Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Travels in foreign lands-XLI (Journeys to Saudi Arabia-II)

After lunch, I slept for sometime but Dr.Sofi went out to his hospital. He returned after an hour or so and asked me to have a wash so that he could take me to see the old city Diriyah. The name resembles Riyadh, the new capital. He had parked his car outside. He told me to wait till he cooled his car by switching on the air conditioner. In just half an hour, the car had become unbearably hot! We drove to the old city and went round to see how the Arabs lived in old days. Now, they have the most modern centrally air-conditioned houses and apartments! On the way we also saw many tall apartment buildings which appeared empty. When I asked him what these buildings were, he smiled. He told me that King had got these apartment blocks constructed to bring Bedouin from the desert to live a modern life. However, the tribesmen refused to come and as such the buildings were empty!

From Diriyah we drove to the city centre to meet some Kashmiri friends. We met Dr.Aziz Hagroo, Mohammad Maqbool, Iftikhar, and Javed. They were happy to see me. I again mentioned about going to the Governor’s house. They seemed to be all scared to go there. It appeared to me that the place resembled a Police State and people were afraid of police and security. They informed me that if they are checked and caught without a work permit called Ikama, they can go to jail. No one can make any comments about the government and so on. Only Javed offered to take me to the office of Prince Salman. He was not afraid as he had already seen a Saudi jail! He had been sent to jail for two days for praying in a mosque without an Ikama! He would come next morning to take me to the Governor’s Office.

My keenness to visit Prince Salman had an interesting background. In early eighties a group of 40 Saudi Princesses had come on a visit to Kashmir in winter. The group was led by Princess Sakina, the wife of Prince Salman. Sister of King Khalid also accompanied the group. There were only two male members of the group. One was the secretary of Princess Sakina and the other was a security guard for the sister of King Khalid’s sister. I was detailed as the liaison officer of the group by the government. They were initially supposed to stay in house boats but they felt cold there and were shifted to Hotel Broadway. The first thing the young princesses asked was to convert the hall on the top floor of the hotel into a discotheque. However, no male members were allowed there! They also went for day picnic to Dachigam and stayed for a night in Gulmarg in Hotel Highland Park. Princess Sakina was a well groomed western style lady. She had lot of grace and was commanding in her behaviour. They were very pleased with their visit. I came to know from them that they were always travelling all over the world and stayed for very short periods in Saudi Arabia! The global exposure has made certain princesses defy the Royal Decree. A living example is Princess Amira Al-Taweel! Incidentally, Dr. Sofi told me that there were 5000 princes and princesses in Saudi Arabia.

I learnt many interesting facts about life in Saudi Arabia from my Kashmiri friends. There were many jokes also. The police was very strict about passports, visas, and work permits because there were many forgeries. The experts in forging documents were Pakistanis. There was a story that once a chartered plane with Pakistani labour came to Riyadh. When the immigration officer asked for papers, the Pakistani presented both his passport and a fake working permit. The officer asked him how he had got the permit made before entering the Kingdom. He replied that everyone in the plane was carrying same documents! The whole planeload was sent back immediately! I was also told that the Saudis hated Pakistanis for their arrogance and forgeries and all sorts of illegal activities. They were called “Rafique” which means a friend. This word was used to treat them lowly! In contrast, Indians were quite meek and law abiding and were called “Siddiq”. I too had this experience subsequently. About the princes there was an interesting story. A poor Saudi had been visiting the government office for a loan to improve his own house. He had not been able to get any attention for months. One day when he was sitting with an officer and pleading that his file for grant of few thousand Riyals be cleared, an official came with the file of a Prince demanding a million Riyals to improve his standard of living. The file was cleared immediately. When the poor man asked for this strange treatment, the official said the Prince has a standard which he can improve but the poor man had nothing so he could wait!

Next morning Javed came in his own car to pick me up from the residence of Dr. Sofi. We drove straight to the office of the Governor which was in the centre of the city. The office was guarded all round by security personnel. We approached the main entrance after parking the car at a distance. We were asked the purpose of visit. I told them that I wanted to go to the personal office of Prince Salman. We were directed to third floor to meet the private secretary to the Prince. As soon as we came out of the lift on the third floor, we were surrounded by three to four highly armed commandos. I showed them my identity card and asked to be taken to the private secretary of the Prince. We were taken to a room at the end of the floor. There were two Arabs sitting there who spoke both English and Urdu. They introduced themselves as the secretaries to the Prince. I related my interest in meeting the Prince. I had come personally to invite him to Kashmir as his wife had already visited it. They informed me that the Prince had gone to Madina and would be returning only after a week. I left some tourist brochures and posters for the Prince. They told me that these would be given to him on his return. Incidentally, both the secretaries had been visiting India quite often with recruiting teams to bring doctors and other personnel to work in Saudi Arabia. We took their leave and returned. No one believed that we had visited the Governor’s Office unmolested! It was an experience!

(To be continued….)

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