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Winter in Saudi

After the recent rains (see my earlier blog ‘Smoke and Water’) I travelled to Qurriyat last month to look at the rain effects on the railway and the surrounding lands there. Qurriyat is a city of 200,000 people in the far north of KSA, just next to the border with Jordan. By rail it is 1,240 km north of Riyadh, and will be the northern terminus for domestic rail services on the SAR railway network. In perspective, KSA is about the size of western Europe, so Qurriyat is as far from Riyadh as Vienna is from London. Although the line and station have been constructed to/at Qurriyat, SAR’s present passenger operation extends only to Al Jouf which is 300km south of Qurriyat. In fact, the railway line has already been built the few kms beyond Qurriyat to the Saudi / Jordanian border at Haditha with the intention of linking into the Jordanian network and eventually accessing the Mediterranean. This will entail access through either Egypt, Israel, Lebanon or Syria – once further diplomatic issues are dealt with. Branches off the main passenger line in KSA serve industrial and mineral mine sites in the north.

But today Qurriyat is a frontier town, and from what I could see the industry centres around border controls and farming. There is a large area of irrigated land in the north, and a big feature of this are the circular fields that are artificially irrigated by a rotating spray gantry. From the air these look bizarre, almost like a green polka-dot pattern on a beige material. These are not to be confused with the natural oases which occur in dips and hollows where the water table is high in comparison to the surrounding land. The circular irrigated fields are variable in size depending on the topography, but the larger ones have a diameter of 750m – that’s nearly half a mile across. The irrigation gantries are therefore anything up to 375m long and are on motorised wheels that drive them around in circles from the central water supply. Ingenious and impressive. Coming from Scotland which has a too-reliable supply of rain these are certainly a novelty for me.


Screenshot from Google Earth showing circular fields near to Qurriyat

And water was the reason I was in Qurriyat. The as-yet unopened section of railway there suffered some spectacular damage from flash-floods after heavy rains in November. The usually dry wadis (dry river beds) in the area quickly filled and overspilled their banks and caused damage to the local infrastructure. As the rains are infrequent (some years see very little if any at all) and are confined to the winter months, this was the first time the recently built railway encountered such a thing. When you are building a railway anywhere in the world away from desert climes, there will be obvious water channels and accurate meteorological records to consult. But not so here, and unfortunately one section of the railway embankment had too much to cope with. Although there were culverts and bridges at the wadis, one particular culvert could not cope with the water presented and collapsed and the adjacent embankment was washed away leaving about 50m of track unsupported. Just as well there was no traffic on the route! Now, I am neither a hydrologist nor a hydraulic engineer, so all I could do was take measurements and photographs and pass the technical responsibility over to an expert in that – er – field.


By the way, Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the world with no permanent rivers. Just saying. Oh, and apropos of nothing at all, Biggar’s annual Kirk Quiz takes place on Friday 1st February. See the Minister or Session members for bookings, they will pass you on to the right person. As Honorary Quizmaster-in-Exile I will ensure there is a diverse set of teasers to get to grips with.

Following that commercial break, and my return to Riyadh it was time to start thinking about the Festive Season. I had managed to get the 2016 and 2017 Christmases and subsequent New Years at home so this time it was my turn to man the fort (as it were) in Saudi. Elaine and I flew home on 14th December, and I returned to work in Riyadh on the 23rd. As I write, Elaine is ensconced at home with all the festive trappings and kith and kin, and I am on my own. Even our wee dog has gone to stay with friends on the other side of Riyadh, But as 25th December was a Tuesday this year and a working day there was nothing for Elaine to stay here for, and I am glad she made the correct choice. We celebrated Christmas at home on the 20th, and treated the whole day as if it was indeed Christmas. The daughters assembled, and we opened stockings then family presents. A soppy Christmas film was watched on the TV in the afternoon, but despite being on first-name terms with the Ambassador in KSA we did not have enough clout to get a sneak preview of Her Maj’s broadcast. Also, somewhat unreasonably (in my opinion) the minister in Biggar did not lay on a special Tuesday Christmas service for us. Elaine served up a delicious turkey dinner and it was much appreciated. She also made an interesting comment that the ‘last-minute’ shopping is a darned sight easier if undertaken on the 19th. In the evening I was taken out to our local pub and given the final part of my presents, a bottle of a rather nice 19 year old Speyside malt which will be kept there under lock and key for my personal use. No such luxury here, of course.

My compound restaurant served up a ‘Winter Turkey Buffet’ on the evening of the 25th, and I invited some other ‘abandoned’ friends to come and share it with me. To illustrate just how empty the compound is during the western festive season, it was less than ¼ full. Such a dinner would have seen the restaurant crowded out at any other time of the year (as was witnessed during the USA’s ‘Thanksgiving’ weekend in November). As one friend commented, all the wise men had gone west carrying gifts.

In Biggar, we have a local celebration where we light a bonfire to ‘burn out the old year and bring in the new’. It’s a key part of the life cycle of the town, and very important to the residents. The bonfire is assembled right through December and when lit late on Hogmanay evening, is a fine spectacle. To see what its all about, click on this link:

In our 12 years in Biggar (yes, we’re incomers) we have grown to love the spectacle and feeling of community spirit that it engenders. We all know there’s a huge, organised, tourist-oriented, highly policed and expensive event up the road in Edinburgh, but for a proper Scots Hogmanay, Biggar is the real deal. As I can’t be there, I will have the second-best thing: I pinched a couple of slivers of wood from the bonfire site before I left, and will light them at the appointed hour in Riyadh.

Happy Christmas and a Guid New Year to all!

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