Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

October 26 – 27, 2008

Part Three:

Behind the Veils:

Greg and I are met at the Sunset’s breakfast buffet with two Turkish coffees already in play. For the record these are “medium sweet.” They mix sugar with the coffee grounds before brewing. The service at the hotel is over the top. They seem ready for us before we show up. It appears we’re the only Americans staying here and that in itself may bet the reason we’re easy to pick out of the crowd. It’s either that or the fact that Greg tends to tip our servers with U.S. greenback dollars. You decide.

They are big on buffets here. Breakfast looks like another amalgam of east and west. The table starts as most American breakfast buffets, with breads. Standard white bread quickly moves to croissant and pita. From here it quickly moves further east. Next are huge trays of hummus, tabouleh, goat cheese, and yogurt. Fresh veggies follow suit and then the hot items. Stewed tomatoes with basil are in the first serving tray, then rice, some type of egg dish, (frittata, scrambled, etc.,) then some type of sausage meat. They look for all the world like hot dogs, but are some cross of beef and herbs. There’s also usually some type of lamb dish. In essence it’s as if the hotel chef saw a picture of some American buffet and just filled it in with local foods.

Today we change gears completely and move from a one-day presentation style approach with 100 participants to a two-day workshop approach with about 20 people. Because our MENA region partner, the ZAD Group, set up all these events we’re somewhat less informed than usual. (Here’s a picture of Greg and Ahmad Haikal from ZAD in the limo.) These are their clients and we are acting mainly as the drop in big-shot Americans, so it’s not necessarily unplanned. What little we know about the next two days however leaves us off balance to start. My calendar says: “Train the Trainer Program College of Business Administration Jiddah, (CBA.)” We’re also told the day before that much of the class will be women from the college taking the Leading Bold Change™ course as an addendum to their business related studies.


What we’re not told until our limo, pulls up to the well-guarded front gate of the school is that men and women attend independent universities here. This particular school is the women’s version of the CBA, a place where men rarely travel.


We and our partners are simply not prepared for the level of accomplishment and sophistication of the people in the room. As we make our way around to introduce each other it becomes immediately apparent that Greg and I are outclassed by both the men and women here. Many of the participants have PhDs in such areas of study as human relations, psychology, women’s studies, education, etc. Most of these people hold their degrees from some of America’s finest universities: Harvard, Penn State, Ohio, Kansas, Vermont, North Carolina, and several from Michigan, not to mention European institutions. We’ve got our work cut out for us!

Our friend and fellow trainer Dr. Mona Mousa, someone I certified while in Cairo last spring, is a faculty member of the CBA and helped to set up this event. (Here she talks with one of our participants from the Panda Company, Haney Kandil, and Ahmad Haikal from ZAD.) She stressed to the dean, who is also attending the training, that diversity is vital to the success of the workshop both in who attended and how they are seated. In a gesture whose pure brilliance goes far over my head, the dean mixes each table so that men and women are seated together. In the states this would not in any way be considered progressive. I’ll remind you that we’re in Saudi Arabia, a place where women must wear head coverings and are still not allowed to drive in the streets. At one point a male participant takes me aside to tell me that I can be assured this is the only university level course in Saudi Arabia today where men and women are sitting together! My entire view of the importance of this class suddenly changes. Change management has never had more meaning.

Further discussions with class participants unveil that many of the women are in women’s studies programs and that they aim to use the Leading Bold Change™ program to do nothing less than help change the country’s views of women. One young man has a nonprofit NGO that deals with the issues of youth in Saudi Arabia. He started this organization right out of grad school. The women and men are all outspoken and not afraid to voice their opinions in this mixed session. There is a palpable sense of discomfort with some of the men when the subject of women’s rights is brought up, but everyone seems interested in collaborating to get whatever they can from the program. There is some meeting half-way here, compromise of the highest sort, which leaves me with a sense of hope and optimism for my work.

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There is of course more spectacular food for lunch. And the realization there is no “facility” for men in this school. So each time one of the men needs to make use of said facility a woman faculty member must first clear the ladies room and then stand guard out front. We are indeed not in Kansas anymore! Before I leave, one of the men jokingly asks me to look in on his house near Detroit to see if I can get it to sell. Another man sets up a holiday appointment with me for a cup of coffee while he visits his other home in Burlington, Vermont.

The two days at the CBA go very fast. The conversation and level of participation is of the highest level. This is another session where the teacher is also the student. We have never before brought our program to a place where the stakes for change are so high and where the willingness to take change on might be a hazard to the personal freedoms of those involved. We learn a great deal from one another and I am sorry to leave them behind.

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Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

October 25, 2008

Part Two:

They Know Our Names:

We get our first inkling of the service modality here as we step out of immigration at the airport and a middle aged Philippine man greets us by calling our names. “Mr. Greg, Mr. Bill, come with me?” he says absolutely, holding up a computer printed sheet of paper with our names on it. (It is custom here to call somebody by their first name preceded by a title of some sort. If I had a PhD, he would undoubtedly call me Dr. Bill instead.) Samad walks us to his white Toyota van and pops the door open.

I neglected to mention that we arrived in Jeddah on Friday. That’s the last day of the work week in America and most of the western world. The car ride in from the airport gives us the impression that this big city is desolate. Barely another car on the road for the first few miles. Then as we approach town, it’s quiet. Little traffic, stores closed, just a few people walking the streets. But something’s amiss and I know it. So I ask Samad if this is a day of rest here. In a broken yet clearly comprehensible amalgamation of several western languages he says: “Qui, holiday off Mr. Bill.” In this part of the Muslim world it is in fact the last day of the weekend, what we’d consider Sunday. So right off the bat, I’m confused. Add to that the concept of a 7 hour time differential from the east coast and it’s a mixture destined for calamity.

The Sunset Hotel is located a bit off the beaten track facing a major roadway. We’re told that there’s a very popular shopping mall, (closed today,) just a few blocks from here, but I must admit nothing looks familiar. The Sunset is obviously a bit behind the times and looks as if it caters to more of a middle-eastern than western clientele. Around the corner is the Radisson Jiddah which would look familiar and comfortable to most anyone reading this. Our hotel is a less sophisticated style but nonetheless opulent in its own way. As Samad drops our bags off at the front door we are met by a Pakistini man who quickly shuttles our bags up the marble stairs. Then once inside Mahmud, an Indian man waves us over and drops our preprinted check-in forms on the counter. Without us saying a word he already knows each of us by name. We’ll find this to be a common and always unsettling skill in this part of the world. How do they know our names? Granted, I’m a 6’3’’ tall, really white American. I’m difficult to conceal on the cloudiest of days, especially in this land, but it’s simply uncanny how they do this! One begins to ponder if Google® has something to do with this phenomenon.

As we take our keys and head to the rooms, we cross a beautifully envisioned white marble floor in the lobby. It’s a subdued and traditional pattern with the occasional border or pattern in black or tan. As we make our way to the elevators we pass two Malaysian men busily pushing electric floor polishers. They leave a brilliant sheen behind them as they move from the back of the lobby towards the entrance.

Jet lag strains our minds and bodies as we settle into the hotel for an late afternoon nap. But first we both crack open our computers and seek reattachment to the outside world. A quiet and dim icon greets me when I look for a wireless connection. Then a search around the room for an RJ11 jack proves fruitless. I begin to feel like a smoker whose just gotten on a 17 hour transcontinental flight. Where is it? I need my net! When I call downstairs to inquire, the front desk answers with “Good day Mr. Bill, how may I serve you?” I relay my request with mumbling lips and trembling hands and I’m not sure if they’re symptoms of jet lag or the Internet withdrawal. Mahmud manages to understand me, apologizing, and sends a technician to the room. The technician, a young Pakistani, comes laden with some gear and an armful of wires that drag behind him swishing loudly, echoing on the marble floors of the hallway. The cable modem he installs suffers from an intermittentcy reminiscent of my old VW Bug when the tank would find itself below half-full. The bits and bytes sputter along seeming to gasp for some comfort in the ether. I do manage a noisy and spurious Skype call back home where it is, by this time, early morning the same day.

We’re told unceremoniously by our hosts that Saudi Arabia has a strict if informal labor practice regarding the ex-pats that come from around the world to take part in the wealth streams associated with Saudi oil. Visas are readily available to any American willing to come and work. It gets tougher for others. Brits, Australians and South Africans seem to have equal footing, but from here the disparity begins to creep in fast. As we get to the eastern and middle eastern countries visas are more difficult to get and the jobs tied to them run in a fairly downward economic profile starting with the Americans on top and Pakistanis sharing the near bottom with their global neighbors. Examples of this policy at work might be the Philippine taxi drivers and the Pakistani floor polishers. A pretty common pairing in many places we went.

Saturday, (now Monday in Saudi,) comes early for us. We’re up with the Saudi Sunrise and already it’s our first ghastly realization. The Saudis are not fans of anything that resembles a good American cup of coffee. The hotel restaurant has no big perk-pots. There is no espresso machine. There is only the huge simmering tank of hot water on the breakfast buffet. And next too it – lying sadly in a pile – are the little envelopes of Nescafe’, eek! But all is not lost to freeze-dried woe. Our disdainful looks bring the ever attentive staff running and soon we each have a double Turkish coffee, little brass pots burbling, in front of us. The thick detritus at the bottom of each tiny cup threatens to erase years of tooth whitening efforts.

Eventually we are met by our Egyptian partners Ahmad and Dr. Amr. They’ve done all the ground work for us here in Saudi and will act as our guides. It is already evident that communication here may be an issue. We pile into Ahmad’s car and head to our first paying gig for the week, with a large automobile importer Abdul Lateef Jameel (ALJ.) The car pulls up to a gated compound with ten foot high iron gates. A honk and a nod, the windows roll down and a friendly argument ensues. This seems to be an accepted part of any transaction here. There’s always some amount of lively repartee before any deal is struck. The gate motors engage and we pull though and around to the front of an ornate looking building on the campus of ALJ’s headquarters. This is their training facility where I’ll be working for the next 15 hours or so. It’s nothing short of opulent. We discover from our host Carlo that the entire building is designed after a Moroccan palace and that it includes many artifacts taken from Morocco. 25 foot ceilings are adorned with a rich lattice of mahogany or teak wood. The walls are a combination of fine mosaic tile and ornate sculpted wood. Occasionally a piece of contemporary western art juxtaposes the massive colorful walls. It is by far the most stunning room within which I have ever had to ply my trade.

Today we have 100 or so high level managers from the company. We’ll take them through the Leading Bold Change(TM) program. Greg is here to assist, along with Dr. Amr. As the meeting is called to order, before I’m introduced by Carlo, a young man is brought up to the front of the room to stand before a microphone. He begins to sing an Islamic prayer and the rest of the room falls silent. His clear and sweet voice bounds off the tiled walls with energy and fills the room. When he’s done, I want applaud, but resist the urge. Suddenly it’s my turn to step into the silence left by this. The roomful of men mostly dressed in traditional robes welcomes me. We have a great day of learning from each other. The day is highlighted by a magnificent buffet lunch of traditional middle eastern foods. This continues a theme that will repeat itself all week. We love this food!

The first session ends at 5:30, giving us a short break. I step outside and listen to the call to prayer being broadcast from a P.A. system in the minaret of the local mosque just outside the door. It is now dusk and the green neon lights in the tower of the mosque begin to appear providing an eerie backdrop to the long chanting strains of “Allah uh akbar, Allah uh akbar. “ I am left with no doubt that I am truly deep inside the Islamic world.

ATHAN or AZAN
The Call to Prayer

Allah is defined as the ONE who ALONE, without partners or helpers created all that IS created in creation, either known or unknown.
————-

1 Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar
Allah is Great, Allah is Great

2-Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah – Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah
I bear witness that there is no divinty but Allah

3 Ash-hadu anna Muhammadan Rasulullaah
I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger

Ash-hadu anna Muhammadan Rasulullaah.
I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger

4 Hayya la-s-saleah – Hayya la-s-saleah
Hasten to the prayer, Hasten to the prayer

5 Hayya la-l-faleah – Hayya la-l-faleah
Hasten to real success, Hasten to real success,

6 Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
Allah is Great, Allah is Great

7 La Ilaha ill Allah
There is no divinity but Allah

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The day ends with a 3.5 hour board meeting and then another buffet. This one we’re told, is an “executive dinner.” Much better than the earlier lunch. A spectacular spread of seafood, lamb, beef, rice, tabbouleh, hummos, pita, yogurt, pasta, and four types of salads. When the desserts come we are agog. A table full of artwork appears, chocolates, chiffons, crème brulee, a French patisserie on wheels.

My favorite has to be the little pastry bird nests. Each delicate nest of light pastry noodles filled with green roasted pistachios drenched in honey. We have an elegant sufficiency. An embarrassment of riches. We are sated….at least until tomorrow.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

October 24, 2008

Arriving in a New Land

Part One:

It starts almost immediately on the plane while the doors are still open. The universal sign of Arabic hospitality. An aromatic scent, clear, precise and something my travel partner is unfamiliar with. It is cardamom. At first it appears as what the flight attendant calls “coffee” but resembles more a cloudy green tea. It’s sweet, light and served in a tiny porcelain cup about the size of a shot glass. Alongside it, a Persian date. Almost wet in its glistening sweetness. Greg my business partner passes me his date and asks the flight attendant for a larger cup for his al-qahwah al-‘arabiyyah. He likes the flavor even through its unfamiliarity but would prefer this Arabian treat in an American quantity.


Surprisingly this spice, associated so closely with the Middle East, is sourced from a small region in Guatemala. The Cardamom plant provides work for several hundred thousand people picking, sorting, drying and packaging its green pods for people halfway around the globe. Offering Cardamom to your guests is a sign of traditional hospitality, but also a show of affluence. It’s very expensive, in the same league as saffron.

After the dates and the cardamom coffee the food comes in waves.

We’re in first class, upgraded from business class by our new friend Savahn at Saudi Airlines in JFK. She took care of the discrepancy between the name on my ticket and the one on my passport. Bill vs. William isn’t a big deal in everyday practice, but throw the TSA into the mix and the names might as well be in different languages.

After the first wave of food we’re given our first class gift bags. Huge shopping bags full of Saudi Airlines swag to make the 14 hour flight a bit easier. Among the treasures: slippers, eye mask, ear plugs, an entire designer dopkit, and most amazingly a sweatsuit! The dreaded airport sweatsuit. I’m stunned. Not longer than a month ago I’d asked my friend Torie to promise to shoot me if she ever saw me wearing one of these while walking through an airport. Now I know where they come from!

Another stunning realization about the gift bag is that buried in that dopkit is nothing less than a shaving kit with a razor! A razor! Meanwhile the TSA made me give up my 3 ounce bottle of expensive cologne and my foldable golf putter. But here in first class, they hand out razor blades! Maybe they trust us more in the cushy seats.

The food on the rest of the flight addresses a middle ground between western tastes and eastern tradition. Familiar items like pasta, steak, chicken, and roasted veggies are balanced with rice, hummus, olives, lamb, pita, and curries. Its refreshing to have a choice of food with actual flavor on an airline. And of course each meal is followed by green tea. If cardamom coffee is the aperitif, then green tea is the digestif. It’s served piping hot in tall slender glasses, usually with fresh sprigs of mint on the side. Sometimes they ask, “with mint or without?” And the last thing we get is a small dishful of anise seeds. We chew them as a breath freshener so as not to offend anyone with the dread “coffee breath.”

As morning rises through the windows of the 747B, the city of Jeddah (also spelled “Jiddah”,) comes into view in the distance. This coastal city of the Saudi peninsula is a flat expanse of desert with some mountains in the distance. Much like Egypt the color scheme is all tan; shades of the sand blowing on the horizon. For the most part the buildings are short and blend into the vista. There is one exception, and the only building that truly catches our attention as we circle for our landing. It’s a worldwide icon and seems a bit out of place here. The massive structure is blueish-purple and has large yellow letters that spell out IKEA easily readable from the plane. Jeddah is the most western of Saudi Arabian cities. It is clear that they are pushing to diversify Jeddah’s economy from its historical base of oil.

Customs in Jeddah is surprisingly quick. It did come with one caveat which was reinforced from the earliest contact with our Visa documents. In big letters on every immigration doc, it reads “Drug trafficking = Death!” No messing around here. On the far side of security our driver finds us immediately and takes us to our home for the next week, The Sunset Hotel, in the heart of downtown Jeddah. Greg and I settle in for some downtime and sleep, then it’s off to tomorrow’s venue to set up.

After the subtle culinary introduction to Middle Eastern food on the plane, our hosts decide to take us to a local fixture that is apparently purely Jeddah. The place is called Al Baik.

And to our chagrin it is the number one competitor in Saudi Arabia to none other than KFC. The stores and the menu are almost indistinguishable from one another, and often are found side by side. The clear difference, and one that immediately lets westerners know we’re “not in Kansas anymore,” is the lack of women in the restaurants. Each restaurant, in fact, has a separate window declaring itself the “women’s window,” on the outside of the building.

Our trip comes not without some very recent historical context. Not far from our hotel sits the US Consulate compound. On December 7, 2004 it was attacked by highly organized militants apparently connected to Al Qaeda. No Americans were killed, but 8 foreign security guards and some attackers died. Most Americans and other foreigners living for any length of time in Jeddah must live in highly fortified compounds with tall concrete walls with armed guards and often tanks in the streets behind. As I said to my partners in preparation for the trip, “We’re not going to Disneyland guys!”