A blog for the New Zealand creative advertising industry, now at www.campaignbrief.com/nz. Email news to: michael@campaignbrief.com

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Stewart of Arabia

Lucky Fastline. Don't you wish Stewart did some writing for this blog? Is
it something they put in the scotch over there?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is written by a Saudi poking fun at the system here and taking a closer look at the 'Booze'scene. It's pretty accurate, funny, sad but true


Booze is not allowed in Islam, except for "medicinal purposes", where there is no alternative.

Saudi Arabia, as the government and religious establishment will tell you, is a "dry" country, in all senses of the word. But what is the reality? Well, I was once talking with the Saudi manager of a software house in Riyadh. He was telling me about an American guy that he'd recruited and brought over. Excellent CV, and excellent work for the first few weeks. Then his performance started to tail off, he came in later and later each morning, looking as rough as the proverbial dog's backside. So the manager spoke to him, and heard his sad tale. It turned out that the American was an alcoholic, and he'd deliberately chosen to come to Saudi Arabia because "there was no drink there", and he could break his habit. Of course, it didn't take him long to find out that there's plenty of drink, it's just a matter of knowing where to get it, and of course it's expensive. So he eventually headed back home, a saddened but unreformed alcoholic.

When I was young, my older relatives told me that the only alcohol to enter the country was brought in by western expats. What happened was that ships going up and down the Red Sea used to drop off the occasional crate, attached to a buoy. Then, as now, Westerners loved scuba diving in the Red Sea, and supposedly they used to go out on a weekend and bring the stuff inshore.

As I grew up, I realized that quite a number of my fellow Saudis were enjoying the occasional (or indeed frequent) "medicinal" treatment. I found this difficult to reconcile with the odd crate being carried ashore near Jeddah. In fact the more booze that I saw with my own eyes, the more I realized that it was arriving in industrial quantities. And then I picked up the common knowledge that the largest trade was operated by Princes, who had the clout and "Wasta" to get container-loads past Customs officials at the ports, and make sure they weren't searched at the regular roadblocks. Not only that, but the Princes themselves were said to be major customers, by those who occasionally moved in those circles. And it wasn't just my private joke; the late King Fahd was indeed known to be a great Johnny Walker fan.

The Western expat community are of course very resourceful when it come to booze. It's highly unlikely they haul it in from the Red Sea, but they do tend to brew it themselves. Go to any Western-style compound and you'll be plied with home-made wine and beer, some of it very good, some of it a bit rough for my exquisite taste. When they fancy something a bit stronger, they buy a large bottle of so-called "Sid", which is supposed to be 60-80% alcohol, illegally distilled locally. I never tried that myself because I was worried about it containing methyl alcohol, but it has many fans. A favorite trick was to buy cans of "malt drink" from the supermarket, in effect cans of beer without the alcohol, and then replace the alcohol that had been removed. Alternatively it could be used in any drinks that would normally contain gin or vodka.

There were even until recently a number of "pubs" for expats. They had fanciful names like "Pig and Whistle" or "McGinty's Bar", but instead of being High street buildings with flapping pub signs and piano music wafting out, were instead anonymous villas on compounds or in neighbourhoods. Everyone knew about them, including the cops, who turned a blind eye until the "Booze Bomber" campaign gave "Nasty Naif" the chance to close them down.
However our fearless Muttawa have been elbowing all the others aside, I bet it was like "Happy Hour" all night, there's no stopping them when there's free booze to be grabbed - sorry, illicit alcohol to be confiscated.

If you're a bit fussy about your booze, and worried that it's been fermented with an immature rat, then without doubt your best bet is the various Western embassies in Riyadh. They are very hospitable and often host events at which locals are invited. And of course their booze is straight from home and perfectly legal, entering the country in a container-size "diplomatic bag". If wine is your thing, obviously it's the French Embassy. July 4th at the US Embassy is ideal for Bourbon and other strong drinks, and St. Patrick's Day at the Irish Embassy brings out the Guinness and Jamesons. And every Wednesday night used to be "Bierkeller Night" with the Germans. However there have been ocasional hiccups in the diplomatic traffic. There was a time in 2003 when relations between the US and the Saudi government were a bit strained. An ambitious security officer impounded the US Embassy "booze truck" making its regular run from the port,and wouldn't let it go. As you can imagine, tempers got very frayed. It almost got to the stage of Colin Powell appearing at the UN with satellite photos and telephone intercepts. Fortunately it was released in time. History doesn't record whether the contents remained intact.

A junior diplomat at one Embassy is reported to have organized his own private booze shipment. It was a huge and heavy crate, and he got the shippers to label it as a piano. He eagerly awaited delivery. His world fell apart when he got the following message from Saudi Customs. "Fork-lift truck in Customs warehouse has damaged your crate. Your piano is leaking. Please advise."

Stewart Gilbride
Riyadh Saudi Arabia
Mobile 966 55 1370517

9:33 AM NZST


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