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The UK

After four months in the Middle East and Saudi in particular, I had become accustomed to a lot of different things. Therefore I feel qualified to comment on some aspects of UK life that I saw through fresh eyes. I had watched the unfolding political and economic car-crash that the Brexit vote had inflicted on the country via BBC World News. It had been interesting to see the different slants provided for the same story by the other news channels I can get on TV – Euronews, France24 and Al Jazeera. But I hadn’t felt how it had affected everyday life in the UK. After leaving the plane at Heathrow the first thing that struck me was how ordered the UK is. People queued for immigration patiently (well the EU passport holder queue did at least). No longer was one pushed out of the way for someone who claimed to be a third cousin of a minor prince. All the passenger areas at the airport were clean-ish, the toilets worked, doors worked, luggage belts worked, nearly everything worked. Society hadn’t collapsed after the Brexit vote, life carried on as normal.

Unlike at Riyadh airport there weren't porters scurrying around trying to grab large suitcases from the belt and then expecting to be hired because they had your bag. At SAR 10 (£2) a time that might have been  useful if I had a lot of stuff to collect. Terminal 5 at LHR is a wondrous place, and easy to get lost in so a porter /  navigator service might be a useful service that the airport offers. Apparently the main building at T5 is the world’s largest roof span without inside support pillars. I am told the new mosque being built at Mecca will have a roof three times larger so that 1.5million people can pray simultaneously with clear lines of sight to the focal point. Wow.

The next thing that I noticed is how commercialised the UK is. There seems to be an unwritten rule that the vendor will charge the maximum that he thinks that he can get away with. WH Smith's at the airport - a bag of everyday chocolate at £7 (or 3 for £10). It truly is "rip-off" Britain. The Heathrow express train staff (a subsidiary of Heathrow Airport Holdings, formerly BAA) have the plum position for selling rail tickets to London, their staff are inside the Arrivals area. Newcomers to Britain are spotted and sold the HEx single tickets of £22.00 (no child fare reduction), whereas a visit to the ticket office (not advertised or obvious from the arrivals corridors) would reveal a Heathrow Connect fare of £10.20 for a slightly slower journey, (also to Paddington only); or an Underground ticket for £6.00. The latter of course gets you to any station in London, with the HEx or HConn you have to buy a Zone 1 tube (£4.90) or bus to get from Paddington to your destination, assuming you are heading to central London. A bottle of water was on sale for £3 - in Riyadh airport they hand it out free.

Commercial astuteness is very noticeable in the UK. If there is an opportunity to sell something, there will be someone there selling it. Not so in Riyadh - whilst waiting for my (delayed) flight, I went to the duty free to see what there was. It was boarded up for "renovations". Not a problem as I knew that 5 minutes’ walk away was Terminal 2 which also had a duty free. I got there and it too was boarded up for "renovations". I cannot imagine any UK retail outlet shooting itself in the foot like that.

 Once on the streets of London, life there too was ordered, but busy. Vehicles seemed to obey traffic lights, There were women drivers. There were lots of pedestrians. There was public transport. There were bicycles. There were parks. People had dogs. So many differences from Saudi, I could go on and on.

Public safety is very different in the UK from KSA. In the UK, you are conscious that there are pickpockets, indeed there are signs in London warning you to look out for them. (How does one recognise a pickpocket by the way? Do they wear a uniform or badges?). You don't get casual theft in Riyadh, the deterrent is severe. There are beggars in London, not so in Riyadh. Perhaps because there is such a tight grip on security in KSA I actually feel quite safe. Sure, there are the occasional security incidents but if one is sensible and doesn’t invite trouble, then it is OK. But in London I did notice more of an air of unease than I expected. Armed police were very overt in their presence at transport hubs, and I felt that the air had changed somewhat.

It took me a while to re-acclimatise to the UK, and I don't mean the weather. Back in Biggar I went to the Co-op supermarket to buy a couple of things for the house. The shelves were neatly stacked, prices were clear. Boxes and empty packaging weren't scattered around the floor. At the tills there wasn't a Pakistani to shovel my purchases haphazardly into (free) poly bags. Just so many differences. I heard a friend in KSA once say that when he went home he stood at the end of the till and watched his groceries pile up because he had forgotten the art of self-service. It’s the same at petrol stations, at home one invariably has to fill one’s own tank. The last time I had a serviced fill in the UK was in July 2007 at a tiny garage on the island of Harris. In KSA one fills up by driving into a petrol station, and the Asian pump attendant fills the car for you as you leave your engine running and the aircon on. My Nissan Sunni will fill up for SAR 25, that’s £5. Fuel here is about 12% the price of it at home, 14p a litre. The prices are static, there is no difference in price between a city centre, motorway or rural fuel stop. Supermarkets haven’t bothered getting in on the fuel market, there is no incentive for them.

And talking of driving, what a pleasure to be back in the UK and see some considerate and sensible driving. I hired a van and drove to Inverness and back in one day to collect daughter #2’s belongings after she had completed her university studies in Dingwall. Lovely day, beautiful scenery, good roads. The average speed cameras on the A9 took a bit of getting used to and I think I managed to comply. I do wish they existed in KSA. The permitted speed on the main road I travel on to get to and from work is 120kph (80mph). Sometimes there are speed cameras deployed. These are grey metal boxes, 3 feet tall, that are plonked at the side of the road and invisible from a distance. Saudi drivers scream along and then if they see a camera box, brake suddenly and sharply, often resulting in accidents or near misses with the lunatic who has been trying to overtake them. In my own limited evidence-based study of the effect of these speed cameras, I reckon that they add more risk to road safety. Average speed cameras would make a big difference.

But the best think about being home was being with the people I love, and that is priceless. After the visa failure, we are looking at other ways to have time together, and one solution will be for family to book a holiday in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and I will join them.

Back to the sandpit with flights on BA Edinburgh – LHR – Riyadh, and how quickly the happy memories fade. Next week sees something new, I am off to do an inspection of the metro in Mecca that serves the Hajj pilgrims. It is pretty special, I’ll tell you about it, and what I see of Mecca too – I need a special permit to go there – next time.

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