Count Your Blessings

I’m close to clearing one of the last major hurdles in an important aspect of life here in Saudi. This process has been a few months in the making, but relatively soon I should be driving a car. Acquiring the ability to drive in most countries is a relatively mundane undertaking, with few hurdles other than getting your driver’s license and obtaining a vehicle. In keeping with the norm, gaining the ability to drive here in the Kingdom is quite the escapade.  

The vast majority of people who move to the Kingdom to work are given a car by their company as stated in their contract. This was never negotiated in my contract because up until this point my company only hired women. Women are not legally allowed to drive here. My contract does state that I have access to a driver, but it isn’t all that convenient because I share him with the other teachers who live on my compound, all of whom are women. I’ve met a few people with cars who are nice enough to take me somewhere if I ask them, but it gets a bit awkward at times. More often than not I end up taking a cab, and as lovely as that usually is, I decided it’d be worth it to figure out how to buy a car.

Normally with undertakings such as this I’ve found that asking other expatriates usually provides a good starting point, but with this particular subject that hasn’t necessarily been the case. The majority of men I’ve met have company cars, and, since only men can drive, those with wives never have the need to buy a second vehicle. Most people come here with the intention of making as much money as possible, so buying a second vehicle for personal pleasure isn’t all that common either. In the end, most men I know have ample experience driving, but very few actually know how to go about buying a car. Thankfully, the Brit from school has some familiarity with this process, and has been kind enough to guide me through the bulk of this labyrinthine process.  

The process starts with receiving your iqama and opening a bank account. As I mentioned in previous posts, the former took 43 days and was an extremely stressful time period that left me stuck in international limbo, neither legally allowed to leave nor legally afforded any reasonable rights (not that there are all that many). The latter could only take place after I received my iqama and, unsurprisingly, also lasted an unnecessarily long time. I ended up spending a total of 8 hours over two days waiting in a bank, mostly due to prayer time interrupting normal business, only to find out that although my account was opened I wouldn’t have access to for “a while.” This turned out to be several weeks, but it eventually worked itself out once a few well-placed calls were made.

The next step is to obtain a letter from your employer explaining your financial situation that also recommends that you be given the ability to purchase a car. This is only necessary if you intend to buy a car from a reputable dealer or need a loan to finance your purchase. It’s not that difficult to find second hand cars for relatively cheap and pay cash for them, but at some point you have to get insurance, and no one I’ve met so far knows how to do that independently. I’m sure it’s a relatively easy process in theory, but given my past experiences with these things I made the choice to buy from a dealer, so I needed this letter. I asked our accountant how to go about getting it, and he assured me that the only thing they needed from me was a copy of my iqama. This was slightly deceptive. For some reason the only way to deliver the copy of my iqama to the appropriate party was to send it with a driver. The only driver willing to take it decided that instead of delivering it, he would talk to his friends to see if anyone had a car they were willing to sell (with a small commission for himself, of course). After two days of waiting and being constantly harassed in pigeon English about cars from a friend of a friend of a friend, I finally took the copy back from him and brought it to the office myself. It took all of 5 minutes for them to write the letter, but the signatures necessary would probably “take a few days,” depending on when the Vice Presidents decided to hold office hours. Several hours and a few persistent phone calls later I had all the signatures I needed, but I was then informed that I would need to head to the Chamber of Commerce to have the signatures attested. The Chamber follows normal Saudi business hours and normal Saudi operating procedures, which basically means it’s a crapshoot as to whether it will be actually be open when you get there, and if it is. whether or not you’ll even be able to get what you need. I went twice and was turned away each time, but the third time, after going with another driver and promising to buy him lunch if we succeeded, I got the stamp I needed.

The next, and by far the most difficult, step is to visit the Driving School to get an actual Saudi Driver’s License. Anyone who intends to drive in Saudi needs to get one, and most people get theirs through their company. I’m unfortunately not that lucky. In theory our company GRO is able to take the necessary documents himself to the Driving School and get it done for any employee. Seeing as this would never happen, I was left with two options. Bribe him to get it done, or go there myself. The Brit has a fairly good relationship with our GRO, and managed to coax him into ‘helping me out’ after a night of drinking in Bahrain by saying ‘You know it’s not something you should have to do, but do you think you could do Mike a huge favor? He doesn’t want to waste your time or anything so he’ll have his driver come pick you up and he’ll give you a hundred riyals for your trouble.’ I was ready to blatantly bribe one of my superiors to do one of the few things his job actually entails, but as expected, things never really panned out and I was left with no other choice than to visit the Driving School myself.   

Apparently Lady Karma decided to swing a little positive energy my way because the day after the bribing failed to take place my school was cancelled due to expected heavy overnight rains. It rained about an inch over the course of 12 hours, but that was enough to flood the major highways and shut down half the city. The Driving School, for whatever reason, stayed open, so I woke up early that morning and walked over there (it’s about a mile from my compound). I arrived shortly after 6am and joined the queue at the Translation Office. I needed to have my Minnesota driver’s license translated into Arabic, something that’s relatively straightforward, and then submit my blood type, and pay an online fee. As I waited to begin this process a Saudi man approached me and started asking random questions. This is usually a ploy to either get you to buy something or to blatantly steal things from you, but after getting his business card and seeing he was a GRO from a large oil company I started answering his questions. As it turns out, he was meeting a handful of his own employees to speed them through the process, and he mistook me for one of them. He took my paperwork and pushed his way to the front of the line shouting obscenities at all the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and other Third Country Nationals. 

What should have taken about an hour was over in 5 minutes, and I was on to the next step without having to submit a blood sample at the clinic shack next door. Once inside the next building I joined another queue and waited to get a ticket from a security guard, which would then enable me to wait in yet another line to take an eye test. An hour later I stepped up to a window, and was directed to look at a sign that showed the letter E and the directions “Say Right.” I was then motioned to look through a magnifying glass at an index card with a few letters on it, and was told in broken English to tell the direction of the E. I said “right” and my papers were stamped to prove I passed the eye test. After this, I joined the rest of the people who also managed to pass the eye exam and waited for my number to be called to finalize the process. I sat down on a bench nearest the wall of windows and waited, slowly accumulating a following of small and unnervingly fragrant Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.   

Several hours later, my number was called and I proceeded to a small window, escorted now by a group of about a dozen men, none of whom had anything to do with me, and handed my papers to a clerk. He took a brief look at the outside of my folder, pulled up my file online and hit print. The license machine next to him whirred to life. Suddenly there was a loud beep and several lights started flashing. The machine spit out my half finished license and the guard gave an unconcerned sigh. He tried for several minutes to fix the machine, then gave up and motioned me to another window. Chaperoned by the now even bigger crowd of overwhelmingly pungent Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, I moved to the new window and found the clerk staring absentmindedly at the computer in front of him. The first clerk held out my folder to the second clerk, who continued to stare blankly at his computer screen. After waiting for about a minute I got annoyed, reached through the window, grabbed the folder and threw it down on the clerk’s keyboard. He shook to life without saying a word, grabbed the folder to see my name, pulled up my file online, and hit print. A minute later he handed me my license. I pushed my way through the mass of awkward little men who surrounded me, filled with a renewed appreciation for personal space, and made my way home. I got to my apartment just before noon, filled with a sense of accomplishment, my skin slick with a combination of sweat, filth, and cooking oil bestowed upon by my crowd of admirers, smelling like a mix of curry, warm fish, and freshly exercised jock straps.

Having completed the above tasks, I now have everything I need to legally buy a car. One would think that it would then be easy enough to walk into a dealership, pick out a car, sit down with a salesman, and start filling out the paperwork. But, no. This is Saudi. In the dozen or so visits I’ve made to dealerships I have yet to meet someone who is actually able to sell me a car. Apparently transactions need the presence of a manager, who, like every other Saudi in a position of authority, can’t really be bothered to take time out of their day to do their job.

My goal is to have a car by the end of the month, but I’m beginning to think a more realistic time table would put me out on the open road by February. Such is life in Saudi. I’m not as upset as I probably should be about this situation, but I stopped letting these types of problems get to me a while ago. I’m just happy I didn’t have to shit in a cup again.