Brian's Blogs

Driving in the Gulf

Driving in the Middle East has always been an adventure for me. I had my first taste of it when working in Jeddah in 1999 for the processed food manufacturer Savola (I was employed to install an intranet for them and to get their internal communications sorted out.)

They gave me a beat-up old Honda Accord. It had blood stains all over the ceiling and, I subsequently learned, had been stretched out after being crumpled in a fatal accident. "You learn to cope with Jeddah traffic in this, and then we will see about getting you another car," they said. I soon discovered why. In a city where it is considered sissy to move down from 5th gear when approaching a roundabout there are plenty of accidents occurring on a daily basis. Riyadh's driving is only slightly better, but it appears the further east across the Gulf that you go, the better the driving. The UAE is a beacon of good driving compared to that of Saudi – though it apparently takes the prize for having the most driving related deaths per head of population.

There are of course, many pluses – such as the price of petrol. In Saudi Arabia a litre costs you around 9 pence – reduced from a heady 12 pence by King Abdullah when he first ascended the throne. Over in the Emirates it is much more expensive. They sell their petrol in gallons still, but the price works out around 22 pence per litre.  Servicing, too isn't astronomical, given they employ third world workers who are paid a pittance for putting in long hours. And although they eschew organisations such as the Automobile Association, that doesn't cause much of a problem, given the fact that if you break down by the side of the road, there is invariably someone who will stop to offer their help in a very short time.

One day I had an urgent appointment in Riyadh right the other end of town. I jumped into the car, turned the key and .....; I said, I jumped into the car, turned the key and .....; I SAID I JUMPED INTO THE CAR, TURNED THE KEY AND .... absolutely nothing.

Oh bother, thought I (a loose translation, obviously!) The beastly battery had died on me. What rotten luck.... or words to that effect. So I took my computer back into the apartment, returned to the car, dug out the jump lead and waited for a friendly car to drive along the road.

Now, dear reader, you should understand that in order to give the car maximum shade I (and all the other residents) parked at the back of the building rather than on the 'main' road (ie the side that used to have loads of dead palm trees since they had planted them before someone else had had time to install the watering system. Only when two of them had fallen over were they then dug out leaving no trees at all.)

This occurred during Ramadhan and what this meant in practice was that very few cars drove along this street in the morning since the vast majority of the neighbourhood were fundamental muslims and – like most Saudis – this meant that they slept during the Ramadhan days and only came out of their homes when the sun went down - a bit like Dracula, if you think about it. (Dracula with a thobe and ghutra?)

So there I sat and waited ... and waited ... and finally an old Nissan Cedric (a Middle Eastern classic) vroom-vroomed its way along the road and I jumped out and flagged him down much to his surprise. (What is this strange man doing up and about out of bed, he must have asked himself.) Unfortunately he didn't speak a word of English, but mafi mushkillah, on my waving the jump leads and pointing to the open bonnet of my car and muttering mushkillah, mushkillah kabir at him, he quickly understood, revved his Cedric round to my disgraced Kia  and within half a minute two vroom-vrooms signalled all was now well. Off he drove after I had firmly shaken his paw and muttered my undying thanks, and I left the engine running while I quickly dashed back inside to grab my computer ... and off I drove to my appointment. Of course, by the time I arrived, all the people I had wanted to see had disappeared off. So I pelted off to a tyre workshop in order to get a new battery.(Well, where else would you buy one?)

The extremely friendly mechanic, who had been dozing in an old arm chair that had found its way into the garage (I obviously woke him up) didn't speak a word of English, and had obviously also been brought up in the think-of-a-number-and-double-it school of sales. Kam? asked I. He reached for his calculator (as they always do - for show I think) and punched in 360. La la, my good man, quoth I. Surely a mistake. Didn't you mean 200? Ah. Perhaps his digit had slipped a notch. Perhaps I would be happy to pay 300? How about 250? How about 260? Done. Shakes paw and said mechanic wields a bunch of spanners, extricates the old battery and throws in a new one with a seasoned alacrity that would have taken me ten times as long to achieve. Goldie growled once more into life and off I drove on a totally deserted road back to the apartment.

In stark contrast I had to visit a tyre workshop as one of my tyres was deflating every few days. It turns out there was a small nail embedded which they found when they removed the tyre, patched the inside, refitted the tyre, balanced the wheel and put it all back together again - 25 minutes which they sheepishly charged me SR30 for (about £4). You were ripped off, a Saudi friend told me over the phone later on!

The following week I had to drive to Qatar. I left Riyadh at 5am and got to the border quite easily by 10. And then it was time to run the gauntlet of the Qatari immigration. Perfectly charming as always - but oooooooh so frustrating. Last time I paid the visa fee of QR105 and all went well. Now they had a new procedure. You have to purchase a Qatari government e-card which you charge up with Qatari riyals and then it is used to debit the visa fee. All well and good - except you pay QR20 (£3) for the privilege of getting a card and then find you can only charge up in QR100 or QR50 amounts. Well, you've guessed it - as I had to pay QR105 I therefore had to charge it with QR150. So I had to pay out QR170 for a QR105 fee. Of course I could use the card next time I went to Qatar… in theory - but as there was only QR45 left on it, I would have to put QR100 on it and then there is only QR40 left after that visit. So nine visits more and it will have been paid off! You cannot use it to pay for some of the charge and pay for the rest with a credit card or actual cash. So I have never used it since then and it still sits forlorn and forgotten in my credit card wallet.

Leaving Doha the next day was very difficult with traffic chaos brought on by the closure of one of the principle roundabouts in the city, and I chuntered my way to the border through wind-swirled white sand throwing itself at the car. The poor girl in the Qatari immigration desk was obviously a newbie. You from where? she asked me as she thumbed through my passport. From England I replied. Why your passport it say 'Untied Kingdom' not 'Ingerland'? (What do you reply to that?)

Eventually she got herself sorted out, stamped the passport and I made my way over to the Saudi side, only to find a herd of goats had invaded the border crossing. I was stopped. Turned back in my tracks. It appears I had left Qatar the day before I had entered the country. At least, the stamp in the passport professed to that. They suggested I go back to the Qatari side and negotiate a new exit.

The Qataris found this wildly amusing. Passed my passport back and forth to one another enjoying the joke immensely. But eventually as the joke started to wear a bit thin they stamped it once more with the correct date and I returned to the Saudi side where the immigration officer waved me through with a big smile on his face. Such charmers those Saudi border guards!

Actually, Saudi border guards were always friendly. Not like some of the other countries in the Gulf. Maybe for them it was a chance to try out their English on the very few Europeans who drove through. Comments such as You know David Beckham no? were routine. As were Where your drink? (They really think people are stupid enough to tell them?) Now, to even think of importing alcohol into the magic kingdom is not something to be recommended to the faint hearted. Severe penalties are meted out to those who try and fail. But many do try their luck, given that the black market price for a bottle of bad whisky would set you back around SR700 (£110). In the UAE you can get a bottle of good rum for Dhs10 (£1.60) so the temptations are ever present.

Most Saudi border guards know all about whisky. Most haven't a clue about gin. So a story that might be of interest for the foolhardy….  BS drives up to the Saudi border post and amongst the usual pleasantries is asked Where's your drink? He points to the bottle of water on the centre console. No Sir. Where is your drink. He opens his cool box and points to the bottles of water therein. No no sir. Where your whisky? Mafi whisky. Oh. Alright. Off you go. And BS goes off, calculating his potential profits as he drives through the Empty Quarter on the way back to Riyadh.

Mind you, the Saudis do get their own back in their own kind of way. I was driving along minding my own business one day and a cop car pulls me over for ... I'm not sure what. He spoke not a word of English, demanded my licence and my istimara (car registration documents) and the next thing I know he hands me a yellow piece of paper and drives off. Well I know enough to understand that it's an on-the-spot fine but what for I haven't a clue. I don't know how much for either. And I was worried that I would need to go to the traffic police (no one there on my previous occasions when I tried to get a licence transfer speaks any English either).

Well, the next evening I went over for iftar to a friend's place - she had made some samosas with spinach & meatballs dripping in lemon juice. Luckily her Saudi friend Sallem was there too and he was able to make out what my traffic violation was all about - apparently I drove down a street the wrong way! Well, as I drive that same route almost every day I find this hard to believe, but it's just another example here of having to grin and bear it. So the next thing I have to do is to find out how much the fine is for. Easy. You ring a number, punch in your iqama number and you are told by an electronic voice how much you owe. So I did and found I owed nothing.

Luckily, before getting too cocky, I remembered that the iqama number on my driving licence is different from the one on my iqama as I had got the licence when I was with a previous company, whilst my present Iqama is registered to my present one. So I rang quoting the old iqama number and sure enough I owed SR300 – about £45.

Now the problem here is that if you owe a fine, you are barred from leaving the country. And as I had to go to Abu Dhabi the following night this could have been a problem. So how to pay the fine? Easy. you go to an ATM machine. Err, nope. SABB ATMs (part of HSBC) don't have the facility. Nor do Saudi-Fransi ATMs. You have to bank with Riyad Bank or Al Rajhi for that privilege apparently. So I spent the afternoon ringing round to see if any of the people I knew had those accounts. Nope. Mushkillah kabir! So finally in desperation I texted my sponsor – and he was delighted! I think it made him feel less of a prat for crunching his Mercedes in heavy Ramadhan traffic the day before even though I protested my innocence! Anyway, he did have a Rajhi account and promised faithfully to pay the fine for me if I paid him back within 24 hours. Which is what happened!

The following morning I was off at the crack of dawn once more for the Emirates. As I approached Al Kharj the sun was about to come up over the horizon behind the water tower – a spectacular sight – and as I got into the desert, a large red ball appeared. Even more spectacular. An hour later a cargo train chuffed chuffed its way along the track sending up clouds of sand in its wake, and then a whole load of camels followed it as if to say ‘what about us’!

Once again at the border the Saudi guards were very polite (and again I was asked if I knew David Bekham!) but on the Emirati side manners were visible by their absence and general lack of helpfulness and friendliness (quite normal as I found on all my encounters with Al Gubaibah border crossing and at Dubai Airport). And then, the lllllllloooooooooooonnnnnnnggggggggggg drive along the one boring road for four hundred kms to Dubai. Every kilometre looked just like the previous kilometre. Excellent road; awful journey

I stopped at loads of lay-byes and drank loads of pepsi (which I’m assured keeps you hyper and stops you falling asleep. Actually Red Bull is even better if you don't worry about what it does to your insides.) I used to go and fro over to Dubai and Abu Dhabi on an almost weekly basis, and with my imminent move to the UAE, had been shepherding the contents of my apartment across the border to put it in storage until such time as I officially start my new job.

Sometimes it was plain sailing down to Al Kharj (100km south of Riyadh), and then the winds would start up in earnest and a massive sandstorm would start blowing which at times meant you simply couldn't see the road which merged with the sand dunes. On one occasion I drove past the last petrol station without being able to see it and didn't realise for another 15kms until the tank was getting dangerously low. Luckily my GPS helped me out and I returned rather than risk running out in such awful weather. When I opened the window to say hi to the poor petrol pump attendant the car got a load of sand dumped inside!

When I started work in the Emirates. I had to get a UAE driving licence pretty quickly. My Saudi licence wasn't good enough. Mohammed (company driver) took me to the driving centre near the Mall of the Emirates where first I had to have an eye test. First I had to pass over my passport and UK driving licence (they didn't want to know about my KSA one) so that it could be translated into arabic - kerching. Dhs30. Then the eye test itself. Kerching Dhs 55. Sit here please blurble blurble blurble - {covers one eye} Sorry, I didn't hear what you said quoth I. That's fine {covers other eye} I now realise he had wanted me to read out some letters on the other side of the room. Which line do you want me to read?  quoth I again. That's fine. I have now been rated with excellent eye sight (6/6 for both eyes) and in addition apparently have passed the Ishihara colour blindness test with flying colours (ho ho - my joke!) as well as being an exceedingly fit specimen.

So I am whisked into a HUGE room, given a number and told to wait ... and wait ... and wait ... for 3 hours! I finally get called and hand over my paperwork - a BIG NOTICE proclaims I need four photographs, a company letter to say I need a licence, and a few other things besides. Oops. But Mafi mushkillah. Only two pix required, no company letter asked for, eye test and translated documents barely looked at and the operator copied all the important info into her computer from my passport. Kerching Dhs110. Go other room, I am told. Sit down. Look at camera. Thank you. Wait. Mr Brain. Here is. One driving licence. Al hamdullilah - I am finally legal and am now allowed to buy a car.

A few weeks later I had to laugh. I went out to meet an Indonesian friend of another Indonesian friend who had returned to Jakarta a few weeks previously. This one is from Bali and very sweet. Finding her proved to be a problem. I'm near the junction of Al Falah Street and 10th Street she said. Easy! thought I. Al Falah is also known as 9th Street which crosses Al Salaam (8th Street) whilst 10 Street is the main road that runs past Abu Dhabi Mall. Hah! Wrong. She was nowhere to be seen. After a lot of phone calls she said she could see the Etisalat building from her place. Clang! It means she had to be near Airport Road, alias 2nd Street alias Sheikh Rashid Street. The problem is that (according to my GPS) there are 98 10th Streets in this city and of course, being new here she had no idea about this and certainly had no idea which one. I passed eight 10th streets before I finally found the right one and we had to agree to meet at a McDonalds which we both could locate. It turned out she was nearer New Airport Road, alias 4th Street alias Muroor Street rather than Airport Road alias 2nd Street alias Sheikh Rashid Street. I wondered which was better – a town with many street names duplicated or a town like Riyadh where many streets had no names whatsoever. I'm still working out the answer to that.


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