Exactly three years ago, I landed in Dammam Airport, surfboard in hand, in the midst of a second mobilization to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If you've followed my story up to now, you'll already know about my surfing, family, teaching and sand boarding exploits in Arabia. It all started in 2012 with a year in Sakakah with a dubious recruitment company. Then, after two years back in the Philippines, I began my current journey on the coastal road from Dammam Airport to the Kuwaiti border. Of course I’ll never forget the date of mobilisation: 9/11/2015. How can anyone moving to the Middle East forget that fateful day in New York? It’s shaped the region so much, especially America’s war on terror in Iraq and beyond.
While this Saudi-Season blog is no longer updated as regularly as previously, I’ve decided to do quarterly updates just in case anyone is still reading. Of course my main blogging focus these days is www.rafsworld.com, a new project designed to encourage families to get out of their comfort zones and hit the world trail. And Instagram keeps me busy too, both publishing beautiful pictures on the main feed and dispatches from Saudi Arabia in our Instagram stories. Follow my family and I @rafsworldtravel to see real time updates and our day to day adventures in the Kingdom.
So what’s happened in the last three months? Work is the same, but an iPad programme might transform our presentation and practice methods in the winter. August pay increases didn’t match last year’s generosity, and significant complaints erupted when the outgoing senior teacher bestowed “outstanding” teacher honours on questionable candidates. I received an “excellent” rating and 2% pay increase; a bit disappointing compared to last year’s “outstanding” and inflation-busting 9.2% payrise. Although the dates in the school yard eventually ripened, the quality and quantity of available dates were disappointing too. In stark contrast, our family trip through the Balkans was a roaring success, solidifying the benefits of this second Saudi season with plenty of money to get us back into the travelling in style mindset. In addition, saving is going really well with our premium bond account now well above £50K.
What about the future? Autumn teaching schedule is out tomorrow, which will carry me up to November examination week. And it’s in the middle of that week, in seventy days from today, that an Emirates flight is booked to take me back to the Philippines. I’m flying via Dubai where my wife and son will meet me and fly on together to Cebu. Longer term I believe the Philippines will be a large part of our future too, but that’s a story for another time.
Almost three years ago I returned to the Saudi Kingdom for a second season. I knew it might last a lot longer than the first, which ended after eleven months in Sakakah. Looking back on my third year it seems life, more than ever before, has turned into a groundhog day. Pretty much every day in country is the same. Teaching is routine beyond belief. Every month Saudi riyals are turned into pounds, and they continue to mount up in my Premium Bonds account. In twelve days Ramadan vacation begins and I'll get relief again from this sacrificial life. I definitely need it!
It hasn't all been plain sailing at work this year. While the classes and students have been better than ever before, two incidents threatened to derail my employment. First, I fought a prolonged battle, and had to threaten resignation, to negotiate a six-week unpaid leave period. During negotiations I felt so angry and almost threw the towel in. I just couldn't understand why they wouldn't give me the leave; it was unpaid after all and I haven't had a sick day since I joined. Thankfully, they agreed to the time off eventually, and almost immediately I booked an Emirates flight to Cebu City for November 22. Second, a new quality assurance analyst from Cairo annoyed me immensely with his pedantic approach to quality assessments. His fellow Egyptians, with a limited grasp of English, were awarded 100% while he decided that I deserved 85% because I diverted from my lesson plan. Given that half the bilinguals use my lesson plans and online quizzes it just seemed insulting. Moreover, he decided to discuss all this with another teacher and threaten further observations just for me. In due time, I complained and persuaded quality assurance to leave me alone for another year. At the time I wondered whether to just resign and leave them to it, such was the frustration I felt with the ridiculousness of it all.
While my family visited the Kingdom earlier in the year, they're back in England now waiting patiently for my arrival. Their time in Saudi Arabia was uneventful, apart from the odd run in with the police whenever we tried to take Raf surfing. It seems the security services continue to believe seven year old's are safer behind the wheel of a car than surfing the waves of the Persian Gulf. Looking ahead, we're going on another vacation through the Balkans in June; this time Albania. Kosovo and Turkey are on our itinerary. After that we'll just enjoy the rest of my time off (5 weeks in May/June and three weeks in August) with family on the Norfolk coast. Then it'll be a slow countdown to Christmas together in the Philippines :)
Of course life is still a roller coaster of emotions and questions in the Kingdom. Will the money ever be enough? When should I leave KSA forever? How much is this place impacting my health? Is it really worth it? One of my colleagues was recently diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in the kidneys, which has thrown up even more questions. Suddenly his money and two properties in Bulgaria didn't mean a thing and he told me he was thinking about embracing Roman Catholicism. In times such as these I feel relieved I have my own faith and simply told him it wasn't time to seek religion, but instead seek truth and a relationship with God himself.
So right now I'm surviving Saudi, not thriving. However, I hope and pray that I'll thrive again under a Philippine or British sky after one or two more years of this challenging life.
A late spring storm slams into the Eastern Provinces in May. It's been a weird year for weather.
A best selling novel called “The Beach” by Alex Garland features a lead character in a lengthy, dangerous search for a perfect stretch of sand in Thailand. Whilst locating “Silversands” beach in Jeddah wasn’t death defying, we did abandon our search on first attempt, and eventually recruited a Filipino boat captain from the Marina to help us on the second attempt.
European bikini clad girls at “Silversands” Saudi
“Silversands” is located in North Obhur, about 45km outside of Jeddah Old Town. Drive out of Jeddah on Mecca Road and head north, only turning left when North Obhur is signposted. When you hit the coast road you will pass a Pizza Hut. From here drive about 1km further north, where you will see a blue gate with a small window to the left side. No sign will guide you in, just a small hand painted “Private Residence” on the wall in English and Arabic.
So we knocked on the window, showed ID, paid 50 SAR entry fee (100 SAR on weekends) and got dropped off by our driver. Unfortunately management here only admit “Europeans” or people with “white skin”.
Enjoying a few hours “outside” Saudi rules
For about an hour the beach was ours alone to enjoy. Turquoise seas, pristine white sand beach, a small man made island offshore, what a great place. Eventually it began to pick up, families and singles in about equal doses, and enough scantily clad females to convince any European that “Silversands" is the best ex-pat beach in Saudi Arabia. The restaurant served fairly priced basic cuisine in a nicely constructed wooden building with decking and bamboo roof. They even played some Western music, every ingredient in place to feel outside Saudi, if only for a few hours.
Time outside Saudi, even within a walled compound, makes you wonder. The Kingdom they call this nation, but a Kingdom of what? Planes soared over and above Jeddah Marina and for a moment I desperately wished to be on anyone of them; it didn’t matter where they were going. The challenges of the first three months today feel like nothing to the eight month mountain that looms ahead.
The uncertainty of surfing in a country where security services take more action against a soul surfer than a 12 year old kid driving his mother and sisters around forced me to abandon the surf dream for the past two months. Four really fun days and a few other windier swells have passed by unsurfed. The youth of this town, like all others in the Kingdom, are preoccupied with drifting their cars, obsessively texting or watching You Tube on their iPhones, and eating khabsa chicken. There isn’t one surfer here, but there are enough surfing days to support surf schools, surf shops, sea front restaurants, and a total transformation of the place through surfing. You only have to look around the world at places like Bali, in Indonesia, or Siargao, in the Philippines, to understand how it can change a place so much.
Surfing has real power to change people too. One Saudi already changed by surfing is Mohammed, originally from Jeddah but currently studying engineering in Sydney. He started surfing in tiny waves on a longboard in an Al Khobar compound and has progressed during his time in Australia. We connected via the ultimate connector, Facebook, and he was so surprised by the enormous potential of his own country for surfing. He checked out one of my posts on “Surfing Arabia” page and we have kept in touch since October. He returned to the Kingdom for a short vacation just a few days ago and a well timed south easterly swell convinced him to jump in his jeep and head north from Al Khobar towards the Kuwait border. Upon arrival he was shocked by the bold waves on the horizon. Proper lines of swell, sets up to chest high, offshore wind, perfect blue skies. Like me, he quickly realised this town is something very special in a Kingdom of oil wells and sand dunes. In fact he said this discovery was more exciting than any oil well he had ever been involved in finding. Mohammed returns to Saudi forever in eighteen months at the end of his studies. He’s ecstatic that it won’t mean the end of his new love. For him the highway north will be like the M5 to Newquay for all those land locked London surfers.
It was my first surf for over two months. With Mohammed in the water the concern about police intervention faded away. We revelled in the waves for over two hours across two sessions. Our lack of wetsuits cut the sessions short, as the sea has dramatically reduced in temperature since October. But that incredible, warm feeling of surfing Arabia more than compensated for the cold water. Expectation for this new season in Saudi was relatively small when I retrieved my board from Dammam airport’s conveyor belt. No one comes to Saudi to surf. Yet today was a truly special day. Two cultures coming together to share unbelievable stoke in a land of zero surf crowds and rippable waves. Amazing timing too. Mohammed and my photographer wife only arrived in the Kingdom a few days ago.
An alluring Arab look for a Filipina in Saudi Arabia.
The Qur'an advises believing women to "lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments, except what [ordinarily] appear thereof". It goes on to tell them to "draw their cloaks close around them, so that they will be recognized [as pious Muslim women] and not annoyed". The bible gives similar advice: "every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered disgraces her head"'.
In the increasingly secular societies of Europe and the United States, the hijab is portrayed as a symbol of female oppression, but the reality is so much more complicated. Most Muslim women clearly wear the hijab (and abaya) as a personal declaration of religious commitment, not because men or governments tell them to do so. Some enjoy the freedom it gives them to avoid the judgement and stares of men and women. Others wear it as an expression of their cultural identity and to directly challenge feminist discourses which present hijab-wearing women as silenced or oppressed.
In Saudi Arabia the law only prescribes that women wear the abaya (a long black dress that covers most of the body) whereas in neighbouring Iran all women must cover at least some of their head with a scarf of some sort, but do not have to wear the abaya. However, in conservative areas or anywhere where the religious police operate it is advisable for women to cover their head in Saudi too.
My personal taste in life isn't, and has never been, checking out bikini clad, topless or naked women. The well dressed secretary look is much more seductive: pencil skirt, light blouse and heels. However, hijab fashion is exotically alluring too. On a trip through Syria six years ago, I distinctly remember being hugely attracted to the stunning, hijab-wearing girls on the streets of Aleppo and Damascus. Signature dark eyes, false eye lashes, styled scarf and sexy heels more than compensated for hiding their hair. My wife has managed to adopt a similar Arab look for the Saudi street that is both observant and beautiful. I'm more attracted to her than ever before.
Ultimately what you wear is up to you. Different religious and societal interpretations means the debate over the hijab will continue, but I love it and ironically find the women who wear it far more attractive than the bikini clad girl surfers in the Philippines - exactly the opposite of why the Qur'an instructs women to wear it.
Twenty years ago I was swept off my feet. Not by a girl, but by the incredible feeling of riding waves. My love affair began during a study year abroad in California; one of the original playgrounds of an ever growing tribe of people who define themselves as surfers. A love that drove me away from careers and girlfriends and towards two decades of global travel spanning three continents. The feeling of warmth as you paddle vigorously towards the shoreline and get lifted up by a wave's magical energy is like no other. This love of mine will never die. It follows me wherever I go.
"Unfinished Wanderings" is a short film (see link below) about the surfing highlights of those two decades of global travel. Spanning three continents, it features several unlikely surfing destinations: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Liberia, Philippines, Mozambique, England, Morocco, Indonesia, and Chile. Surfing videography by my beautiful wife and brilliant brother; without them these highlights would remain only in my memories. For a mediocre British-born surfer who came to the sport in his early twenties, it proves you don't have to be a Hawaiian-born hell man to enjoy the freedom that surfing brings. In fact, as soon as you learn the basics, you can land in any swell-exposed country and experience the joy and magic of the glide.
Thirteen years ago I renewed my passport, a few months after my marriage in the Philippines. I panicked about the possibility that marriage might spell the end to global wanderings, but thankfully it just redefined them, with obscure surf destinations complimented by frequent escapes to chic European cities. When our son came along I felt similar anxieties, but so far he's been the springboard to even more adventure, as we've sought to introduce him to the incredible world around him in unconventional ways. The batton may have recently been passed to Rafael and Saudi sometimes feels like a jail sentence, but my wanderings aren't over yet. Saudi is just a mechanism to collect the riyals necessary to propel us around the world and back again throughout the 2020's. God willing.