Sussin' Saudi

Trip Start Jun 03, 2010
Trip End May 28, 2011

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Flag of Saudi Arabia  , Ash Sharqīyah,
Thursday, December 30, 2010

So, Saudi Arabia... sand and camels and Bedouins in caravans… Not!

Our two hour caravan journey from Jordan was on board a Royal Jordanian Embraer jet, our "caravanserai" was the huge, modern and bright Dammam International Airport, and our transport on the two hour trip to Udhailiyah was a Toyota Camry private taxi racing 140 km/h on a six lane divided highway.

It was dark by the time we left the airport, so there could well have been some sand and camels to see, but all we could see once we left the confusing road network around Dammam was the occasional brightly lit oil plant and flaring chimneys.

The infrastructure: The airport was huge for the small number of flights and passengers. Customs and immigration were quick, efficient and friendly. It had all the “modcons” such as coffee shops, ATMs, currency exchange offices. The road network around Dammam was surprisingly large, complex and busy, and as we headed out of town we were surprised to find ourselves on a six lane freeway for most of the way. There was a lot of truck traffic carrying various items of construction equipment and supplies.

The people: Having been in the middle east now for more than two months, the people on the airplane and the airport did not seem to be anything too special, just more extreme. Men in such public places outnumber women at least 20 to 1. About half of the men on the plane and at the airport were wearing thobes and gutra (robes and head gear), the rest wore western clothes. Virtually every woman wears the abaya (long robe), and maybe one in five were wearing the burka (face covering). Interestingly, a young woman in the airplane seat next to Michelle had a baby and was breastfeeding…so, fully covered face but no problem with popping out the boob to feed the baby. Neither Pat nor Michelle wore either an abaya or a scarf, and did not seem to draw unwarranted attention. I did see one other middle eastern looking woman in western clothes.

The compound: Entering Udhailiyah in the dark evening was a bit surreal… all of the lights and flames from the nearby oil plants, and then the gauntlet of security checkpoints into the town. The first was a “police” station with guards in full military rig… helmet, camouflage fatigues, machine guns. We got through that one no problem, and then got to the Aramco security checkpoint. The guards there were a little more laid back and friendly, but we did have to stop and get our visitor papers… a very friendly security guy did the arrangements, fed us dates, and invited us to come to his farm while we are here.

Next stop was a similar checkpoint as we entered the “family compound”.

The residential area: It is the morning as I write this, so we can see the neighbourhood a bit. If you have ever been to Palm Springs, then you don't have to come to Udhailiyah. The housing units are all sand coloured two story semi-detached condos, with big American SUVs, sedans and golf carts parked in the driveways. The roads are paved and have curbs and sidewalks, there are good sized palm trees and some kind of grassy lawns. At this time of year the weather is like an early summer day in BC, but of course it gets unbearably hot for much of the year. It does seem very quiet around here as many families are still on holidays. We don’t have a sense of how big the place is yet… we are hoping to borrow bicycles to have a good look around.

OK, we’ve been around a bit now. It really seems a bit bizarre to me… a bit like a one of those Disney towns… quiet tree-lined streets with SUVs and golf carts in the driveways, birds chirping, a few crews of Arab and Philippino gardeners and maintainance workers, a garbage truck doing its rounds, an occasional bus cruising through with nobody on it, but very few people on the streets. We have been out and about with the golf cart taking the kids to some of their friends’ houses and have driven past the empty parks and playgrounds, rec centres and tennis courts, the golf course, a petrol station, a medical/dental clinic, huge administration building, utilities plants and the little shopping mall. We have run into a dozen or so of the westerners here… parents of the kids friends, friends of J and M, and some of the teachers. Lovely folks, but again, a snapshot of little America with typically American toys and pets. We had a fun evening at the home of a couple from Maryland last night, and there are campfire evenings tonight and tomorrow (New Years) with more American families. It is an interesting experience, and we are enjoying it but it sure ain’t the Middle East experience we have been enjoying in Syria and Jordan. That said, apparently there are real Arab towns and farms not far from here which we should have the opportunity to explore… will let you know.

For you golfers out there I will attach some photos of the golf course. Again, it is rather surreal. The clubhouse is typical… a pro shop and café with wood hues and leather chairs, and shaded windows overlooking the first tee and 18th “green”. The catch is, the greens aren’t green, they are hard packed sand. Indeed, the whole 18 hole course is one big sand-trap. The fairways have been coloured black somehow… we didn’t venture out to see how…hopefully not oil! There really are sand-traps comprising little “pools” of softened sand, and the greens are all hard packed sand. The first tee was some kind of grass, but I think that most of other tees were packed sand. At 10 am this morning, despite it being a weekend and ideal weather (though windy), we didn’t see any indication of golfers. We’ll see if things look more lively after the holiday season.
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