First Class, or Guaranteed Delivery, Sidiyk?
I have often given a great deal of thought as to how to characterise life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia simply. The result of all this pondering is a single phrase: "Consistent Inconsistency."
This state of being seems to be reflected in most aspects of social, cultural and economic activity undertaken by the Saudis. One of the reasons for this appears to be the fact that Arabs give evidence of being extremely short-sighted and possessed of severely attenuated attention spans (one ought not to misconstrue this as inferring that they easily forget certain things, such as insults or personal or tribal slurs upon their honor, which they will quickly avenge). I say this well aware of the fact that Saudi society is a complex structure comprised of a wide range of individuals with varying degrees of awareness, education and intellectual gifts. At the top of this hierarchy are the offspring of the wealthy families, both royal and commercial. Almost without exception they have been western educated and consequently they are at least somewhat cognizant of western attitudes, functional motivations and social concerns. Next are the religiously educated (that is possessed of instruction in Islamic theology), who vary in their intellectual abilities but are all thoroughly devoted to the faith. Another group are those who are the ordinary people of the cities, somewhat educated (again in a very closed system which stresses religious predominance over all concerns) and strange hybrid beings who are the product of the bizarre admixing of western science & technology with the traditional customs and traditions of Arab and Islamic culture. One further group are the very old, who have witnessed the confusing changes which have shaken Saudi society to its core in the brief span of 60 years (since the warring tribes were unified as the Kingdom in the mid 30s), and who are the last surviving products of the old culture.
Understandably, each of these groups varies in its ability to exert power (i.e. control) over the affairs of the nation that is Saudi Arabia, although it is fair to say that the two most influential elements capable of change (i.e. regulating Saudi society) are 1) the Islamic religion, and 2) the private commercial institutions / forces which profit from trade and business. In this last instance, due to the essentially hierarchical nature of Saudi society (tribal and monarchical), the means to access wealth lie in the hands of the Royal Family and their concentric circles of influence & power.
These two elements of religion and privileged wealth are the major antagonistic shear forces which create most of the disharmonic and disruptive ripples in the Saudi Arabian pond, for they lie in approximate opposition to each other. It is near impossible to integrate them successfully, since pursuit of wealth means greater association with the rest of the (non-Islamic: mainly western) world, something that the dogma of the nation's ultra conservative interpretation of the Sunni Islamic sect's beliefs strongly discourages, and embracing the westward path of greater trade (& consequent wealth for the privileged upper classes) ultimately results in the dilution and diminution of the singularly repressive expression of the Islamic religion found here.
The very contrasting nature of these two central and irreconcilable forces has resulted, as it inevitably must, in the development of an institutionalised hypocrisy which takes form in the attitudes of those members of the privileged wealthy classes (Royal Family & well connected upper classes), who continue to pursue their private, money-making commercial enterprises simultaneous with giving great (if supremely superficial) lip-service to the rigorous requisites of the Islamic faith.
In other words, as in most inherently undemocratic societies, rank hath privilege. Laws and social norms exist chiefly for purposes of maintaining social control by the elite over the ordinary population.
Unfortunately, despite the great efforts made to maintain the present status quo by those who are in control of Saudi society, the development of a greater level of education and consequent awareness in the Kingdom has enabled the gross inequities of the traditional tribal system applied to a diverse and modern society to become more apparent to those who have neither wealth or influence, but who are increasingly becoming aware of such things due to the social changes brought about by greater contact with a mercenary, materialistically obsessed West.
One of the consequences of this growing awareness of basic economic inequity is the exacerbation of a existing, profoundly schizoid social personality. It is not a unique or completely singular phenomenon, for the process of change inflicted upon less socially sophisticated civilisations in past centuries has always produced this sort of characteristic ‘confusion’ over which values are currently ascendant as the changes being wrought to a society take hold, and which are no longer as needful of strong acceptance.
All of the foregoing is merely a bit of underlying orientation useful for understanding some of the sorely aggravating (by western standards, at least) situations which the expatriate encounters in living and working in the Kingdom, for a state of inconsistency is the norm here. The typical expatriate suffers exquisitely from having to cope with this problem in the course of daily life, since in the West it is understood that consistency is a primary requirement for the successful conduct of anything of importance--whether business or pleasure.
A particularly good example of this ‘being unclear on the concept’ that characterises contemporary Saudi life surfaced recently with the arrival of a letter from the States. The letter was postmarked 26 December and being sent by airmail it arrived in Dammam (located on the Arabian Gulf, in the Kingdom's Eastern Province), after flying more than 8000 miles across the US and the Atlantic ocean, 6 days later. As determined from the Saudi postmarks upon the envelope, it then took 8 more days to make the 320 mile distance from Dammam to Riyadh. Once in Riyadh, the letter too a further 15 days to travel the final 16 mile distance from the Riyadh central post office to the hospital!
I was stunned when this all became clear after receipt of the letter. It had to be some sort of new record in the annals of the Saudi post office for sheer laziness and inefficiency. In fact, it effectively negated in a stroke the whole benefit of modern air delivery of mail.
Mail in past years has always suffered inordinately in the Kingdom. In fact, most Americans who routinely heap abuse on the US postal system at the slightest provocation would find themselves in the throes of a maddened frenzy in short order if they had to endure what to the expat is a common, everyday state of affairs in the Saudi desert. Mail is always grievously delayed here, has been, and always will be. The source of the problem again is the confused state of awareness that arises from implantation of a western information transmitting system to this desert region, where only 60 short years ago the nomadic tribes were still riding camels on raiding parties to steal wives from other tribes. Undoubtedly, the Saudis in the post office have been told that mail is important, that its delivery must be undertaken with reasonable dispatch, and that care and attention must be given to its expeditious processing. The flaw in the system occurs when these instructions conflict with the basic, centuries old customs and traditions of the desert. Among these are a basically leisurely attitude towards doing anything, a lack of understanding of the basic principles of personal responsibility and accountability, and possibly even a slight resentment of things western which have been the source of so much unnecessary ‘disruption’ of their traditionally unhurried lifestyle. Carelessness is a given in this culture, and even religion enters into the equation in the form of ritual prayer and its requisite cleansing required before prayer may be performed--5 times each day. Of course, in a religiously obsessed society, prayer takes precedence over all else, and so when prayer call occurs everything shuts down completely. This last factor is not exactly conducive to the conduct of western business, and yet it is an inalterable component of life in the Kingdom.
Years ago there was a Firesign Theatre recording which included a cut in which a western tourist tries to send a letter through a Cairo hotel. He is told that there are three classes of mail he may choose from: First Class, Second Class and Guaranteed Delivery. The joke is clear enough, applying to most of the Arab countries but especially so in the kingdom. So true is this allusion to the ineffectual nature of Arab postal awareness that the time honored custom among expatriates has always been to send important mail out of the Kingdom with a fellow expatriate who is going on leave. This, effectively speaking, is the only guaranteed delivery available in this country, since otherwise the delivery of mail is ultimately again--as is everything else here—ever subject to the will of God.
There have always been rumors circulating among expatriates over the fate of letters sent through the Saudi postal system: specifically to the effect that on occasion letters are destroyed when the growing pile of incoming mail becomes so burdensome to contemplate that the local postal people simply take the offending sacks of mail out into the desert and burn them. Undoubtedly some of these stories were at least partly true , particularly years ago when the Saudi postal system was still relatively new, but it is reasonably certain that these innocent local ‘problem solving efforts’ no longer go on routinely here.
Something that certainly is true is that while the ordinary mail service in the Kingdom is normally wretchedly slow and unhurried, during those times when the two major religious months of Ramadan and Haj take place, the singularly sparse flow of mail service dries up to less than a trickle. Ramadan is the worst example of this slowdown, since all members of the Islamic faith are required to fast from sunup to sundown each day for the whole month, and the normally lackluster performance of mail delivery services becomes truly vestigial as the postal employees go about their abbreviated work schedules in a hunger-induced state of light-headedness. During Ramadan, mail from outside the country continues to flow into the Kingdom at its accustomed rate, and due to the religiously incipient degradation of postal efficiency the sacks of undelivered mail grow and grow to the point where Arab frustration over the prospect of ultimately having to deal with the accumulated backlog is almost understandable. A decade or so ago the problem might in fact have been dealt with in the manner alluded to above--at least in some of the outlying regions of the Kingdom--but whether the tales are true or merely apocryphal, they remain some of the most cherished and persistent of expatriate rumors in circulation today, whenever those expected letters from home are not arriving as anticipated.
Up until recently, the Saudi postal service employed numbers of Filipinos, whose English language skills made them particularly invaluable for expediting the sorting and delivery of letters written in that ‘second’ language of the Kingdom. Naturally, the salary paid to these people was minuscule in accordance with Saudi policy to pay their Filipino employees proportionate to their native economic standards of living (in other words almost 15% of what a western expatriate would make for similar work). Grievously underpaid or not, the English speaking Filipinos were a great asset to the Saudi postal system (and consequently to the expatriate population). Recently (January 1995), however, a noticeable lengthening in the delivery times of letters, and a corresponding decline in effective mail-handling seems to have become apparent. Again, there have been no announcements, no official explanations, and it is only expatriate intuition which has suggested that some new condition presently obtains with regard to the Saudi postal system.
It was only this past week that information surfaced which likely casts a new light on the recent problems. One of the hospital's Filipinos informed us that due to the present financial crisis which the Kingdom is suffering, the postal system has dismissed all of its Filipino employees and replaced them with Saudis. This step, while in perfect keeping with the Kingdom's existing ‘Saudiization Program’ (a formal policy of replacing foreign workers whenever possible with Saudi nationals, so as to reduce reliance on expatriate provided skills and expertise), has resulted in further encroachment upon the Saudi postal system's already lamentably inefficient capabilities and it is likely to get far worse in view of the marginal skills of the local Bedouins who have replaced the Filipinos.
Back in 1991, just after the Gulf War had ended, I had occasion to make a trip to the Central Riyadh Post Office, located in the old Al Batha District. While the building it occupies is at least reasonably new and modern, the staff and personnel occupying it are something else again. My visit was for the purpose of claiming a parcel which contained an industrial sample of a chemical warfare respirator and suit. The parcel had been opened for inspection, as are all parcels entering the Kingdom, and since the chemical protective suit was rendered in camouflage fabric the customs officials had red-flagged it as being ‘military equipment’ (and hence not permitted to private individuals).
I had taken a colleague with me to meet with the customs agent, a Sudanese fellow I worked with at the hospital, anticipating the need for some good strong Arabic language arbitrating abilities. My surmise was correct, for when we finally found a place to park and got to the right section of the basement, where customs was located, we found the area where we were told the customs people were located empty. Inquiries in Arabic yielded the information that this was the right place, despite the absence of either activity or personnel therein. Nevertheless, we persisted in our efforts to find someone from customs to talk with. It was only after we poked out heads around the corner of a small partition that we found a doorway opening into a small cubicle in which four Saudis, dressed in thobes, shemaghs, and sandals, who were all stretched out on the floor, taking their sweetened cups of shai (tea) in a leisurely manner.
They were clearly unhappy to be disturbed in the midst of this favorite pursuit, but we had intruded positively enough to force them to respond to our entreaty for service. Regtettably, it was clear that their irritation was going to make the encounter a bit less facile than we were hoping it would be.
To shorten a lengthy anecdote, only through the excellent Arabic arguments of my Sudanese friend was I able to obtain release of the parcel, despite the contents. My explanations that I was evaluating the equipment so as to help the Kingdom better provide for its defense against future chemical and biological weapons threats fell largely on deaf ears, since one of the Arabs at some point asked (in Arabic) why I was worrying about something (the Gulf War) that was gone, over with, khallas! Another example of the characteristic short-sightedness of most less westernized Arabs--once the problem is out of sight it is immediately forgotten.
It probably helped that I affected a somewhat humble and nonaggressive stance throughout the discussion, but I was utterly at the mercy of my Arabic speaking colleague, since none of these customs representatives spoke English. The visit to this premier center of the Kingdom's postal system in the capital city of the country was quite instructive, needless to say, and I made a point to try to avoid any further such frustrating encounters of at all possible in future, since I do not count a masochistic tendency among my personality factors.
Some 10 years earlier, while working at the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation in the summer capitol of Taif, I had also had occasion to experience the Saudi postal system in a regional representation of its bureaucracy. As usual, packages sent into the Kingdom to expatriates had to be inspected for illegal material, contraband goods, etc. Unlike now, however, all packages were held there, regardless of content, until the addressee could come down to claim them after the packages were opened in front of both the person they were sent to and the "inspectors."
This frequently led to some embarrassing moments for expatriates, since the assumption was automatically that an expatriate was held accountable for anything illicit sent to him--regardless of whether forbidden materials had been sent innocently or not. Forbidden specifically was any sort of material displaying a woman (whether sexually explicit or merely showing uncovered arms or legs), alcohol, pork products, religious items (non-Islamic), or printed material, books, etc., which were banned on the official censor's list (this includes any works written by T.E. Lawrence, AKA Lawrence of Arabia). However specific the regulations were, the bottom line boiled down to how the Saudi postal official inspecting the parcel interpreted the rules (this always has been, and probably will always continue to be, the mechanism under which the selective enforcement of all rules, regulations and edicts which are in effect at any time in the Kingdom--another manifestation of the arbitrary ‘consistent inconsistency’ factor which creates so much frustration here--are carried out).
The Taif post office was a rather poorly constructed multi-story, whitewashed building which was in a state of undergoing apparently continuous renovations. I distinctly remember my own experiences there, visiting to pick up my own packages or accompanying others who were similarly unfortunate. So much was this experience dreaded that we frequently almost wished that packages would not be sent to us at all.
One particular occasion comes to mind, in which a friend had received notification of the arrival of a package. We made the 20 km trip into town from the hospital in the morning, carefully timed to avoid prayer call which was at 11 or so), and entered the building, threading our way through the various hazards of construction until we finally found the room in which the parcels were inspected. There were several Saudis present, only one of whom spoke English. This fellow had a bad leg and used a crutch to move about on, the leg of which was missing its rubber non-skid tip and a rubber pad to cushion the arm. Since the crutch was aluminized, each time the fellow hobbled about on it he nearly fell as the metal tip slipped on the hard concrete floor. It was painful to witness this discomforting situation, but despite his difficulty getting about, his English was fairly good and we soon communicated our business to him.
Now my friend had a particular taste for water-packed tuna fish, and since it was unavailable in Taif (the only canned tuna to be found was packed in oil), he had his mother send it in to him via the post. When the package was opened and the tins of tuna were revealed, there were mutters of disapprobation from the non-English speakers present. We guessed that it was going to be another case where suspicious (or unfamiliar) material would be confiscated on a whim, simply because it was easier to do this than probe deeply to find out exactly what the items were, and whether they posed a threat (lascivious tuna fish, sexually degrading fish pornography, or possibly fermented tuna--AHA!) or not. Consequently, my friend tried his best to assuage any possible fears that the tins contained ham, pork or pig products instead of simple tuna fish.
Fortunately, our crippled Saudi benefactor (thanks to his linguistic abilities) apprised the situation accurately, and after a few moments of heated discussion with his still unconvinced sidiyks, he released the entire contents of the package's contents to my friend. This made us both considerably happy, since it was a common enough practice for the Saudi officials inspecting the goods to simply declare them forbidden, owing to their personal inability to determine the exact nature of the items, or to confiscate them on whim alone. It was common knowledge that these officials personally possessed some of the best pornography collections to be found anywhere obtained through ‘legal’ confiscation means (apart from the undoubtedly astoundingly diverse personal porno collections possessed by customs officials working at Jeddah's international airport), but there were theories that storerooms existed in the post office in which all sorts of confusing, less identifiable items were permanently stashed (and correspondingly forgotten forever). Certainly also residing in that dusty room were countless plastic and aluminized Christmas trees and Christmas decorations sent over to expatriates by well meaning but unknowing friends and family. Any alcohol which was discovered in expatriate parcels we assumed automatically went home with the inspectors at the end of the day.
At any rate, we took possession of the ‘suspicious’ tins of fish and made our departure, again stepping carefully through a series of low hurdles imposed by scaffolding and barriers which barred all but the slowest progress in any direction, and successfully got out of the building. So relieved were we to have made a fruitful retrieval of the parcel in question that we resolved to bring a rubber crutch arm cushion and tip replacement set out to the Saudi with the bad leg from the hospital. This in fact we did on our next trip, and his gratitude and pleasure in finally not having to lose his dignity each time he took a slippery step on that concrete floor was plain and measurable. It was a slightly heart-warming moment which served to partly bridge the forever yawning gulf that frequently separates the westerner from the indigenous peoples of the Kingdom.
What is the purpose of all the foregoing considerable background on the Saudi postal system? Simply this: letters from home remain vitally important links with the erstwhile 'normalcy' which is found back home, and in this capacity they constitute an important part of the average expatriate's life support system here. For an expatriate, receiving mail is no less important than it is for a soldier serving on some remote battle front. It is worth remembering this if you know someone who has the dubious privilege of living and working in the Middle East, and haven't written for a while. In view of the spectacularly less than adequate capabilities of the Saudi Arabian postal system, a letter becomes all the more important in the Magic Kingdom.