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RetroSaudi: The British

November 24, 2017

T E LawrenceIn my last RetroSaudi piece, I shared my thoughts from thirty years ago about the Americans I encountered in Saudi Arabia. I wasn’t very kind at the time, but looking back, my views have changed.

This time it’s the turn of the British, who probably exceeded the Americans in the size of their population in the Kingdom at the time. I always thought that my fellow British expatriates were far from representative of the UK as a whole. In fact, I used to say that if they were allowed to vote an MP to Parliament, they would be the only constituency to return a candidate for the National Front, which was the far-right party of the time.

Here’s what I had to say at the time.

Then (1987):

The British influence in Saudi Arabia is strong. Not a strong as that of the US, of course. We British failed to pursue the oil concession we negotiated before the Americans came on the scene. A missed opportunity almost on a par with the record company that failed to sign the Beatles.

As a result we lost a long-term source of income that could have replaced our fast-declining colonial revenue.

The Saudis have always had a soft spot for us. Maybe it’s because we invaded, occupied, colonised, “protected” or imposed political settlements upon just about everybody else in the region over the past hundred and fifty years, but had the decency to leave most of the settlements that now comprise the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to their own devices, or to those of their Ottoman overlords.

If that’s why they’re fond of us, they’re conveniently forgetting that we left the Arabian interior alone because it wasn’t worth interfering with. The ancient Romans felt much the same way about Ireland.

So the Saudis buy our Rolls Royces, Jaguars and Range Rovers, as well as other less glamorous products that we still have the wit to export. But more than anything else they buy, or they think they buy, our expertise. Often enough they get the expertise they pay for. We do have some clever and capable Brits working here, despite our airs and graces that our hosts find rather comical.

We tend to blend into the local environment a little better than our American cousins. Whereas they try to create little Americas wherever they go, you’ll more often find us living outside the walled compounds beloved of the Yanks. Many of us have apartments and villas in ordinary streets, next to Saudi neighbours and within full blasting range of the loudspeakers coming at us from mosques on every street.

If we can afford it, my fellow Brits like to go sailing with their families every weekend, or to set off through the desert in search of little-known beaches miles away. If we get lost, we amuse the Bedouin with our garbled Arabic, perhaps opening with “Salam aleikum. El Orents, my grandfather”, in the hope that our new friends will also have grandparents with fond memories of Lawrence of Arabia.

Shuaiba 1987

When we find the place we’re looking for, we pitch our tents, hit golf balls through the sand and organise a Scrabble competition. We swim, cut our feet on the coral, and spend the night fending off millions of curious crabs, claws clicking, that try and get into our tents.

Shuaiba 1987

Those of us who don’t have families with them get into more traditional pursuits: soccer, darts and the occasional booze-up with home-made intoxicants that sometimes cause the drinker to lose the use of one side of his face for several days after. Life can be hard without female company, and these are often the same people who get extremely drunk on flights home, and spend much of their time trying to grope the long-suffering air stewardesses.

Upstanding Brits (definitely not gropers!) Jeddah 1987

Some British families talk endlessly about property and investments. The future is everything, sometimes at the expense of the present. They dream of thatched cottages, cricket by the village green and other vanishing symbols of a long-gone age that they never knew. It’s only when they buy their cottages that they notice juggernauts rolling past their front doors like battalions of tanks on Salisbury Plain.

Others never make it home. I know of one guy who worked away from his family for thirty years, sent all his money home, educated his kids and provided them with a comfortable home. On his way to the airport for his final flight home, the poor chap had a heart attack and died.

Which suggests a lesson for all workers in a foreign land: make the most of the life you live. You may never get to enjoy your hacienda on the hill.

Now (2017):

What’s changed? In those days there were thousands of westerners across Saudi Arabia. Now, not nearly so many. The Saudis soon realised that they could buy their expertise from much less expensive sources. That process accelerated with the end of the cold war, when the Kingdom established diplomatic relations with former Soviet Bloc countries, while at the same time countries considered then as third world upped their education systems and started producing bankers, engineers and technicians with skills just as good as those of the pampered westerners.

We Brits have continued to sell stuff to the Saudis, most notably endless consignments of weapons, war-planes, jet engines and other high value technology. With them came the people to install and maintain them. But by and large, Brits who are not holding down executive roles are harder to find.

There is one curious remnant of the past. For all the diverse sources of expertise available to the Saudis today – including large numbers of their own people who have returned from expensive degree courses in America, Britain and other western countries – many Saudi businesses value the presence of the token khawaja – the slightly derogatory term used in Egypt for westerner – often an American or a Brit of advanced years, who can deliver words of wisdom in meetings and sales presentations.

I know this, because I have served as that khawaja on occasions. Not, I assure you, because of my expertise, but because my age and nationality brings an implied credibility. Of course if I was incapable of playing the part and adding some value to the proceedings I would have been out on my ear shortly thereafter.

But I think it’s sad that so many Saudi businesspeople feel that they have to rely on people like me. They have plenty of talent within their own ranks and ought to have the confidence to rely on it more. Perhaps in the shiny new era of Prince Mohammed bin Salman this will change. Otherwise, what has been the point in spending billions of dollars on sending hundreds of thousands of young people to be educated abroad?

I suppose one of the problems the Saudis have always had with their foreign labour, including the Brits, has been that knowledge is power. Whoever can keep their knowledge to themselves has a better chance of keeping their job than if they pass it to others.

Back in 1987, my Saudi boss gathered all his western managers together, including me, and told us that those of us who were best at eliminating our jobs by passing on our expertise would be the ones who would be with them the longest.

Perhaps Mohammed bin Salman would be wise to send that message to the millions of foreign workers who still ply their trade in the country. For Saudi Arabia to become more self-reliant in labour is surely the element in his reforms that he cannot allow to fail, and yet has been an objective that has eluded all his predecessors.

  1. I find this very interesting. Love it. I think for most asians, life in a foreign land can be a bit different in some ways because I feel westerners are treated better, like grander. Haha we from the southeast are treated as subordinates in most cases. 😂 But the activities you do were almost the same as what I remember from stories of the old people here in Saudi.
    I enjoyed the photos! 🙂

  2. I’m well aware of that, and it’s always saddened me. S

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