Islamic Voice
Shawwal/Zul-Qada 1422
January 2002
Volume 15-01 No:181

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Prince, Professionals and Pizza-It's All there!

Prince, Professionals and Pizza-It's All there!

Returning to Saudi Arabia after almost five years, I did not find any change on the surface. People seem engrossed with their affluence and opulence.

By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

Back of the public lava-tory doors, I often thought, was for scribbling unprintable stuff. But I had to change my opinion. Arriving in Saudi Arabia for a fortnight at the height of the so-called war against terror in Afghanistan, I found them being used by the Saudi youth to air their political views which scarcely find space in the controlled media. And in most cases, these were the doors of the lavatories in mosques, the only public places where people can socialise. And invariably everywhere, sentiments were anti-American, pro-Taliban and nowhere sympathising with Osama bin Laden.

Returning to Saudi Arabia after almost five years, I did not find any change on the surface. People seem engrossed with their affluence and opulence. However, the lava of public discontent is churning within furiously. Mosque toilets provide just one vent. Even Saudis now do not hold back their anger. Once sure of your harmlessness, they make a clean breast. It was perhaps the first occasion in 15 years during which I have visited the Saudi Kingdom, that I had some frank tete-a-tete with a few of them. Almost everyone is angry with the ways the royal family rules the Kingdom. By now the royal clique is 6000 prince strong. National resources belong to the royal family. Prime lands are first gifted to the princes who in turn sell them to the government at astronomical prices. Princes are invariably partners in each and every government contract assigned to companies. Polygamy being the rule among the elite, princely network is huge and all foreign trade is routed through some or the other prince. This eases the process, acts as a cushion against the restrictive laws and helps avoid roadblocks and delays.

The urban middle classes have been set upon the poor expatriates. They sell them visas, let out their flats and act as kafeels if they have to do business. Nowhere else in the world visas are traded by anyone other than the government. With economy being sluggish since the Gulf War, the expats are routinely harassed by the kafeels, contracts are violated and labourers are denied wages, starved and squeezed beyond their capacity on worksites. All nations have to primarily side with their nationals. But when an abundantly resourceful Saudi Arabia stoops to this level, one feels like telling them that this kind of myopia will be harmful to them alone.

It seems there is a whole set of bureaucrats which merely keeps thinking of clipping the wings of expats, who contribute so much to the efficiency of the economy. An incident that landed one of my friends in jail for a couple of days in Jeddah should be instructive. I am told the expats who are seen in the vicinity of the wholesale vegetable and fruit market are rounded up by police. Reason: there is a funny law that says all wholesale businesses must be carried out by Saudis. My friend had been seen purchasing a crate of oranges and apples for distribution among all his flat-mates during Ramadan. Couldn’t there be more ingenious ways to help promote the fortunes of Saudis in a Kingdom so gifted with natural resources and so short of human resources? And have the Saudis forgotten how Hyderabadi Muslims used to send them funds from Allauddin Wakfs in their days of penury early during the last century?

There are traces of racism in the way Saudis behave. Members of the princely families are the first class citizens. Najdis from the Central region come next. Other natives come next to them. Arabs who migrated from neighbouring countries, principally Yemen, are known as mutajannus (naturalised) and remain so for generations. They are generally looked down upon by the pure natives. It is like being stateless, having given up one’s own homeland and still being called alien in the adopted country. How unsettling it is could only be guessed. The ones born out of foreign mothers (foreign fathers are still unthought of) figure much below in the hierarchy. Scholars, scientists and professionals are offered citizenship in rare cases, but only in the category of mutajannus.

Even among expats, the Westerners receive three time more salaries than South Asians for the same category of work. And the Americans, the great champions of liberty and freedom, are the prime beneficiaries.

All this has bred arrogance and insolence among the natives. One has to travel by Saudia, the national flag carrier to get a taste of it. Inefficiency is rampant among Government employees where Saudisation has almost completely replaced the workforce. Ramadan comes as an excuse to postpone work. A local Daily carried an interesting cartoon. It showed a third tray being added between the usual “in” and “out” tray in a government office. The new tray was labelled “Baada Ramadan” (after Ramadan).

Despite all this, the Kingdom is an eldorado for job and donation seekers. The society is crime- free and offers exemplary security. Even the Americans who live here for some time do not want to return to “God blessed America”. All this is because there is no compromise when it comes to violation of laws. No one can get away with crimes.

Saudis are extremely generous when it comes to charitable causes. They however need to be told that more than madrassas, mosques and orphanages, the ummah needs to have schools, laboratories, media, libraries, hospitals, roads, science and technology and above all efficient and value-oriented professionals to man their institutions. All they need to do is to broaden their worldview in order to kindle enterprise, initiate reforms in governance and lift curbs on debate and discussion. This will help them more than the search for new scrubbers for lavatory doors.


It was in 1986 that I first saw and heard about Albaik restaurants in Jeddah. Over the years, the chain has only grown and left the McDonalds and Pizza Huts far behind. Now there are nearly two dozen Albaik restaurants. A popular dinner pack comes with four big, succulent pieces of fried chicken, two buns, some small packs of tasty garlic sauce and French fries. These should be enough for two average Indians. While McDonalds wore deserted looks, Albaiks did roaring business this Ramadan. I am told, Tazij Chicken, another Saudi restaurant chain, is emerging as a close and keen competitor.

Though I am not an avid eater, I feel, they offer us a lesson. We need to develop alternatives rather than just cribbing about American multinationals grabbing our market. It will be little wonder if Albaik emerges as the Arab world’s answer to the McDonalds just as Al-Jazeera is doing its bit in the field of media.

A wag commented in Jeddah the other day: people arrive here chanting Labbaik. But it is Albaik that they carry on their tongues while leaving.


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