permissible for the raiders to kill all males over the age of ten or so, but the women and female children and males under the age of ten were to be spared. And when the raiders departed, they were to leave three days of food and water for the survivors they left behind. One could certainly question whether either of these storied traditions were ever honored, but both seem to support the notion that life in such a difficult and hostile environment would certainly affect how even enemies treated each other and that there must have been some honor code about that. After all, westerners still accept the concept of chivalry in the middle ages and many nations subscribe to the Geneva Conventions about the conduct of modern warfare.

Security in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a Muslim nation. Official statistics state that the population is 100% Muslim, with 85-90% being Sunni and the remaining 10-15% Shia. But this number reflects only the number of Saudi citizens, and of the reported 34 million population in 2021, a number likely exaggerated, some 25 to 35% are foreign workers. That number also is questionable and varies considerably depending on the source. Saudi sources, for example, report there are about 1 to 1.5 million Pakistanis in the Kingdom; Pakistani sources put the number at 2.5 million.

The actual population of the nation is regarded by the government as a security issue. Saudi Arabia exits in an unstable region and has neighbors that are fundamentally not friendly to the Kingdom for several reasons. First, the nation has plenty of oil and has developed and sold its oil through alliances with western nations. Second, much of the money from the sale of oil has benefited the royal family, which lives, for the most part, a life of opulance that is hard to imagine. Third, the Kingdom had not developed a large military and did not participate with other Arab nations in military campaigns against Israel. Fourth, the Saudi government, which is basically the royal family, constantly reminds Muslims world wide that the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina, are in Saudi Arabia, a very sore topic with Shia Muslims, who have vowed to take the holy sites from the Saudis, who are Sunni Muslim. And the Kingdom is thought to profit greatly from the annual Haaj pilgrimage, which all Muslims, Sunni and Shia are to perform. And Fifth, Saudis are generally perceived as arrogant and rude when traveling abroad, especially in the Middle East but also in areas of Europe where other Arabic people live or vacation. Saudis are, in fact, known as the "Americans of the Middle East", which is not a compliment. So, because of the fundamentally hostile environment that the Kingdom exists in, the Saudi population numbers have been inflated for years. During the JECOR years, there was a data processing and statistical analysis project, STADAP. That project was also charged with conducting a census and reporting the results to the government. The initial count sometime in 1985-86 showed a population of Saudis around 1 to 2 million and a similar, perhaps larger number of foreign workers. Discussions with the royal family and government officials negociated the final figure upward to a Saudi population of around 6 million and fewer foreign workers but even today, total population is reported as around 12 million. The actual Saudi population was a very sensitive security issue then and I suspect it is today. In 1985, Iraq had a population of 15 million (today around 45 million) and Iran had a population of 45 million (85 million today). Iraq has a significant Shia population, about 60% of total population, concentrated in the southern areas, near the Gulf, and Iran is almost entirely Shia Muslim.

Whatever the actual population of Saudi citizens is, some 10 to 15% of them are Shia Muslims. The Shia population is concentrated in the Eastern Province, where most of the active oil fields and refineries are located and where many of the foreign workers from the U.S. and Europe are located, and where the Saudi Shia population is subjected to pretty constant propaganda from Iranian sources just across the Gulf. Thus, the Eastern Province is and was regarded as the most potentially unstable in the Kingdom, and the greatest security risks were thought to likely arise there.

However, due to several factors, the security risks and actual attempts to bring down the Saudi government in the 21st century arose internally among Sunni Muslims. This was probably for several reasons.

First, as mentioned above, there is and was some resentment of the royal family among ordinary Saudis. This resentment was ameliorated to large degree, at least during the time we lived there, by the very generous welfare state created by the government. But, as oil revenues changed and costs of defense increased in the 1990s, the generosity of the welfare state subsided. That, together with the significant growth of the population, including the royal family, decreased the share of government largess available for each ordinary family while the royal families took and increasing share due simply to there being more royals to take care of. This resentment of the royal family, which is synonymous with the government, was exploited by the Shia factions, who criticized the royals for their life style, even for distributing pictures of the King, which to them were forbidden "graven images", and for the way the minority Shia were treated. And the resentment was also exploited by the growing fundamentalist Sunni factions, who criticized the royal family for their "western" ways, for their alliances with the U.S., and for the continuing presence of U.S. military forces in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia had come into existence in part through the cooperation and collaboration between the original King, Ibn Saud, and his family, and the members of a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim sect, the Wahhabi. This cozy relationship was well-managed by Ibn Saud's successors through the 1980s, but began to cool in the 1990s. The U.S. (CIA directed) support for guerilla forces in Afghanistan resisting the invading forces of the Soviet Union was a complicating factor and greatly affected Saudi security in later years. These guerilla forces included large numbers of Arab Muslim fighters, known as "Mujhideen", who recieved military training and weapons from CIA trainers at bases in Pakistan. Many Mujhideen were from Saudi Arabia and returned home having had training and experience in battle and also having had, either before or during their time in Afghanistan, exposure to fundamentalist Sunni Muslim doctrine. These returing fighters made up a core of anti-government activists who soon engaged in a domestic terror campaign in the Kingdom.

The U.S. support for and training of Saudi Mujhideen had was a profound additional destabilizing factor for the internal security of Saudi Arabia.

A significant second factor in increasing unrest among the Saudi population was the combination of several things, both unintended consequences of otherwise beneficial social programs.

The Saudi government had encouraged population growth among Saudi citizens for years through generous social support systems including housing, food and water assistance, free healthcare, and other benefits that enabled large families. The Kingdom had always had a high birth rate. The Saudi birth rate was 47 live births per thousand population in 1960 (U.S. was 22), 43 in 1980 (U.S. 15) and that, together with medical services that reduced the infant and child death rate and prolonged life, further increased the size of the Saudi population. The Saudi birth rate in 2000 was 17 (U.S. 12), probably reflecting social and economic factors mentioned above that made larger families less affordable.

During the mid and late 20th century, the Saudi government also implemented an educational system that provided free education through graduate school for all Saudis. This free education included support for study abroad, including tuition and living expenses, for the student and his/her family. Many Saudis we met in the 1980s had been educated at U.S. or European universities. These students returned with an excellent education and with fond memories of student days abroad, an understanding of western culture, and friends in western nations. In the late 1980s, the Saudi government almost entirely ended its support for advanced study abroad both as a cost saving measure and because the internal Saudi university systems had developed to a point where they were regarded as equivalent to any in other nations. Thus, by the 1990s, Saudis with advanced degrees were likely to have studied in Kingdom and not have experienced student life abroad.

The educational system produced increasing numbers of highly educated Saudis. But there were not enough jobs for them in Saudi Arabia There were, for example, excellent petroleum engineering programs at multiple universities in Saudi Arabia, turning out thousands of graduates per year. But how many petroleum engineers can a nation employ?

In short, through generous, well intentioned, social programs to enlarge and benefit the general population, Saudi Arabia produced an increasing number of highly educated people (men and women) with high expectations for a well-paying career at home, who could not find a job. An excellent population for exploitation by those creating or fostering discontent and division.

Naturally, the Saudi government took security seriously. And, according to American security personnel with whom I spoke, they were really, really good at it.

For example, in our project, some of the personnel came to me with concerns about a fellow from Palestine who worked for JECOR and was talking about how difficult life was for Palestinians living in the West Bank due to Israeli government policies and actions. This fellow even shared some literature with them that had originated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. At their request, I reviewed the situation with the security people at the American Embassy. They were not concerned about the report, saying that they (Americans) did not worry at all about Palestinians. This was for two reasons. First, most Palestinians were intensely pro-American and were simply hoping that some day the U.S. would realize the situation in Palestine and force Israel to do the right thing. And second, the Saudi security people already closely monitored all Palestinians in the Kingdom. The Saudis even collected a sort of tax from the salaries of Palestiniand and forwarded it to the PLO, so the relationship was a good one.

It was the Pakistanis that the Saudis and the American security personnel worried about. And, in fact, the several small bombings that happend in Riyadh during our time there were all perpetrated by Pakistanis. A couple of them were thought to have been directed at Americans, as they happened at places frequented by Americans, such as a pizza restaurant.

In addition, there were three kinds of police in Saudi Arabia, not including military and customs and immigration police. There were the Security Police, the General Police (including Traffic Police), and the Society for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue ("Mutawah"), the Religious Police. The latter had little enforcement authority, but could make life pretty miserable for Saudis and for other Muslims. They had little they could do to harass westerers, other than verbally. The Traffic Police are discussed further below in the section on Law and Lawyers in Saudi Arabia.

The Security Police today are part of the Saudi Mabahith or General Investigation Directorate, which was created in 2017 by merging the domestic security agency and the counter-terrorism agency, perhaps a recognition of the growing threat of home-grown terrorism. This Directorate has Ministry level authority.

The Saudi Security Police are a secret police. The officers of the Mabahith have the authority to investigate, surveil, arrest, and detain individuals who are deemed to be "threats to national security". The definition of a threat to national security has enlarged over the years to include not only terrorists but also members of the political opposition. The Mabahith is thought to operate several prisons in the country, which are separate from the general criminal prison system. The power of the Security Police has increased over the years since we lived there, paralleling the increase in threat of terrorism within and without the country.

Fortunately, we had no contact with the Security Police while we were there.

Law (Shari'ah) and Lawyers in Saudi Arabia

Criminal Law Inforcement

The General Police in Saudi Arabia are part of the Directorate of Police or Public Security, part of the Ministry of the Interior. These are civilian officers responsible for law enforcement in the Kingdom.

The General Police force has several operating Departments:

The Police Department deals with ordinary criminial matters and operates much as similar organizations in other countries. They refer arrested individuals to the court system for prosecution.

The Saudi legal system, including the courts,is based on Shari'ah, the body Islamic laws derived from the Qur'an and the Sunnah (the traditions) of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Shari'ah also includes Islamic scholarly opinion (Ijma) developed after Muhammad's death, but lacks the tradition of judicial precedent that is a cornerstone of American "common law". Most trials or court appearances in Saudi Arabia are "bench hearings", that is, the accused appears before a judge, who makes the decision in the case. This lack of the tradition of a jury trial, a trial by ones peers, is a second big difference between Sharia and the American system of law.

These differences mean that a decision in any individual case is made by a "judge" who bases the decision on his understanding of Shari'ah law together with any mitigating circumstances. There are few standardized procedures and an accused is not always represented by a lawyer. Most cases, both civil and criminal, are seen in a Shari'ah Court. The Saudi court system consists of three main parts. The largest is the Shari’ah Courts, which hear most cases in the Saudi legal system.

Reforms to the judicial system in the 1990s and 2000s created administrative courts, and courts dealing with labor issues, and other specialized areas, and a Supreme Judicial Council. But the King remains the final, highest, "court of appeal" and source of pardons.

Also, within agencies and Ministries, there were and are separate councils and individuals to ajudicated certain disputes or matters within the jurisdiction of the agency. More on that in the discussion of the Traffic Police.

So the Police Department officers dealt with violations of criminal law. The crimes varied from relatively minor crimes such as fighting though more serious things such as petty theft to serious crimes such as murder. Criminal law punishments could be very serious and include(d) public beheading, stoning, amputation and lashing. Serious criminal offences included not only crimes such as murder, rape, theft and robbery, but also apostasy, adultery, witchcraft and sorcery.

While we were there, public beheadings were less common that recent years, when excution of "terrorists" and dissidents has increased. Many executions were for non-violent crimes, drug use or drug smuggling being a common capital offense. During our time, two men were arrested for stealing gold from the safe of a gold merchant in the market in Riyadh. Although it was said publically that a death sentence only was given for serious crimes such as murder or rape, it was also given to individuals who were "habitual criminals". In the case of the gold thiefs in Riyadh, they were accused of "crime against the national economy" and one was determined to be a habitual criminal, as he had several parking tickets on his record. The latter one was beheaded.

One of our Saudi EMS trainers had worked for a time as an ambulance attendant and nurse and had attended several public executions and ambutations. According to him, the persons being beheaded were heavily drugged and sedated before the execution, to the point where they needed assistance even walking to the execution site. Once they had knelt before the swordsman, the death came quickly. Those having a hand amuputated for habitual thievery were also sedated, and a physician marked a line on the wrist where the swordsman was to make the cut. After the amputation, the amputee was further medicated, taken to hospital by ambulance, and the amputation surgically completed in the operating room by surgeons.

I also talked with other western health care workers stationed in rural areas and learned they had witnessed (fatal) public stoning of a woman accused of adultery.

Cautionary tales about biblical punishments as they exist in a present day theocracy, where there is no separation of church and state.

Civil Law, Lawyers, and Contracts in Saudi Arabia

One consequence of the way the legal system functioned, was that, at least in the 1980s, there were few lawyers in Saudi Arabia. Whether this was a good thing or a bad thing might be debated, but there were a couple of consequences that affected our work and function when we were there. One is the way the traffic laws were enforced, discussed below, the other is the many problems that developed around contracts there.

It was said around JECOR, and among other "old hands" with experience in the Middle East, that "to an Arab (Saudi), the signing of a contract was the signal to begin negociations." A contract was to a westerner, an iron-clad, legally binding, document which stipulated in detail the obligations of the parties to the contract. On the other hand, to a Saudi, individual or organization, a contract was just an agreement between or among the parties that they would be doing business together for some specified time and the details of what that business might entail would be worked out later.

This cultural difference in understanding what a contract was, in the most elemental way, was a constant, daily issue in the administration of our project there. We had a protracted annual budgeting process involving the parties on the American side, JECOR, the Public Health Service, Medical Care Development, and the team in the field and the parties on the Saudi side, the officials of the Red Crescent Society at multiple levels with whom we worked. All the involved parties had expectations and budget input. Once all the parties had signed off on the budget, the work plan, the goals and objectives of the project, and the time line for delivery, we westerners thought everything was settled and we could begin the work year with a clear work plan. But within a day of so of the signing of the contract, I would be dealing with a President or Vice President or Director who wished some additional task or tasks to be added to the work of the team. It was perhaps a function of the exaggerated idea on the Saudi side of what our team members were capable of, as they did pretty consistently perform miracles, but it was more likely that simple cultural difference in understanding what a contract is.

In American law a contract is a pretty sacred document and enforceable through the legal system. In Saudi Arabia, that was not the case. There were few lawyers there with any experience in contract law and the courts approached issues around contracts very differently. The issues and misunderstandings around contracts were important when we were there and the continued, although there was at the time, a genuine effort to train Saudis as lawyers specializing in contract law. Today, there are probably many lawyers there, an improvement, no doubt.

Traffic Law Enforcement

The Traffic Department is a second part of the General Police. These officers were in charge of enforcing the traffic laws of the Kingdom. Since there were many drivers from many different countries, driving habits were spectacularly different from what we were accustomed to in the U.S. There was, for a time, a document circulating at JECOR titled, "Traffic Laws of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as Empirically Derived". It was simply a list of the more bizarre driving behaviors seen frequently there. The "No U Turn on Red" sign mentioned above is one.

The Traffic Police patrolled the city and arrested drivers whom they saw violating some traffic law. There was no further evidence needed for the arrest other than the word of the Police officer because, as it was said "Why would the officer lie? Arresting someone only makes more paperwork for the officer." And since people are basically lazy, it is presumed that no rational person would voluntarily increase his workload.

So, if a Traffic Police Officer saw someone driving through a red light, the officer would arrest the driver, who would leave his car by the road and sit in the back of the police cruiser until the arresting officer had filled up his car and would then take the arrestees to the police station to be jailed until seen by an administrative judge, also a police officer, and a fine or other penalty assigned. Once the fine was determined, the arrested driver would remain in jail until someone from the family or a friend or a colleague came to the police station to pay the fine. Saudi jails provided no meals to prisoners, so the families also had to provide meals as long as the driver was incarcerated.

One of our team was arrested on the way to work for allegedly driving through a stop sign or a red light. After some hours riding around in the police cruiser, he was taken to the local police station and jailed. There was no right to a "phone call" there, the people in the jail had access to a phone on a first grab basis during the times the jail staff was at prayer, so when he did not show up at the office, we had no way of knowing what had happened. Fortunately, another worker in the building had passed by as our man was being arrested and let us know what he had seen. We sent the JECOR "expediter" out to find the car, which gave him a clue as to which police station our man would be jailed in, and he was thus able to track him down. Unfortunately, it was late in the day and the arresting officer had gone home after his shift, so the "judge" could not make a decision and assign a fine until the next day, so our man spent a night in jail.

Fortunately, our team member had a great sense of humor, or at least appreciated absurdity, and took the entire epsisode in stride. He told us that the evening meal was a pretty impressive international smorgasbord of meals prepared by the families of all the incarcerated drivers awaiting "trial". The drivers all shared their food with other arrestees. The only negative thing about that night, was when the police brought in a bus load of arrestees and the holding cell became standing room only.

The next day, the "judge" held a hearing and assigned a fine of three hundred Saudi riyals (just under $100). When the JECOR expediter questioned why the large fine, the judge replied "He is an American. He should know better how to drive." Fine paid. Homeward bound.

The Traffic Police were also responsible for adjudicating traffic accidents or crashed. When there was not any bodily injury drivers in Saudi Arabia were expected to work things out between themselves. One time, for example, as I was backing out of a parking space in a strip mall, a Saudi cutting through the parking lot struck the rear bumper of my "heavy Chevy". There was no damage to my car, but the other car had its bumper torn off by the impact. The bumper was lying on the pavement, in fact. My Arabic was not up to the rather frenetic conversations that followed among myself, the other driver, and his two passengers, so I immediately called the JECOR expediter, who arrived in a few minutes. After about 15 minutes or so of more conversation, the expediter announced that a decision had been reached. The decision was that neither driver had intended for this to happen, that it was truly an "accident" and no one was at fault. Since the other car had suffered all the damage, however, it was only reasonable that the two drivers share the cost of repairing the other car. That would be 300 Riyals each. Done.

Should we not have been able to reach an agreement and finalize the matter, or if the damage was more severe and the parties not able to settle up financially, the Traffic Police responsible for accidents would be called. Or perhaps just show up. These officers were authorized to make a determination of who was at fault in the accident and the extent (amount) of damages. If, for example, the officer decided that driver A was at fault and the damage was 2,000 Riyals, the officer would expect that driver A would pay driver B the 2,000 Riyals on the spot. If driver A did not have the money to pay the assigned damages, he would be taken to jail, where he would remain until family, friend, or colleague brought the money to the jail and it was given to driver B.

It was an interesting system which eliminated the need for lawyers but depended on the fundamental honesty of the Traffic Police. We did not hear of any abuses or corruption among those officers, but then, we probably would not have heard of it anyway. We, as JECOR sponsored personnel had easy access to our "expediters", who were fluent Arabic speakers and traveled with large amounts of cash to settle things to everyone's satisfaction. We also traveled with hundreds of Riyals in the glove box to settle up traffic accidents.

The General Police also included several other Departments, but we had little interaction with them. And, fortunately, little with the Traffic Police or the regular Police, either. There were a few encounters with Religious Police, usually about how a woman we were with was dressed, but these were generally benign.

On one occasion, I was with a colleague and his teen-aged daughter. The daughter was dressed appropriately, in a long sleeved, ankle length dress buttoned to the neck, and wearing a small scarf over her hair. But her hair was long, and was worn down, so it was visible. As we entered the old souk in Riyadh, we were stopped and cautioned by a very polite young man, Mutawah, speaking excellent English, who pointed out that the uncovered hair was a problem. Thinking fast, I explained that we were on the way into the market to buy an Abaya for the lady. The Abaya is the cloak that covers a woman from head to toe and can be wrapped around the body to cover even the clothing. It does not have a veil, but western women are not required to veil. The young Mutawah appeared relieved by our explanation and recommended a store for us, and, as I recall, even showed us the way to it. And yes, we did buy the Abaya. All well in the end.

Equality in Saudi Arabia, Other Myths, Stories, Odds and Ends"

Islam teaches that all men are equal before God. During the Haaj, for example, all the pilgrims wear the same white dress. When making the pilgrimage, Muslims shed all signs of wealth and societal status and wear donning simple white garments, commonly called ihram clothing. The required dress for men is two white cloths without seams or stitches, one of which covers the body from the waist down and one that is worn over the shoulder. The pilgrim's sandals are also without stitches. Men shave their heads and trim their beards and nails and wash before putting on the Ihram cloths.

Women wear a white dress and headscarf, or their own native dress, covered with white clothing, and they may omit face coverings if from a place where they usually veil. They also groom and wash as the men do, and may remove a single lock of hair.

The ihram clothing is a symbol of purity and equality. The goal is to eliminate all class distinctions so that all present themselves as equal in the eyes of God. Although men and women pass through the earlier stages of the Haaj separately, and live in separate areas, during the last phase of the pilgrimage men and women conclude the hajj together. So there are not gender distinctions between pilgrims at this point.

There are some aspects of daily life in Saudi Arabia that echo or at least somewhat evoke the equality of pilgrims making the Haaj.

The ususal dress of men in Saudi Arabia is pretty similar, almost identical at a glance. Men wear a long white robe called a "Thobe". It is worn with white shorts or longer pants under it and has a collar and cuffs. It is usually white, and the ordinary version available in the markets was of polyester or a cotton-polyester blend, wash and wear, drip dry fabric. There are versions in other colors, such as beige, tan, or a deeper brown, but these are less common and usually seen in the winter months. Wealthier Saudi men wear tailored Thobes of cotton, but for practical purposes, there is little difference among the garments worn by the men. The Thobe is known by different names in other Arabic nations and worn in different colors or patterned cloth.

The head scarf worn by men is known as a "Ghutra". The Ghutra is often worn with the "Agal", most commonly a circle of heavy cord wrapped with a black twine covering, which is simply doubled and placed over the ghutra on the crown of the head. The Agal is said to be in memory of the Bedouin practice of using this cord as a hobble for their camels at night or when resting. Since there are few trees to tie the camel to. The Gutra varied according to the taste of the individual and the region of the country. Most commonly, it was a large square of plain weave white cotton with a red pattern, in checks or stripes, of red wool woven into it. There were also ghutras with a black pattern on the white ground, and many Saudis wore simple white ghutras. The more devoutly religious Saudis wore white Thobes hemmed shorter so they did not touch the feet or ground, simple white ghutras, and no agal.

Personal adornment of men was not often seen, as it was "Haram", forbidden. Men often wore inexpensive wristwatches, and occasionally a ring but it was rare to see a man with a Rolex or other gold jewelry. Unless a member of the royal family, but when we were there, even the king and crown prince wore simple garb when in public.

Over the thobe, especially in colder weather, men commonly wore a robe, sometimes termed an "Abaya", the name more commmonly given to the women's version of the cloak like garment that could wrap completely around the wearer. These cloaks could be light weight fabric but were more commonly heavier woolen garments for winter wear. They were often dark brown or tan in color and occasionally were black. Some embellishment of these cloaks seemed common, most often a bit of gold colored trim along the edges and sometimes along the seams, but they were generally not elaborate.

Saudi men wore their "uniform" clothing pretty much all the time. At home. At work. When socializing in the evening. And they rarely, except at home, removed the Ghutra. One never asked a Saudi man if he would like to remove his "hat".

Women's dress was hardly standardized, except in public. Women wore clothing and jewelry as lavish as they or their husbands could afford at home and in private settings. But, in public, women covered their head and entire body with the "abaya", the cloak similar to the cloak men wore, but usually of lighter weight cloth and always black. The abaya was usually combined with a head covering and a veil. The head/hair coverings and the veils were very individualistic and often based in the manner that women in that particular family had dressed for generations. The veils might cover the face entirely or leave the eyes uncovered. Some veils had an upper portion that could easily lift up so the woman could see better, as when shopping.

So, in public, Saudi women appeared wrapped entirely in black from head to toe. That said, in the large malls where Saudis and westerners shopped, it was common to see young Saudi women in small groups walking along the stores as they re-arranged or re-positioned their Abayas, opening and reclosing them just long enough to show the expensive clothing, jewelry, and shoes they were wearing. But never their faces. One might see a woman breast-feeding her infant in public, but she would always be veiled.

Despite the seeming equality in dress and appearance, Saudi Arabia was not more equal in reality than most other nations. Certainly, members of the royal family and the many very wealthy Saudi business men were "more equal" than ordinary folk. And most of them lived lives more lavish than one could imagine.

The sexes in Saudi Arabia were very strictly segregated. Men and women who were not a married couple could not be together or appear in public unless accompanied by a male relative of the woman. Even the homes maintained separate men's and women's areas, although in private, family members moved freely among them. But in practical terms, men and women lived pretty separately. The host organization for our project employed only men. Women were not allowed in the building. Sometimes a female JECOR employee might visit a Saudi office or government building for an important meeting, but that was unusual and Saudi women would never make such a visit.

All of which makes "dating" a pretty out of the question thing. So how do Saudi men meet women and decide on a bride?

First, most Saudi marriages were arranged by family. But the more modern families did involve the prospective bride and groom in the decision process. Although the two families negociating the marriage really had the final say. And since there was a very large "bride price" involved and in most cases the groom's family contributed to it, that made sense. And since, the bride price paid, the groom was often left without much ready money, the couple usually moved into the groom's family home, it made more sense.

Which raises another point. When a Saudi couple gets married, is that wedding night the first time they meet and see each other?

Once a marriage is being considered, rather than the two family elders making the decision, various ways are found for the prospective bride and groom to check each other out. Shopping trips with family members are often used to arrange a surreptitious look. The bride to be might be at a jewelry store with a sympathetic aunt or other relative at a pre-arranged time when the groom might be near by or even in the store. Sometimes, it is possible for the two young people to even exchange a few words. Another ploy is to leave a family photo album lying about during a visit by the groom to the bride's family home to meet and be interviewed by her family. And so forth.

All that reflects how things were done among the more educated urban-dwelling Saudis we worked with. In more rural areas, in areas which were deeply rooted in religious tradition, marriages were still often arranged by family and the bride given little option or participation.

Some other oddities about work and life in Saudi Arabia

For all the many reasons above, most Saudi men tended to marry late in life, in their latter 20s. One of our colleagues at the Red Crescent Society married during out time there. At first, after he was married, we did not see him later in the day, or in the evenings, or on the social excursions we and our (male) colleagues would occasionally make downtown. But then after a few months, he reappeared to "hang out" with his friends. When we asked him why he was not at home with his new wife every evening, he replied that when he went home in the late afternoon his wife expected him to take her shopping. As he put it, she had all day to sit with her girlfriends and see what their husbands had bought them and she wanted him to do the same. He felt it was much less expensive just to come back to work in the evening and avoid all the shopping.

In our orientation at the Foreign Service Institute, one of our advisors described Arab men as "the most hen-pecked men on Earth".

A couple of quick facts to illustrate some other differences in the two cultures.

The Muslim calendar, also called the Hijiri calendar, is a lunar calendar based on observation of the moon. It starts with day zero being the time when Mohammed and his close followers moved from Mecca to Medina, where they established the first Muslim community. That corresponds to the year 622 CE in the Georgian calendar. So it starts with a difference of 622 years. But, since the Muslim calendar is also shorter, having 360 instead of 365 days per year, that difference shrinks every year. For example, the first of June, 1986 in the Georgian calendar corresponds to the 24th of Ramadan, the ninth month in the year 1406. A difference of 580 years. All our official project documents carried both the Georgian and Hijiri date, but our host organization used primarily Hijiri dating, so we had to learn a new calendar as well.

The work week was also different. There is no Islamic equivalent of the Christian Sunday, when (most) all Christians worship. Except Seventh Day Adventists, of course. Instead, a Muslim is to pray five times a day if possible. In Riyadh, stores, businesses, and government offices ceased operation and closed their doors at the prayer times during the day. There are six times for prayer in each day: a very early pre-dawn prayer time (Fajr), a prayer at sunrise, a prayer about noontime (Dhur), a prayer in the late afternoon (Asr), a prayer at sunset (Maghreb), and a final late night prayer at bedtime (Isha). Prayers were to be done at a mosque if possible, or together with other Muslims if a mosque was not nearby. The prayers were prescribed in form and done in unison with other worshippers. On Fridays, at the noontime prayer, the spiritual leader of the mosque spoke to the worshippers, analagous somewhat to the sermon in a Christian service. This made the Friday noon prayer a more special time at the mosque and that was a time most mosques were particularly well attended. So, Friday was roughly equivalent there to our Sunday, and the Saudi Arabian "weekend" was therefore Thursday and Friday. The work week was Saturday through Wednesday. That, plus a six hour time difference made conference calls with the home office hard to arrange.

And the Saudi work day also was different. In the Arab culture and in Saudi Arabia, there is no clear division between "work time" and "personal time". It was common to find our Saudi colleagues conducting personal business while at "work". And also common to find them "working" late in the evening. Generally, a Saudi started the work day in the early morning, worked until time for a mid day meal, then went home to dine with family. He generally returned in the late afternoon and worked well into the evening before going home for the night. Getting accustomed to that schedule was not easy.

Another big difference was that there was virtually no "insurance" industry in Saudi Arabia. Not only no life insurance, but no insurance on property or for personal liability. This was reflected in the approach to traffic accidents described in the sections above on law and police. But is also had a real consequence in the case of one of the Saudis we knew in the Red Crescent organization. This fellow was a driver and had an accident driving an ambulance that resulted in the total destruction of the vehicle. Fortunately neither he or anyone else was injured. But, since the Red Crescent as a governmental organization was not allowed to have any insurance, the poor fellow had to pay personally the full cost of the destroyed ambulance, probably about the equivalent of some $50,000. He continued to work, but his salary was entirely applied to this pay back, and he depended on his family for living costs. I believe that after a time there was some accomodation made to allow him a small part of his salary to live on, but the debt remained his obligation. Perhaps another reason there were so few lawyers in Saudi Arabia.

Islamic banks pay no interest. If you deposit money in such a bank, you are assured that your money is safe and will be repaid to you in full at your request. But you do not earn or receive interest on the money. It is forbidden to make money from the labor of others, or to make money from money. Neither a borrower or a lender pays interest in an Islamic banking system. Also, an Islamic bank will not make loans to businesses dealing in alcohol, weapons, gambling, or any activity seen as immoral or otherwise forbidden. If you wish to buy a car, for example, a bank would purchase the car as an asset on your behalf and you then pay the bank back in installments. During the time we were there, banks based in other countries were rumored to be opening up in Saudi Arabia and beginning to pay interest, but I don't know if that ever happened.

On a final note, with regard to equality in Saudi Arabia, there are the burial customs. After a person dies, burial is generally within 24 hours. The body is ritually washed, by family members or specially trained individuals, wrapped in plain white cloth and buried, never cremated, without a coffin or any container in an unmarked grave. This applies to the Kings as well, the only difference being that a King is taken far out into the desert and buried secretly in an undisclosed location to prevent desecration of the body.

Here's a picture of a cemetery in Riyadh. This one was just across a side street from our headquarters building.

A Riyadh cemetery

And remember too, that the Saudis do things in a big way, as described in the sections about Yanbu and Jubail above.

Here's a picture of the Haaj terminal, a separate terminal at the huge international airport in Jeddah, taken from the highway entering Jeddah. The structure was roofed with tent-like teflon coated fabric that shed the desert dust and did not need cleaning. This structure was huge. Multiple 747s could park with the forward portion of each fuselage underneath the terminal roof. This separate terminal was not only intended to accommodate the vast numbers of pilgrims arriving in the short time period leading up to the Haaj itself but also as a security measure, separating the pilgrims from ordinary travelers and permitting closer scrutiny of them and observation for potential trouble.

Haaj Terminal

Don't Ask. Don't Tell

Another aspect of life in Saudi Arabia was a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" approach to many aspects of daily life there. Here are a few final notes about that.


Although there was a nation wide proscription against the use of alcohol, most Saudis, particularly those educated abroad, were aware that westerners in the country did have access to alcohol, but chose not to do anything about that. In certain neighborhoods of Riyadh, there was a large presence of foreign nationals from the U.S. and Europe. Generally housed in "compounds" of perhaps ten to thirty homes, these foreigners would occasionally have parties or other social events at which alcohol was served. It was rare for there to be any complaint from neighbors or action from police as long as the activities occurred behind the closed doors of the compound wall. On one occasion during our stay there, personnal from the British hospital in Riyadh staged a large party where alcohol was served. The partiers left the gates open and after some drinking began to invite passers-by and Saudi neighbors into the party. Neighbors called the police, who came by and warned the party to close the gates and stop inviting Saudis to the party, but the party continued and persited, and after a few more hours, the police reluctantly arrested the people at the party. Although possession or use of alcohol within the Kingdom generally resulted in severe penalties (public flogging, prison) in this case, the foreign nationals were simply quietly deported. This was often the case with personnel of countries such as the U.S., Britain, Canada, or other European nations. People from other countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, or the Phillipines were not usually so lightly punished, especially if Muslim.

The Brits at the hospital in Riyadh, by the way, had worked up a recipe for home-made wine that produced pretty consistent, drinkable results. The recipe used locally available items, such as the bottled grape juice, sugar, and yeast, available at the supermarket, and produced a product in a few weeks. If bottled and aged another few, it lost the raw yeasty flavor and made a fair table wine. It was common to see western nationals checking out at the market with a cart containing a couple of cases of grape juice, large bags of sugar, and multiple packets of yeast. No one thought anybody was unaware of what was going on. It was the prevaling attitude: What goes on behind closed doors is nobody's business.

The Saudi Arabian International School in Riyadh (SAIS-R)

Saudi Arabia had a public school system modeled on the U.S. system and education was free all the way through graduate level university training for all Saudi citizens. Although much of the system was segregated by gender, women made up a large proportion of the student population all the way through graduate school. The Kingdom was one of the few countries where female graduates from medical school outnumbered the male graduates.

But the Kingdom forbade the establishment of schools by foreign countries. Despite this proscription, there were multiple schools established by other nations, mostly in the urban areas. There was, for example, SAIS-R, The "Saudi Arabian International School - Riyadh", which was a huge structure on the outskirts of Riyadh offering K - 12 education for over one thousand students staffed by educators from the U.S. and other nations. Today, it is known as AISR, the "American International School in Riyadh" Instuction was entirely in English. Although technically illegal, the school had a significant number of Saudi students and during our stay there, was formally visited by Sultan bin Salman al Saud, who had been a fighter pilot with the Saudi Air Force and flew on the Space Shuttle in 1985. Known as 'The Space Prince", Sultan, the son of the current King of Saudi Arabia, Salman, then the governor of Riyadh Province, spoke to the student body at an assembly program and distributed photographs and autographs to attendees. It would be hard to believe that the "authorities" were not aware of the existence of the school.

While we lived there, Ellen worked at the SAIS-R as librarian. She was in the country on a dependent visa, attached to my work visa. Her visa did not permit her to work while in the Kingdom. But she worked at the school full time with the knowledge of our sponsor JECOR and was provided transportation to and from work. All our three children went to school there. It was likely the best school they ever attended. The international make up of the student body was an education in itself and a constant stimulation toward excellence.

Sultan bin Salman, the Sultan bin Salman, the

Sultan bin Salman, the Sultan bin Salman, the

Sultan bin Salman, the Sultan bin Salman, the

And a final picture of the two of us in Saudi dress, headed for the market, incognito.

Typical Saudi Couple