When I arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2008 the weekends ran from Thursday to Friday. Bahrain, which is just a hop, skip and jump over the King Fahd Causeway, had, and still has, it’s weekends from Friday to Saturday. Coming from the UK where the weekends run from Saturday to Sunday made it bad enough to get your head around the Saudi Arabian weekend but in 2013 when the King gave everyone two weeks’ notice that the weekend would be changing from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday it sent all our ex-pat heads spinning.
Palms Restaurant on the compound where I live had a regular Friday Brunch – a sort of virtual Sunday Roast that would rotate it’s meat course over a three week period – lamb followed by beef followed by turkey (no pork unfortunately), but when the weekend changed the Brunch didn’t and now instead of having a virtual Sunday roast we now have a virtual Saturday roast.
It’s a small thing, I know, but it really messes with your head.
I’d been living in Saudi Arabia for almost five years before the weekend changed and I was still occasionally getting my virtual Sundays mixed up with the standard UK Sundays – a UK Sunday was actually a Monday. But when Sunday became Saturday it was even more confusing. Not only did we mix up our UK Sundays with the new virtual Sundays (Saturdays) but we also mixed them up with the old virtual Sundays (or standard UK Fridays) with the standard UK Sundays and the new virtual Sundays (or Saturdays).
There are a lot of things to be confused about in Saudi Arabia. Driving out here is probably the most confusing. Actually it’s not the driving that confuses you – it’s the accidents. I have driven past some accidents where the positioning of the vehicles involved have defied the laws of physics. I saw one accident early one morning when there was hardly any traffic on the roads where a car was halfway up a date palm tree while the other car was on its roof facing towards the oncoming traffic. How did that happen? How can two cars driving on an empty road travelling in the same direction end up like that?
It’s a mystery.
Maybe it can be explained by one driver I saw who sped past me on the hard shoulder while I was on my way home from work one afternoon. The driver’s seat was so far back he was almost lying down and, as well as having his left leg hanging out of the window, his right hand was otherwise engaged in the process of texting someone on his mobile phone and his left hand was holding a cup of some boiling hot liquid. He was manoeuvring his speeding vehicle by means of his right knee and I can only guess at who or what was important enough for him to relax his limited concentration to send a text whilst travelling at 160 kilometres an hour. Maybe it was the emergency room of the local hospital to inform him of the vision they had just had of his impending horrific accident.
I was in a passenger in a car one time, driven by a Saudi friend of mine called Ali. There were four other passengers in the car and, like Ali, they all worked for one of the main oil and gas companies here. He was taking us to visit his stables where we would look at his thorough-bred horses, eat dates and smoke some shisha. On the way there he had to drive through the busy town of Dammam. He did this with his foot on the accelerator, swerving in and out of the traffic at high speed.
My Australian friend Tony, who was one of the other terrified passengers, said, “You’re driving a bit fast through here, aren’t you.”
“Don’t worry, Tony,” Ali replied, “I’m a professional Saudi driver.”
“That’s what he’s worried about,” I remarked.
Too be fair, Ali was a good driver. But the journey to the stables did get me thinking about the many near-misses that I, and all my colleagues, have had on the roads here. Now, I’m not the best of drivers – as my wife will be only too happy to qualify, but at least I know how to use indicators.
I used to think that indicators came as optional extras in Saudi, but I soon came to discover that quite a substantial amount of the drivers here didn’t really understand why they were there. I was talking to one of my Saudi friends one day and I told him that one of the things that bothered me about Saudi drivers was the fact that they never used their indicators.
Before I go on, I’d better explain that they don’t call them indicators in Saudi. Everyone drives big American cars and the indicator is referred to as the ‘Turn Signal’. This, one of the many differences between the American and English language, can also cause confusion. I’d just come off a roundabout once and, without realising it, my indicator was still on. After a few seconds the car reminded me of this with an LCD display that read TURN SIGNAL ON, and I remember looking at the display in a state of bewilderment, thinking, ‘turn which signal on?’
Anyway, I asked my friend why nobody used their indicators.
His reply was this: “Why do I need to use my indicators when I know where I’m going?”
Not long after I arrived out here there was an accident at a set of traffic lights near the compound where I lived. An ex-pat was waiting patiently for a set of traffic lights to turn green when he happened to notice a car approaching from behind travelling at speed. The driver of the other vehicle appeared to be speeding up rather than slowing down and the ex-pat must have experienced what people in the services call an Exocet Moment. An Exocet was a type of guided missile that was fired at the British and American troops by the Iraqis during the first Gulf War – and an Exocet Moment is when you can see something coming but there’s fuck all you can do about it. The car that was approaching the ex-pat at the traffic lights didn’t slow down and ploughed into the back of his stationary vehicle, sending his now written-off car careering into the middle of the junction. The police were called out and they looked at the scene in great detail before deciding that the accident was the ex-pat’s fault because ‘if he hadn’t been there the accident would never have happened’.
Things like that don’t happen all that often nowadays because the enforcement of traffic regulations has increased substantially. Mobile and fixed speed cameras are all over the place, which is ironic as in Britain many of them have been removed owing to the fact that it has been recognised over the years, with drivers slamming their brakes on to avoid being detected, that they create more accidents than they prevent.
Still, there’s only one way to get around out here and that’s to drive. And that’s what I’m just about to do. I’m just off to do my weekly shopping. I normally do it on a weekend – usually on a Saturday, or is it Thursday?