“What is inside this?” The man in Saudi Airlines uniform asked a passenger while opening a plastic bottle which he had found in his handbag. It had white powder inside. The man in uniform, who appeared like a gentleman from North Africa, was a security officer of Saudi Airlines. He was checking hand bags of the passengers travelling from Bombay to Jeddah.

The passenger was just before me in the queue, he had white ash smeared all over his forehead. He drew the attention of the security officer on to his forehead. As soon as he understood what the white powder was, he dropped the plastic container and the lid on his hand bag. The white powder spattered all over. The passenger started collecting the powder with his bare hands and putting it back into the same bottle; he closed the lid, gave a big smile to him, and forwarded his hand to shake the hand of the same person who had dropped his plastic bottle few seconds ago. When the man in uniform did not show any interest to reciprocate, he grabbed his wrist with his left hand and started shaking his hand with the constant utterance of “thank you”. After few shakes the security personnel retracted his right hand, gently; then with a gesture of his hand asked the passenger to pack his bag and leave the place. The man again gave him a very big smile and started walking towards the waiting area adjacent to the boarding gate.

I was travelling to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The purpose of my travel was to visit Islamic Development Bank.

In order to obtain a business visa to travel to Saudi Arabia, one of the requirements was to purchase a return air ticket from Saudi Airlines. It was because of this requirement, first time business travelers had to travel by their national carrier.

Immediately after I boarded the plane I observed that there was no female air hostess welcoming passengers with a smile. Passengers started boarding almost unwelcome, assisted only if anyone found it difficult to find his/her seat. Instead of a smiling lady air hostess serving food and beverages, there were male flight attendants. On a cursory look it became obvious that the plane should have been cleaner, lot cleaner, toilets were really unclean, kind of stinking. But the food was excellent both in terms of quality and quantity. No one needed to ask for more, they were coming to each passenger and insisting to take more. Saudis do not like to hear “no” when it comes to hospitality; any one could make out that they loved to feed people and they were serious about it.

After arrival at Jeddah airport, while waiting in the long queue for the immigration clearance, I found that one immigration officer threw away the passport of a traveler, who looked like a Bangladeshi; from his age it appeared that he probably came for the Umrah pilgrimage. The man went and picked his passport from the floor, again came back to the same immigration officer, the immigration officer scolded him loudly and then stamped his passport and allowed him to go.

When I stopped at the foreign exchange to get some Saudi Riyal, I saw an Arab man, who was on duty, was smoking and talking on cell phone. I did not have to fill in any form, he did not ask me to show my passport; while talking on the phone he started throwing their currency notes towards me exactly the way a card player deals cards. Based on that day’s rate I realized that I got more Riyals for my dollar bill. During the entire transaction, he did not utter a single word, not even made an eye contact.

Suddenly I realized that I forgot to collect my check-in luggage, but by that time I was out of the airport building. I went back, at the gate I was asked with a gesture where I was going, when I told that I forgot my bag, I was allowed to go in.

I stayed at Holiday Inn, which was close to the Islamic Development Bank headquarter. By the time I reached at the hotel it was very late, almost 12 at night. While checking in, neither was I asked to pay any money as advance nor was I asked to provide my credit card information. All they needed was to see my passport and to make a photocopy of it.

Since the restaurant was closed for the night, I had to order for room service. I ordered for a regular sandwich, but what I received was a huge sandwich with plenty of side dishes for a very reasonable price, the amount of food was good for three people, I had to throw away most of it, though it had a good taste.

The first thing that would draw anyone’s attention in Saudi Arabia is the diversity of their people. Here one can see dark colored Arabs like commonly found in North Africa, light complexioned Arabs and also white, blond Arabs like Nordic people of Norway, Denmark and Sweden etc. There is a little bit of history behind it.

Little more than 100 years ago Saudi Arabia was inhabited by nomads, sheikhs and emirs divided among tribes who were always engaged into war among themselves. These tribes looked different, came to the desert land at different times in groups, and always remained within their groups, called tribes; they had only one thing in common which was the Arabic language which they used while speaking to people of their own tribe. But the language with which they used to speak to people of other tribes was the language of sword. No inter tribal mingling of any kind, especially marriage, was allowed. In the year 1902 a tribal chief, named Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud with help of 60 Ikhwans (nomadic Bedouins) started conquering one province after another and started growing his military power. He eventually conquered Mecca and Medina which assured him a frugal income from the pilgrims. Ikhwans were the fervent follower of a puritan version of Islam called Wahhabism. In 1927 he separated from Ikhwans because Ikhwans wanted to conquer land beyond Saudi Arabia but he wanted to make Saudi Arabia a strong and powerful nation which would be recognized as a nation among all nations. He declared himself as the king and named the land after his name. The reason he could ignore the Ikhwans was because he got the support from the Ulemas, who were and are the official guardians of the religion, which was and is Wahhabism . To resolve the differences among the tribes he married a daughter of each tribal chief, 26 in total and he had 45 sons from his 26 new wives. Therefore every tribe became part of the royal family and thus he converted the whole nation into a single tribe. Oil exploration did not start until 1933.

The name of the person whom I was supposed to meet at the Bank was Dr. Nabeel. He was the director of software projects. He was a Yemeni Arab, who had earned his doctorate degree from the USA. After I met him in his office he asked me what I would like to have, tea or coffee. Since I liked tea as well as coffee I told him I would have whatever he liked. He mentioned that it is their custom to go by the wish of the guest. So we all had tea in his office. The person who served us tea was a young gentleman from Bangladesh. During my entire stay at Islamic Development Bank this gentleman used to serve me tea. I never had to ask, he used to come to my office and serve me tea. He used to decide for me whether I should have tea with milk or tea with lemon. “Apne sakal theikya dui bar dud cha loichen, eibar lebu cha khan. Dud cha besi khaon bhalo na” (you have taken two cups of tea with milk since morning, so take lemon tea this time. Too many cups of tea with milk are not good for health). This Bangladeshi gentleman, before coming to Saudi Arabia had no land in Bangladesh, after he started working in Saudi Arabia he could send money to his home and his family bought some agricultural land. “Allar dayate eibar amaogo kichuta jami hoiche.” (By the grace of God now we have got some agricultural land).

During my first meeting with Dr. Nabeel in his office, he asked an Algerian man, who was working as a project leader, to look after all my needs, starting with network connection, computer system, office space, office stationary, showing me where the restaurant was etc. This gentleman’s brother was working in Algerian Airlines and was posted in Bombay for two years. He had very good notion about India as well as Indians and we became good friends.

Thursdays and Fridays are the two weekly off days for the countries in the Middle East. Israel could be an exception. One Thursday morning while I was watching the road from my hotel room I suddenly realized that the roads had become empty; there were hardly any people and car to be seen on the road. I came out of the hotel room and went to a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet to eat something as well as to spend some time outside the hotel. Suddenly I found that the shops started opening their shutters. Eventually I realized that the shop owners close their shops during the time of prayer, even pharmacies followed the same practice. During the time of prayer, fewer numbers of cars could be seen on the roads. I used to walk on different roads to get a feel of the city. During my entire stay I saw only one woman in a very small children’s park playing with her child. She was completely covered; even her eyes were covered with a net. Other than her I cannot remember if I ever saw any other woman on any road or inside any shop. In the big office of the Islamic Development Bank headquarter, I could not find a single female worker. I walked on all the floors of the huge multi storeyed building of the bank to find if there was any ladies toilet, I could not find any.

Men’s toilet in Saudi Arabia looked very different as compared to any western toilet. In every toilet there was a special wash area for people to wash their hands, feet and faces before going for prayer. The bank had designated prayer area on every floor where mats were kept on the floor. At a regular interval recorded message, called Azaan, was played asking people to join in the prayer. I also observed that almost everybody used to skip one or two prayers in a day.

One day, while walking on a road little far from the Hotel Holiday Inn, I found one sweet shop. Out of curiosity I entered into the shop. Sweets in Saudi Arabia are dry fruit based. They looked so gorgeous that I seriously thought of buying some. I could not find any price tag beside any of the sweets. When I asked the name of a sweet, the gentleman gave me a big chunk to taste. It was so tasty I had never tasted anything like that before. I asked the name of another sweet, again he gave me some to taste. I tasted five to six different sweets. Finally I made up my mind not to buy any sweet. When I told him, he looked as happy as before and asked if I would like to taste some more. I thanked him and came out. On the same day I met one Indian in the hotel. When I told him about my experience in the sweet shop, he requested me to take him to that shop. In the afternoon we both went to the shop. The salesman was all smiles seeing me. “You are back” he said with a big smile. He requested me to taste some sweets again. As usual I started tasting. The gentleman who was with me bought some sweet, I did not buy any. The salesman asked me to come back again.

I walked many miles on different roads of Jeddah and found that the city was absolutely safe, one need not be afraid of anything.
I could not find any movie theater anywhere. In the hotel where I was staying, cable TV was provided in the room and almost all the channels were showing either Bollywood movies or Indian TV serials.
In fact even in African countries I found that locals were watching Bollywood movies having English subtitles with lots of interest.
Most of the blue-collar workers in the hotel were from Bangladesh. I met two Hindu gentlemen from Uttar Pradesh who were working in the restaurant of the hotel. The manager of the restaurant was a Bangladeshi. Every single immigrant worker in the hotel used to talk to the customers with utmost politeness but the behavior of Arab workers, even though very few in number, were curt. Almost every shop or business place I had visited, I found that the workers were immigrants.

I could not find any immigrant worker in Saudi Arabia, who was from Bangladesh or Pakistan, wearing any skull cap or wearing pants above their ankles. In fact, unless they mentioned their names it was difficult to make out that they were Muslims. Arabs could not only be distinguished by their look but also by the way they dress. But the numbers of Arab workers are so few that it could raise eye brows of the first time visitors.

I met only one Indian worker in the bank who used to dress like an Arab but on his head he used to wear a skull cap instead of a Keffiyeh. This gentleman was from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. He used to come to my office every now and then and used to ask me if I needed anything. But every single time he visited my office he used to tell me how great the religion is, how great the teachings of the prophet is etc. I spoke candidly with many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who were working in Saudi Arabia, in the hotel, in restaurants, in shopping malls etc. Bangladeshis, without any exception were very vocal in criticizing Saudis. Pakistanis used to maintain restraint but I have never heard any Pakistani talking one single good thing about Saudis. But neither any Pakistani nor any Bangladeshi ever spoke to me anything about the religion or the prophet.

In Jeddah the immigrant population was more than Saudi population. The city did not have any decent public transport system; people used minibuses as a means of public transport. Those buses were generally not in good condition, mostly broken from inside as well as from outside. But again, the public transport facility was mostly availed by immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan etc. Indian driving license holders were not allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia.

Three years before my visit, the bank had outsourced a huge software project to a Kuwait based software development company. When that company could not produce any tangible result in three years, the bank woke up one fine morning and decided to find out what went wrong. They engaged one Indian Software company to find out the cause and recommend what should be done. I, on behalf of that Indian company was responsible for identifying the problem and to suggest what corrective measures should be taken.

After I collected all the evidences and documented about what went wrong in the project, I met Dr. Nabeel and explained to him my findings and my recommendations. Next day morning he called for a meeting. That was the meeting with the people of the bank who were responsible for planning the IT strategy of the bank. There were six gentlemen in the meeting room. When they were introducing themselves I observed that all of them earned their Ph. D. degrees from the USA. All of them were very polite and decent. The meeting lasted little more than an hour.

The same day, before lunch, another meeting was arranged between me and the project managers, there were about 15 of them, out of them one was a very decent and very friendly Pakistani gentleman. Even though there were some resistances in the beginning from their side to accept my observation but eventually they conceded.

The third and the final meeting was with the software developers of the project. About 30 developers were there in the meeting. These developers were not from the Kuwaiti company but they were hired by the bank and worked with the employees of the Kuwaiti company as one single team. That meeting was the most difficult one for me. Almost immediately after I started they started making noise. They were making such a noise that I was not able to talk. Some of them looked angry. My Algerian friend tried to control them; it only made the situation worse. But when Dr. Nabeel, who was chairing the meeting, told that no action will be taken against any developer, they became quiet instantly. When he mentioned that the purpose of my visit was to find out the fault in the process and not with any person, they started breathing easy. They allowed me to explain my observations and at the end of my presentation they started asking many questions. The entire meeting lasted little more than three hours. At the end of the meeting the same group of people started asking all sorts of friendly personal questions.

The same day in the late afternoon I was sitting in the hotel lobby facing the restaurant. A young Arab in his mid-20s entered into the restaurant. He ordered food and started eating as soon as it was served. He ate for a while, I was casually observing him; and then he remained seated there. It was almost half an hour, he did not show any sign of leaving the restaurant. I got curious. In the pretext of talking to the restaurant manager, who was a Bangladeshi gentleman, I walked into the restaurant. I could make out that he still had lot of food lying on his table.

Probably after another 10 to 15 minutes he started eating the remaining food.

I flew back to Bombay the day after.

Author: Mintu Ghoshal

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