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Safety & Security




A Double Whammy of Sorts

Safety and security should be one of the subjects that you seriously consider before going to the Middle East.

    Looking at the Big Picture:

Turn on the news at 6 or 11 o'clock every night and chances are that something terrible has happened in the Middle East, usually in Israel, the Occupied West Bank or the Gaza Strip. With the exception of the Gulf War and isolated bombing incidents in Saudi Arabia, most of the trouble seems to be Isolated in Israel, with  the constant fighting and struggle between the Israeli's and the Palestinian's. These two groups of people have been fighting for decades, and unfortunately, will continue fighting for some time to come, probably  till the arrival of the Four Horsemen.  Israel can be reached from Riyadh in a good days drive, however, don't expect to be let back into Saudi Arabia on your return because they will not let you in.  The Saudi's, as well as all of the other Gulf Coast Countries do not recognize Israel as a 'country', to them it is, and will always be (Occupied Palestine.)

Looking at Safety and Security in Saudi Arabia:

"Death to all drug traffickers". This is a sign that you will see as you enter King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh.   The Saudi's do not fool around with people who are crazy enough to try and smuggle drugs into the country. Jail time is instantaneous, and depending on your nationality, you could be executed, or spend a long time in a very scary jail cell somewhere in Riyadh.  However, while not highly publicized, there is a drug problem in the country, but it is difficult to ascertain how much of a problem it is. Cocaine and heroin seem to be popular, as well as hashish, usually with the local and expat community.   My advice is to stay as far away as possible from these vices.

Alcohol possession in Saudi Arabia is prohibited, (as well as in Kuwait and Iran.)  Alcohol consumption is prohibited according to the Holy Koran. However, again, there is an alcohol problem in the country. Make no mistake that 90% of westerners that live in the country are making their own wine or beer: I did and all my friends did. I visited a couple of Saudi homes in which real alcohol was kept and stored behind false walls and doors. You can buy real alcohol on the black market, but it is quite expensive and risky as well. 

There are those adventurous entrepreneurs who make 'moonshine' with sophisticated home made stills set up in their apartments or villas. The moonshine, or "Sidiqui" as it is called, is very strong stuff, light a match to it and it will produce a nice blue flame. Some people can make quite a bit of extra money on the side selling their moonshine, developing a wide and prolific database of customers. The business is so lucrative that turf wars are now beginning to develop, and  which now include car bombings.

There have been terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia for sure. One was in downtown Riyadh, where a bomb was exploded outside the compound of an American Military establishment. The other more devastating bombing occurred at Al Kobar again against an apartment building which housed American Military personnel, similar to the Oklahoma City bombing. 

The bottom line is that, for the most part, the local Saudi population do not want American military personnel in their country, and to a lesser degree, any kind of westerner/expat  living and working in their country.

Dating is another big issue that is frowned upon in Islam and is something that gets a lot of westerner's in trouble while living in Saudi Arabia. The Holy Koran says that men should only be in the company of women if that woman is a relative, or his wife. A lot of marriages are still arranged in the country, with husband and wife only meeting after the son requests from his family that he is ready to marry. Lots of marriages take place between distant cousins. Saudi's do not date as we know it here in the west, where we start having girl friends in our teens, they will not see a girl till maybe in university. Elementary, Jr High and High schools are segregated in Saudi Arabia, unless kids are sent to private schools, which are usually not segregated. 

So, when single men and women depart the west to live and work in Saudi Arabia, it is only natural that they want to date, to go out to dinner for example, quite common here at home. If a man and a women are caught in a restaurant in Riyadh and are not related or married, they are in fairly big trouble, being tracked off to jail.

So, we've covered the big three: drugs, alcohol and dating. While all are prohibited under Saudi (Islamic) laws, all three can be found throughout the country. The key to not getting caught is too keep a low profile, watch who your friends are, and do things within your own villa or compound.

You will see no churches, synagogues or temples in Saudi Arabia.  The practicing of any religion other than Islam is strictly prohibited in the country as well. But again, there are indeed 'non Islamic religious gathering s' going on all the time. The important thing to remember, keep you meetings, bible study classes, whatever, held in your own villa or compounds. You maybe even lucky enough to go to your local Embassy and attend a 'church' gathering. If you plan to go to Saudi Arabia to promote and spread Christianity, think again. If you stand on a street corner and hand out any kind of religious pamphlet or materials, you will be hauled off to jail. You will see no crosses in Saudi Arabia, ambulances have a crescent moon painted on their vehicles, where we have crosses painted on ours.) The Saudi religious police are constantly driving the streets of Riyadh, and all of the other cities in the country upholding Islamic laws. They love picking up westerner's and expatriates if they feel that Koranic laws are being broken. Offenders of these laws are thrown  in the back of their big  GMC Suburbans, and hauled off to jail. 

The key to staying out of trouble (and jail), is that when you are out in public, keep a low profile, avoid the locals if possible, and follow the laws. Do your own thing inside the safety and confines of your villa and compound.   Remember,   "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

Public executions still go on in Saudi Arabia. They are not publicized before hand, but they usually take place on a Friday, after the midday prayers. People are executed, in public, by being beheaded. While I never witnessed a be-heading, some of my friends did, and it was not a pleasant sight. Local Saudis who break the law, such a killing somebody, raping somebody, molesting, drug trafficking, these are all things that are punishable by death. There are no big fancy trials and court proceedings. As long as one or two people witnessed the crime, the religious court passes down the sentence and the person is beheaded. They usually take place in front of a big crowd, and the person who is doing the be-heading uses one of those big swords, not an axe.  Large pieces of plastic are laid upon the ground, the accused comes out with his hands tied behind his back, kneels down, as is whacked. I have heard that the people who are to be beheaded are given drugs to kind of sedate them, and that they are also bled before hand so that there is not too much blood when they are whacked. After the execution, the body and head are rolled up in the plastic and taken out into the desert and buried. People from the western countries such as Canada, the U.S., England, Australia, are not usually beheaded. They usually spend a long time in prison, have some sort of trial, and maybe sent back to their own country for jail terms. But the unfortunate souls from third world countries such as the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Sudan  any other Middle Eastern country, can be be-headed. It is truly a barbaric act, ( there is no nice painless lethal injection here), but what a great deterrent! I have also read in Saudi Newspapers where some people have had their hands chopped off for repeated theft offences. 

Driving in Saudi Arabia is another very risky and dangerous business. Most of the people who come from the west like to buy big jeeps or Jimmy Blazers for protection should they become involved in an accident while driving in the bigger cities.  You will not see women driving in Saudi Arabia. However, you will see 12 and 13 year olds driving Toyota half ton pick up trucks loaded with sheep or camels in the back of their truck driving in downtown Riyadh. SPEED!!  Since there is very little for the local youth to do in Riyadh, (there are no movie theaters, clubs, pubs, etc), one of their favorite pass times is to get into their Dad's big, beautiful Lexus,Mercedes, Cadillac or Capris,  pick up four of their other friends, making sure they all have their cell phones and cool sunglasses on, (this is at night remember), and drive around Riyadh. They like speeding, causing havoc, trying to look at the local Saudi girls, (which is a waste of time because they are covered from hear to toe in their black robes, 'abayas'), or even better, try to pick up some of the Western women, and for the really hard up, pick up some willing males for companionship.

There is no 'defensive' driving in Saudi Arabia, there is no driver or pedestrian courtesy, (crosswalks mean nothing). Red lights at intersections are basically a pain for the impatient young drivers. If they come to a red light, they will stop, but if they feel they can cross the busy intersection anyway, they will. I still cannot believe that in my 10 years of driving in Riyadh, I never got in an accident. They key to survival is to be aggressive on the roads, don't back down from the locals, but STILL follow the basic laws of driving. Stop at red lights, slow down on the yellow, stop at STOP signs, etc. If you are caught breaking one of these laws, you will have to pay a hefty fine, and spend one night in jail. Not worth it for trying to beat the yellow. The local police are not that motivated to uphold the traffic laws. Basically, local cops hang out at busy intersections waiting for accidents to happen. They like to ask for driver's licenses, registration and Iqama's. (The Iqama is a small passport like booklet that is given to you after you give up your passport to your Saudi employer or sponsor. The booklet contains all you vital working information, as well as your birth date, nationality, your marital status and religion.) I was at an intersection one night, waiting for the light to change when a Saudi policemen, who was hanging out on the median, strolled over and asked to see all my papers. I had been eating a slice of pizza at the time. I quickly showed my papers, and offered him a slice. He took it and munched away. For the most part, the police don't really bother the westerer's. As I mentioned, as long as you obey their laws, you will be fine.

Automobile insurance is an option in Saudi Arabia, not like here at home where it is mandatory. However, all of my friends, including myself, always purchased insurance. If you were unfortunate to get in an accident with a local, undoubtedly the accident would always be your fault, even if it wasn't. The local police don't speak English, so it is difficult to explain your side. So if you buy a vehicle in Saudi, buy big and buy insurance. Luckily, I was never in an accident and never received any kind of traffic ticket, and never spent a night in the lovely Riyadh jails. 

As I mentioned, the Saudi youth, with little to do with their spare time, liked to patrol the streets, race each other down the main drag and generally make themselves a total nuisance of themselves. We saw some horrific accidents in Saudi, needless deaths that occurred due to speed and stupidity, (I guess like some of the crashed here at home). My family and I only really drove when we had to, none of this nice leisure drive on a Sunday afternoon thing. It was just too nuts most of the time. It's even more chaotic when the Saudi National Soccer team wins a soccer match. During one world cup win some years back, the Saudi Youth were out in force, racing up and down the roads with flags and music, stopping their vehicles at intersections and dancing in the streets, and on other cars. I remember one guy jumping on my hood with a Saudi Flag and doing the jig. Your best weapon when driving in Saudi is your horn. While we use our horns very little here at home, it becomes very useful and necessary while driving downtown Riyadh.

If you do happen to land in jail, your employer/sponsor will send a representative down to the jail to get you out. However, it depends on the severity of your crime. Minor traffic violations usually only warrant you one or two days in jail. Liquor offenses usually warrant more jail time and your employer/sponsor has to help you out. If it is serious, you may end being sent home. As the offenses get more serious, your Embassy maybe able to help you, but don't count on them for too much assistance.  Embassies in Saudi, and for the most part in all countries are basically there to help you out with passports and other legal  documents. 

The bottom line is to do your own thing while you are in your own villa/compound. However, if you guys are having a huge party with Guns and Roses blaring, the Saudi (Religious) police still have the authority to move in and make a big raid, they love that stuff.

Christmas and Easter are not celebrated in Saudi Arabia by the locals, but again, you can buy 'seasonal' lights at any big mall, some will sell small 'seasonal' trees as well. It's not a problem to celebrate these events in your own villa/compound, just don't take it outside. 

Overall, my family and I felt quite safe while living and working in Riyadh over the 10 years that we were there.  We never had a run in with police or authorities, no one really bothered or hassled us. The Saudi's are very family orientated, and if you are there with your wife and kids, they tend to be friendlier and more congeal towards you.   As long as you obey their laws and abide by their religious rules, you will be okay. The biggest concern really was the driving: extra caution, patience, driving a bigger vehicle  and 'offensive' (as apart from defensive driving) is the key to driving in Saudi Arabia. (Make sure your horn works!).

The Holy Kabba in Mecca



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Copyright 2001 Mario J. Hemens
Last modified: September 02, 2001