The Backpack Chronicles

My Backpack

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian Flag

This is the first in a series of articles recounting my experiences working around the world. My backpack was there every step of the way.

Imagine that you are sitting in your office as a young person and the boss of your boss calls to offer you a job transfer. That’s what happened to me as I sat in my office in Anchorage, Alaska on a cold winter morning. The person calling asked me if I would be up for a change in location. “Where to”? I asked. “Saudi Arabia”, came the reply. Without missing a beat I answered, “When do I leave”? That brief phone call launched me on an adventure that has seen me experiencing different countries and cultures that has continued to this day.

Life in the Kingdom

When I went to Saudi Arabia it was my first experience with what many would term a closed society. Women did not work for the most part and they did not drive. In fact any mixing among men and women outside the home was just not done. My interactions with Saudi men was generally positive. Many of the men that I worked with had been educated in the U.S. or Europe and they spoke fluent English.

Then there was the call to prayer five times a day. Every muezzin, the man appointed by each mosque to lead the call to prayer, had his own style. But they all had one thing in common. They were loud. Everything in the kingdom revolved around the call to prayer. If you were in a restaurant eating, you would be ushered outside until prayer was finished. If you were grocery shopping, the same thing would happen. If you needed gas for your car you would have to wait as the station would close for prayer.

Social Custom

Early in my time in Saudi Arabia I learned a crucial lesson about how business was conducted. Coming from the U.S. business environment I was used to being very conscious of my customers’ time. I never wanted to waste their time so I tended to get down to business quickly.

One day I met with a senior Saudi executive at the Saudi national oil company, Saudi Aramco. His secretary brought me into his office and after I was seated inquired if I would like some tea. I declined. The man I had come to see asked me, “Mark, do you not drink tea”? I replied that I did but did not want to impose on his time. He turned to his secretary and asked that tea be brought for both of us. He came from behind his desk and took a chair across from where I sat. For anyone familiar with the Middle East you will know the tea is hot and very sweet. My host asked about my recent arrival in the Kingdom. He asked about my wife and kids. I explained that it was just my wife and I as we had no children as yet. He told me he had five children and waxed eloquent about the joys of having children. He also told me about a recent visit to the U.S. and how much he always enjoyed his trips to the states. From my perspective this meeting was surreal as I could not imagine a U.S. executive of similar stature spending so much time in casual conversation with a salesman. We eventually got around to the purpose of my visit, but only after taking time for the pleasantries.

This meeting was a learning experience for me. It was the first of many encounters that taught me to check my western mindset at the door. I needed to respect the fact that I was in a different culture and that I must adapt to that culture.

Dark Times

Khobar Towers

On June 25, 1996 I had just returned home after having dinner at the house of an Egyptian colleague. They had invited me over since they knew my wife was away in the U.S. at the time. I was in the bathroom removing my contacts when the house shuddered and all the air seemed to be sucked out of the room. This was followed by a shock wave that caused debris from the ceiling tiles to float down, coating everything in the room. My first thought was that our ten ton air conditioning unit on the roof had exploded. As I began to walk down the hallway I could see that the heavy wood front door was knocked from its hinges. Walking further into the entryway revealed more destruction. Glass was twenty feet out into the street and the steel door frame lay mangled. Standing in the street I could see all of the houses on my side had windows blown into the street. Within moments a large black mushroom cloud of smoke drifted over my neighborhood. It was obvious something ominous had just occurred.

Many hours later I, along with my neighbors, learned that a truck bomb had exploded at a complex called Khobar Towers about a half mile from where I lived. The complex had been providing housing for U.S. military members participating in Operation Southern Watch. This was a mission to enforce a no-fly zone over southern Iraq. Nineteen U.S. Air Force personnel and one Saudi local were killed in the blast. Nearly five hundred people of various nationalities were injured. Proof positive that bombs don’t discriminate, they just kill and maim.

Kindness

Within an hour of the blast workers were on scene to put plywood over the blown out windows in all of the villas in our compound. These workers had been dispatched by the Sheikh who owned our compound. The term Sheikh is an Arabic word that denotes a venerable man. Someone respected in the community. His representative also came by to inquire about our well-being and to see if we needed anything. My sponsor, also a Sheikh, called to check on me and to offer help as required. Many locals were personally affected, some terribly, but they still offered assistance to myself and other expatriates.

Closing Thoughts

My time in Saudi Arabia saw me start a family and begin a rewarding career that continues to this day. Many expatriates are surprised when they hear me speak fondly of my time in the Kingdom. In truth I would not trade it for anything. Living in Saudi Arabia was an early lesson in my understanding and appreciation of other cultures.

Next stop in this series is Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. See you there!