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Wet Nights in the Desert - Arnold Tweed

Wet Nights in the Desert

The Battle Against Dehydration

Arnold Tweed


My years in the Middle East taught me some profound lessons. One in particular has stuck with me – “life in the desert is a constant battle against dehydration.” During the five years I worked in Saudi Arabia this was reinforced many times and on many different occasions. You might assume that a prestigious job and a comfortable villa in the Diplomatic Quarter of Riyadh might protect one from such discomforts, but that was not the case. Strictly speaking, it was not dehydration that tormented us, but our need for beverages other than water and coffee. It was the extreme difficulty in acquiring even a mediocre bottle of table wine that distressed us. We had a thirst that could only be slaked with alcoholic beverages, but in Saudi Arabia they were strictly forbidden. This was not the only aspect of Western life-style that was restricted, but the ban on alcohol certainly caused us the most irritation.

This is a story about adaptation, not how we and the Saudis learned to live together but how we learned to live apart. Our coping strategies would be better understood if you could experience Saudi society as we did, as insiders. Since that is not possible I will provide some background, which will occupy most of the middle third of this story. It is difficult to appreciate the Saudi Arabia we knew without knowing some of its history, so that is where I will start. I could summarize this part very briefly by telling you that Saudi society is dominated by two forces: religion and the ruling, al-Saud, family, but how that came to be is an interesting story.

Intolerance is not ingrained in Islam; but it is a distinguishing feature of one sect of strict Sunnis, the Wahhabis, whose ancestral home is the desert oasis of Diriyah, just on the outskirts of Riyadh. The growth of Wahhabism as a political force can be traced back to 1744, the year that two Arab tribal leaders, Muhammad ibn Saud, Emir of Diriyah, and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab forged an historic pact which fused their political and religious ambitions.  Both came from desert tribes living in one of the most desolate areas of the world, the remote desert of the Arabian Peninsula called the Nejd. Their meager livelihood depended mainly on dates and camels, but both were visionaries. Ibn Saud was a young and capable tribal leader who sought to unite the desert tribes under his leadership. Up till then tribal hostilities were generally limited to camel raiding by hit and run bandits, but ibn Saud was more than just a camel raider. His vision was a huge departure from traditional Arab custom. The historic unit of governance was the tribe, essentially an extended family. When several tribes lived in a town, such as Mecca or Medina, one tribe might dominate, but seldom forced the complete submission of the others. Ibn Saud’s ambitions violated the traditional tribal framework and he needed a cause to justify his take-over.

Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was the sternest and most uncompromising of the religious sheiks. He was an aggressive reformer, with a fundamentalist vision of Sunni religion that was totally unpalatable to the other tribes. As a result he had few followers and his life was in danger. Ibn Saud, recognizing opportunity, took the al-Wahhabs under his protection in his tribal home of Diriyah. They sealed their contract with a marriage between their families and the political authority of the modern Saudi state was forged in these blood ties. Under the terms of the pact the Saud family had political and military authority while the Wahhabs maintained control of religion and education. Ibn Saud now had his ‘just cause’, religious reform, to conquer and convert neighbouring tribes into a religiously fundamentalist al-Saud empire. Although that empire has twice suffered a major reversal, it is this pact that governs Saudi Arabia today.

Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was the founder of a fundamentalist Sunni religious sect now widely known as Wahhabism. In Saudi Arabia its fundamentalist doctrines are encoded in Sharia (religious) law and conformity is enforced by a rag-tag vice squad, the muttawa or religious police. During our time in the kingdom, Wahhabism served as a tool for political and social as well as religious conformity. Religious observances are public rituals – prayer five times a day and the Haj are examples. All public behaviour was closely watched and regulated – dress, interactions between men and women, newspapers and magazines, radio and TV, as well as ineffectual attempts to regulate the internet. The governing family was closely identified with the religious authority, so religious and social conformity were easily extended to embrace political conformity. Since the ruling family also controlled all the critical resources, the oil wealth of the country, the police and the military, their control over the institutions and populace of the country was almost absolute.

Until the mid-20th century Wahhabism was a minor, strictly local sect, but oil wealth financed its export as an expression of Saudi culture. Exported Wahhabism has also had a political impact: by diverting dangerous dissidents to targets outside the Kingdom, thereby pacifying the militant Sunnis at home, and creating disruption abroad which diverted attention away from the shortcomings of the regime. Most Westerners are convinced that it is the ideological inspiration for most of the Islamic fanatics who plague the world today.

Many Islamic scholars have pointed out that much of Saudi ‘morality’, that is the behaviour regulated by Sharia law and custom, is not corroborated by the Koran nor hadiths. It does not have authoritative references in Islamic theology but is based on social and cultural roots that go back to tribal life in the desert, and to Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Because tribal unity and trust depended heavily on blood ties and proven kinship, it was particularly important to tightly regulate the procreative activities of their women. Hence the position of women in Saudi society today. In sociological terms this type of morality is more accurately called social mores, or cultural morality. In considering our relationship, as Westerners, to Saudi culture it is important to emphasize that their cultural morality was very different from our cultural morality, and these differences outweighed any shared concept of absolute or universal morality.  Absolute morality has been described by Emmanuel Kant as a ‘categorical imperative’ so that “a behaviour is ethical only if it is universally beneficial.” One can find common elements of this type of shared morality in both cultures, for example prohibitions against incest and murder, but the gulf between our notions and practice of cultural morality was then, and probably remains today, too wide to bridge.

Because Saudi Arabia, like all of the Gulf States, depended heavily on foreign workers, foreign influences on Saudi culture were a constant threat. There were two classes of foreign workers, westerners and non-westerners. Non-westerners from India, Pakistan, the Philippines and other third world countries composed the vast majority. These were the work force of Saudi Arabia: the oil field labourers, construction workers, gardeners, domestics and all the other jobs that a Saudi would never do. Their status was essentially that of indentured servants and some were treated like slaves. Control of this group did not much trouble the Saudi authorities; they were vulnerable on many fronts, had no privacy or protectors and no prestige. They were controlled with a heavy hand; minor infractions were severely punished and they were constantly harassed by the muttawa.

Western professionals, mainly in engineering, business and medicine, comprised a very small percentage of the total expatriate community. They were in an unusual and privileged position: badly needed, somewhat admired and generally protected from the methods of control most favored by the state. Because the western life-style was widely, though discreetly, admired they also posed the greatest threat to Saudi culture and religious authority.  The Saudi solution was to isolate them in gated communities, called compounds, where they could carry on their own ways without being seen or heard.

With all this information available in advance what would tempt a Westerner to accept a job in Saudi Arabia and to move there with chattels and family? I have explored the motivations for living in the Middle East in a previous story and will spare you the details. Perhaps the promise of an exotic lifestyle was most attractive, though a tax free income was also tempting. Once there, we strove to make the best of it, as the following anecdote illustrates.

Our isolation in compounds and total alienation from Saudi cultural and social life forced us closer together, and our social life became much livelier than it had been at home. Our social culture and traditional Saudi culture were so incompatible that social interaction between us was impossible. Their cultural taboos made the things we enjoyed impossible in their company: things as simple as enjoying a glass of wine with dinner and women and men eating together. We therefore tended to have large, sumptuous and very boozy dinner parties that included only intimate friends from the expat community. But, you may interject, “what you say cannot be true. Earlier you stated quite emphatically that alcohol was totally banned.” You are right, the importation and sale of alcohol was banned. As you might expect, there was a black market but very expensive. Western expats all understood that no public display of alcohol consumption or drunkenness would have been tolerated. A suitable period of familiarization with the Saudi jails and then deportation would be the expected consequences. But most Saudis, excluding perhaps a few religious fanatics, were happy to conclude that if it was not seen in the streets it didn’t happen. This was a culture in which privacy of the family and sanctity of the home were highly regarded. The al-Sauds had a long tradition of protecting their privacy and that benefit was extended to the Western expat community, who were essential to the portrayal of Saudi Arabia as a modern state.

It may already have occurred to you that the solution to the dilemma was to ferment our own. The supermarket we favored had a complete aisle devoted to imported, unsweetened grape juice, mainly from South Africa and Jordan. It was a fairly straightforward matter to add some sugar and a pinch of yeast, insert an air trap and let it sit for about two weeks. Fermentation produces alcohol only in an anaerobic environment, which explains the need for a trap that allows CO2 to bubble out but prevents air from entering the container. Most of our houses smelled a bit yeasty but In the course of 3 to 4 weeks one had a reasonable facsimile of wine, reasonable enough to satisfy the taste of a thirsty expatriate who hadn’t tasted real wine for several months.

Our dinner parties tended to be a bit lavish, and served to compensate for all the hardships imposed by separation from our mother culture. The particular dinner of which I write marked a special occasion, someone’s birthday, or maybe just the end of the week. It was catered by an Indian lady with a reputation for excellent cuisine. She also operated a cooking school and hosted particularly gourmet dinners in her own home. Her husband, George, was her only assistant. The rest of the staff were our houseboys and drivers, whose reward was to dine on the leftovers. How did we prevent them from also sampling the wine? It was totally unnecessary! All the staff, including the chef and George, were Muslims. They watched each other closely. If there had been but one we might have had a real fear he would drain the heels of the bottles and become a problem. But with a group there was absolutely no concern.

We were a party of eight, all Canadian and all medical, a convivial lot who had shared this type of cultural therapy before. There were many compliments on the wine, which only slaked the desert thirst if consumed in sufficient quantity and with proper appreciation. It is not surprising that sometime late in the evening we may have become a bit boisterous. But Hell, we were in our own sacrosanct space behind a 10 foot wall with two of our drivers on alert for intruders.

We were suddenly startled, not by intrusion from outside, but distress from inside. Our assistant chef, George, had been quiet all evening, but was now slumped in a chair in the kitchen, sweating profusely, moaning and clutching his chest. He was obviously having a heart attack, an acute myocardial infarction. We had been too involved in our celebration to notice that his discomfort had been increasing all evening, until the point where he could no longer conceal it. George had been previously well and had no history of heart problems or angina. We immediately suspected that his heart attack was stress induced and related in some way to the events of the evening.

One of our drivers whisked George off to the King Faisal Specialist Hospital where a colleague was on emergency duty. Instead of an MOH hospital George was treated in the best tertiary care hospital in the Kingdom. If his employers of the evening were responsible for his medical emergency, they also ensured that he got the best care available.

In the morning, after all had left and some tidying was in order, I counted sixteen empty bottles. Even for this group that was a remarkable achievement. Although we were all quite civilized our behaviour must have appeared bizarre to our Muslim cooks and servants. This is a cultural abyss that was impossible to cross and we could never fathom whether their superficial indifference covered astonishment or dismay.

Was our behaviour so shocking that the stress triggered George’s heart attack? Was it his guilt in being an accessory to sin? Or was he terrified that we would be discovered and he would land in a Saudi jail? In retrospect the latter cannot be totally discounted. Islamic law, that is Sharia law, is harsh and uncompromising.  If by some fluke of circumstance we had been discovered, the Muslims among us, that was everyone but the eight Westerners, would have been treated very harshly. Aiding and abetting such immorality would be considered as serious as drunkenness itself and their punishment would likely have been jail and flogging.

Awareness of the rigidity of Saudi culture and the harshness of Sharia law are certainly sobering realities, but should those be the sole guides to one’s conduct? What is perceived as sinful in one culture may be perfectly acceptable in another. Can it be morally acceptable to drink alcohol in one culture, Canada, and morally wrong to drink it when living within another cultural framework, Saudi Arabia? This would imply that one should adopt the culture of the host country when living and working in that country, but leaves one quite free to switch when travelling abroad or returning home. This is a dilemma which has troubled many expat workers but also troubles Saudi citizens who study or travel abroad. We often criticize Saudis who switch their cultural identity when they leave the Kingdom but forget that our behaviour is no better.  Resolving these questions of ethics and morality would seem to be a basic requirement for coping with life in Saudi Arabia. In fact we gave it very little thought.

If we had been more perceptive we might have discerned a moral message in this incident. Perhaps George’s medical emergency was an omen meant for our instruction. We can reasonably assume that God and Allah think alike since there can only be one God for Muslims, Christians and Jews. God’s punishments are often puzzling – he sometimes punishes the innocent, as in the case of Job, in order to instruct the sinners. Was George’s affliction meant as a warning to us to mend our ways, a gentle reminder from Allah that we were not completely beyond his jurisdiction? Certainly the next morning we all had some regrets and for several days our preferred drinks were water and coffee. But this was due to the after effects of overindulgence, not moral misgivings. We suffered for our excesses, but not enough to mend our ways. The lesson was too subtle. Like Moses, we could see the burning bush, but we did not recognize the Angel of the Lord in the flame of fire (Exodus 3:2). We should not flagellate ourselves too severely; even the Apostles had difficulty at times understanding the parables of Jesus. If there was a moral lesson in this incident we missed it! Next week we continued our convivial ways with another dinner party and no less appreciation for the host’s homemade wine.

How does one cope with a culture as inhospitable to Westerners as that of Saudi Arabia? Our understanding at that time was that it would have been foolish to risk ourselves, and particularly our servants (who were almost all Muslim), by publicly flaunting the cultural morality enshrined in the Sharia law of the Kingdom. We were also well aware that private and public morality served different masters. Achieving the secular needs of the Kingdom required that certain restrictions be placed on the muttawa, the much despised religious police. What was done privately and discreetly was outside of their sphere of authority. This applied to the Saudis as well as expats. Saudi culture is anchored by a profound respect for the sanctity of the home (or palace).

Our wet nights in the desert are now fifteen years in our past. We still enjoy dinner parties but now we drink much less wine. It is true that you crave the forbidden fruit. Our friends from that time are still our friends, though widely spread across the continent. Our houseboys and drivers all eluded the muttawa and have gone home to India to dine out on their stories of the orgies they witnessed. Saudi Arabia still struggles to creep out of the 7th century. Their hope lies with their women; more than half of university classes and medical school classes now are female. Society is changing, but in what direction? Will change be orderly and incremental or precipitous and bloody? Either seems possible. My wife and I have no desire to go back to see that unfold! And we also have no desire to relive our battles against dehydration.

Author: Arnold Tweed

Retired anesthesiologist living in Toronto, Canada.

One thought on “Wet Nights in the Desert”

  1. Loved the story & it brought back many wonderful memories to you my dear friends!
    M. A.

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