Category: Saudi Arabia

February 11th, 2004 by Jon Aristides

When I wander around the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) today, I can see and experience many things that were unthinkable when I first came here just ten years ago. The first significant change that strikes me is the process of arrival itself. The Immigration Security no longer appears to take pleasure in voyeuristically searching around in your baggage in the hope of discovering a porno magazine. In Riyadh, in the past, I have even seen an airport security officer cut open the lining of a Pakistani traveler’s suitcase in the search for banned or illegal substances. In this instance, none were found and the protesting Pakistani was peremptorily waved on his way, humiliatingly left to replace the scattered items inside his mutilated bag. The Westerner in those days received slightly more considerate treatment–but not by much. A colleague of mind was nearly imprisoned for being found in possession of a Bible.

I think it is certain that within the next ten to twenty years, some fundamental changes will take place in KSA. Whether they will be the same as predicted here, only time will tell. It should be kept in mind, that there is always the possibility that future changes might establish a theologically inclined state in KSA, highly critical of Western culture and foreign policy. On this possibility I do not comment. I feel it is, on the whole, unlikely to happen–and if it does, it is probable that we in the West will only have ourselves to blame for it: either through neglect, or a misreading of the situation that leads to the empowerment of, at present, scattered and weak fundamentalist groups.

Now, it is unusual for customs officers to even bother searching bags at all. Everything is put through an X-ray machine and as long as no suspicious material is seen, the traveler is free to collect his baggage and leave. As simple as that! The religious worker who used to check all DVDs and videos for feisty content, was made redundant in a moment; a forlorn casualty of a new and more modern world view that deems such intrusive practices as insulting and degrading to human dignity. Read more of this article »

Posted in Op-Ed, Saudi Arabia

January 1st, 2004 by Jon Aristides

On arrival in Saudi Arabia, more than ten years ago now, I was amazed at how different everything was to my preconceptions. I had been fed the usual line that Saudi was a staunch ally and supporter of the West and that life was easy and comfortable there. How very wrong these ideas proved themselves to be! A particular incident crystallized the reality for me.

I was quickly shipped out to Ras Tanura: a major ARAMCO training complex (but a small and boring little town) and in the evenings I used to walk into the center, buy a few things– and maybe get a take-away meal. On this occasion, I noticed that everyone in the pizza shop was rushing around, as if desperately trying to beat some deadline. They just about managed to prepare my pizza and take my money before closing for the sunset prayer. All this was very new to me, so I thought the best thing to do was take a quiet walk on a hopefully deserted beach while I ate my pizza. As the sunset and I munched away, I noticed a crouching presence right in front of me. Suddenly he sprang up and started shouting and gesticulating wildly at me. Even though I was new to the country, it was fairly clear that he was objecting to my consumption of pizza in his presence while he was praying. I tried to utter a few conciliatory words, but he suddenly barked out a few words in egregious English.

“You must pay fine of one hundred riyals.”I shook my head incredulously and informed the man that I didn’t have one hundred riyals with me (not actually true!). Read more of this article »

Posted in Op-Ed, Saudi Arabia

November 28th, 2003 by Jon Aristides

I was going to entitle this article “Islam and the Arabian Mind,” but it would have been a little predictable and over generalized. I think that in order to appreciate the ways in which religion permeates every aspect of life in the Middle East, the concept of “Inshaallah” is a good place to start.

I have spent around ten years on the Arabian peninsula, working a long way from home, and I think it has taken me this long to understand the Arabic concept of “Inshaallah” and the fatalistic concept of life and death that prevails in that desert kingdom. About a year ago, a Saudi I knew well died in a car crash. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was precipitated out of the back seat of a car his friend was driving head first through the windscreen. The others in the car survived because they had been wearing seat belts. However, on offering condolences, I heard the same point of view repeated time and time again. “There was nothing anyone could have done. ‘Inshaallah.’ It was God’s will: his time had come.” Of course, this totally ignored the fact that the victim had decided not to take a basic safety precaution.

First, what does “Inshaallah” mean? The usual translation given is “God Willing.” However, “Inshaallah” goes a lot further than that. It includes the idea that we are all at the mercy of God or Allah in every moment of our lives. “Will the plane come on time?” “Yes…Inshaallah.” “Will I get the money tomorrow?” “Of course…Inshaallah.” Read more of this article »

Posted in Op-Ed, Saudi Arabia