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I’m ploughing my way through Ramadan, and the end is nearly in sight. For the Eid holidays I have found a reasonable flight out and will have a few days of escape in Sri Lanka. This will come as a welcome relief, somewhere I can eat during the day, and on current weather reports its about 10 degrees C cooler than the mid-to-high 40s we have had here during the last few weeks. One day last week the thermometer reached 50, and boy was that hot. Thank goodness for air-conditioning! Sri Lanka is “enjoying” the latter stages of its annual monsoon season so it will no doubt be very humid. As I will be on my own I intend to travel lightly and explore the island, and arrange accommodation on the hoof.

But onto the electronic matters. When I got my iqama (resident permit) last year this opened up a world of possibilities to me. Saudi is a heavily policed country and as I have chosen to be out here I have no say in the amount of information that is held centrally about me. But why should I – I have nothing to hide. The Absher system (Ministry of Interior computer records) that I can access have a wealth of information about me, and is worth exploring. To access it on-line I have to log on through the MOI portal, inputting my iqama number then a password. As an additional safeguard the MOI then send a 6-digit password to my mobile phone and I have to enter that code too.

Et voila, I’m in!. Here I can browse and see the status of my visa and my iqama, and those of any descendants that I have here. I can see that I have a visa pending for “a wife”. I can also see how many times that I have left and re-entered KSA, at what port, and on which flight to/ from what destination. Same with my family members. Apparently I am a “Project Director” and my religion is “Other” – had I been an atheist I might have objected to that! Is my driving licence still valid? Is my health insurance in date?– I can check. Have I been on a Hajj? No, (although technically I have been to one but not on one). I can even look up my criminal record, and indeed I had the need to do that last week.

I had received a text advising that I had been awarded a traffic violation and needed to pay a fine. Absher advised me this was for a parking violation on a certain date in May, The fine was 100 SAR (GBP 20). Not a lot, but still annoying. Even more annoying was that the date and time given corresponded to when I knew I had been at work and the car was securely parked under my office in a designated parking space. OK, the date was Hirji, not Gregorian so could have been a day out either way. The location given was just “Riyadh”, so that wasn’t much help. The only places I have ever seen any sort of parking enforcement are at the Airport or the old city centre, the few streets around “chop-chop square”. But I hadn’t been near either of those for a long time. Very strange. I have a theory as to how I was awarded the violation. Saudi numberplates are bi-lingual with Roman and Arabic text. Arabs write from right to left, but their numbering is inconsistent with their alphabet and goes, like ours, from L-R. Therefore if my licence number was 1234 ABC, the Arabic equivalent should read 1234 CBA. I guess that the car with my letters in reverse has been mistaken for mine. I just hope he isn’t a speeder – the speeding fines are far more severe than the parking ones! There is an appeal process for challenging traffic violations, and it involves much visiting of police stations and being sent on wild goose chases, with a minimal likelihood of a positive outcome. I discussed this in the office and with friends in the compound and the advice was unanimous – just pay up and avoid weeks of chasing and stress.

But how to pay? There was no indication of how or where, so I went to the bank to ask. And what a pleasant surprise! The Personal Finance assistant took me to an ATM in the bank foyer, told me insert my current account card and the PIN. This I did. I was faced with the usual choices of “Balance Enquiry”, “Cash Withdrawal” etc, and the “Other Services” option too. This is what my helper told me to press, and in amongst a range of more obscure banking options was the choice “Government Services”. Having picked that I had to enter my iqama number and a new screen popped up. I could choose from Agency for Civil Affairs, the Passports Department and the General Traffic Department. In the last of these was one option called “Traffic Violations”. When I clicked on it, it told me I had one violation to pay, the 100 SAR previously mentioned. Did I want to pay? “Yes”. And immediately it told me that the violation had been paid. How simple is that? It could have been even simpler had I known that my on-line banking option has the same functionality and I could have done the same from my sofa in the compound.

As you will probably have guessed, the Absher system is linked to the immigration police at the ports of entry/exit in KSA, and had I gone to the airport and tried to leave the country, my traffic violation would have flagged up and I would have needed to pay it before I was allowed to leave. The same goes for any other unpaid fines, taxes or impositions. What a wonderful system, why don’t we have this in the UK? With the amount of information that the Government holds on all of us, the raw data is no doubt held centrally. The answer is because we won’t let our politicians vote for a national identity card, as those who are fearful of “Big Brother” or have something to hide are vehemently against it. Erosion of civil liberties is their mantra, but I’d argue that battle was lost in the 1990s. But there must be so much use our driving license card can do, a smart-chip in that would make all the difference. Or the E111 European health card, which is presumably connected to an EU-wide system. Why not link them all together and give us something positive to work with? The Saudis are miles ahead.

One area that the Saudis are miles behind with is that to do with aesthetics and presentation. Let’s take cars for example. Buy a new car in the UK, and amongst the hidden non-optional charges that the dealer levies is something like “preparation”. This is the cost of unloading the motor from the transporter, removing the protective layers applied to keep it unscratched during the trip from factory to forecourt, polishing it, taking the labels off and putting the licence plates on. This doesn’t all happen in KSA, 90% of all cars drive around with one window (usually rear-right) semi obscured by a sticker that proclaims the fuel efficiency and emissions levels. The label carries a stern warning “not to be removed until sold”. So dealers don’t remove it, at all. This applies to all marques of cars, from Rolls Royce to my humble hired Nissan Sunni. It is also very common to see the protective white vinyl attached to the roof / bonnet / boot still in place months after purchase, As the majority of cars here are white or silver it isn’t too noticeable, but on a black car it looks like a scruffy Leicester taxi.

The same applies to furnishings. I have lost count of the hotels or restaurants I have visited where the tables and chairs have been bought and installed, but the protective coverings over the legs remains in place. It looks so shabby, but no doubt helps keep the legs scratch-free for far longer. Rarer, but not unknown, is for tables to have their plastic cover still attached. I’m not sure if it is lack of attention to detail, the expectation of others to do menial work like unwrapping, or just no understanding of what has actually been bought and what to do with it. Answers on a postcard, please!

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