My eldest daughter, a primary school teacher, returns to Qatar this weekend as do hundreds of young people from these shores supporting the education systems across the Middle East. With developments over the summer I felt anxious as we said our farewells; she was sanguine as young people are. Having left the Emirate in June just after the borders and airspace were closed, and sanctions imposed by a coalition cobbled together by Saudi Arabia, no fresh chicken or milk were her only inconveniences. And anyway she assured me this happened before and it was quickly resolved.
While the Gulf nations slumbered in the overpowering heat of their summer, Saudi Arabia’s resolve to cower its smaller neighbour with thirteen demands did not diminish nor did Qatar’s resistance to be censured. This is a family dispute make no mistake and it could turn nasty quickly.
In the first months of 2012 I travelled across this region. I find travel and experiencing other cultures always exciting and exhilarating but Saudi Arabia was a shock. It stood out starkly in its extremes and my two week stay in the Kingdom proved a lonely and dispiriting experience.
A kindly Egyptian named doctor was assigned to look after me. From Saudi Arabia, we travelled together onto; Oman, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and finally Qatar. Aware that I was entering a different cultural zone I telephoned in advance to ask him what I should and should not do. “Dr Terry”, he confided, “do as you are and do what you want and I only give one piece of advice; do not attend Friday beheadings in Riyadh”. An American colleague had done this and two years later was still paying for the psychotherapy.
Just before our half-fully BA flight into Riyadh landed all women passengers disappeared into the toilets and came out dressed in black head to toe. At immigration, after a considerable wait, I had my palms and finger prints recorded on a computer screen by an indifferent young soldier who avoided eye contact yet during my processing engaged in horseplay with his colleagues at one stage throwing a heavy stamper across his kiosk striking it off the wall.
I was detained without explanation in a glass cubicle and waited for two hours. During this time an Indian worker, one of a few hundred being processed through another section, was dragged into the room and while being held by two young soldiers sustained a number of severe facial punches from a senior official. He lay unconscious for some time on the ground bleeding from nose and mouth before being taken away by colleagues.
My handprint it seems could not be confirmed by the London Embassy as the computer server was down. I was eventually let go; met my driver who already had my luggage and I was soon at my hotel a palatial building with a stunning inlaid marble foyer and a calm serene ambience. When I got into my room I locked the door.
During my stay, I saw few women and those I did catch sight of were always escorted by men. Riyadh is a strange men’s only world. My Doctor guides wife, also a doctor trained in Egypt, could not work. She stayed at home with their daughter and could not visit the shops or be in a taxi without her husband. She was finding it very difficult and he believed she was depressed but his salary was so much more than they both could earn in Egypt and having made money they planned to go home in a few years.
My days were spent at meetings during which my audience, always non-Saudi medical professionals, just wandered off when it was time for prayer leaving me at a lectern talking to myself. My evenings were spent alone in my room watching TV- my doctor guide, wonderful as he was, only worked nine-five. I had access to the hotel buffet which was always decadent and delicious but you can eat only so much. I approached the concierge one evening and told him I wanted to go out. He looked at me bemused and told me to go out. But where would he recommend? There are few parks, no paintings on the walls, no art galleries, no play houses, no cinema. Shopping malls I do not do and I had already eaten too much so my entertainment was severely restricted.
How different I found the other Emirate countries. They are of course Muslim and therefore apply strict laws and my hotels were “dry” but there were women in the streets and things to do. If the King of Saudi Arabia orders his troops across the border into Qatar I worry my daughter won’t need to lock her door as it will be locked for her.