Travel to Arabia is an interesting experience. It changed considerably with the discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula. This historic milestone marked the transformation of desert kingdoms and sheikdoms from primitive lands to modern states. This change which had started slowly in the 1930's, after the first oil strikes, began to accelerate in the late Sixties. The Arabian oil embargo against the western nations in October 1973 and the cut in production caused a rapid rise in crude oil prices, from $3 to almost $30 per barrel. This sudden influx of huge amounts of cash into the economies of the Arab states started an enormous spending binge. This precipitated the transformation of these sleepy, isolated countries into modern industrial powers. The construction boom resulted in an influx of foreigners from Europe and Asia which also brought on cultural changes which altered the life styles of the local people. In Saudi Arabia the furious resistance of the conservative Wahabi clerics and the ruling families tried to prevent any changes in the lifestyle, but even in this heavily guarded society, changes are gradually occurring.
My first journeys to the Middle East, as Sales Director for Sola Basic International, coincided with these tumultuous times. Already in the fall of 1972 and spring of 1973 I had been to Iran, Israel and Turkey, but my first introduction to the Arabian peninsula came with a visit to Kuwait in October 1973. I was anxious to go to Saudi Arabia where enormous construction projects were already in progress, but the Saudi government was hanging on to its isolation and resisting the influx of "infidels". The travel restrictions were even more stringent than those of the Soviet Union. It was virtually impossible to obtain a visa without an invitation issued by the Saudi government. Even then the procedures dragged on for months. One could not go to a Saudi consulate to apply for a visa as was the case for virtually all other countries in the world. First a telegram had to arrive from the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Riyadh with an invitation number, only then could one proceed to the consulate to obtain the necessary forms. These had to be filled out in triplicate and returned with photographs, copies of birth certificates, affidavits to certify that one was not Jewish and proof of inoculation against various diseases. Only then was it possible to receive the visa, but the actual Visa number had to be issued in Riyadh, at that time the consulates were not entrusted with numbers. All of this hassle for a visa limited to a visit of only a few days. Visas for longer stays were even harder to obtain. Obviously there were no visas issued to western tourists (note 1.
The Arabian American Oil Company had originally discovered the rich oil reserves close to the coast of the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf as it was called in Arabia) in the 1930s and had obtained from King Faisal the exclusive rights to develop them. The company established to exploit this wealth, ARAMCO, built a company compound called Dhahran, close to the sleepy port city Dammam. In this gated compound, the offices of the company were established as well as living quarters for the foreign employees and their families; as well as recreational facilities which were not subject to the restrictions that were in existence elsewhere in the country. For example within the ARAMCO compound women were allowed to drive automobiles, go to recreational facilities such as swimming pools and tennis courts in the company of men. However the Saudis did not relent in their prohibition of alcohol.
One of Sola Basic's units, the Nelson Electric Division, was a major supplier of switchgear to ARAMCO. It would seem that through this channel it would have been possible to obtain a visa. However all of ARAMCO's purchasing was carried out through their head office in Houston, and that is also where their main design and specification offices were located. ARAMCO had enough problems already with obtaining permission for their own people and their families to enter this closed area. Therefore they had no desire to help any suppliers to visit Saudi Arabia unless they needed assistance, for example for some service personnel.
Help came from another quarter. With the rapidly growing importation of all kinds of products and services many Saudis started looking for ways to cash in on the new opportunities. Thus before long it became impossible for any foreign company to do any business in the Kingdom without the assistance of these new influence peddlers. The most influential of this group were members of the royal family, followed by the families of the various sheiks, particularly those related by blood or marriage with the Saudi family. In the fall of 1973 we received a letter from Yacoub Al Rasheed in Riyadh expressing a desire to represent Sola Basic International. I followed this letter up, sent catalogs and, after an initial exchange of correspondence, indicated a desire to visit Riyadh to discuss matters in detail. In the spring of 1974 I submitted all the required documentation. Then the waiting game started. Additional documents were required to ensure that I was not a Communist or a Jew. Finally I received an invitation number issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, with this I could now apply to the Saudi Consulate in Washington for a visa. More waiting while the Consulate sent the whole dossier back to Saudi Arabia. In the meantime I had received a second clean passport from the State Department. I could not use my original passport in which an Israeli stamp appeared as well as evidence that I had visited communist countries, all of which made me persona non grata in the eyes of suspicious Saudi officials.
Time ran out. During the month long observation of the fast period of Ramadan, which that year fell in September, nothing could be accomplished. I had already made arrangements to visit Germany early in October, to make some important presentations to some utilities and the Siemens Cable factory in Berlin. From there I was to visit Poland and Bulgaria for demonstrations of high voltage cable joining techniques. Then I planned to go to Saudi for a whole week at the beginning of November. A frantic exchange of telexes with Al Rasheed's office resulted in a visa number being issued and transmitted to the consulate in Washington on the very day that I had to leave for Dusseldorf. Would it be possible for the visa to be transferred to Kuwait? Perhaps. I changed my flight schedules to stop in Kuwait. The Saudi consulate there had not received any instructions. Rasheed's office sent me a telex to go to Beirut, I could pick up my visa there. Three more days spent in Beirut, the first two sitting for hours at the Saudi consulate getting nowhere, becoming very frustrated. On the second day I recounted my tale of woe to a Lebanese that I had met. He gave me a lesson in the ways of business in the Orient. He assured me that he knew someone in the consulate who, for a consideration, would surely get things done. The following morning he met me, drove me to the consulate, took my passport, all my papers, and the equivalent of about $70 in Lebanese currency. He went inside, I waited in the car. Less than an hour later he returned, gave me my passport in which the visa had been stamped together with all the proper tax stamps! How much of the "consideration" actually went to the consulate official I did not know, nor did I care, the cost was less than that of another fruitless two days waiting in Beirut. Tomorrow was Friday, the Moslem weekly holy day. during which all Arab official activities came to a standstill.
Beirut was still the Paris of the Middle East, beautifully situated on a lovely bay with fine beaches, mountains covered with cedars and cypresses rose up to the east. Luxurious hotels, excellent food in many restaurants as well as night clubs with gorgeous girls, stores with all the luxury products of Gucci, Cartier, Rolex ..... The Saudi aristocracy liked to get away from the austerity of their country to enjoy the free flowing goodies, including the wines and beers forbidden to them at home. Beirut was also the center of banking for all the Middle East and the hub of all trade with Europe.
Arabic and French were the two languages spoken in Beirut, although now English was fast becoming the commonly spoken third language. Since the Seven Day War in which large numbers of Palestinians had been forced out of their homeland, a large refugee camp had been established alongside the road leading to the airport. The shanties and the swarms of poorly clad men, women and children had spoilt the normal prosperous and cultured look, particularly for arriving travelers. The occasional violent gunfights also created a new hazard.
The Saudi government owned airline Saudia, the only airline allowed to fly into the capital city Riyadh (note 2), had daily flights from Beirut. Fortunately I was able to book a seat for the following day, as it was Friday the traffic was less than usual, and I sent a telex to Al Rasheed advising my arrival time. At the airport, after awaiting an hour past departure time, it was finally announced that the flight was delayed indefinitely. Fortunately Beirut airport, unlike most in that part of the world, had comfortable facilities - lounges, bars, restaurants and stores. While sipping a beer and chatting with an airline employee I learned that one of the Saudi princes had commandeered the plane for his own use. The royal family treated the state owned airline as if it was their own private property! Finally, six hours later the departure was announced, the plane had returned from wherever it had been taken.
It was already dark when we landed in Riyadh and disembarked in front of the small international arrivals building. Fortunately this was the only flight at the time and my first introduction to the Saudi immigration and customs procedures was less chaotic than I would experience in the future at Dhahran airport. Though at opposite ends of the political spectrum the similarity to procedures at Soviet airports was striking. There luggage was searched for propaganda and hidden messages, here the contraband was any form of alcohol or literature with pictures of unclothed women or any references to Israel. Fortunately Rasheed had booked me into the hotel at the airport. It was primitive by European standards, but clean. There was an iron bed with a hard mattress, a chair and a shower. I was tired after my long, boring, day and quickly undressed and fell into bed. I was just falling asleep when there was a knock on the door, Al Rasheed's driver brought a message to welcome me and tell me that a car would pick me up at 8 in the morning. Telephones were still very primitive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1974, as everywhere in the Middle East at that time. Working hours were, in general, from early in the morning until noon, then from about 5 p.m. till late at night, except Thursdays which were a half day and the Friday holiday. Only American companies, including ARAMCO, worked through the day from about 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Many European companies adapted to the local working hours.
Al Rashheed had a suite of rooms in a fairly modern building in downtown Riyadh, close to the soukh (bazaar or market place). Modern, because built of concrete, but still very much Arab style with high ceilings, wide corridors and staircases. He had several telephones, a telex machine, a copier and a couple of typewriters for both Arabic and English type styles. He was an imposing but overweight man, sallow complexion, always dressed in traditional Arabian dress, a white jellabah made of very fine, almost silk-like, cotton. On his feet he wore sandals, as did all other Arabs - except uniformed police and soldiers. His head was always covered by a white kaffiyeh held in place with a black agal decorated with gold bands. In this way he stood out from Arabs of lower rank who always wore a red checkered kaffiyeh. Even policemen and the military wore this head-dress although otherwise in western style uniforms. Al Rasheed's English was good, but he had no technical background and understood little about the commodities of the several companies that he represented. He had a couple of male secretaries, two drivers and two cars. His mode of operations was to provide contacts for his clients and keep them informed about contracts that were being let, who were the foreign consultants and contractors taking part in the bidding, or had secured contracts.
At that time there was very little purchasing of technical products actually conducted in the Kingdom. Large contractors and consulting companies such as Bechtel, maneuvered in the country with the various ministers and sheiks to obtain large contracts to design and to construct the numerous projects that were mushrooming all over Arabia. The actual designs and specifications were invariably drawn up in project offices in their home countries or elsewhere in Europe and material for these projects was invariably purchased in the home countries of the contractors that secured the construction jobs. The most I could do for Sola Basic was to get to know as many people as possible who might have some influence on this process, and to get as much advance information as possible on projects that were under way. Unfortunately I could not be very effective spending only one week in the country two or three times a year. Al Rasheed used the shot gun approach. He would send me off to various ministries, utility companies, even the military. There I would try to sort out what, if any, of our products could possibly be of any interest to the person I was speaking to. Then quickly highlight the main advantages of the product and provide catalogs. Invariably I was granted an audience lasting from 10 to 20 minutes. Many times this audience would occur in the middle of some other meeting, with all the participants sitting around listening, frequently my driver would come in to the meeting also. Nobody seemed to object. Invariably I was automatically handed a glass of very sweet shai (tea) or a tiny cup of aawah (Turkish coffee) by the servants who wandered around all the offices carrying brass trays with these beverages. The official was always courteous, listened to what I had to say, look at the catalogs, sometimes ask a question. Almost all of them spoke enough English to understand me, sometimes another Arab served as interpreter. As soon as I sensed that I had used up as much time as was allotted (nobody actually said "Sorry, your time is up"), or that I was talking to someone who had obviously no interest in what I had to say, I quickly thanked my host in Arabic shokran gazilan and left as gracefully as possible.
During a typical morning I would make five or six such visits. In the evening perhaps two more, then interminable hours sitting in Al Rasheed's office to talk to him in between phone conversations and his discussions with other people, or just waiting for him to turn up. Every evening I had to review with him the various conversations and gradually he got to understand with what kind of people I really wanted to contact. I would also have to review long lists of projects or project specifications and make notes of which companies were involved, with whom it might be worth while to make contact either at their offices in Saudi or wherever the project offices might be located. During the early years there were no companies at all which could serve the role of a representative the way our "reps" or "distributors" worked in Europe, or even in Iran or Israel. In later years the situation changed and I was able to establish much more business like relationships than the initial one with Al Rasheed.
I was anxious to make contacts with ARAMCO and a couple of the large American contractors doing electrical work in the Eastern Province. This was not so easy. Here Al Rasheed was of no help at all. I had a couple of names from Nelson Electric. But first of all I had to get from Riyadh to Dhahran. The only airline operating domestic routes was Saudia. Rasheed procured a first class ticket with a seat reservation from their down-town ticket office, but as I discovered at the airport the reservation was a meaningless piece of paper. Either you had some secret influence at the check-in counter, or it was first come first served. There were about six flights a day. I did not get on the one for which I had a reservation but the next one two hours later. With a first class ticket I was spared having to fight my way through the long lines of prospective passengers for the ordinary seats. The number of prospective travelers far exceeded the capacity of the available aircraft. Al Rasheed had made reservations for me at the first new luxury hotel in the Dhahran area, the Al-Ghosaibi on the coast road from Dhahran to the small town of Al Khobar. This hotel had just been opened a few weeks earlier and offered spacious, well appointed rooms and a good restaurant as well as a novelty for Saudi Arabia - a large swimming pool which provided a welcome opportunity for exercise.
In Saudi Arabia, particularly in the mid Seventies, there was virtually no opportunity for recreation - no movies - only in the Dhahran area there was an ARAMCO operated TV station which showed movies of the wholesome family type and news - or replays of some of the old shows like Milton Berle or the "Honeymooners". Even the American program was obliged to pause its programs during the official prayer times. Every day the English language newspaper listed the exact time for each of the five mandatory times for prayers. The timing was dependent upon the sun, therefore prayer time in Riyadh was always a few minutes later than in Dhahran, in Jeddah on the west coast a few minutes later again. On the Saudi television there were news programs in English. However there was very little news, only lengthy readings of lists of names - which ministers talked with whom - with the recital of all their titles and accompanied by posed pictures showing groups of ministers sitting stiffly in overstuffed furniture, all lined up along the side of the reception area. All that was left to do was to read, but the supply of books was also very limited in the early years. I would stock up on paper backs before departing to Saudi, but being careful to avoid any books with pictures of scantily clad women on the covers. Such books would surely be confiscated during customs inspection. I bought a small multi-band radio and listened to the BBC Middle East service and the Voice of America when I could catch it in English. At the swimming pool there was no mixed bathing, that was too shocking for the strict Muslim morality zealously guarded by the government. The Saudi royal family had proclaimed themselves to be the guardians of the faith. Two hours were set aside each day for women. During these two hours males were required to dress and leave the pool, if they were already there.
About the only restaurants that served anything more than traditional Arabic food were in the hotels. Even then the menu choice was severely limited. Naturally only men were to be seen even in the so-called western style restaurants. Women and families were required to eat in a separated room. Women could be seen in the streets of the old part of the city, around the soukh or market, but they were all covered head to toe in black abayya. Many had their faces covered by a mask leaving only their eyes visible. The younger and more daring had their faces uncovered, but as they walked, with one hand they held the fold from their head covering in an angle across their faces. You never saw women alone, they were always accompanied by a male, a family member or servant. The occasional western woman stood out very prominently in the crowd because of her colored clothing and because frequently they had no male companion. Even they wore a shawl over their heads and long dresses or skirts covering their legs. The ban against women driving cars applied also to all female members of the western embassies and consulting companies - whether wives or employees.
1. The procedure was simplified for Moslems, who were required to visit the Holy sites of Mecca at least once in their lifetime.
2. Foreign airlines were only allowed to fly to Dhahran on the east coast and Jeddah on the Red Sea.