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RetroSaudi – an introduction

November 9, 2017

Jeddah 1983

I’ve been writing stuff for fun for the best part of thirty years. That’s way before this blog started. Much of my early jottings were written at a time when I had the time. I was living in Saudi Arabia, and I wanted to record the things I saw and read, and what I felt about them.

I started with letters to friends, full of stories and descriptions. And then, in 1987, I became a bit more systematic. Our first child had been born the year before. If for no other reason, I thought it would be good to write on a set of specific subjects, so that I could show our offspring what their mum and dad were doing when they were babies.

I ended up with a set of short pieces on a wide range of aspects of Saudi life. I suppose it was at the back of my mind that they could form the basis of a book.

The book never happened, and anyway it would have been impossible to publish it while I was still in situ. The Saudis wouldn’t have taken kindly to some of the stuff I was writing. The next year I came home, got stuck into a business, and so for the following couple of decades most of what I wrote was in support of making a living. Boring stuff like proposals, procedures and marcom materials.

I wrote a fair amount of similar material in Saudi as well, plus glossy booklets extolling the work of my masters, and speeches that they could deliver at conferences.

I kept much of this stuff when I left. I stuck it in a big box where it lay, unvisited, until recently. In addition to my personal writing I had kept numerous press cuttings from the daily English-language papers. I organised the material into little clumps with labels such as “crime”, “women”, “health”, “religion” and “politics”.

Newspaper ad c1987

Over the past month, in an effort to clear my garage, I have exhumed much of what had lain buried, including the press cuttings, letters – which I’ve digitised – and about thirty of the vignettes about Saudi Arabia back in 1987. The first fruit of that labour was the last piece I posted about the time when the Saudis decided to introduce income tax for foreign workers, and then changed their minds two days later. I called it the mother of all U-turns.

When I look back at this stuff in the light of the dramatic developments in the Kingdom over the past year, culminating in the arrest of princes and business leaders accused of corruption, two things occur.

First, the pace of change was so slow that much of what I wrote then was pretty much up to date until Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman started shaking things up last year. Consequently, when things changed rapidly, almost in the blink of an eye what was previously current was now history.

Second, the life in Saudi Arabia that I witnessed was all about little dramas, not big ones. The big dramas – the Iran-Iraq war, the Mecca insurrection and the two subsequent Iraq wars, happened at times when I was not there – either shortly after or just before. Nothing deliberate about this – just the way the dice fell. But in each case, the fallout was palpable and lasting. But such changes as took place after each event pale into insignificance compared to what’s happening in the country today.

That being the case, I’ve decided to publish some of this material in a series of pieces under the heading of Retro-Saudi. I shall also include press cuttings, a few pictures and cartoons from the time, and a “then and now” commentary at the end of each piece.

Jeddah 1985

There is a precedent for this approach in the blog. Over three more recent years when I was visiting Saudi and providing consultancy and training workshops, I wrote a series of pieces in which I talked about things I encountered on my travels. If you’re interested, you can find them by searching on Postcards from Saudi Arabia in the field on the bottom right of the home page.

My purpose in writing about Saudi Arabia is not to bash the country or its people. Yes, there’s plenty to criticise, and no lack of people lining up to deliver their disapproval. I leave that field to them. Underlying everything I write is an affection for the good people I encountered, and memories of many happy years I spent there.

On the other hand, I’m not looking to excuse the inexcusable, or pretend that the dark side doesn’t exist. It did then and it does now.

I appreciate that not everybody who reads this blog is interested in Saudi Arabia beyond an understandable concern about events that might affect them. I shall continue to write about other subjects, but I’m hopeful that those of you who are not familiar with the Kingdom might find something to interest you too.

I’d also welcome comments, memories and stories, photos and any other contributions that conjure up what was and no longer is. You can either post comments to the blog, or email me at As long as your contribution is not to my mind obscene, defamatory, racist or insulting in any other way, I’ll do my best to publish it.

Watch this space.

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