Today’s news – the much overdue news – that women will be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia reminded me of one of my strangest recent experiences. It took me back to my 48 hour trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A trip that epitomised the messiness, ugliness and brutality of my former working life. It should have been the catalyst to make changes but it wasn’t – it was just another sad milestone on my journey to the edge of my health and a hospital bed.
It was 2014. I had become embroiled in a piece of work in Saudi Arabia. I had been informed – no bludgeoned into believing – that my presence was required there as a matter of urgency. That the future of the firm’s work in the region was at stake. That is actually what a senior colleague said to me – on the phone at 8am one day having never spoken to me before or since. I eventually pinned down the dates and the requirements – to attend a meeting and present an update – to the client. In the spirit of the time, I decided to fly out early in the morning – changing planes in Frankfurt – this was preferable to leaving my girls for another night – although it placed a huge physical toil on me by the end of the trip. 04;30 start. Two flights. Arrived in Riyadh. 110 degrees. No-one to meet me. No idea where to go. Chaos and intimidation outside the terminal building.
Thankfully the taxi took me to the hotel and I met my colleague – the only shining light of the trip was spending time with him – a thoroughly good guy. The upshot of the trip was that although my intervention was welcomed it was hardly necessary or critical. I endured the trip. The unrealistic expectations of colleagues. The lack of real, meaningful support from colleague back home – I was on my own. The cut-throat, everyone in it for themselves approaches being taken. The competition between teams and within them. The constant watching of your back. The ugly office politics, played out on a global stage between different countries and regions.
The client meeting – all five hours of it was notable for its timing and context. It was the middle of Ramadan and we were required to observe the strict fast observed by our host. No food. No water. For five hours. In the middle of a tense and high pressured meeting with twenty client representatives staring across the table at us; asking questions, pulling quizzical faces. It was a further ordeal.
My taxi rides and time within the hotel and airports gave some insight into the country and its culture but it was the departure that left its mark. To reduce my time away from home – I stayed only one night in the hotel – I took an internal flight to Jeddah so I could get the flight flight home to Heathrow. If I hadn’t done that I would have been stuck away form home another night – another painful reminder of the failure of my attempts to secure a work life balance. It meant as well as my early start to the trip, late night on the night in Saudi, I was travelling back through the night. Painful. Exhausting.
As I made my way through the airport there was the visible and menacing presence of the police – the religious police – who dominated every corner of the terminal building. As I boarded the flight – the British Airways flight – they were physically separating men and women who were – like me – on the skywalk to the plane. There were two queues; men and women. Two doorways. Two entrances. This small window into the oppression of that country; the divisions; the inequality; the lack of human rights; the lack of decency will leave longer with me than any changes being made now to distract from the pressure being applied to Saudi over its conduct in Yemen. I hated the trip. I hated my time there. I hated what I was seeing all around me; the tension, the fear, the ugliness. I hated myself a little for being part of that work, that trip.
I got home. Kissed my girls. Showered and went back into the office. What a sad way to live. What a relief those days are behind me. Days I will never forget, if only to serve as a warning about how wrong it can all go.
This selfie, was taken on the final leg of the journey – my night flight home. I have included it to remind me of the physical toil the job and trip was taking on me. This is seven months in to the job – over three years ago. It is also two stone ago and thankfully feels like an age ago too. I look nearly ten years older in this picture than I do today. I feel twenty years younger today.