Since I have been in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia I have observed a few things that strike my Western sensibilities as particularly odd, or which raise some questions for which I have no answer.

For example, why are there hundreds upon hundreds of jars of cream cheese spread on the shelves of every supermarket in the Kingdom? Now, I like my cream cheese as much as the next guy does, particularly on a nicely toasted onion bagel; but the Saudis carry this pre-occupation to an extreme. There are around ten different brands at various locations scattered throughout the store. In the dairy section, in some stores, you see jars of the stuff occupying shelves on both sides of the aisle – for the complete aisle, four or five shelves high, with a basin for more beneath the shelves! If cold cream cheese spread isn’t to your liking, you find not only jars of it on the regular grocery aisle, but also cans of it. You cannot escape the stuff! Business being business, the stores must be selling the stuff. But, really, how much cream cheese can one nation consume?

What does the mama camel say to the badly behaved teenaged camel? “You better behave, Alif, or I’m going to send you to the butcher’s shop.” Yep, camel meat provides the Saudi Arabian shopper with another alternative to the ubiquitous beef, chicken, and lamb. Serving the same complementary role as veal and turkey, camel shoulders may be bought, as may camel soup bones and camel livers. Mmmmm…now, why don’t they throw that into the mix on the next Iron Chef America?

Usually when I’d see a tanker truck in the United States, I’d give it wide berth. I could easily figure I was looking at a fuel tanker, or a tanker filled with ammonia nitrate, or occasionally a tanker containing milk. Want to guess what’s in the vast majority of tanker trucks in Riyadh? That’s right – Water! Saudi Arabia has cornered the market on the desalinization of seawater, and they truck that water into the central areas of the country by the truckload (now, wasn’t that redundant). Almost every building in Riyadh, not unlike New York City, has a water tank atop it. The ones in NYC are a bit more picturesque, but the more utilitarian versions (they remind me of propane tanks), provide drinking and bathroom water for nearly four million people. That’s not entirely accurate. There are some of the larger buildings (and this compound) that have huge underground tanks to serve their customers. A lot of folks don’t want to drink the desalinized water for fear of kidney stones (one of the rumors, which I don’t know if it’s true or not, that flows through the expat community). So, most of us (blame it on my time in Southern California) buy bottled water, which is inexpensive and is supposed to come from wells. Who knows? Maybe I’m paying extra for desalinized water.

I once thought that bidets were the property of Europe, but I was wrong. There’s a bidet in my very apartment, and at work they have these shower hose devices with focused nozzles for a very narrow stream. Used toilet paper, which is used to dry oneself rather than in the manner an American might expect, is not supposed to be thrown into the toilet and flushed. This might cause a blockage in the septic system. There are nice little trashcans for the collection of said used paper product. This situation is not particular to my place of work. These same hoses with their narrow, focused streams are present even in shopping mall restrooms. Of course, being me, I just do it the way I’ve always done it and call it a wash. A wash. Get it? Sometimes I just kill myself.

Speaking of paper products, what passes for paper towels in restrooms are more reminiscent of bad toilet paper (the cheap, one-ply sandpaper stuff) than the Bounty that is quicker at picking up than Viva!. While a few restrooms have something resembling the brown tri-fold, most use the much thinner version. Even in restaurants, the napkins are much more akin to a facial tissue than to a napkin. Again, there are exceptions, but not a lot. Of course, in a mostly treeless land, paper products are probably going to be expensive to make or import, resulting in the one thing at which humans are masters – adaptation.

Guys…switching to television for a moment, ever wonder if a commercial for feminine napkins – you know the kind where two women, or maybe a mother and daughter, discuss the advantages of one brand versus another – could be improved by seeing it in a different language, say Hindi? Just so you don’t have to trouble yourself with such an experiment, the answer is, No.

Well, that’s it for This Week In The Kingdom. In our next installment, we will discuss that most daring of thrillseeking activities, Driving In Riyadh!!


Copyright, Greg Hubbard, 2006.


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