In October 2010 I lead a training class to teach Al Elm, the leading provider of Web technology to the government in Saudi Arabi, how to do load and performance testing using open source testing tools. This is a journal of some experiences in The Kingdom.
First Night Dinner
I’m staying at the Sheraton Hotel - 1,215 Saudi Riyals SARs or $325 USD - and had a driver take me to a local restaurant and wait for me while I had dinner. The driver and car cost 200 SARs or $53 USD.
The restaurant was full of people working at the restaurant and two patrons. Everyone stared slacked-jawed at the blaring television showing the football/soccer game. This is a “big” game between Al-Hilal and Al-Nasr in the Saudi Professional League Round. So the streets are pretty much empty as everyone is at home watching the game.
The restaurant offers seating on the floor in little booths. They spread down a static-clingy thin sheet of plastic on which the food will come.
I don’t speak any Arabic so the exchange with the waiter went like this:
waiter: Salem alechim. Wah an ma ha ma subim an-riya ha any s-ahelam?
waiter: Na maha sla ane rama nas?
waiter: fa ala la la ala la la?
me: nod-my-head (wondering if that was a Christmas song?)
About 5 minutes later a giant plate of basmati rice with half a broiled chicken, salad, lemon wedges, and a Pepsi arrived. No fork or knife, just finger licking good chicken and rice. It was truly an amazing meal.
Cost for the meal: 14 SARs or $3.73
The Daily Schedule
My day consisted of training a dozen testers for a software development services company. They rented a large meeting room in the basement of the Sheraton Riyadh hotel. I would arrive at the 8 am starting time and then wait for 45 minutes for the team to arrive. I would hear comments about people showing up late, “This is a problem here.”
I didn’t have a problem with people arriving late because I was just hanging on due to the jet lag. My body took most of the 5 days I was there to get used to the 10 hour time difference to back home.
The conference room was below ground to help deal with the normal heat. This week the weather was perfect. Hovering in the mid-30’s (C, or mid-80’s F,) the air felt nice and warm. I never felt sweaty or overheated. One of the students noted of the restaurant at ground level that during the time of the year they call “The Oven” we would sit in the middle of the room, as far away from the windows as possible. The Oven brings 60 degree C (or 120 F) temperatures for months on end.
The Sheraton hotel is next to a major freeway construction site. The Saudis dig their way through the hard sand and rock bit-by-bit. A 5 mile stretch of road took the past 2 years to excavate. In our underground conference room the excavation equipment sounded like it would burst through a wall any minute.
We would take breaks - sometimes for daily prayers - at 10 am, at noon for lunch, and then finish the day at 4 pm. About then the rest of the PushToTest team in the USA, India and Costa Rica would come alive. I would finish responding to them around midnight. And then repeat 6 hours later.
The People, actually The Men
Upon arrival in Riyadh, a city of 5 million people, I said goodbye to any contact with women. I met many men and had long conversations with several of them. The women I saw were dressed in a very nice entirely black piece of silk. Seeing just their eyes, I energetically avoided a glance into their eyes. I was ready to trigger an earthquake or a war if our eyes met. These women glid through the hotel lobby, shopping malls, and public spaces like small versions of Darth Vader. Are these friend or foe? I never found out. There are three communities that do not interact: unmarried men, unmarried women, and Families. My hosts were the unmarried men.
The students were interested in my expectations for the Kingdom. I told them my biggest fear is saying something stupid that would offend them. Beyond that I was looking forward to learning their culture, food, and habits.
The men I trained were a mix of Saudi men, a Jordanian Palestinian, and Egyptian. One of the men was a dead-on characteracture of Carmen from South Park.
The men I met on the trip are warm beyond belief, like a bunch of Boy Scouts. They are prepared, sensible, thoughtful, and they carry their hearts on their sleeves.
While women do not participate with men in business or transportation, I did not learn some sinister repression of women from the men I met. Instead I heard stories like this: “I have to go home at 5 pm today. I get there after 90 minutes of traffic feeling very tired. Then I have to drive my wife around town doing errands.”
From the men I spoke with, a Saudi man or woman can find love, have a marriage, have children, build a business. They are guaranteed an education. What they have a hard time doing is expressing their individuality. They are conformists.
While Saudi women wear black robes, Saudi men wear “the uniform.” The Thobe is a long-sleeve floor length white tunic with a white or red headress held on with a black rope. They also wear western clothes (Short sleved shirts and jeans) once they get to know you.
I thought men would try to express their individuality in the headdress of the Uniform. Perhaps wearing their family pattern or colors. Maybe a headdress featuring Mickey Mouse. “Oh, no!” I heard. You have a choice of red or white headdress. That’s all. They conform.
Every Saudi is guaranteed an education through university. University tuition is free and the government gives a $1000/month grant to students. One manager I met said a lot of his hiring technique comes down to evaluating the willingness of a person to work. Some work very hard, others work very little.
And they have to work in an environment that is either too hot or too dusty. Dust is a way of life. I began measuring the distance between tissue boxes.
Instead of challenging their environment, they work very hard to make their conformity work for them. There is no need to walk to a mosque for daily prayers, instead they turn the lower lobby of their office building into a mosque.
Their conformity is being challenged. In a city of 5 million people stuck in traffic, there are no plans to build a rapid transit system. The managers I met describe a risk-averse, proof-it-first philosophy on investments. I am here in Saudi Arabi to prove QA test automation is important first. Then maybe an investment in test automation tools will come next.
In the current generation more than half the people are below 25 years old. That is dangerous considering how many people need to find fulfillment. The Saudi government is rumored to be ready to fund 5,000 new start-up businesses in 2011 as a way to secure a future for their young population. That would be great to see come to pass.
The Things That Are Too Western For The Kingdom
The outside world is present to a large extent. The Kingdom Mall features Justice for Girls (teenage clothing,) the GAP, and Sony Style store. Everyone has a 3G phone with Internet Web access. YouTube, Facebook, and Google are well known and used.
YouTube is interesting here, some pages are selectively sensored. Search for breasts and you get
Sorry, the requested page is unavailable.
إن كنت ترى أن هذه الصفحة ينبغي أن لا تُحجب تفضل بالضغط هنا.
If you believe the requested page should not be blocked please click here.
Search for breast feeding and you get search results.
While they are very polite, the men I got to know expressed a hatred for Americans. We brought them two wars when they want none. I heard one person tell me “We hate the American government, we don’t have a problem with the American people.” That was the same rhetorical phrase Bush used when describing the Iraqi’s. I didn’t believe Bush at the time either.
In my very simplified view of the world, the Saudi oil went West and our attempts to build stable nations to provide us with a reliable oil supply went East. The Saudi’s hate our interference and depend on our oil money. Neither of us loves the other.
On the other hand, the big box of Saudi dates I brought back is now half empty. I’m eating at least 5 dates per day. Perhaps my love is for the place, the food, the people. It can be pretty sweet.
Re-Entry To The Western World
A week of no flirting, no alochol, no dancing, and second guessing myself that everything I say and do will offend my nice Saudi hosts has taken its toll. Upon arrival in London Heathrow airport I found myself surrounded by beautiful women. I very much appreciate working with women, knowing women, and I respect women. But as I walk through the airport basically I’m thinking of walking up to everyone woman I see to say: LETS PARTY!