Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries


Patrolled: Dammam, Khobar, 16th January 2008
January 16, 2008, 1:54 pm
Filed under: Saudi Arabia

Slicing through the desert on the way to the petroleum conurbation that is Khobar-Dahran-Dammam. The constant presence of herd of black camels and the attendant bedu in the desert flanking the road. Mohammed maintains that it is the fact that King Abdullah drinks camel’s milk before bed every night that enables him to keep tabs on his thirty-something wives. And that he has a fridge full of camel products. That’s a thought: King Abdullah’s fridge. The desert here is flat, scrubby and whipped by a freezing wind. Stepping outside the car for a few moments is actively unpleasant – and that was before I stumbled into a roadside mosque looking for the urinal. Almost lost my head.

Aramco is a company with its own city, protected by fighter jets that circle above 24-hours a day. It has its own pervasive and highly Americanised corporate culture within, reflected in everything from the traffic lights to the return-book bin in the “recreational library.” Everyone is believed to be fulfilling their potential as a human being, and if not, the management will be very concerned about it.

As far as my tasks were concerned, the proper channels were the ones I was supposed to go down, which despite that being what I was doing, wasn’t quite enough to get any actual information. But it was a start. Loitering in the entrance hall to power.

Khobar: A strip of malls affronting a freezing Gulf. Girls praying on the grass outside Pizza Hut and TGI Friday’s – it was hard not to think that they were in reality bowing down to some far-off god of American fast food.

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Sun sinking low over the cold desert. Mohammed tells a story about a German journalist that he once worked with. This journalist, who now works as a real estate broker in the Caribbean, and who reportedly had a passion for Scooby Doo cartoons, was with Mohammed in the car late one night driving along an unlit highway. Suddenly he turned round to Mohammed in a fright, and said that he had seen an old man with a suitcase walking along the road in the dark. In the circumstances, maintained our German journalist, the old man could only have been a ghost.

Who is more unhinged, Mohammed or the German?

Return to Riyadh – and the entire participation in the Middle East under-23 football championship is checking in to my hotel.

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