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Getting warmer

In March, we are starting to leave the Riyadh winter behind. Whilst this year we never had any overnight temperatures that were near freezing, the thermometer dropped into single figures several times and with a bit of wind, made the place seem chilly. I resorted to putting on my jersey when going outside, and I felt quite comfortable in that. My Arab friends though dressed as if they were in Siberia, after all a drop from the average daytime 32 degrees to 8 or so is a big deal for them. The usual white thobes gave way to heavier brown or black ones, with layers of vests and leggings worn underneath. Its difficult to know what the Saudi women do in winter, as someone in a burka or abaya doesn’t reveal much in the way of shape, let alone layering.

From experience March and April should bring an increase in sandstorms to go with higher temperatures, as it is at this time that the Shamal wind gets going. This wind, blowing typically from the north-east increases towards the summer then dies down again. It carries sand particles from the deserts to the north of Riyadh and deposits them generously on anything that is left outside. At home in Scotland, a good blizzard will drop a foot of snow, which because of its aerated particulate structure would equate to an inch of rain. But with sand, a dump of a 1/10th of an inch will do as much harm to the infrastructure as it gets blown into every crevice imaginable, and it doesn’t melt or flow away. Close the windows tightly, lock the doors and put draught excluders down and after a bit of wind you will still find a fine layer of sand indoors. However, these sand storms are infrequent, and we tend to get less than 10 or so of them each year.

I have upgraded my hire car from a trusty but cheap Nissan Sunni to its bigger sister the Sentra. This came about following repeated requests from Elaine for me to drive something that had a better suspension to deal with the erratic road surfaces we see here, and whilst it is slightly more crashworthy than the Sunni, it is still a small car compared to the herds of SUVs and pick-ups that many of the Saudis drive. Just after I got the Sentra, I had a journey out towards Hofuf (a.k.a. Al Hasa) in the Eastern Region to attend a planned railway emergency exercise. On my way back, on a 2-lane country road I chanced upon a jack-knifed lorry that was blocking the road, and to get past it, I had to drive with the nearside wheels on the sandy verge. I got stuck, sanded in and it took for one of the bystanders at the lorry to attach a tow rope and drag me out with his 4x4 SUV. Not an experience I’d want to repeat, but it was a valuable lesson to learn. And I’m glad it didn’t happen in the summer.

We have had significant changes at work in the last couple of weeks. The contract which I was being provided through lapsed at the end of February, and along with a couple of colleagues we were taken in-house and are now employed directly by the Saudi Public Transport Authority. There are changes to my terms and conditions, and these probably equate to the previous contract on a swings-and-roundabouts fashion. With another of my colleagues retiring, my work responsibilities have changed and as well as remaining responsible for railway accident investigation kingdom-wide, I am now regulatory portfolio manager for different railways, more western focussed than eastern oriented now. A change is as good as a rest – I hope.

It is allegedly a simple process for my iqama (residency permit) to be transferred to a new sponsor, but one of my colleagues who is here on a business visa seems to be having a much more difficult administrative path to tread in getting his permissions sorted out. Long-time readers of this blog might recall some of my mid-2016 shenanigans of trying to obtain my iqama, and I suspect he is heading down that road too. I wish him strength with that.

My colleague who retired invited the rest of the team out for a meal at a restaurant in Bahrain (where he has his permanent residence). So last weekend Elaine and I piled into the Sentra and drove to Bahrain, spending 2 nights there. In the hotel we visited the bar for a nightcap, and it differed from a UK hotel bar in 3 ways: a completely smoking area, full of men in arab dress (and I don’t think they were all Bahrainis) knocking back alcohol, and a ‘cabaret singer’ who would have been booed out of any British pub or club.

On the Friday we went to a Japanese restaurant and had an excellent brunch with our ex-colleague. This was my first experience of such a thing, and for a fixed price it was an all-you-can-eat-and-drink affair. In a similar fashion to all-inclusive hotels the basic drinks were in the package, but premium drinks were extra. An excellent afternoon. 

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Bushida, Bahrain

Afterwards we walked back to the hotel (a pleasurable experience in its own as walking on the streets in Riyadh is nigh impossible), and then onwards to a shopping mall. Here we found a cinema and booked tickets for a recently released film. After that a coffee and an early night.

On the Saturday we met up with friends for lunch and after that they invited us to the British Club in Manama. This little walled oasis in the city was very pleasant and a relaxing afternoon was spent there. After that it was the 5 hour drive back to Riyadh, and in doing so unfortunately we missed watching the incredible 38-38 Calcutta Cup match.

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