My working day begins at 6:45 am with a short mini-bus ride from the compound to work. The bus stops at a congested junction, affording a daily look at the assembled 4×4’s and decrepit American station wagons, jockeying for position at the lights.
Each morning, without exception our arrival at this junction heralds a ritual, which, anthropological studies might conclude, epitomizes something of the psyche of the Briton abroad. My colleagues, all British, male and in middle age, will scan the chaos and maneuver around them as each vehicle looks to gain a prime position behind the immutable barrier which is the Red Light, and slowly a clucking cacophony of disapproval will envelope the bus.
Amazement will be expressed at the poor standards of driving, particularly lane integrity, which characterizes Riyadh traffic, and, amid the running commentary of the various gratuitous traffic violations, someone will always be heard to say, “Could you imagine getting away with that, back home?”
This ritual began, on the first bus journey, 18 months ago and though the personnel alter with time, this intimate little rite is performed with the regularity of morning prayer, a little piece of Saudi Arabia that is eternally British.
And thinking on it, what is the build up of traffic at a junction but a metallic queue and what could be more British than traveling to a foreign country and winging that the locals just don’t queue as well as we do?
Through all this, our driver, Siraj, sits impassively, betraying none of the cut-throat, cavalier, Charge of the Light Brigade ferocity that will characterize his exit from the junction, immediately the light turns green.
The later bus, with a greater number and variety of people, does not share the ritualistic quintessence of Britishness outlined above. The talk is more varied; more given to laughter and more likely to be speculative. It is also, crucially, far more likely that the conversation will revolve around the twin obsessions of our workforce; flight prices and the prospect of alcohol.
While office workers in other countries gather by the coffee machine or in designated smoking areas to discuss Friday night or Facebook, the workforce in my office discuss and plot more elemental escapes.
Of these, the most prized is the prospect of a weekend in Dubai and the chance of a beer in a hotel bar. In other offices in which I have worked, alcohol is a taboo subject, best broached with caution. At social functions, consumption is generally encouraged but submitting to it’s effects, paradoxically, is not.
Here in Riyadh, with time, this taboo is gradually eroded so that otherwise, wholly professional people will talk with relish of the prospect of drinking to paralysis on the flight home.
Yet, in many ways this obsession is wholly out of proportion. Each of us leaves at least once a month, we live in relative comfort and while there are inconveniences associate with life in Riyadh, there are no real hardships.
Riyadh does not have the best press in the western world, where it is characterized as oppressive and misogynistic. From my own experience, the one thing everyone knows about Saudi Arabia is that women are not permitted to drive. Yet, for white western men,Riyadh might be inconvenient, but is not oppressive.
What it is, emphatically, is dominated by the schedule of religious observance. Mild inconveniences to a secular western man, such as the closing of the supermarket, for prayer, are in reality little different in principle to Sunday trading laws which once determined opening hours in Britain. What can sometimes be irritating to a visitor, is in realty, merely evidence that in this society, theology has not yet lost out completely to consumerist capitalism.
Saudi’s are every bit as obsessed with fashion and bling as those of us from the west. Be under no illusions with regards to this. But while, in Britain, the Church must compete with shopping, football and all day licensing for the public’s attention, a process which effectively places our spiritual well-being on the same level as our sartorial standing; places Wayne Rooney on the same pedestal as God, In Saudi Arabia, retailers must compete with one another outside the hours kept free for religious observance.
One, perhaps not really surprising consequence of this conspicuous religion is to ensure that matters of faith and religion are brought closer to the surface of our consciousness. In Britain today, it is easy to ignore religion. In Saudi Arabia, it is not and the consequence is that with time, I have come to feel closer to God, closer to the faith which may not, in either country, speak it’s name.
And while most Britons still observe the secular rituals of queuing and yearn for the communion of the pub, a view from Riyadh affords a clearer perspective, for me at least, of the forms of ritual and faith which all to often are hidden from view back home and without which, we are all a wee bit poorer.