Remembering prayer times

So a week later I have settled in, started my new job, done a bit of exploring (yesterday) and am slowly getting used to the new environment…. First thing to do is find a web site which shows prayer times in Riyadh, and book mark it….. During prayer times everything stops and closes….. Shopping malls, little shops, big shops, restaurants, fast food places, coffee shops….. the lot…. Six times a day, every day.

The prayer times change by a minute every two or three days hence the need to bookmark the prayer times… if you are in a restaurant, you can’t get out, if you are outside you can’t get in….. so you leave the hotel, walk five mins in 40 degrees of heat to a particular restaurant, get the time wrong and you wait outside for 30 minutes or walk back to the hotel and try later.

Today’s prayer times are:-

3:38 5:08 11:58 3:19 6:47 8:17

So early morning, dawn, midday and early afternoon prayers don’t really affect me much on working days…. but the two evening prayer times, 18:47 and 20:17 each last for 30 minutes…. So plan ahead.

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Airport arrivals and getting to my hotel

Picked up my bag, yes just one, x-rayed through exit security, the bag that is not me and out in to the arrivals area…… 30 seconds later I spotted the hotel driver with my name on his sign board, shook hands, said hello and off to the car park…. Things were going well and not as chaotic as I had been led to believe…

The underground car park was hot…. like very hot and very big…. So the driver had lost the car… we went up and down a few lanes then he asked me to wait while he found the car, a few minutes later he turned up in big Ford Crown Victoria with a big V8 engine burbling away and we were off to the hotel, via the car park pay kiosk. Only 2 SAR (Saudi Arabian Riyals), about 40p unlike Heathrow which is £2.60 for an hour.

Twenty five minutes later we were at the hotel and I was checking in…… There was a resevation, it said duration of stay, 187 nights.

Well that was all a week ago….. been good since then, not got in to trouble and not been arrested – Progress.

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Flight and Saudi security checks

Flight day arrived, I suppose I had better pack, what do you take to an unknown environment for a six month stay….. A Credit Card!!!!   and two laptops with an external drive as extra backup….

Saudi has a lot of rules about showing flesh in public, even for men, so basically shorts are out, long sleeved shirts are in.

Bag packed, ready to go, what had I forgotten? to late to worry now….. My wife took me to the airport and came in for check in and a goodbye coffee… we said our farewell stuff, quite emotional especially after eighteen years of marriage and many many trips apart.

I chose to fly with Emirates, they had always been good on previous trips to Dubai, and I wasn’t disappointed. Excellent airline / staff  / service…. The first leg was Gatwick to Dubai, about six and a half hours leaving at 14:25… had a meal and then slept for five hours, even in economy it was comfy (I am six foot two and a little over weight). Arrived in Dubai about midnight with an hour to the connecting flight, time for a pee and coffee then off to the gate for the Riyadh flight. Short flight this time, only an hour and half then the security checks…..

I had been warned to expect immigration and visa checks to take up to two hours… I arrived at the passport control point and was immediately confused.

There were three kiosks marked “first time arrivals”, five kiosks marked “holders of multi entry / exit visas” and two kiosks marked “business travellers and diplomats”…. Well I was in all three catagories.  Hmmmm, solution, ask a man in uniform with a gun.

I had been lucky enough the be told how to say hello, please, thank you and goodbye by a helpful young lass called Laura who I knew through my local pub, The Phoenix in Southsea….. Thanks Laura.

So armed with four words of Arabic and my passport opened at the visa page I asked the guy with the gun…. He shouted something in Arabic to a colleague and pointed me to an empty security kiosk…. A minute later the kiosk was manned, the guy checked my passport and visa, asked my name, stamped the passport and I was through.

Looks like arriving at 02:50 had paid off….

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Countdown to the flight

Nine days went real quick…. My wife was a real diamond doing tons of stuff whilst also working a demanding, long hours job herself. Our plan was for me to go to Saudi on my own, start my new job, find suitable accommodation on a compound, organise her introduction letter and visa then she would follow in approx five / six weeks time. She also handed in her notice and was on eight weeks notice so the timing sort of worked out OK.

We moved out of our house the day before I flew out, put most of our “stuff” in my brother house (he now has two bedrooms full of stacked furniture and boxes)…. although he has “liberated” our 50 inch TV and Blu-Ray gear….. and my wife moved temporarily to our nieces house which luckily was only 500 yards from our old place.

I picked a flight via Dubai to get into Riyadh at 02:50 in the morning which may sound strange, but there was a reason for my apparent madness…..

In June the temperature in Riyadh is 46 degrees Celsius in the day and only 35 degrees Celsius at night….. That’s right… 46 in the day and a cool 35 at night….. so arriving in the middle of the night would be less of a temperature shock and I concluded most westerners would travel by direct flights in the day so the immigration and visa queue should be smaller at night.

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Preparing to move and sorting out contract

It turned out that apart from the validity of 90 days and not 180 days the visa was the correct one…. The 90 days was apparently mentioned in the Arabic introduction letter who’s details take priority over the application form request…. The max stay of 30 days is in fact correct, you have to leave the country every 30 days, even if only for 10 mins, then return for another 30 days….. The not permitted to work part related to accepting a job from a Saudi Arabian company and as I was a consultant for the UAE agency I wasn’t taking up work in Saudi Arabia…… Why didn’t the agency tell me all this before I spent four days worrying…. Because they didn’t know, Great.

So what was happening whilst waiting for my visa to arrive, oh yeh, I received a contract that was signed AND had all the agreed changes in…. well almost all so I took a gamble and resigned from my current position….. booked a flight and started to plan for the move to Riyadh.

Even with all the unknowns and restrictions of living in Saudi Arabia, my wife was still positive and all gung-ho with go go go (I often think she was just trying to get rid of me…. No, that can’t be right, can it?).

As part of the contract, my employer would pay for a good hotel for the entire six months, which on the face of it seemed like a good deal except for all the restrictions my wife would face moving about Riyadh on her own whilst I was at work and the need, even for western women, to wear an Abaya, when in public. The solution was to live on a more western style housing compound where there are less severe restrictions and a lot more for women to do. A lot of compounds have their own shops, swimming pools, gyms, sports arenas, riding stables, golf courses etc etc.

So as an amendment to the contract, I had a clause inserted which stated that when I arrived in country and found accommodation on a housing compound, my employer would pay for the accommodation and utility bills providing the cost was less than the 4 star hotel I was due to be staying in…… Only issue here was finding somewhere…..

So, interview plus three weeks and I have a Visa, I have a contract, have resigned from my job, we have given a months notice on our house, I have a booked flight…. wow in nine days time…. Better move quickly, arrange removals, sort out storage, set up mail divert etc etc.

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Obtaining an “Entry Visa”

Whilst working behind the scenes on clarifying the actual content of the job offer and getting agreements made in emails put into a signed contract, I tackled the first major obstacle which was entry into Saudi Arabia.

Being allowed into Saudi Arabia, or even transit through one of it’s airports, is subject to having a valid visa. Unlike many other countries, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has strict entry procedures and requirements. Before I could apply for a business visa, I needed a letter of introduction from a Saudi Arabian company inviting me to visit for business purposes…. After the now standard “long weekend” wait, this letter was emailed to me, obviously it was in Arabic, so I had to assume it was completed correctly and was in fact what I thought it was.

The procedure, at least in the UK, to obtain a business visa takes two weeks and requires a number of visits to the Saudi Arabian Embassy London. I chose an easier path which was to use the services of a local “Visa and Passport” services company to do the leg work for me. I filled out the business visa application form, supplied two passport photo’s, handed over my passport and gave the services company £205.00 and off they went. Their courier hand delivered my documents and the process began.

Three days later I received a call saying that in addition to the Arabic introduction letter, completed form, photo’s and passport, the Saudi Arabian Embassy also needed a letter from my employer stating I was going to Saudi Arabia on a business trip for the next six months. The Agency, who were to be my employer, supplied this letter (again they should have known this was required).

Ten days later my passport was collected by the services company courier with my Saudi Arabian multi entry / exit visa pasted on to one of the pages on my passport and I collected it from the local services company.

Imagine my surprise, confusion and worry when I read the visa, in English and Arabic and it said “Validity 90 days”, “Max duration of stay 30 days” and “Not permitted to work whilst in Saudi Arabia”.  So again a long weekend of waiting for clarification from the agency / client.

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How it all started

Ok….. first ever blog so here goes….

Three weeks ago a recruitment company in Dubai (United Arab Emirates) called me out of the blue… They had found an old copy of my CV on a web job site and “matched” it to a clients requirement. I wasn’t looking for a new job but they said the magic words……. “More Money”, “Tax Free”, “Includes flights” and “Includes compound accommodation” so I started to pay attention.

It was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, first thoughts were very hot, no beer and very restrictive for my wife….. not the end of the world but needed more research and thinking through….

Our son had already left home and been living in Dubai for the last four years, we sold our house in the UK in 2008, a few months before the market crashed so were renting whilst looking for market stability and the right property….. Ideal time to move overseas, no real ties to the UK and able to move with the minimum of fuss.

My wife was surprisingly excited by the prospect, I think she was thinking about retiring before fifty and spending a lot of time in a hammock……

Interview and First Hurdles…..

So the agency sent me a job spec, 6 month contract, possibility of another year for the next phase, half page role summary and a date / time for a phone interview… oh no, the morning of the next day…. Just enough time to refresh my knowledge of systems and products they were using as some of them I hadn’t worked on for a few years…. and they sent an “idiots guide” to preparing for an interview that treated the reader as a 16 year old school leaver that had only ever had a paper round…. Had they read my CV and realised I was in my mid forties and done similar roles before?

The interview, with three guys already on the project, went well, at least I thought so at the time. Next day I was offered the job, although no start date, no real details, no agreement on day rate, no agreement of payment currency, no agreement on accommodation details and nothing in writing…… In my mind, not really a “full and complete” job offer.

But working on the basis that all the above were solvable, I started the process of solving the issues….. To be brutally honest, the agency didn’t really help as much as I thought they should, although they were in the UAE, which is a member of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) as is Saudi Arabia, the way of doing business in each of the countries is quite different.

Don’t get me wrong, the agency guys were as helpful as they could be and did all the negotiation on my behalf, and achieved what I asked for, but I don’t think they had placed anyone in Saudi Arabia before so we were both on a steep learning curve.

Now to a practical issue…. In the western world the weekend is obviously Saturday / Sunday…. In the UAE it is Friday / Saturday….. and in Saudi Arabia it is Thursday / Friday…… which means that any questions I asked after 2pm on Wednesday weren’t responded to until Sunday morning which means progressing things quickly is nearly impossible.

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