Saudi Living: FAQ

We are back for another round of FAQs on our lives in Saudi Arabia. My wife, Robin, and I have enjoyed turning over your questions during the morning commute. Naturally, I know that looking at a phone is dangerous while I am driving, so I’m proud to tell you that I didn’t use my phone. I grabbed paper and pen to take notes instead. Safety first!

FAQ: If the music is too loud in a restaurant, is it okay if I tell the waitress to turn it down, or is that culturally insensitive?


I know you can’t hear that there is no music in this photograph, so you’ll have to take my word for it. On a side note, I find the serving portions on the smallish side in this country.

This really would be impossible. You can’t tell the waitress anything at all—mostly because there are no women waitresses in restaurants in the country. All the waitresses are men. Still, you would not ask one of them to turn down the music, not because it would be offensive, but because the restaurants do not play any music at all. I am happy to tell you then, that the music in restaurants here will never be too loud—and, now that I think about it, you will never have to shout over the noise to be heard. It’s quite a nice difference.

FAQ: Is it true that billboards of George Clooney disappear over night? And I mean the whole billboard.

It does happen. Just. like. this. Our route to school this year had just such a billboard mounted atop a huge metal column. George was there every morning to greet us on our way, always smiling that winning smile. He held in his hand a hot cup of expresso, the kind of expresso that only a man with his suave and debonair manner would drink. My wife decided that everyday she would greet him with a “Good Morning, George.” I eventually got into the whole celebrity thing too. Then, one day, boom! He was gone. Right along with the whole billboard, the support beams and the massive steel column too. No one can explain it. So, yes, it happens. Expect it. (Sorry for the lack of a photo. But, in my defense, it did disappear.)


This is the chair that taunted me–I swear I could hear it sniggering.

FAQ: If I am ever stuck in IKEA 10 feet away from the chair I just purchased and not be able to get the chair because it is in an employee only area with no employee to get the chair because it is prayer time, how long will I have to wait?

Great question—we’ve had this one a few times already. Answer: about 30 minutes. When prayer times start, employees get to have a break in case they want to go to the nearby mosque to pray. Not all do, but they are given the chance. If your chair has come from the storage area and is just about to cross that magical barrier between where employees are permitted and you aren’t, and the call to prayer starts, that chair will sit there in your view for the next 30 minutes. Instead of getting upset about it, I suggest sitting down and be patient. You can’t really do anything about it anyway. You could even pass the time doing something—I don’t know what, maybe, praying?

FAQ: Should I bring back bacon from Bahrain after a day trip because bacon is not available in Saudi Arabia?

Clearly, no. Bacon is not good for your health. Not only can it clog your arteries and raise your blood pressure, it can increase your border crossing time considerably, especially if the customs officials take an interest in the “sliced meat” package. A friend of mine was delayed in crossing the border because of this exact situation. On the flip side, he did get to meet many of the border crossing officials. They got to chat for a long time about “sliced meat” and other topics, I suppose. (Obviously, I can’t add a photo of bacon, can I? 😉 )

Keep those questions coming! We are happy to answer any that we can.

Saudi Living: FAQs

Finally we have gotten enough questions from people to write a full blown blog entry for Frequently Asked Questions about living in Saudi Arabia. If your question isn’t answered here, keep asking. Someone somewhere is bound to know the answer—or willing to make up one to satisfy you.

IMG_2359FAQ: If I am driving from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates, and I stop at the McDonalds just before the border crossing, how long should I expect to wait for my food?

We have been asked this question so many times. You will wait for at least 30 minutes. Those three Filipino guys are working their hardest in that wasteland near the border, and when everyone, hungry from their journey past nothing but the occasional camel market or burned out vehicle, stops in for some burgers, shakes and fries, it can get a little backed up. Just be patient—and make sure that another person does not accidentally take your food—this will add to your wait time even more.

FAQ: Will I have to go to a communications company multiple times to get a phone up and running?

Yes! Those people at the company love so much interacting with their customers and showing that they’re not “just a company” that they will say just about anything to get you to come back. Why, we went to the store several times in a row with them smiling and saying things like, “The computers are down, come back tomorrow when they will be up and running again, inshallah,” and “The whole system’s down. Come back tomorrow, when it will be up and running again, inshallah.” They were waving and smiling, so we got to smiling and waving too. They just loved to see up stopping by. We got to be frequent guests, until the phones were up and running. Now they just send us messages all the time—“New opportunity!” “New offer!” They are just trying to get us to come by again. Nice people.

FAQ: Should I prepare myself for the hot weather by spending some time in a large oven or hang out in a foundry?

We have known some who found this the best preparation for Saudi’s weather in August. We didn’t though—our home area in the States is short on foundries and ovens large enough to walk around in. We opted for the more convenient preparation of breathing deeply the hot air coming off a car engine running at high rpms during a hot Floridian summer. That said, we have acquaintances who came with no preparation at all. Last time I saw them, they were alive, but really sweaty.

FAQ: Is it true that cars in Saudi will not go when the light turns green unless someone honks his horn?


IMG_2330Yes, it’s true! Cars here are apparently fitted with special mechanisms that prevent them from beginning to accelerate unless someone honks their horn. If that light finally turns green and no one honks, we will all just sit there while the intersection remains empty. Fortunately, there are plenty of people who are on the job. No sooner does that light turn green than people lay on the horns. It really gets people going.

Watch for the next installment of FAQs–we have received so many. If you have a question about life here, leave it in the comments below.

Saudi Living: Taking a Taxi

Getting around in our town isn’t too hard. We live in an area where three towns have grown into each other: Dhahran, Khobar and Dammam. We work in Dhahran, and we live in Khobar. When we first arrived, we stuck to the scheduled busses offered from the school to get to work and back home. Then there is our compound bus, which gets us to the malls and grocery stores. And there are taxis. There is no public transport, no public busses or trams or streetcars or subways. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Most men drive themselves. Besides, the town is definitely built for cars—and with gas cheaper than water, why not drive?

So a car became the goal. Not that we mind the taxis and busses, but the car has its own schedule—it goes when we want, exactly where we want, and—we get to choose the radio stations. Arabian Pop!

We tried two taxi services. The first one was a private taxi service. You just phoned him up, and bang—you had a taxi at your door. This was a little unnerving at first because the situation looked shady—just some guy offering rides and asking for money, but everyone in the compound seemed to know this guy: Aziz. A neighbor gave us the phone number, and we called him. He answered in a heavy Indian accent, which is hard enough to understand face to face, but over the phone with no facial expressions, reactions, or wildly flailing hand gestures, it was near impossible without lots of repetition. Just that disembodied voice clipping the sounds and running the words together. This isn’t my mother’s English.

The first time I call, I don’t really bank on anyone showing up. After living overseas for a while, I assume that any venture like this is bound to succeed only a fraction of the time. Maybe that’s a little pessimistic, but when the driver does show up, it feels a little like a birthday. I look out the window watching for anyone driving like a taxi looking for a pick up. The fellow who answered the phone was, in fact, Aziz, and I realize then that he didn’t ask our apartment number. So I keep looking. It has been 25 minutes when I realize that the large white van at the other end of the compound may have been circling for some time, so I go outside.

He comes back around the road to where I am standing now, and I look hopefully at him. He stops. He rolls down the window. His face has no expression. His hands are tamely holding the steering wheel. I’m getting no vibe from him at all. “Aziz?” I ask.

He nods his head. We did it! We called a taxi. And he came. It’s feeling like my birthday. I call Robin and Win down and in moments we are all loading up into an unmarked white van in Saudi Arabia with a man we’ve never met. We have been only in the country for a week, and already we are achieving a kind of independence. Movers and shakers!

He pulls away without a word. And I sink back into the seat, thinking—we are only a week in Saudi Arabia, we have just gotten into an unmarked white van with a man we have never met, who has said hardly a word to us. Wait. What are we doing? I don’t really know who this guy is. I start looking for a place for us to leap out. If he would only stop for longer than a moment.

I strategize. I know that I can get out fast, but there are three of us. Once I leap, he’s off with Robin and Win. I can’t leave them behind. Robin could go first, but she would have to climb over me first, delaying her escape. She could be left on the roadside alone. Then there’s the potential for injury. Leaping from a moving car is fine for stunt men, but I’m not sure I am even insured for death defying, or injury inducing, leaps from moving white unmarked vans.

I smile at Robin, not wanting to give off my uncertainty at our future. She smiles back, sitting there in her black abaya. Win is lost looking out the window.

Here is a photo I hastily took out of the window to have some evidence of our disappearance. Can't really tell where it is though.

Here is a photo I hastily took out of the window to have some evidence of our disappearance. Can’t really tell where it is though.

The man behind the wheel isn’t giving me any chance at all; he rounds corners; he speeds through back roads; he takes speed bumps at generous speeds pushing the shocks past their functional limits.

If we did all get out, how would we get back home anyway? This is the only “taxi” service I know.

He dodges around several slow vehicles. I calculate quickly. We probably could jump from those cars. But we aren’t in them. We are in an unmarked white van.

My breath is coming up short. I grip the seat. My hands are sweaty.

Suddenly, as though the clouds parted and blue sky opened up to us, I see a sign: The Dhahran Mall.

That’s where we are going. We are headed to that mall. We wanted to go to the mall.

He skips through the parking lot pulling a wind of plastic bags behind him. He jerks to a stop outside gate 8, our gateway to the glories of modern consumerism.

I smile at Robin. I knew all along that this was legit. She shouldn’t have worried. This guy is part of the private taxi service. Aziz came through. After hopping out, I look at his stoic face and say, “Thanks Aziz, how much do I owe you.”

“I’m not Aziz,” he says. “Twenty-five rials.” He’s not Aziz.

I pull out my wallet and hand him the money. My hand is shaking.

I have to get a car, I think.