Friday, June 3, 2011

5 modest proposals for Saudi Arabia

As a thought experiment, I’ve been toying with several ideas -- completely unsolicited by anyone of authority in the Kingdom, of course -- that could just possibly make life in Saudi Arabia better for everyone. And by “everyone” of course I mean “me.”

As I thought about this and asked colleagues, I decided on two basic ground rules:

a) changes or improvements could not violate any Islamic rules or principles, and

b) implementing them would not cost a fortune.

This eliminates all the questions about women driving, keeping stores open during prayer times, devising an efficient mass transit system, promoting tourism, making Saudi Arabian Airlines a less unpleasant experience or trying to get people to understand the concept of a queue.

So, whattya think?

1. Sidewalks. You literally cannot go more than 20 or 30 steps in most Riyadh neighborhoods without having to detour into the street. In fact, there’s no point even in using a sidewalk because the street is the real pedestrian path. This is true even on fancy streets like Olaya.

Here is a partial list of things a walker will find to obstruct his path: trees, dumpsters, open unmarked excavations, giant piles of dirt, parked cars, torn up concrete, more parked cars, building utility boxes, telecom company utility boxes and possibly some more parked cars.

So how about a program of building sidewalks, or requiring sidewalks, perhaps even on just one side of a street?

2. Building addresses. Try calling a cab to pick you up, inviting a friend over, giving directions or just having hot schwarmas delivered without a street address. Fire or police emergency? Forget it. Moreover, businesses shipping you goods hate delivering to a P.O. box.

So how about a program of putting addresses on buildings (and telling residents what they are while we’re at it)? I’m guessing there are, technically, addresses for most or all buildings that are known only in the most super-secret interior lock boxes of the Ministry of Addresses. I even heard mine one time. You might as well put an address on a schwarma for all the good it does.

3. Street names.
While we’re dealing with streets, maybe we could simplify or at least coordinate the spelling of street names. Typically one just says to a driver “Go to Malaz Siteen and turn right at the McDonalds” or “Pepsi Road near the Tamimi.” That’s because no one wants to deal with tongue twisters like “Al Amir Muhammad Ibn Abdulaziz Rd.” or “Al Amir Muhammad Ibn Abdulaziz St.” or “Al Amir Abdulaziz Ibn Musa Id Ibn Jalawi St.” or “Al Amir Turki Ibn Abdulaziz Rd.” or “Al Amir Sa’ad Ibn Abdulaziz” or “Al Imam Abdulaziz Ibn Muhammad Ibn Saud.” (all spellings taken from the standard Farsi map.) And then there’s the Good Ship Lollipop which simply lists itself as being on Prince Mohammad Bin Abdul Aziz St. (Thalia St).” Or the Turkish restaurant at “Olaya-Prince Sultan St. Old 30.” (These were taken verbatim from actual business cards.)
4. Normalize spelling of Saudi names. Students ask why I try to get them to spell their names the same way all the time. I want them to come to a consistent transliteration based on how the tribe wants the name to sound (though I don’t explain it that way). Within the KSA it probably doesn’t matter (except to teachers who are trying to figure out if the Al Qatani on the exam is the same as the alqetani or the al-Ketaani on the attendance roster).

The reason I give is that anyone traveling outside the Kingdom will have a much easier time of things if he or she doesn’t have to explain why their name doesn’t match whatever list or form the airport guy, the college admissions officer, the bank officer or the police officer is using.

Several years ago, Cecil Taylor of The Straight Dope column came up with 12 ways to spell Qadhafi. The official U.S. Library of Congress rundown gives 32 different spellings.

The basic problem of course is that there is no generally accepted authority for Westernizing Arabic names, mostly because Arabic contains several sounds that have no equivalent in English. And many exquisite subtleties of Arabic pronunciation are mooshed together into a single character when the name gets romanized.

But perhaps the tribes could at least talk amongst themselves and decide if they want to be Al Anazi, Al Enazi, Al Anzi, Aal Anazi or Al Anazy.

Among the things that I include under “normalization” (that is, creating a consistent “norm” for names) would be what to do with the “al” – should it be Al Ghamdi, Al-Ghamdi, alghamdi or al-Ghamdi?

It all makes a difference in how names get alphabetized, which like it or not, helps society keep things in order and find you when you are lost.

5. Littering fines. This may be a losing battle but wouldn’t it be nice to walk down a street or visit a beautiful desert landmark without seeing a mountain of empty water bottles, used tissues, juice containers, tea bags, blue bags, half-eaten schwarmas, cigarette butts, empty cigarette packs, Barbican bottles, dead butane lighters, tin cans, torn up bits of paper and…of course, the ubiquitous 10 SR STC phone card?

Naturally, it does no good to simply put up a sign saying “No littering.” You might as well put up a sign saying “No ants!” at your next desert kabsa BBQ.

No, an anti-littering ordinance would have to have serious consquences, much like the photo radar cameras that have struck fear into the hearts of red-light runners and speeders…well some of them anyway.

So there we have ‘em. Five fairly reasonable ideas that won’t cause major disruptions in the social fabric but could just make your life (and by “your” I mean “my”) a little more civilized.

Got your own ideas? Remember the two conditions.

The Ministry of Pretty Good Ideas awaits your input.



  1. Ha, ha, very nice, but you've forgotten one thing. All of these things require cooperation and collaboration.

    How about composting? You can do this without any assistance and can even do it in the dark of the night in case you haven't got enough Arabic to explain it yet. Just a thought.

  2. Composting...great idea. Maybe I can enlist the Stray Alley Cat Corps to collaborate on that project since they're the only critters (besides youthful drifters) who inhabit the night in Riyadh.

  3. My friends and I have been known to inhabit the night, and we are hardly young. We find it ideal for dumpster diving, among other pursuits. The feral cats have been known to stray past our entrance, but they tend to dig where THEY want to dig and not where compost is wanted.

  4. What sort of treats does one find in a Saudi dumpster at night?...since all the good stuff is generally carefully deposited on the sidewalks, or would be if there were sidewalks.

  5. After you get the cats out, mostly plant potting materials, at least this time of year. I look forward to seeing how this changes with the seasons.

    You have missed a basic point about this remarkable land. Check the price on the nearest gas pump and then tell me how much sense it makes to walk on sidewalks when you can drive right up to stuff for literally pennies. You don't have to turn the lights out when you leave a room either. Or close the door when the air conditioner is on. For that matter, you probably don't even have to clean your plate before you can get dessert. Or is that desert?

  6. So, you're thinking that the DumpsterMart is like a country produce stand that has different fresh delicacies depending on the season?

    As a Designated Sidewalk Superintendent (DSS), one of my favorite sidewalk observations is to see a poor shmuck coming out of a bakalla or Kudu only to find his ill-parked Crown Victoria is blocked in by an even more ill-parked Toyota pickup. The proper etiquette in this case is for Abu Crown Vic to get in his vehicle and lay on the horn for 10 minutes until Abu Toyota meanders out to see what the heck the mooshkela is. It is considered very poor sportsmanship for Abu Crown Vic to inquire within any of the stores to find the offender. He would be given a yellow card and scornfully hooted out of the Riyadh Bad Parking Club and of course lose his privileges for creeping in front of three lanes of traffic at a red light to make a u-turn.

  7. The dumpsters of Riyadh are the gift that keeps on giving. If you want to see for yourself, I've prepared a small sample here:

    If this goes viral, I may start Saudi's first LOL-dumpsters blog.

  8. I can see a whole new publishing industry as the brand is expanded a la Idiots Guides or Chicken Soup for the...."

    There'd be "Dumpsters of Jeddah," "Dumpsters of Al Khobar," and the uber-euphonious "Dumpsters of Dammam," followed by "Dumpsters of the Empty Quarter." Of course there needs to be an action figure for the swag store...Humpty Dumpster.

    Wait...wait...and then...Chicken Soup for the Dumpster

  9. Actually this was meant to be a companion piece for Girls of Riyadh.

    I had envisioned something a little more upscale, maybe a big glossy coffee table book. I would have to figure out how to get it banned, though, if I wanted really astronomical sales.

  10. I already have the upscale coffee table book on Riyadh (by Tony Guise) as well as Girls (a very nice hardcover edition liberated from the New Whiteland, IN, public library).

    I'm now thinking of very thin but elegant books we could work on. In addition to Sidewalks of Riyadh, of course, we could have Female-Friendly Outdoor Cafes of Riyadh, Knowledgeable Cab Drivers of Riyadh, Dog Parks of Riyadh and Riyadh: Public Transportation Projects Being Planned for a City of 5 Million.