One nice thing about living in this part of the world is the general sense of hospitality most expats have towards anyone else experiencing the same ridiculous day to day life. It helps to have someone to share common experiences, and for the most part people are glad to be able to help someone like themselves who seems to be in need. Most everyone at some point or another found themselves in a similar situation when they first arrived, so it’s only natural to continue the cycle.
This past weekend I was invited to a dinner by the Brit. I was joined by the Brit’s wife, one of his close friends, a Welshman, and a menagerie of other expats that included Americans, French Canadians, and, the ever present bearers of libations, Scots. The majority of the guests worked for Aramco, the Saudi oil monopoly, which has a bit of a reputation for producing snobs. Aside from having to listen to a few overzealous American paramedics who dominated conversation with their relatively racist views on Saudis and their poorly formed understanding of Islam, everything went wonderfully, and I was asked to join a few people the next day for a beach barbecue.
Aramco is a bit of an enigma. It’s very well known and through various direct and indirect means provides a significant amount of work (and money) for both Saudis and expats. The main compound occupies a huge parcel of land situated at the edge of Dhahran, and has every modern convenience that a typical western expat would want, many of which are prohibited such as cinemas, and they even let women drive (or so I’ve heard). It’s basically its own little isolated country, sealed off from the prying eyes and repressive hands of the mainstream Saudi public. There are several other Aramco compounds, none of which I know much about, because for as well known as it is, it’s impossible to get into without a contact who works directly for the company. Seeing as I work for a Saudi owned international school with zero ties to the oil industry, I don’t have many Aramcon acquaintances.
Thankfully, the Brit does, so I joined him, his wife, their baby, and the Welshman for an afternoon at the beach. We were given guest passes by a Scottish veterinarian, and after a half hour drive from the Brit’s apartment we reached the edge of the Aramco Yacht Club, which is nestled along a beautiful stretch of white sand beach in Half Moon Bay along side Prince Mohammed’s palatial estate .
Not what I was expecting for a beach in Saudi
The Scot rents out space on the beach for a large canvas tent, and basically lives there during the relatively nice winter months. The weather was a bit cold, and there was a sharp wind that picked up towards evening, but it was a lovely afternoon spent grilling kabobs and drinking cocktails made with sidique, basically moonshine, though much better than the original gut-rot I’ve had in previous encounters.
Some rules are more obvious than others
Sitting in the sand around a small bonfire, enjoying the sounds of the ocean and watching the occasional black dolphin leap between the moored sailboats, I realized it might actually be possible to get used to this place.
After a decent dinner at the beach restaurant, and a chilly nightcap under the stars, we piled in our cars and headed home. I was following the Brit, travelling with the flow of traffic (which out on the open highway is about 90mph) when suddenly he swerved into the right lane. Unable to switch lanes because of car alongside me, I ended up smashing through a large huddled mass of black and white fur, garbage, and assorted car parts. At some point during the day, a goat had the misfortune of being struck by a car, and, having been left in the middle of the road, was struck by many more cars, each of which became more damaged than the other, leaving bits and pieces of metal and plastic for the next passerby to drive through.
I’m uncertain as to exactly how big this pile of fun was, but I do know that it ripped the blinker straight out of my bumper, scraped a line into the side of my car to the bare metal, and managed to dent the interior side of the tire rim in not one but three places. I instantly got a flat, and thankfully managed to get over to the side of the road. The Brit eventually turned around and helped me change my tire while the Welshman stood watch and warned us of any large trucks or careening cars coming our way (we weren’t the only car to suffer this fate). He also repeatedly waved off the police officer who was making rounds filling out insurance forms. The last thing we wanted was an awkward encounter with a cop who doesn’t speak English in the middle of the desert at night while trying to change a tire. We were also half in the bag. We slipped the spare on as quickly as we could and limped towards home.
A more sober assessment of the damage.
The next day, I spent my prep driving to the car dealer to sort out my insurance and get an estimate for repairs. After waiting around for an hour chatting over a tea with the other customers I met with an insurance representative who informed me that in order to claim anything I needed a police report for the accident, a doctor’s certificate for all the passengers involved to make sure no one was hurt, and a third party statement for the cost of repairs. Realizing I should have known better than to assume things would work out, I asked for a damage assessment if I paid out of pocket. He walked outside, took a 30 second look around my car, and came back inside. “Seven, maybe nine thousand riyal, inshallah. but we ask for discount. No problems.” That's roughly $2500. With a sigh I hung my head and got back in my car.
When I got back to the Boys’ School, Faraz, a Pakistani assistant, took one look at my car, and made a quick phone call. Later that day in the middle of a lesson, he pulled me out into the hallway to ask how much I’d be willing to spend to fix my car. I told him whatever it costs. He sighed and said “Well, my guy can fix your tire and his brother can fix and repaint your bumper. It’s gonna cost you 400 riyal though, but I think he might be trying to rip you off a little bit.” I got my car back this morning, good as new, my wallet only slightly lighter than before.
It’s amazing what a hundred dollars and a sympathetic friend can get you.