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A tale of woe

This is quite a long blog by my standards, so I'll summarise it here.  Airline strike - day and a half late - lost phone - lost baggage - unable to hire a car - unable to access online banking - car hire mix-up - car accident - courier delivery ineptitude - not getting paid for 3 months. Feel free to plough through it and pick up any lifestyle tips for existence in Riyadh that you want, though.

After the curling in Norway, it was to be back to reality in Riyadh. Well that was the plan at least. The return flight from Stavanger was booked with SAS to Oslo, then with Turkish to Istanbul then onwards to Riyadh. But on the Friday we received an advance warning that SAS were about to have a pilot’s strike and we were to look at their website to check if our flight was operating. The flight showed as operating on the website through the day, and also on the morning of the flight. We were due to leave SVG at 09.00, so we checked out, drove to the airport and handed back the hire car. At check-in, we were told the SAS flight was cancelled, and had been since lunchtime the day before. This wasn’t what their website said, but the agent pointed out that whilst the website might say it wasn’t cancelled, there wasn’t a plane actually there so there was no flight. We were handed a leaflet telling us what our options were. These boiled down to:

a)       SAS rescheduling us via another route or operator.

b)     Cancelling our journey and applying for a refund of the SAS portion of the flight

c)       Re-booking at our own expense

Having advised work colleagues that I would be late back, we set about trying to get option A enacted. The small number of airport staff at SVG said that they were unable to help directly, as they were contracted ground handling staff and not SAS employees and were not empowered to make decisions. We had to call a number in Oslo, and from other travellers we understood that it took forever for getting them to answer. There was no on-line or website option for contacting them. Having a phone with a Saudi SIM card in it made the phoning prospect dauntingly expensive, but one of the airport staff kindly let us use a phone in an office and we dialled the number and waited – and waited. Elaine and I took turns in listening to the recorded messages. I am now fluent in the phrase “we are extremely busy right now due to a strike by pilots, if your call is not important please call again later” in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. We hung on for over 3 hours and then gave up. Hanging around a small airport isn’t much fun, but at least we had a constant procession of curling friends and acquaintances coming and going to chat with. One of the New Zealand Ladies Seniors team was in the same situation as us, but she was a bit more sanguine than we were, not having any work to return to with attendant loss of salary. Eventually at 15.30 my phone pinged with a message, we had been re-booked to fly departing on the Monday afternoon with KLM, travelling to Amsterdam then with Turkish from AMS to IST and onwards to RUH. Arrival was to be 05.30 on Tuesday. I advised my work and they were less than appreciative. At least I had my laptop with me so was able to pick up work emails and review some documents and keep things from stalling.

At least having a plan eliminates the uncertainty of what to do, so we took the airport shuttle bus back to the city centre and booked back into the hotel we had stayed in the previous week. The reception staff were helpful and booked us back in, giving us a room upgrade for free. Thanks. The two Saudi curlers Suleiman and Karrie were still in town (they were scheduled to travel on the overnight train from Stavanger to Oslo that evening) so we had dinner with them. On the Monday morning Elaine opted for a long lie in and I decided to visit the Oil museum in Stavanger, but when I got there found a huge queue waiting to get in, two cruise liners has docked and a museum visit was evidently on their itinerary for the day. The irony of a Saudi resident visiting an oil museum in Norway was not lost on me, but it isn’t something we can do in KSA, there doesn’t seem to be any public awareness or educational facility for the product that is the lion’s share of the economy. So instead I opted for a round trip on one of the local ferries which took an hour and stopped at seven islands in 45 minutes. Very picturesque and a slick operation too.

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The island of Tunsøy near to Stavanger

So, airport bus back to SVG and the KLM flight to Amsterdam and then on to Istanbul. As we were due to arrive in Riyadh at 05. 30, my plan was to go straight back to our apartment then after a quick shower and some breakfast head off to work. Therefore I tried to sleep as much as possible on the Turkish flights, ignoring the food, on-board entertainment etc and switched myself off. The first Turkish flight was 30 minutes late leaving AMS and left less than an hour’s connection at IST. In our rush to get off, I left my mobile phone attached to the charging socket on the plane. We went up into the departure lounge of the new relocated IST airport (huge and impressive) and sat at the departure gate for the connection to RUH. I eventually realised that my phone was missing, remembered where it was and went back to the exit. However the security staff prevented me going back to the plane. I explained about the phone so they told me to go to the information desk and explain what the issue was. At the desk, I was advised that if I waited, and if it was found, I would get it back. I waited as long as I could, but with the RUH flight on final call for boarding I made my way back to the boarding gate and joined the plane. Annnoyingly, the IST to RUH plane was 45 minutes late departing, and I if I had known that was going to be the case, I might have been able to wait for the phone.

Arrival at Riyadh was later than planned, and a horrendous queue for Immigration to negotiate which took around 45 minutes to clear. As a Saudi Resident the immigration process is normally smooth, but it depends on how many flights have landed just ahead of you, and how quickly those people clear. Fortunately, there was no further wait for baggage at the carousels as it had all been delivered whilst we queued for Immigration. Unfortunately, my suitcase wasn’t there (Elaine’s was though) so we filed a Lost Baggage notice at the help desk there. Apparently, my suitcase had been delayed at IST and would be delivered 24 hours later. Grrr.

So at Riyadh Airport no time to go to T5 to collect the pre-booked hire car (usually a 30 minute exercise), just enough to jump into a taxi back to the compound, a quick shower and change and then another taxi to work. I had dug out an old phone and Saudi pay-as-you-go SIM so was able to recharge that and top-up a payment, phone the car hire company and re-book car collection (from a city branch) for after work finished. A colleague kindly dropped me off there and I went in, signed the paperwork. However, part of the hire arrangement is registering the renter as the temporary keeper of the vehicle, and a code is sent to the registered phone to activate the transfer on the system. As my temporary phone was not the registered number, the code was not received, and so the hire could not be completed. Therefore another taxi back to the compound. Next up, I needed to check my bank statement and move some money (as I still hadn’t had my Iqama transferred to the PTA and hadn’t been paid for 2 months). However, I was unable to log into my Saudi bank because I could not receive the confirmation text code on my phone, which also was linked to my Iqama. The advantages of modern connectivity are great, but without the key tool, it can quickly implode.

Meanwhile, I had emailed to Turkish Airlines’ Customer Service to enquire about my phone, and – hooray – it had been found and was now at their Lost & Found office at IST. Further emails followed with me asking for them to courier it to me in Riyadh (at my cost), or to transfer it by flight to RUH and I could pick it up from the Turkish staff here. But neither options were possible, according to their procedures it had to be picked up in person, or by an agent bearing necessary permissions and proof of identity. Requests to three well known international courier companies proved fruitless, as it turned out that the L&F office was airside and not accessible to couriers off the street. I ether needed to return to IST myself, or find someone who was going there soon. Calls out on (Elaine’s) social media quickly identified that Robin (a Saudi curling friend) was going to Istanbul in just over a week’s time, and he agreed to collect it and post it back to me in Riyadh.

To get around the car hire and banking restrictions, I realised I had to transfer my Iqama registered number to my old phone ID. So after work the next day, my colleague drove me to a shopping mall where there is an “Absher” self-service machine. This allows an on-line access to one’s national identity records (normally done on-line using a phone code verification) by inputting one’s Iqama number and verified by a fingerprint reader. Next I could record the change of registered phone number and I entered the digits. This was refused, saying that the phone was not registered against my Iqama. I realised that this SIM had been bought just after I first came to KSA, and was registered against a country entry code written into my first visa in my passport, not against my Iqama. This meant either abandoning the quest to re-register, and ask the phone company to provide a clone SIM (by declaring the previous one as lost), but as I knew my phone was to be sent back to me I was reluctant to do this. Alternatively, I could use my Iqama to buy a new SIM and transfer my Iqama registration to that. Virgin Mobile KSA offered some good deals, so off I went by taxi to a Virgin Megastore in a big mall to buy one. Guess what? – you cannot but Virgin SIM cards in Virgin Megastores in KSA, they directed me to another mall where there was a guy in a pop-up stall in a supermarket. Here I was able to buy the necessary.

Then it was back to the Absher machine (another mall and taxi) where I completed the registration, and onwards again to the car hire shop where I was at last able to complete the car hire. I had originally ordered a Nissan Sentra, but that was long gone and so I opted for a Nissan Sunni instead. A Sentra would be available the next day so I could return and swap over for that. So, at last no reliance on taxis. Next stop was back to the airport to collect my delayed baggage which had arrived safely.

As agreed, on the next day I returned to the car hire shop and swapped over the Sunni for the Sentra. Then to the bank where I was able to register my new phone number for on-line banking and then get my money sorted. At last, all up and running! Hooray! But the gremlins hadn’t gone away yet, the following day, when I was returning back to the compound after work, my car was hit by a Saudi driver who had not been paying attention to where he was going. We were both OK but both cars were dented. I called Najm (see blogs passim) who arrived about 30 minutes later and completed the paperwork, awarding 100% of the blame to the Saudi and 0% to me. The car was still driveable, so I completed my journey. After work the following day I returned yet again to the car hire office and handed over the accident paperwork. They were again out of Sentras, but the man said he would order one from their vehicle compound near the airport, and I was to return to the office at 10.00 that evening. So, back home and after dinner back out to the car hire. After a couple of calls, the bloke on the late shift there said the replacement car had been delivered to the airport branch. We could wait for “a few minutes” for the car to come to the city branch, but we said, no we can go to the airport and swap cars there. This was agreed between the hire branches. So off we went, yet again to the airport, only to find on arrival at the car hire branch there that they had despatched the car to the city! By this point Elaine and I were laughing because that was all we could do. Half an hour and more phone calls later, the car turned up, we completed the paperwork and went on our way.

Meanwhile, my friend Robin had kindly done the needful and dispatched the missing phone from Istanbul to my compound address in Riyadh. I asked the compound’s admin service to accept it from the courier and if there were any problems on delivery, to call me. The due delivery date coincided with a work trip to Jeddah so I knew I would not be there to collect it. DHL have a useful app that allows you to track your consignment, so I had watched on this as the phone made its way from Istanbul firstly to Leipzig, then Bahrain and finally to Riyadh. Next it was “out for delivery” so the end of the saga was in sight. But no, the next remark was “delivery refused by recipient”. What? I called the compound and the admin people professed no knowledge of any attempted delivery. So I called the DHL help desk who told me there was customs duty to be paid on the package and the recipient had refused to pay. Could I pay by phone? No, I had to pay the courier. When will it be re-delivered? “Tomorrow, insh’Allah.” As I would be at work during the day, I asked if it could be re-routed for delivery at my office. “Of course, no problem”. I gave the address, post code, some nearby landmarks and my phone number for the courier to work with. The DHL man had also asked what Ramadan hours my office was open, so I told him, shaving half an hour off closing time so that he might hurry up. After this was all agreed I hoped that that was that. But I should have known that the kiss of death had been given with the two phrases quoted above. Next day, the consignment again showed “out for delivery” so I waited in the office with baited breath. Next came an email saying that there was customs duty payable, and to simplify matters I could pay on-line. So I did. Work closing time came and went, and still no sign of the courier. A call to DHL asking where it was just confirmed that it was “out for delivery” and would be with me “soon”. Soon, of course is a meaningless notion of time in Saudi and gives the recipient no confidence at all. Half an hour later, the tracker popped up with a new status: “Delivered”. Now I was the only person in the building apart from the security man at the staff car park who speaks less English than I speak Arabic. After a fruitless conversation with him, which culminated in me being allowed to search his office without any luck, I gave up and called DHL again to ask where it was. “Delivered”, the man said, adding “it has been signed for”. Where to?, I asked. He repeated my works address. Dejected, I went back to the compound, to be greeted by the news that a package had arrived for me. There it was, finally. 


More air miles than me - my phone finally arrives

And while all this was going on, I was waiting for my new employer to transfer my iqama from my previous employer Arcadis. No iqama means (for the PTA at least) not being officially on the payroll so not getting paid. But they kept promising that when it came through, I would get my back pay. The Iqama was eventually transferred in early May, so I am on the payroll. Now I'm looking forward to 3 months pay at the end of May so that I can pay the compound my (very) overdue rent. Fortunately after working out here for 3 years I'm not poor, but I didn't really want to start liquidising assets at home and bringing money back out to exist here, thats not how its supposed to work. It looks as if I won't, but it will be tight at the end.

Nothing in Saudi is ever simple, and there are always surprises to keep us on our toes. Onwards and upwards!

Next time, I will try and waken fully before I get off an aeroplane.

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* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 503095212