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Dubai and Nofa

What is Nofa? Can you eat it? Drink it? Visit it? Wear one? Read it? Something else? Well, you’ll find out later.

But first to Dubai. My first visit to there was in mid-2016, not long after I came out to work in Saudi Arabia. And since then I have flown and changed flights there on four or five occasions, but not gone outside of the airport; and Elaine had not visited there at all, So, time to go back. The ideal excuse popped up in the shape of an invitation to attend the Scottish Association in Dubai’s St Andrew’s Ball on the weekend of 9th November.

So on the Thursday we packed our bags, lent the dog out to friends and headed to Riyadh Airport. Dubai (one of the seven Emirates in the UAE) is an hour and a bit’s flight away and one hour time-zone ahead of KSA. On landing we quickly passed through immigration (free visa on entry for UK citizens), collected our bags, piled into a taxi and headed towards our hotel.

Dubai is so different from Riyadh in so many respects. The taxi is a case in point: clean, well maintained vehicles with working meters and smartly dressed chatty drivers wearing their photo-ID and licence cards. In Riyadh we have a fleet of decrepit looking white taxis that are staffed by lower quality Asian immigrant (or sometimes Saudi) drivers. Unless you are going to a really obvious destination such as the airport, a shopping mall or hospital there is every chance you will have to direct the driver yourself. What I do if I ever have to use a taxi is state the nearest major landmark and when we get near to it then I direct the driver to the actual destination. Hooray for Google Maps, their navigation function is a godsent in Riyadh. Two of the first words I learned in Arabic were “yamim” and “yasser” (right and left) for the sole purpose of telling taxi drivers where to turn. You also have to agree the price in advance as there are no meters. Being white I normally get asked for double the actual price, but I have learned what the true value is and now take no nonsense. The Saudi Public Transport Authority has now hired a cohort of taxi inspectors whose aim is to drive up the standards of taxi services in the Kingdom. I wish them every success, I could write a book on my taxi experiences in Riyadh.

There are new operators for taxi services in the Kingdom. Uber has been here for a couple of years, and Careem too, the latter is an Arabic company built on the Uber model. Their vehicles are driven by Saudis in their marginal time, and usually the quality of the vehicle is superior to the white taxis. The service is haphazard though, a Careem / Uber booking is no guarantee of a vehicle turning up or indeed conveying you to where you want to go. A friend of mine recently ordered a Careem car via his mobile app to go to Riyadh Airport, and it turned up pretty much on time. As my friend was lugging his suitcases out of his door, it started to rain, and the Careem driver (or “Captain” as they are styled) announced that he was aborting the journey due to bad weather and drove off!

In the major cities in the Kingdom it is also possible to order a limousine and I encourage Elaine to do this if she is going anywhere on her own. These are operated by Asian taxi barons who provide a quality car and an English-speaking driver who is usually within 48 hours of their last bath or shower. These barons do not seem to advertise, and you find out about them by word of mouth from other ex-pats. Our compound in Riyadh has a contact for one of them and they are more reliable than other options. Their prices are higher, but it is generally worth it.

With women in KSA now being allowed to drive (I have seen 8 now since June), it has been decreed that women-driven taxis may operate, but they are only permitted to convey female or “family” passengers. Oh, and to differentiate from all other providers, the women must drive a pink coloured car. (Honestly). Well, its progress of a sort.


Screenshot of a newspaper article on pink taxis in Mecca.

I’ve been meaning to write about taxis for a while now. But after that digression back to Dubai. The taxi driver didn’t need telling twice where we were going, the Atlantis Palm Hotel is one of the two best known in the emirate (the other is the Burj al Arab). As the St Andrew’s Ball was being held there, we had taken up the offer of cheap (ahem) rates advertised in conjunction with the event. I can say though that the rates were by a big margin the most I have ever paid for an hotel stay. But as we hadn’t done anything special for our recent wedding anniversary, I thought we could push the boat out.

We had a lovely stay, the hotel was excellent in all its facilities. Alcohol was available in the bars and at the function, and pork was an option for breakfast too. On the Friday we went up to the Mall of Dubai and shopped to her heart’s content. (No half-day-closing on Fridays or prayer breaks here!). I of course went and inspected the hockey-sized ice rink in the mall and made enquiries of the management of the possibilities of hiring some of it for a curling expedition. We had a cup of coffee at a vantage point overlooking the Dubai Fountains, these are quite a spectacle.


Monorail outside Atlantis Palm Hotel

Back to the hotel and time to marvel at the huge aquarium in the north wing, free to see as a hotel guest. There are around 65,000 fish and other aquatic creatures within it. Wow! Incredibly, there are underwater hotel suites there too, prices starting at GB £6,000 per night. Have a look on t’internet, these are truly amazing. However, one downside to the hotel was the fact that it was very busy. The weekend coincided with Diwali, the Hindu winter festival, and 90% of the occupancy seemed to be people of Indian origin. I have no issue with Indians at all, the ones I know individually are nice people, however when they are there in their 1,000’s they fairly clutter the place up and make queuing for breakfast and check-in/out a lengthy process.

The St Andrew’s ball was a grand affair, upwards of 500 people banqueting then dancing to a Scottish ceilidh band who had been flown in for the occasion. We met a cross section of Jocks abroad, ranging from oil executives, teachers, health care professionals and even an ex-Scotland footballer who is a pundit on middle eastern TV channels.

A long lie-in on Saturday was followed by a leisurely breakfast (after competing with most of Mumbai for a table) and then we spent the remainder of the day in the water park that is adjacent to the Atlantis. As hotel guests we had complimentary access to this too. Elaine chose the relax, sunbathe and read option, and I relived my childhood, trying out the vast range of slides and features that were available. November is the ideal time to do this, as the temperature and water is warm enough to be pleasant, and there is no need to keep applying the factor 50 sunscreen.WP_20181110_005jpg

View from the water park towards the Burj Dubai Hotel

After returning to Riyadh on the Saturday evening (cheap flights due to cashing-in on the miles accumulated with Flynas, Saudi’s second tier airline on which I travel regularly), it was back to the mill. But something to look forward to was the arrival of daughters Nos 1 and 2 who came out to visit us for a week.

Whilst I was at work they busied themselves with sunbathing (between rainshowers), walking the dog, trips to shopping malls and a ladies’ Canasta (card game) event. At the weekend on Friday (we work Sundays to Thursdays) we had a drive out into the desert to the north and east of Riyadh, travelling along minor roads and stopping for a picnic. At one point we paused at a scenic location, and suddenly, seemingly from nowhere a caravan of camels appeared being led by men in a 4x4 pickup wagon and with a single camel attached to a rope, and all the other camels following it. The convoy was caboosed by another 4x4. Fascinating to watch.


Our dog learning to camel-herd

On the Saturday we went on safari! An hour to the west of Riyadh off the Makkah road there is an estate privately owned by a prince. This place is called Nofa, and comprises of a hotel and resort, a fully-grassed golf course, an equestrian centre and a safari park. We had booked the safari for four people and this cost us 400 SAR plus 5%VAT, which works out at £22.00 per person. We had booked a specific slot to go there, and on arrival we were registered, and then taken from the car park by minibus to a pavilion overlooking the park. Here tea, coffee and soft drinks were offered, and we had a pleasant wait until our wagon arrived to take us around the park. This journey took just under an hour and we travelled through a sandy savannah, stopping frequently to see deer, gazelle, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, hippopotamus, ostrich, cheetah (in their own enclosure) and several other species too. WP_20181117_001jpg

All aboard for the safari

After this we went to the indoor and caged section, and here we were allowed to go close and, in some cases (but not all) touch creatures that included birds of prey, more ostrich and deer, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, guinea pigs, dogs, monkeys, geckos, hedgehogs, porcupines, scorpions and much more besides.

Seeing dogs in a zoo was very strange, there were three or four of them in an outside cage. There was a Yorkshire Terrier and a couple of others that were either a breed I didn’t recognise or were mongrel. However, dogs are not considered as normal pets in KSA, and whenever we take our own dog out for a walk in Riyadh we are the centre of attention. At his petting zoo, having the dogs available for children to socialise with (we saw this happening) allows people who normally have no contact with dogs to realise that they are approachable and friendly. So, a bit strange but I can see the logic behind that.

After an all too short week with the girls they returned home, but we will be back in Biggar before C*mas and will see them and our UK dogs all then.

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