My Travels…

January 16, 2009

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia

Filed under: Middle East — Tags: , , , , , , — Glenn @ 7:18 am

So I finally made it to Saudi Arabia after my passport and visa were delayed a couple of days…

Map of the Area

I landed in Manama, Bahrain a couple of days ago (January 13th, 2009) and stayed there until the 15th. I noticed an interesting thing during the flight from London to Bahrain. I flew Gulf Air which is based in Bahrain I believe. Like a lot of international airlines they have a moving map display that shows where you are during the flight. This one had something else. It showed a compass and it was pointed to a city or something I had never heard of before and it took me a while to realize it was an indication of the direction of the Qibla for them to pray to. Qibla is the direction to Meccha (or Makkah). They also have it indicated in the rooms in hotels.

Google Arabic

Google Arabic

Another interesting thing I found out is if you use Google here the page orients right to left. Kind of a pain.

Bahrain is made up of 30 or so small Islands and was ruled by the British for many years. You see a lot of UK citzens there. At least I did in the hotel. I stayed in the diplomatic area so all of the embassies were there. the US embassy was a little to far to walk to, though. One of these days I’m going to a US embassy in another country just to say I did it.

Bahrain is very westernized. Many wear the traditional dress but most don’t. The women can wear whatever they want unlike other Muslim countries. They can also drive and hold a job if they want. Most everyone apparently speaks at least some English, probably because it was a British possession for a long time and the fact that they do a lot of business with the west. I never had any problems communicating with anyone. The people are very friendly as far as I could tell. They would strike up a conversation without hesitation. They even have bars there which is pretty unique in Middle eastern countries. I even had pork sausage for breakfast one morning.

They have a lot of Western restaurants including Chili’s, a Hardrock cafe, and, of course, McDonalds. There’s also a Dairy Queen. I never saw it but I saw many signs for it. I’ve never seen DQ in another country before.

They have a different work week than we do. Their weekend is Friday and Saturday so you have to plan accordingly. They also shut down businesses after lunch for a few hours and after noon on Thursday they close for the weekends. Not everything, of course, but the businesses that would normally close for the weekend like government buildings, offices, etc.

It’s actually a nice looking country once you get around a little bit. There’s a lot of construction going on. They’re building offices and resorts all over the place. They even have a World Trade Center. It’s a pretty unique building in that there are three wind turbines between the towers. There’s a constant wind from the north and the buildings are situated so that the wind blows between them.

Most of the people working in the hotel were foreigners, mainly Indian and Philippino from what I could tell. They’re there to make money to support their families back home. They mainly seemed happy from what I could tell so I doubt they are abused by the Bahrainis.

As you would expect it’s mainly desert. they have a lot of landscaping in place so you don’t really notice the desert. They get water from desalinization plants around the main island. I didn’t drink the water but it’s probably safer there than many other places.

We traveled to work in Saudi Arabia on the 15th. We went to Al Khobar which is where the Siemens office is located to meet the people we would be working with. It was about a 50 minute drive and we had to pass through 2 customs check points on the causeway, one leaving Bahrain and one entering Saudi Arabia. It was pretty painless and there wasn’t much traffic. It was even quicker for us because the person we drove over with had a special pass to get through customs quicker. He paid a lot for the pass, around $3,000 but he said it was worth it.

After we finished meeting everyone at the office we headed for the jobsite in Jubail which is about an hour north of Al Khobar. there’s not a lot to see during the drive but I did spot a camel. They have very heavy security at this site including military with heavy weapons visible. There’s a truck at the entrance with a heavy machine gun in a turret and a few armored hummers patrolling around the site. I won’t bore you with the details of the work I’m here to do but let’s just say I’ll be here longer than I expected, maybe two months or more. It’s a mess.

Saudi customs are pretty strange compared to ours. The women here are not allowed to drive, work, or show their faces in public. You can be arrested for being in a room with a woman (clothed ot not) if she’s not your wife or relative. The men can have multiple wives, I think up to four (why would you want more than one, or even one? (LOL)). The women really seem to take a back seat to the men here. I’ve only seen a few but they seemed to always be following the man. It’s also apparently not a universal thing as the first woman I saw was in the hotel lobby and she was wearing western clothes. I heard that Al Khobar is not as strict on the dress code as other cities are. I’m not sure why. That’s one of the reason I wasn’t really thrilled about coming here. The weekend here is Thursday and Friday, BTW.

Like Bahrain, there seem to be a lot of foreigners working here, again in the more manual labor and service type jobs. Almost all of the construction workers I saw at the site were foreigners. A lot are Pakistanis. everyone was very polite and friendly. They greet you and shake your hand without hesitation.

One intereting thing I noticed when I got to my hotel is they have 3 Showtime stations and many foreign networks. I saw networks from France, Germany, Italy, the US, and UK. The Showtime channels appear to be uncensored as with all the other stations. That means they’ll have rough language and probably nudity on the television. It just seems strange and hypocritical to see women in various stages of dress or undress on the TV but they are heavily covered on the streets and in public.

So I’m staying in the Intercontinental Al Khobar. It’s a 5 star hotel and expensive. My corporate rate is around $280 a night so I’m glad they reimburse me for it. It’s a new hotel, so new they’re still building part of it. The room is fantastic. It’s a junior suite meaning it has a separate bedroom with a king size bed. There are two plasma TVs, one in the living room and one in the bedroom. The living room has a nice couch and chair and a full size work desk. It’s actually almost a small apartment. If it had a kitchen you could live here.

Al Khobar Intercontinental Hotel Living Room

Al Khobar Intercontinental Hotel

Al Khobar Intercontinental Hotel Bedroom

There’s a restaurant and a coffee bar in the lobby, a nice gym (very well equiped), a spa, and who knows what else. I haven’t finished exploring yet. It looks like it’s in an interesting part of the city. I’ve heard there are many good restaurants nearby as well as shopping areas. One of the things I wanted to do while here is go to the souks. Souks are markets here and you can find everything under the sun. I’m going to go to the gold souk soon as the one in Al Khobar is supposed to be one of the best in this area. Good selection and good prices. I hear they only deal in 22 karat gold here so it’ll be interesting to see what they’re like.

Also, it’s pretty chilly here. I think the highs are 55 to 60 degrees and it usually windy. here’s no sand flying but in the shade it gets pretty cool. I wonder if they get sandstorms during the winter here…..

What I’ve learned about Saudi culture so far…

Always do everything with your right hand like handing someone something, shaking hands, etc. The left hand is considered unclean because that’s the hand you use to clean yourself with in the bathroom.

Never look at or talk to the women. I’m not 100% sure how this one works, if it’s with married women, single women, all women or what. If you can’t talk to a single women how do they ever meet and get married? As I said earlier, if you’re caught alone with a woman you can go to jail from what I hear.

Never cross you legs where the sole of your shoe is facing someone. This is a great insult in this culture and a tough one for me because I usually cross my legs when I sit. I keep catching myself doing it.

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