Saudi Arabia under siege

A expat teacher from Chico on life in an oil-rich dictatorship that’s running scared

First span of the entrance causeway to Bahrain.

First span of the entrance causeway to Bahrain.

Photo By Joseph Marais

Secrecy’s the name of the game:
The author, a Chico State graduate, has chosen to use a fictitious name for fear of reprisal from his Saudi Arabian employer. He has changed the name of the university where he teaches and the compound he lives in as well. Additionally, a model was used to represent him on our front cover.

By spring of 2009 I was ready to go home, but I couldn’t afford to do so. My teaching job in Europe paid well enough in local terms, but it would have taken me years to save enough money to finance resettlement in the United States.

So, turning to the job-search websites and swiftly scrolling past the low-paying jobs in places promising rewarding adventure, I blindly followed the dollar signs that—war zone or two excepted—pointed directly at Saudi Arabia.

Before long, I got it—a two-year teaching contract at a university, with a salary that would enable me to save enough to get back to Chico and tide me over during what promised to be a very long and difficult search for a job, given the state of the U.S. economy. The university was in a major metropolitan area on the shore of the Persian Gulf. Rumored to be more easygoing than Riyadh, the capital city, it was within easy range of helicopters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain in case the unhappy need might arise for a departure under duress similar to what happened in Saigon in 1975, or—more significant—did not happen in Tehran at the beginning of the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979.

But immediately after I began nosing around on teachers’ blogs, looking for info on my future employer—the “University of the Empty Quarter,” as a friend jokingly dubbed it—I did something uncharacteristic. I stopped investigating.

The blog posts had been grim enough to deter all but the most desperate jobseeker: contracts not honored; gross maladministration; evasive, slippery bosses; woefully substandard housing; and lots more. There was every indication that it was going to be a lousy gig, save for the pay. So I figured, why dig any further and risk the total ruin of the good attitude I’d so obviously need for my new adventure?

The University of the Empty Quarter has only male students.

Photo By Joseph Marais

What followed was four months of unrelenting anxiety and a furious daily searching for backup jobs should Saudi Arabia fall through. Every indication suggested it already had. No sooner did the ink on my contract dry than my putative employer seemed to forget I existed. Every few weeks, my contact at the university, making no mention of my numerous attempts to reach her by e-mail and phone, would e-mail me to ask if everything was going well, always closing her mail with the standard “If you have any questions, please .…”

I asked questions of all kinds, but I never received an answer. I wondered if it wasn’t an elaborate ruse, a suspicion that persisted until I got through passport control at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

It didn’t take long for the lessons of those months of waiting to become clear: Incommunicado is the posture of the powerful (my employers) toward the powerless (me). This was true not just of the job, but of the country, too. Signified by the oft-heard inshallah (“God willing”), the unknown and unknowable preponderate. Answers are few, the weighing of odds and probabilities habitual. Puzzling over virtually any aspect of Saudi Arabia means the reading of tea leaves, stars and palms, and ultimately empty chatter to fill the vacuum of so little information forthcoming from the massively top-heavy concentration of power and responsibility that is the Saudi social and political structure.

Hassan, a Jordanian with a doctorate in computer science from a British university, admonished us: “You’re unused to this because you’re Brits and Americans and not Arabs; this, folks, is what it is to live under tyrants. All Arab regimes are tyrannies. You learn to live without any power whatsoever.”

The long-term effects of these strategies of enfeeblement are not hard to predict. Idealists don’t last long. You’re either here for the paycheck or you’re in the wrong place.

The University of the Empty Quarter, which has only male students, has managed to draw an impressive lot of academic talent. Teaching positions are reserved for those with degrees from universities in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia. More and more résumés pour in the deeper the American and British economies sink. And the university manages to retain some of this talent, in the face of whole flocks of fed-up teachers having fled, frustrated with maladministration and the train wrecks resulting from mismanaged visas, delayed residency permits, chaos within departments, and the university’s insufferably dreary faculty-housing compound, “Beau Geste Estates.”

A Saudi police officer.

Photo By Joseph Marais

At Beau Geste Estates, Western-educated professionals, most of them white, are corralled behind double, sometimes triple, walls topped with multiple strands of razor wire, replete with heavy machine guns, pillboxes, sandbags, surveillance cameras, floodlights, camouflage netting and concrete anti-car-bomb barriers, the whole patrolled by armored cars with mounted machine guns and heavily armed soldiers. Darker-skinned ultra-low-wage grunt workers imported from South Asia are housed in ghastly cinderblock hovels fronting directly onto busy streets.

Laws and strictures governing women in Saudi Arabia are not enforced on compounds inhabited by Westerners, where in general Western customs and laws are observed. Women may drive cars, need not wear the abaya (robe-like dress) or the hijab (head covering), and may go where they please without a male minder legitimating their public appearances.

The universal term of reference for living arrangements set apart from Saudis—“compound life”—can sometimes mean freedom from the constraints that govern life beyond compound walls, and access to cinemas, dance floors, bars serving alcohol, and other banalities turned exotic by their being otherwise strictly forbidden. Beau Geste is not such a place.

Beau Geste Estates has all the charm of a Motel 6 fortified against infantry assault, offering us residents little but the protection of its walls, barbed wire, and machine guns—a grim little fortress prison.

Radically unlike my compound is the Aramco compound, less than 10 miles from Beau Geste. If Mecca and Medina are Saudi Arabia’s soul, and the House of Saud its head, then Aramco—the gigantic Arab-American Oil Co.—is the heart, drilling, pumping, refining, and exporting the oil resting in the largest reserves on the planet, the source of much of the oil Americans rely on. (Saudis, by the way, pay about 50 cents per gallon for gas.) Aramco’s largely American engineering talent lives on a showcase compound that sets standards other compounds cannot hope to match, approximating the best of small-town America.

Beau Geste Estates, 0700 hours: A rickety Toyota bus overloaded with faculty eases from the compound onto the jam-packed 10-lane freeway. We traverse a hodge-podge landscape of scrap dealers, heavy-equipment lots, steel fabricators, strip malls, gas stations, office parks, unfinished skyscrapers and cheap restaurants. Remove the minarets, and it’s East L.A.—but no, maybe not: There’s no color; everything’s whitewashed or dun and sun-blasted, and what’s not brand-new is smeared with oily grime and grubby.

University students cut up for the camera.

Photo By Joseph Marais

There’s construction everywhere, and the highway is filled with cars long disappeared from American roads—hundreds and hundreds of huge, late-’70s/early-’80s gas-guzzling Detroit museum pieces that are battered and ridden to hell, with bald tires and lightning-crack windshields. It’s a panorama of dirty two- and three-story buildings, exhausted-looking palm trees, and trash—trash on the shoulder, trash flying out of car windows, trash in heaps and piles and pools and stacks.

The bus drives past the turnoff for the causeway to the island-kingdom of Bahrain and heads out into the long straightaway, across that endless, flat expanse where—floating mirage-like on the horizon—sits the University of the Empty Quarter, in the middle of nowhere, squatting behind its walls, nervous, unsure.

It is jobs that keep people here. Granted, there are a few converts seeking the real Islamic deal, and some expats defy categorization. But for the vast majority this is the only job they could find. For Americans, especially, home means joblessness, and that’s a large part of what’s at the backs of their minds when talk turns to the unrest in Bahrain and the prospects for its spread to Saudi Arabia.

Prior to Tunisia’s convulsions in January, worries revolved around the likelihood of terrorist attack, especially one like the massacre in May 2004 on a compound housing Western technicians and non-Saudi “third-country nationals” scarcely a mile from Beau Geste Estates. Attackers belonging to the so-called “Jerusalem Squadron” separated Muslims from infidels and beheaded twenty-two “unbelievers.”

While it’s disquieting to observe how easy it would be for gunmen to pull alongside and put a few hundred rounds into a busload of teachers, we know that the swift response to earlier attacks has evidently gone far in suppressing terrorist cells.

The recent assassination of Osama bin Laden, however, has revived substantial fears, now of retaliatory attacks. Bin Laden had–it’s fair to say has—admirers and supporters aplenty in Saudi Arabia, for reasons both political and religious. The rumor mill, running full blast, has it that bin Laden may have been taken out at the behest of the Saudi government, to eliminate one of the more potent threats to what bin Laden called “the near enemy”—the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabian women must wear the traditional black <i>abaya</i> and full head covering at all times in public, even when swimming, as these two women are doing in the Persian Gulf.

Photo By Joseph Marais

However, it wasn’t until recently that anyone gave serious thought to the possibility that the Saudi government could be overthrown.

The threat the Saudi regime faces is evident in Bahrain, whose rich minority Sunni monarchy holds sway over an aggrieved, disenfranchised Shia majority. Every workday, the bus takes us past the entrance to the causeway over which went troops and armor belonging to the Saudis and member states of the GCC—Gulf Cooperation Council— that put down the recent demonstrations in Bahrain with savage force. Even if, as rumor had it, the Saudi-flagged armored personnel carriers that ringed Pearl Square in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, were filled with hardcore Pakistani and Algerian mercenaries, the smashing of the demonstrations put a halt to jokes about whether Saudi national guardsmen can shoot straight.

Clearly signaled was the absolute refusal to accept disobedience, much less rebellion, by Shia citizens of a fellow Sunni kingdom immediately next door, and especially not when the fear is of an Egypt-like copycat revolution culminating in the fall of the House of Saud. All eyes are on the Shia, who comprise about 10 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population, because while Shia discontent is only one of the several sources of instability in Saudi Arabia, the Shia make the Sunni very nervous, and all that fabulous oil is right down the road where the Shia happen to live.

As explained to me by one faculty member, an ex-Catholic convert to Islam and graduate of the London School of Economics, Sunni live in mortal dread of Shia, who the Sunni are absolutely convinced will slice their throats the instant the Shia get the chance. That’s a rather overheated view, said another faculty member, in this case a Sufi from Pakistan. Whatever else may be said, there’s no doubting that Sunni-Shia tensions make the Catholic-Protestant divide look like just another sour Thanksgiving Day dinner with family you can’t stand.

Events in Egypt began to turn heads back in late January and into March, when mass popular protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square morphed into a serious revolt that threatened not just the Mubarak government, but the entire Egyptian establishment, as well. Egypt, directly across the Red Sea and a short hop by plane from Saudi Arabia, was familiar, a safety valve for many of the students at the University of the Empty Quarter—horny young Saudi men with lots of cash, thirsting for fun and some whiskey, sick of the suffocation at home, dying to get away and meet some girls without need of the elaborate ruses resorted to at home and freed of the risks they entail. Egypt was also a pillar of the unshakeable order dominated by the United States, and the feeling that swept the campus was that, if Mubarak could go, anything was possible.

Now that the regional lid has come off and everyone is wondering whether Saudi Arabia is next, trying to figure out what’s going on here makes the long-ago work of Kremlinologists look easy. To ask students about it is extremely risky. Of the innumerable, unwritten, ironclad rules, No. 1 is: Never talk about anything that actually matters. No. 2 is: If you wish to violate No. 1, make sure the corridor is empty, the door is locked, and voices are kept low. Religion—out. Politics—out. Sex—out. Social system—out. The government—way out. The monarchy and the Saud family? Mention them, and people turn into ice statues.

“The attendants are not Saudi, of course,” says the author. “No way would a Saudi pump gas!”

Photo By Joseph Marais

Since the University of the Empty Quarter nowhere provides clear rules, it’s all guesswork about where the minefields have been laid. Whispers in departmental corridors of “one wrong note and they’ll toss you out” encourage teachers to play it safe. Yet students often complain bitterly about the extreme suffocation of Saudi life.

They bemoan the absence of music, art, cinema and theater, and gripe that “there’s nothing to do.” They complain about the impossibility of pursuing activities that elsewhere are commonplace, such as a dance class, a music lesson or a yoga session. Many are irritated with the domination of the mosques and the inescapability of religion, and chafe at the forced insularity of life in Saudi Arabia. It’s the rare student who does not express an intense desire to get away from the country.

By far, the top complaint is the merciless sexual segregation. Meeting women is as outrageously difficult as it is insanely risky, and it is not unusual for a young Saudi man to have never spoken to a Saudi woman who is not his mother or sister.

Though Saudi men complain bitterly of sexual straitjacketing, their sense of grievance in no way sensitizes them to the situation of Saudi women. Saudi men—at least the sons of privilege with whom I routinely deal—have no interest whatsoever in having women enjoy even the tiniest sliver of the sexual freedom they would want for themselves. What support I have heard voiced for the liberalization of women’s social roles, such as coeducation and the right to drive, is because it would expand men’s access to women. This is a problematic proposition, given many Saudi men’s insistence on certifiable sole-proprietor rights to a woman’s body and mind—an utter lack of rights defended as a way of life.

What Saudi women might have to say of these issues is a matter of huge speculation. An accurate picture is difficult to obtain due to the simple fact that Saudi women are permitted so little voice in a society not much given to the exercise of independent voice in the first place.

As a rule, with male students especially, the farther afield a Saudi has traveled, the more uneasy he or she is with the entire Saudi system. But Saudis no longer have to travel to discover that they’re living in an absurd prison.

A residential street late at night. Even during the day, the streets are often quiet and empty.

Photo By Joseph Marais

It’s true that the days when the religious police fired shots at satellite dishes are long gone, and everybody knows that government blockage of forbidden websites is effortlessly circumvented. Access to whatever it might be that’s on the airwaves is as easy as it is in Manhattan, and the women are in on it as well—unimpeachable sources say the girls have more porn on their desktops than do the boys.

But firewalls against porn are not the only artifices suffering structural fatigue. Many students are troubled by an awareness of gigantic holes in their education, with its hopelessly narrow focus on the Islamic world and the Quran, and the hygienic curricula at the post-secondary level. The things that matter—religion, politics, sex, history, philosophy, literature, art and the exercise of freedom—are not so much off-limits as beside the point, the point being well in hand courtesy of The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, aka King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

The Saudi message in Bahrain was: Question the social order, and we shoot. Islam is the basis for the social order, but discussion of Islam is off the table.

A colleague of mine began his teaching career in a village on the banks of the Blue Nile in Sudan in the early 1980s and has never left the region. Behind closed doors he rails against the preposterous idiots who “imagine that something is going to change. Nothing will ever change, period. Saudi Arabia is a medieval theocratic dictatorship, has been since the seventh century and will be a thousand years from now. All notions to the contrary are pure folly.”

He may be right. I have always been impressed, on my many long walks through residential areas, by the overwhelming dominance of walls. Century upon century of ruthlessly enforced public piety drives people behind unassailable locked doors. In all but the very poorest districts—inevitably neighborhoods housing non-Saudi migrant laborers—every lot is walled, and as often as not the wall is topped with barbed wire. Windows are always closed and darkened. I have never seen wash on a clothesline, never seen children at play or a couple on a stroll. I have never seen anyone washing a car, never heard anyone practicing the piano or anyone singing, never heard a radio, never heard music of any kind. I’ve never heard a television, never witnessed a spat. Never heard a baby crying, never heard laughter from behind these walls.

Will Saudis topple their regime? Too hard to say. There could well be the most furious discontent boiling beneath the surface, but I’d never know it.

Consider the question through a different frame of reference. Nearly all my students are from rich families. Most have never cooked a meal, washed their own clothes, made their own beds, swept a floor or scrubbed a toilet, and they’d be amused to be told they owe it to themselves to try. Many own cars I wouldn’t be able to afford to insure, let alone purchase. Most have never worked a day in their lives and intend to keep it that way, and most will have little or no trouble doing so if all goes according to plan.

The plan? Show up on campus somewhat regularly. Attend class now and then. Arrive late, leave early, neglect the work. Butter up the teacher. Keep it up till you get the diploma. Get a job at Aramco, or a commission in the military with its 0800 start and noon knock-off, tea and cigarettes in between. Either way, the pay is handsome, retirement early, and the majority of the work is showing up—the labor is for the foreigner, be he American teacher or Bangladeshi toilet-cleaner.

We expats wonder, what in the world are we doing here? We fantasize that we’re promoting the transition from a medieval theocratic dictatorship into something that can work in a modern world. But that would amount to a revolution, and Saudis are way too sharp to upend things. Why derail a gravy train, especially when, as Saudis will explain, it was Allah who put this oil beneath these sands?

Every day, Saudi pilots in their American-made F-15s and British-manufactured Tornados take off from the Royal Saudi Air Force base just down the road, scream past my classroom window and head out over the Gulf on another leisurely run to fill up the flight log and keep Iranian radar-operators on their toes. It’s nice, easy, air-conditioned work, and they aim to keep it that way.