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'Blog' for the Year 2018

The year 2018 would also mark 'half-time' of my engagement here in Saudi Arabia and my ambition is to spend more time in the region and get to a somehow back to a more 'normal' life and in particular also to spend my vacation days in the different GCC countries ... well, situation has improved, but not yet to the level I'm aiming for.


'Arab News', September 23, 2018

September 23rd, 2018 - Saudi National Holiday

In 2016, there were some Saudi flags everywhere, but in Dammam there were no festive activities, neither from the offical side nor otherwise. In the evening, there were some young guys driving around and pushing the horn, but it was even restricted by the police. In Riyadh, there were some official events, but probably not even open to the public.

In 2017, there were already some fireworks in the main cities and some official events to celebrate the 'birthday' of Saudi Arabia.

This year, there was a wide array of events and fireworks in every place to make really 'something' out of it. It was still limited to the official activities, but also aiming the people to participate and to join these events. This year, the National Holiday was on Sunday, which is the first day of the work-week here in Saudi, and that day was off. In the morning King Salman then declared that Monday would be a day off for everyone as well ... that way, we all had an even more extended weekend.

Early September - Increasing Social Flexibility ...

On the weekend Susanne and myself wanted to go out for dinner, and that means, you always have to plan to order dinner and to settle the bill in terms of time such that it does not conflicts with the two prayers in the evening. But we noticed that this restaurant did not close during prayer, but simply operated without considering prayer time - something, which in theory would not be allowed ( but most people would like, because the idea of closing of shops and restaurants during paryer time is only supported by a minority of the people these days ).

When I then asked - in a very nice way - the Head of Service, why they would not close the restaurant during prayer time, he became pretty nervous and explained that people here in Dammam would be more open, that he would do that already since a long time ( even as the restaurant was opened recently ), ..., etc. I tried to make clear that he does not need to worry because of me, but it became very obvious that my question had hit a 'critical point' ... Nevertheless, I would wish that more shops and restaurants would choose such a 'pragmatic' approach, and even Saudi nationals expect that this law would soon be abolished.

Late August - a relaxed weekend in Bahrain

The second Eid Al Adha weekend I spent again in Bahrain (after having worked most of the time during the Eid Al Adha holidays), and it became a really good weekend :

... on Friday, we visited a Lego Exhibtion at the local Exhition Center, which was great fun, and I was even able to contgribute a little bit to the exhibition myself ...

... on Saturday, we first had breakfast at 'Pauls' in Seef Mall, and when strolling

through that part of Seef Mall, we discovered a pretty decent Book Store ( not as good as Jarir in Dammam or Riyadh, but at least better than the two 'Pseudo Book Stores' in the City Center ). And afterwards we went to Budaiya were we 'raided' two small, but pretty good bookstores - making both, the owners of the bookstores happy as well as ourselves.


August - Visiting the 'King Abdulaziz Center of World Culture'

The 'King Abdulaziz Center of World Culture' or Ithra as it is called in Arabic, was build by ARAMCO and was officially opened in late 2016. It was not finished at that time, and for the first 18 months, it was not yet open to the public and there were only some selected events.

In late spring the center was open to the public on a few weekends, but we did not manage to get any of the few tickets. Now, for the summer vacation they opened it to the general public and started to have different events ( museum, workshops, cinema, performing arts, etc. ) with a special attention to children.

It is still not yet fully completed, i.e. some construction work was going on, and e.g. of the library, only one of the four floors where already open. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting site, the guides of the center were exceptionally helpful and I'll go for sure again to see some of the educational films they show, or in case of any other events that catches my eye.

Already two weeks later, I visited the Ithra again for a movie about Bilal. It was an animated movie, explaining at the life of Bilal ibn Rabah - who became the first muezzin - the early history of Islam, and how it was established in Mecca and Medina.

It looks like to be a film more for children, but it was an easy way to learn a lot about the connections between different aspects in this context and some interesting facts - e.g. that the Kaaba has already worshiped a long time before Islam as a sacred 'pagan' site.

July - An Important Milestone at Work

So far, the focus of this blog was on our private life here in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as well as the local environment, how we have experienced it.

When it comes to the changes in the economic and social environment, they are probably best described by the term of a 'revolution'. These days, Saudi Arabia as a country is going through a profound transformation economically - 'Vision 2030' - due to the drop in the oil price and the corresponding recession and the subsequent re-focusing effort of the economy towards the private / industrial sector ( next to the introduction of a VAT, raising certain levies and elimination of various subsidies ). In this context the labor market shall also be opened for women (sic!). When I proposed in early 2017 to hire women for my local business unit, I did not get the necessary support within ABB Saudi Arabia, even as it was legally possible already at that time. But now, with the official change of policy at the country level, it was even very much appreciated that I would be willing to hire women. And finally, I managed to hire the first woman at management level in ABB Saudi Arabia - she will be my SCM Manager, starting in mid October.


Late June - Eid al Fitr & Visiting the Al Jabal Al Akhdar in Oman

Mid-June the Eid Al Fitr Holidays started, which last for one week in Saudi. The first few days I was still in Dammam, cleaning-up some stuff from work as well as to get more into a 'holiday mood'. The good thing with Eid Al Fitr is that it is an important public holiday and consequently all offices are closed in Saudi and the Middle East, and correspondingly there is not much going on work-wise anymore. So I moved to Bahrain for kind of a semi-holiday, because in Europe, there was obviously no holiday and the level of understanding that the Saudi Organization is now closed for a week in in Europe still quite weak. In Europe we have learnt over the last 20 years about e.g. Chinese New Year and some other holidays in different countries, but Eid al Adha and Eid Al Fitr have not yet 'arrived' in Europe.

For the last week of June we took some days off at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort in Oman, which is a very nice (!) place to take some vacation. In fact that was the first time in the last two years, where I managed to get 5 days of 'real' vacations. Last year simply did not work out because of the situation at work, and the first attempt this February ended-up with some food poisoning.

Al Jabal Al Akhdar ( الجبل الأخضر ) stands for 'Green Mountain' due to the shrubs and trees, which grown in this area as well as the extensive irrigation system used of bring water to the terraces, which allowed until recently a wide range of agriculture.

In this context we also visited Nizwa and some of the surrounding villages ( most of them have been more or less abandoned in recent years ). Nizwa was the former capital of Oman until the late 1950ies, when the capital moved to Muscat.

Oman is overall a very nice place from a touristic perspective, and it also has  a well develop touristic industry. Therefore, tourism is - next to the oil and gas industry - an important element of the local economy. In order to increase the number of local people in the workforce ( currently more than 60% are coming from abroad - mainly from Asia ), there is also an Omanization Program, similar to the Saudization in Saudi Arabia, which is also 'not that much appreciated' from the business.

Mid-May to Mid-June - Ramadan

The month of Ramadan is always a special time. In particular for Muslims, as they are fasting from sunrise to sunset - i.e. no food, no drinking, but also no smoking, which is often the toughest part for the local people, who are frequently quite heavy smokers.

At the same time it is also a special time for Non-Muslims, because for one month, the entire local life follows a different rhythm. By law, people who are fasting only have to work for 6 hrs, and usual working hours are either from 09:00 - 15:00 or from 10:00 - 16:00. But because the night becomes the time of major activities, some of the people have a tough time to come to the office by 10:00 and the performance level may deteriorate quite fast during the day ...

For me it was a 'good time', because I was still working 10 - 12 hrs per day, and that gave me some additional time, I was able to work in a focused manner ( with no disturbance ) on subjects, I did not had the time before.

March - Experience with Medical Infrastructure in Saudi Arabia

When I started here in Dammam in late 2016, I superficially checked on the medical infrastructure available, in order to know where to get medical help in case of need. I learnt that in case of any medical treatment required, one would need to go to the hospital, because medical practices as they would be the first contact is Switzerland does not exist here in Saudi. There was also one hospital I was advised that this would be the best one, and in case I would need medical help, I should go there. A few months later I learned in the News that this hospital has gone bankrupt and all staff has been laid off ...

... great ! And in the meantime, I've learnt that actually the best hospitals in Saudi Arabia would be in Jeddah ?! which would obviously not be an option. Thus, I had to check on the options given in Dammam. In the meantime, kind of a medical practice with several doctors had opened not far away from where I life, and consequently I went to them as an initial step. Based on an earlier problem I had with my stomach, I know what to look for [ as well ], and explained that to the respective doctor - not very successful, and he was also not able to correctly read the related analysis report from the blood analysis. But to be fair he was also very helpful and tried to support me as much as possible.

Obviously, that was not a solution and I checked with my local team to which hospital I should go. There was a consistent feedback and also the right doctor was easily identified - it would also have been  possible to schedule an appointment via the internet, but he was fully booked for more than one week ... Therefore, I had to go personally to the hospital and had to make clear at the reception that I would need to get an appointment TODAY, which was also possible - I simply had to come in the afternoon and "... the doctor will take you in, whenever he sees an opportunity ...". Thus, I had to wait for a bit more than one hour, but this doctor was really good. He immediately understood my medical history, what can be taken out of the blood analysis ... and  we also understood each other very well on a personal level.

Overall, the administrative procedures related to the medical insurance are a bit cumbersome, and part of the treatment has to be paid on the spot. It takes definitely more time than in Switzerland, but the medical treatment in terms of quality was good - if you find the right doctor, it is as good as in Switzerland. Honestly speaking, in case of a serious illness or surgery, I would still go back to Switzerland - just to be 'on the safe side'. Also when listening to my team - in case they need to seek medical help, it is often described as a rather neagtive experience from their own perspective.

In summary, the food poisoning ended up with two weeks of sick leave / 'home office'.


Late February - Wedding in the Desert & Visiting Dubai

In late February Susanne and I took a couple of days off to join the Wedding of a colleague, who had arranged his wedding ceremony in the desert of Dubai as well as to visit Dubai again.

... more to come ...

On one of the first few days, I must have eaten something spoiled, which ended-up in some pretty bad food poisoning. I tried to manage the next three days with some basic medication, but the situation got too bad, such that I asked a doctor to see me in the hotel. He suggested to transfer me right to the hospital - something I was not that fond off, and consequently he arranged the required medical treatment at the hotel - he administered some intravenous infusion and medication and the next day I was able to travel back to Saudi, where I was seeking medical help.

Early February - Visiting Janadriyah Festival

Site Map of Janadriyah Festival

In mid-February we also visited the Janadriyah Festival, which is kind of a 'Saudi Expo', where all the main regions and cities are represented. The festival is sponsored by the 'Saudi National Guard'. The access is quite a bit painstaking, because access roads are always fully jammed on these days, and one has to park quite far away. Taking into account my difficulties with walking (due to the impairments from my motorcycle accident) that did not sound like a good approach. Knowing that in Arab cultures a lot can be arranged via relationships, I asked one of my local colleagues for some help - and he then arranged that we were able to drive directly into the site of Janadriyah Festival and he also organized a guide from the National Guard, who would be guiding us throughout the whole day. In that context, he did a bit of an 'overselling', such that we - or to be more precise - I was treated like a VIP.

At each site, we got a personal guide, who would explain the exhibitions of this pavilion, its culture, etc. we were always offered some coffee and at least some dates, or also cookies or some other food. At one place I wanted to buy a book, which I obviously got as a gift, and when I 'complained' to one of the representatives of the city of Medina, that it would not be possible for me to visit Medina ( which is like Mecca closed for non-Muslims ), he briefly disappeared and then came back with the press officer of the city of Medina, who invited me to visit the city. We were a party of six, my Saudi Colleague, an Egyptian friend, who were both working with me at ABB and our wives. When we visited these pavilions the respective guides were only talking with me, and my two colleagues did not had a chance to be integrated into these dialogues and in some cases the wives were more like tolerated and truly welcomed. Or as we say in German - "Different Countries - Different Customs". But that even had some advantages for my colleagues - they had the freedom to roam around on their own, or take break, where I had to pay full attention and show genuine interest to these elaborations for the whole day …

Overall, it was an interesting day for all of us, which gave a broad range of additional insights into Saudi Arabia, its cultural heritage and economy.

Early January - a good start into the new year ...

As of the beginning of this year, I was able to reduce my engagement somewhat, because I was able to split my earlier dual-role at work and delegate 'half' of the work to a young Saudi manager. The plan is to let him grow into his new role during 2018, such that by the end of the year, he would fully take over that part of my earlier responsibility. The actual reduction is not that much to start with, but at least as important is the psychological effect, because some subjects I can delegate to someone else and only get involved, if it gets more difficult / tricky.

Consequently, I was able to spend my first fully relaxed and nice weekend in Bahrain.