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RetroSaudi: The Parade of Shame

January 26, 2018

My RetroSaudi series continues with a look back to the time-honoured ordeals to be endured on arrival in the Saudi Arabia thirty years ago. After endless queues at immigration, there was the customs inspection, a process that sometimes brought with it unexpected consequences for the unwary.

Then (1987)

The ordeal known as “going through customs” can vary in quality between tedious and terrifying. Those arriving in Saudi Arabia for the first time are often surprised to find that there are no green gates that they can sail through bearing a virtuous expression. Only a line of passengers waiting to endure the ritual of the baggage check. In Saudi Arabia you’re guilty of smuggling until proven innocent.

Customs officers do not respect privacy as they do (to some extent) in other parts of the world. The bag search is vigorous and very public. They’re looking for six things: pornography, weapons, drugs, subversive literature, alcohol and pork. Many of the problems arising from the ritual uprooting of personal belongings spring from differing interpretations of the meaning of these types of contraband.

Booze is relatively clear-cut – relatively. Any attempt to convince the inspecting officer that the brown liquid in your shampoo bottle is for washing your hair might be stymied by the fact that the officer knows what scotch and brandy smells (and tastes) like. Less obviously, there have been attempts to ban baby’s gripe water on the grounds that it contains alcohol. The idea of expatriates at parties quaffing bottles of gripe water can surely only be the product of a febrile imagination.

As for pork, since all other types of meat are available in Saudi Arabia, an alert official can be fairly sure that the smoky-smelling parcel cleverly hidden under the mattress of a baby’s basket is indeed a 2lb pack of best streaky bacon intended to serve as three months of survival rations for the child’s pork-starved parents, and not the fermenting contents of the baby’s diaper.

As for the other prohibited items, things become a little more complicated. A bible, for example, might be considered highly subversive if the officer suspects that the passenger is intending to use it to convert Muslims. The ornamental dagger you bought in Yemen would be available in the local souk, but it’s definitely a weapon if it appears in your suitcase.

Pornography, on the other hand, is very much open to interpretation. I once saw an article in a foreign newspaper featuring a picture of an elderly matron in a wheelchair. Her body from the waist down had been covered over with black marker pen to spare us the excitement that might stem from the sight of her calves. Playboy, Men Only and that ilk are verboten. Cosmopolitan and Vogue seem to be acceptable if they are discovered in female baggage, but not if they are in the possession of a man, as I once discovered when I packed a fashion magazine for my wife. I was made to sign an undertaking that I would never import such filth again.

Personal photos are eagerly examined and any near-the-knuckle snapshots of a loved one on the beach at Cannes are likely to be confiscated. I once narrowly escaped a long jail sentence for allegedly insulting Islam. Why? Because one of my photos showed me at a toga party wearing two white towels in – as I thought – the ancient Roman style. It turned out that my costume closely resembled the towels worn by pilgrims in Mecca. Fortunately, the officer applied a measure of common sense, and sent me on my way with a severe warning.

Of course not everyone is subjected to such scrutiny. Some officers give you a cursory search. Two common ways to encourage this – or so I’m told – are studied nonchalance that suggests you have nothing to hide, and the dirty laundry trick: covering your belongings with a layer of used underwear. This is particularly effective for women, since men in this part of the world have an aversion for women’s bodily functions. Not surprising, since they never have to do the laundry.

Now (2018)

The cartoon above is one of several that a Filipino friend drew for me at the time. Although even then no woman would dare to enter the country wearing the clothes he depicts, it does reflect the fact that female foreigners would rarely arrive dressed  in the traditional black abaya. Not so today.

Those things that were banned then are still banned now. But in recent years the ritual humiliation of having your personal effects pawed through is no longer de rigeur. In fact over the past ten years I can’t remember an occasion when my bags were searched on arrival at any of the Kingdom’s international airports. They go through an X-ray machine, which wasn’t the case thirty years ago, so I imagine that as in any other airport that uses the same technology, anything obviously suspicious would be picked up.

Also I suspect that these days the Saudi customs officers have bigger things to worry about than copies of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Drugs for example, as well as explosives and firearms, none of which tend to arrive in people’s Samsonite suitcases.

But in case you’re tempted to take a chance, you’d do well to remember the British girl who was recently sentenced to three years in an Egyptian jail for stashing a hundred or so capsules of Tramadol in her baggage.

Their brothers in Saudi Arabia are unlikely to be any less severe, given that the penalty for importing prohibited drugs is death.

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