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RetroSaudi: Dogmageddon

November 19, 2017

RetroSaudi continues with a story for dog lovers An epic tale of crisis and survival in the Arabian Peninsula. Well, not quite as dramatic as that, but a testament to the resilience of the species.

Then (1987):

Before ACE came along, my home town of Jeddah was doggy heaven. You couldn’t walk near a piece of waste ground without coming into sniffing range of at least one pack of mangy hounds. They weren’t very fierce, and they ran away if you shouted at them, especially in Arabic.

Food was plentiful. The Jeddawis turned every vacant lot into a stinking garbage dump. Nice little creatures the dogs were, about the size of a small Labrador. Their dun colour allowed them to blend into the background. They looked like a cross between a jackal and a hyena, and appeared more intelligent than either.

Actually they were pretty stupid, as evidenced by the daily cull inflicted by car and truck drivers. No road was complete without the obligatory dog corpse or two lying by the side of the road, squashed to minimal thickness.

Whereas we in the west delight in the diversity of our canine breeds, Saudi dogs all look more or less the same. It’s as if they’d been designed that way, as specified in the Third Five-Year Development Plan. But that’s an unlikely theory, given that Arabs have a deep cultural squeamishness about dogs which is reinforced by a widespread belief that angels don’t enter houses in which they live.

This causes me to wonder why there are any dogs in the Kingdom at all. They must be resilient to have survived centuries of persecution. But dogs there are, even though the majority have to fend for themselves in the streets. A small minority are taken in by kindly expatriates, but they’re rarely allowed beyond the owners’ yards. Most westerners, however, prefer poodles and other sorts of lapdog, which remain cowering behind closed gates.

It’s entirely possible that the reason for the survival of the street mutt is because of the Egyptian population. Perhaps some of them are covert worshippers of the old Egyptian gods, including Anubis, the jackal-god.

As Jeddah grew, so did the dog population. Not even the road cull could keep it down. A pack of five dogs is intimidating enough, but fifty?

That’s when they called in ACE. Arabian Cleaning Enterprises. Jeddah’s first municipal cleaning contractor, arrived in 1982. The mission: to clean up the garbage from vacant lots and make the city fit for humans and plants. Not rats, not cats, and definitely not dogs.

Almost immediately fleets of aquamarine garbage trucks took to the streets. And smaller vans, from which pest controllers in aquamarine jumpsuits emerged, armed with poison and guns. Death squads on every street. Canine genocide. It was rumoured that there were even special squads armed with poison darts that they would fire from blowpipes.


From where were the blowpipers recruited? Who knows? From the Phillipines perhaps. Or possibly Papua New Guinea or the Amazon basin.

Within two months the dogs were gone. Mo more angry hounds barking at your car as you took off for work. No more forlorn corpses on the street. No more lonesome mutts howling at the moon, to be answered by a hundred echoes across the city.

Silence. Only humans and a few wily cats who survived the holocaust because they weren’t big enough targets. And rats of course, which survive everything.

This cat got away.

I supposed they incinerated them, or buried them in unmarked graves outside the city. A far cry from Anubis and his gilded tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Now (2017):

The dogs didn’t return, at least not in any substantial numbers. If you google Saudi desert dogs, you’ll see lots of pictures of the dogs I remember. You’ll even find a photo of a proud-looking hunter with a hawk on his arm and salukis in attendance. That’s because Islam permits the use of hunting dogs, but not ones who sleep in your house and get taken for walkies.

And then, as so often happens when traces of Saudi Arabia’s pre-Islamic past are uncovered, a revelation. Yesterday, Ahmed Al-Omran, a renowned Saudi journalist, tweeted a report from Science magazine about recently-discovered rock carvings in the north of the Kingdom that show hunting dogs almost identical to the modern desert dog. The carvings are around 9000 years old, predating by at least a millennium the previous earliest depiction of dogs.

What’s just as significant is that some of them are on leashes, which suggests that these dogs were domesticated. The Science article claims that the carvings date from a time of greenery and abundant wildlife. Presumably when the desert took over the dogs ceased to be of use, which is probably why they suffered the ultimate indignity of being branded haram with the coming of Islam.

But dogs are resilient creatures, and should the gleaming new cities built over the past fifty years ever crumble back into dust, no doubt the dogs will return to scavenge through the remnants. Except that the gene pool will be wider. The desert dog will be joined by feral chihuahuas.

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