The golfer and the sheikh

In 1995 after Tim Henderson-Ross left my operational base in Riyadh I employed a young Englishman of considerable personal presence, an expat already living in The Kingdom, up to then employed by DHS, the world-wide courier service. I'll call him Robin.

Now, every businessman (woman) knows there are four elements to the making or the losing of money in business...:
(!) Getting the work - that is, selling and marketing the goods or the service,
(2) Making and delivering the goods or providing the services that have been ordered by a client - in best order and on time.
(3) Getting paid.for the ordered goods or the services
4) The organisation that knits together the whole operation.

I had hoped Robin could support me on all fronts. In a small operation versatility always has to be key. The personable thirty something, Robin, proved reasonably good at (1), of little or no use at (2) - i.e. report writing and advising, creative work etc, largely an irrelevance for (3) but not at all bad at (4), i.e. linking with sponsor, getting all the necessary paperworks done, banking, travel etc, etc, which is why he lasted with me for some five years. But the laddie always had problems beginning with his difficulty in getting out of bed in the morning and in over enjoyment of an overcrowded night time social life amongst the younger elements - especially female - of the vibrant expatriated communities in Al-Khobar then Bahrain and Dubai. Perhaps the beginnings and endings of each of his days were linked in reverse, if you see what I mean!

Be that as it may, however exasperated I often became I always enjoyed Robin's company. I liked the guy, tell the truth, almost envied his devil-may-care attitude. His well-educated life as a teenager in England had focussed on the game of golf, his handicap having been down to scratch at age seventeen. I've often thought how awful is must be to have a great sporting talent but one that is not quite great enough to earn you all the multimillions and the enduring fame. Nobody would relish the life of a journeyman near-miss golf professional. Few can stand it for more than a few years.

Be that as it may, it was Robin who, in a roundabout kind of way, introduced me in 1994 to a quite high-ranking Saudi Sheikh in Al-Khobar - let's call him Faisal. In Saudi Arabia you have to 'sign up with' a local sponsor in order to enter The Kingdom if you want to live and/or visit for work and monetary gain. My sponsor at the time was a Riyadh based Prince, a fair man but one with limited interest in the business of those from abroad coming under his wing. Faisal on the other hand was a British-educated Sheikh, a bright guy interested in what you were doing although not at all interested in hard work when he could find folk like myself to do that kind of stuff. Deeply religious of course, in the Sunni / Wahabbi tradition. In fact Faisal's grandfather had camel-ridden with king-in-waiting Abdullah Al-Saud and the locally famous British officer called Captain Christian in 1916 when they combined to subdue the many other desert tribes by force of arms. This allowed British diplomats to draw lines across the map of Arabia to create Saudi Arabia and the neighbouring Arab States.

Faisal became a man I thought of as a friend. He was not the eldest son, therefore not the leader of his clan, but was very well connected; wealthy of course, with his main  home in the East of the country at Al Khobar and another just over the Causeway in more westernised Bahrain. Such a sponsor as Faisal is absolutely essential if you want to do business in the Middle East. I would often join him at his beach-side mansion of a residence on a Thursday or Friday - the Moslem holy day - to compare business notes and anecdotes, often with his high powered banking and business friends in attendance and always with the option of the 'forbidden' Johnny Walker Black Label uniquely available. Male Philipino servants would ply us with a marvellous array of food although never much before midnight. Before that out would come the karaoke mike. All in turn would be encouraged to deliver a song or a ditty. This was where I first tried and became quite famous for my awful version of Sinatra's My Way and those Irish folksongs, Mother Macrae and Sweet Sixteen. Songs I would never attempt in public without a good ration of the hard stuff! I have to confess nobody previously had bothered to applaud my on and off key tenor efforts, alcohol-fuelled or not. Faisal also had a pokey little downtown hideaway with a pool table and etcetera. Good for workday extended lunchtimes!

I have to say that I came to like - even admire - Faisal and most of the ways of Islamic life. You were always safe from crime in The Kingdom though not always, as I shall relate, from the cruel (by western standards) arm of Shariah law. Although there was never a trace to be seen of the female of our species, in a strange sort of way you quickly grew accustomed to an entirely male and, as I say, mainly peaceful society. There are always opportunities to share in the incredible wealth of  the place via creative business efforts provided you came to work and learn and live by their rules, both written and unwritten.

Rule number one: Arabians, as being the people favoured by the Prophet Mohammed are superior to the rest of the world. One over-warm evening, strolling barefoot along  the beach on a Thursday night Faisal said, Bryan, I suppose you wonder why we seldom perform work - as is normal to you in the West? I said something like 'I wouldn't be so rude, Faisal'. I'll tell you why, he went on; It is because we, (he was using the 'we' to mean highborn Saudis such as himself), come from three thousand years of a slave owning culture. When we need labourers we go to the Indian subcontinent or to Africa; when we want management or more creative people such as your goodself we go to Europe or The States. For the payment of them these days Allah has given us the gift of oil. That stopped me in my tracks. I had never been called a slave before (though was intimately familiar as are most with the term 'wage-slave')! I looked out over a calm, star-spangled sea and up to the heavens then back to Faisal's beautiful mansion, lit up in the night like Blackpool front. I took a mouthful of dear old Scotland. But what about you guys when the oil runs out? I ventured. He laughed quietly. You in the West must worry about that, he said. Your peoples were accustomed to live in one of two cultures - capitalism or communism - were they not? But now, overnight, you have only option one. Your capitalism is secular, almost entirely without a spiritual dimension. Yes, your capitalism will disappear soon, as will the oil. You then have little or nothing left. Chaos. We on the other hand have Allah. We shall prevail even if we should go back to the deserts of our Bedouin grandfathers. Out of politeness I didn't argue the point. But I would have found argument difficult anyway.

Faisal told me how he had taken his teenaged son to a local 'place of punishment' where an adulteress was for a large part buried in the sand, surrounded by jeering villagers. As the local Sheikh the crowd had parted to make way for both of them, he said. His son was awarded the special privilege of throwing the first stone at the poor lady. It hit her head, Faisal informed me without any obvious emotion. I tried not to gegister any shock. I can only hope it killed her outright. If not the following hundreds of rocks most surely would have.

By contrast I remember Faisal taking me one night to an extensive place of giant sand dunes in his four wheel drive Lexus. Similar vehicles and trucks were ascending in the moonlight a certain dune and descending / sliding down at great and dangerous speed on to the flatter desert land below, where were the small tents and glowed the camp fires of many small groups of Saudi natives. We  joined the merry throng up and down and again and again before Faisal slid his poor £60K motor car to a stop by a group of four well bearded men sitting around their own fire. Somehow they seemed to sense Faisal's rank. They stood up, salaamed gravely and invited us to join them - I have to say without overmuch enthusiasm for me and my plastic cup of the Black Label. I watched their gaunt, fierce, black-eyed faces in the firelight. Of course all the talk was in Arabic. These were proud, strong, hard people, capable of great cruelties and equally great kindnesses, secure somehow in a world of their own between past and present, unquestioning in their spiritual beliefs.

I thought of my own religious forebears: Simon Islip, died 1366, Archbishop of Canterbury under King Edward the Third; John Islip, died 1532, Abbot and builder in chief under King Henry the Seventh of many sections of Westminster Abbey. It seemed to me that there were many similarities in custom, spiritual attitude and behaviour between them and these peoples of the desert with whom I was sitting, painfully cross-legged on the sand. Of course these folk didn't burn people at the stake, as did my own, but that is only because there is an obvious shortage of wood in the deserts of Arabia.

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