Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Saudi Visit

My Saudi Visit
 Well, I'm working on another blog to cover the holidays and such but while this trip was fresh in my mind (and I had 1 1/2 hours to kill at the Dammam airport) I decided to finish this. 
                I was asked to go to Saudi Arabia to help train our Freight Forwarder on our system.  In order for most any non-Saudi national to get into Saudi Arabia you need a letter of invitation from the company you work for or the company you're visiting.  My company provided a letter of invitation and when we went to apply for my visa we were told, although my title is "Manager" because I am a woman and under 50 years old, I needed a different type of invitation letter.  Once we had that secured, I surrendered my passport to our Public Relations Officer (PRO) who handles our "official/government" business and waited.  In about 3 days I received my passport with my single-entry 90-day visa (this means I can go to Saudi 1 time within the next 90 days).  I was informed by my US colleagues working at the plant in Saudi and the warehouse that I wouldn't get to go inside the plant or warehouse because we didn't have enough time to get permission from the government.  Ladies typically aren't allowed to enter the premises and it takes about a month minimum to get all the proper permissions in place.  Whew!  Crazy!  
                The morning of February 12, I headed to the Dubai airport to begin my adventure.  While I was waiting at the gate a very nice older Lebanese woman was sitting next to me.  We talked a little but her English was not great and my Arabic is close to non-existent.  I noticed all 4 other women waiting for the flight already had on their Abaya's (long, black robes covering their clothes and arms) so I headed to the ladies room to change into mine....better safe than sorry. 
                The flight from Dubai to Dammam is only around 1 ½ hours.  The flight was departing around 11:15 AM and I was shocked to receive a full in-flight meal, bread, rice with chicken, salad, dessert, juice and water!  It was surprisingly good.  I had a window seat and when we were getting ready to land I looked out the window and all I saw was dusty sand as far as the eyes can buildings, no roads, SAND!  I finally saw the airport as a speck in the middle of nowhere.  I was told when I got off the plane to RUN to security because the lines were SOOOO slow.  I didn't sprint but I didn't stop anywhere and, unfortunately, I ended up one of the last in line.  There were only about 20 - 25 people in front of me in line and it took me 1 ½ hours to get through security!!!  Efficiency at its best!  As I went through passport control they took electronic fingerprints of all of my fingers and took a photograph of me.  I sighed in relief after I passed.  I went through the baggage screening next and the man working the line asked me if it was my first time to Saudi.  I told him yes and he told me to enjoy my stay.  I was pleasantly surprised! 
When I exited the security area the head of Saudi Polymer Company security was there to meet me.  He had a driver waiting to drive me to the office for my meetings.  I had to ride in the back seat of the car while the two men sat in front.  It is not appropriate for a woman to ride in the front seat unless they are in the car with their husband or close male family member.  It was about an hour drive from the Dammam airport into the city of Dammam.  The first part of the drive was mainly desert and black camels.  I had never seen a black camel before.  When approaching Dammam it was like night and day from Dubai.  The city is much older, not nearly as clean and not many buildings over 10 stories.  The cars were much older too, not nearly the excess you see in Dubai.  In Saudi a three lane highway quickly becomes 5 lanes as people rush to pass on the right and left shoulders.  As soon as a light turns green the honking begins!  I was glad to arrive safe and sound at the office.
When I got to the office building, I noticed there was a bank on the first floor.  On the right side of the lobby was the main branch area and on the left was the "women's branch" of the bank.  We went to the top (5th) floor to meet up with the managers.  When going to their office, I noticed a "women's office area" that had high paneled walls so none of the men could see in.  I finally got to the conference room where the meetings were being held.  It wasn't a large room but it was FULL.  The men were on the right and left sides of the room and the women were all sitting along the back wall.  Everyone introduced themselves and I didn't understand ONE NAME...NOT ONE!!!  The meetings went well and started breaking up around 4:30 in the afternoon. 
When the meetings were over, we were driven to our hotel.  There were huge metal barricades built into the ground of the automobile entrance to the hotel with the word "STOP" on the barricade alone wouldn't prevent passage!  After talking to the guard he lowered the barricade and let us through.  Upon entering the hotel, I had to put my bags through a scanner and go through a metal detector!!!  The hotel was absolutely beautiful and had a few very nice restaurants.  I checked in and agreed to meet my co-worker in the rooftop sushi restaurant later that evening.  I was called sir by the waiter multiple times during dinner that evening...I guess many women don't go there.  The food was very good and fresh!  On my way back to the room I noticed that the elevator buttons went from Lobby and started at 10 and went up to 22.  Although I was staying on the "20th" floor, it was actually about the 10th.  I guess they were trying to appear to be a larger hotel than they actually were!  Interesting!
Out of respect, I wore my Abaya during the meetings and whenever I left my hotel room.  I didn't want to do anything to draw attention to myself.  After meeting the second day, our hosts took us on a tour of the port area of Dammam.  It was HUGE!!!  Their container yard alone had over 12,000 containers in it!  The roads were miserable and the traffic was insane!  I couldn't imagine being a truck driver trying to maneuver around the unpaved pot-holed roads.  After the tour we headed to a very nice Brazilian restaurant in another city around 30 minutes from Dammam called Al Khobar.  That city appeared much newer and cleaner than Dammam and was only around 50 km from Bahrain.   We could see the lights all along the long causeway from Saudi to Bahrain. 
The restaurant was very nice!  When we walked in there was a "single" section where men eating alone or with other men could sit.  As a mixed group (men and women) they took us to the "family" section of the restaurant where families and women eating alone or with other women and children could sit.  I was told that if my male co-worker and I were going to go out to dinner just the two of us, I would have had to sit in the family section and he would have to sit in the single section because we aren't family.  There was one couple sitting near our table and they had a room divider next to their two person table to keep the man's wife even more secluded since she removed her face cover while eating.  When we sat down and there were men at our table facing her, she put on her face covering so all you could see were her eyes.  We enjoyed a LOVELY meal.  One of the best I've had in the Middle East.  I tried ostrich meat and grilled pineapple with cinnamon.  YUMMY!!!  Since alcohol is forbidden in Saudi, they had a long list of moctails and "wine."  I noticed a glass of faux chardonnay was 60 Real which is around $18 USD!!!  EIGHTEEN DOLLARS for a glass of grape juice!?!?!?  Now THAT'S marketing!
The next day was Valentine's Day.  They do celebrate Valentine's Day in Saudi but not on the same scale as in the USA.  We had meetings all day and the more we talked with the women in the office the more they opened up and started asking questions.  I think they were AMAZED at how I challenged and questioned the men about their processes and plans.  I did my best to keep the meetings lively and informative at the same time.  During the breaks I talked with the women about their work, their families and a little about their culture.  We shared some pictures and started opening up to one another.  The "women's" restroom in the office had previously (obviously) been a men's room because there were two urinals.  The women would wash their face, hands and feet in the sinks before heading to prayer time.  They were smart, fun and spirited.  Before I left the office, I was warned by the woman manager from France to stay in the hotel that evening (not that I had big plans to go out partying.  It was the 1 year anniversary of all the trouble in Bahrain.  We headed directly back to the hotel after the meetings and I stayed there all night.
That evening I had dinner in the Italian restaurant in my hotel all by myself.  I had almost forgotten that it was Valentine's Day but when I walked into the restaurant to find most of the tables reserved and other occupied with couples or families I felt a little out of place but a girl has to eat so I let them lead me to a table for 4 that was decorated for romance!  They brought me a complimentary glass of sparkling grape juice in a martini glass.  I had a nice dinner, in spite of being called sir a few times.  When I went to leave they gave me a single red rose.  I felt a bit like a loser leaving a restaurant alone on Valentine's Day with a rose.
The final day of meetings was good.  We had a lot of good discussions and questions.  I had a lot more time to visit with the ladies.  At the end of the meetings they gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers and thanked me for my time.  They told me they loved my spirit and that I was the heart of the meetings and my CSR Jeffrey was the brains.  I wasn't sure I liked the last part but I was touched by their kindness!
Our driver picked us up at the office around 1PM to take us back to the airport.  The drive was fairly uneventful.  There was one security stop along the way that we got through with no trouble.  When we were approaching the airport there was a man sitting on a tank at the tank.  Yikes!  The duty free shop was a bit of a bust.  There aren't many "Saudi souvenirs" to be had.  I bought a plastic magnet that said "Saudi Arabia" but had a "made in China" sticker on the bag.  I bought some dates to take back to the office.
I hope to get to return one day and spend some more time with the ladies in the office.  They are the true heart and soul of the country.

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