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RetroSaudi: The Americans

November 23, 2017

King Abdulaziz meets President Roosevelt

Since today is Thanksgiving, I think it’s appropriate to continue my RetroSaudi series with the words I wrote thirty years ago about my American colleagues in Saudi Arabia. There’s one problem. I wasn’t very kind to them.

I don’t often post stuff I’m subsequently ashamed of, let alone ashamed of before I post it. So I’m a bit squeamish about what follows. On the other hand, authenticity rules, so I’m sharing the thoughts of my younger self anyway.

Then (1987)

Ah yes. Well. Ah. Well I’m British, so I supposed I’m biased. I don’t want to go into observations about Americans in Saudi Arabia that might seem cliched, but I probably will. I like many of the Americans I’ve met here. But I’ve had to forgive them for many things.

For slip-roads and left-hand drive; for thinking they founded Saudi Arabia; for thinking the world owes them a living; for sending back US-educated Saudis who sound like Texans; for using long words when short ones suffice, and teaching the Saudis to do the same; for interminable and impenetrable acronyms; for being so aggressively ignorant of their host country, or so cloyingly curious about the things that aren’t important; for forcing me to change my spelling; for being so maddeningly hierarchy-conscious; for their blustering salesmen who promise more than they deliver.

I do thank them for a few things. For mistaking education for talent (in my case); for some rewarding friendships; for the fast food outlets they franchised in Saudi Arabia; for the strength of the US dollar; and for employing me in the first place.

All that said, my most serious reservations about the Americans I have come across in my work has been about their management capability. I admit that my workplace is perhaps not typical of all US operations in the country. Many, if not most of the managers are ex-armed forces. They’re either gung-ho Robert Duvall officer types straight out of Apocalypse Now (as in “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), or they’re favour-trading Sergeant Bilko types.

Few of them would last five minutes as managers in their home country. If they did, the USA would rank just above Paraguay in terms of national dynamism. By and large, the American managers I’ve encountered are lazy, incompetent and complacent, or any combination thereof. I get the overwhelming impression that they’re in Saudi Arabia for an easy life, and as a means of topping up their military pensions.

Why? Could it be because the US military’s confidence-sapping reverses from the Vietnam War onwards spawned a generation of shell-shocked incompetents among the officer class? Could this be the reason why so many of the Pentagon’s new toys have failed to perform to expectations?

For whatever reason, as far as I can tell, America has sent very little of its managerial talent to Saudi Arabia. Short-sighted or smart? Only time will tell.

Now (2017):

Oh dear. In fact, ouch. Looking back, I accept that I was very harsh in my assessment. At the time when I wrote that piece, the American company I nominally worked for was being battered one way the next by a young Saudi manager who was intent on wresting operational control of his department from the contractor.

Relations became so strained that many of the Saudis referred to the US program manager, whose surname was Calp, as Ibn Kalb, which Arabic speakers will recognise as meaning “son of a dog”.

So the Americans thought they were in charge, and so did the young Saudi. He had more leadership ability in his little finger than most of his adversaries, so he won the battle, and every prerogative he seized from them they gave up with bad grace. I became a manager at his request, and worked directly for him. Perhaps my perception was coloured by that experience.

Looking back, I can see that I was hopelessly one-eyed. Of course there were some outstanding American managers in the country at the time, especially with Aramco, the national oil company. And many of the UN advisors I worked with were both wise and deft politicians, who were highly respected by the Saudis.

And as we now know, many of the junior officers who went through Vietnam are now the thoughtful, erudite generals like Mattis and McMaster who surround Donald Trump, and hopefully in extremis will save us all from him.

I also met some real characters. Guys like Tex Tutas, who stuck cattle horns on the bonnet of his truck, and whose favourite saying was “let’s get the hell out of here before they sell the car” in the manner of John Wayne. And Leroy Kelly, who taught me to cut out the multi-syllabic bull I used to write, and introduced me to the Fog Index.

Then there were also the wondrously talented Americans I worked with on theatre productions. Many of these people were English teachers, yet their acting and their musical abilities transformed many of the shows we worked on to a level that wouldn’t have been out of place in the professional theatre.

Many of them subsequently died of AIDS, but anyone who was in Jeddah at the time would fondly remember the likes of Paul Jones and Dick Hollenbaugh, who are no longer with us, and Ron Daugherty and David Frontin, who hopefully are.

Rubbing shoulders with so many different types of American, from dour, ass-covering ex-NCOs to exuberant actors and musicians was an education that prepared me for the next thirty years, during which in my business life I’ve had many dealings across the pond. And one of two of those I met in the 80’s are still friends today.

So here’s to you America. Happy Thanksgiving, and may you flourish again once you’ve expunged Donald Trump from your national stage.

Sorry, couldn’t resist that.

This post is dedicated to the good guys – Tex, Leroy, Stan Gray, Jim Gibson, Steve Smith and Ben Helms – from whom I learned much, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

  1. I’m currently in Jeddah and I have to say that I love your RetroSaudi posts. Hahaha I’m enjoying every bit of it. 😂😂

  2. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Hi Steve! I’ve just discovered your blog…. No teaching this afternoon here in France so I will be reading as much as I can. All the best and drop me a line so we can stay in touch. I was choreographed by Ron Daugherty in “Half a Sixpence” 1986… Andrew Robinson (RSP, JLO, RT6)

    • Delighted that you have discovered the blog Andrew. Them was the days! S

      • Andrew permalink

        The blog is a great read Steve. Bravo! We shared the Walk of Shame to Facebook and some ‘ex- Saudi’ friends. Some of the serious articles are well done too. Big thumbs up.

      • Thanks Andrew! Sorry for the lateness of the reply. I’ve been travelling. S

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