Saudi Arabia: The Last Assignment Before the Anticipated Economic Collapse Kicks In

| November 1, 2008 |

Jeddah is not the most welcoming of airports. On the way in, I was taken aside, computers consulted, passport finally stamped, all without a word or smile. On the way out of the country, I was taken into a small room and more computers peered at before I was authorized to leave; and then again at security, sent into a small room with three military personnel, this time with the mandate to persuade them that my nutritional supplements were not drugs, a point made all the more vital as the Saudi entry form says in red letters in English at the top, “Drugs = death.” With a handful of vitamins, the task was not too difficult using sign language and the one word they did understand (“Doctor”). My challenge was explaining to them repeatedly that “No, I am not a doctor.” A far greater challenge would have been explaining to them the three-month supply I had with me at the beginning of the trip. Luckily, Saudi Arabia was almost the last port of call. But, as with most people, these serious-looking military men are friendly enough if you are friendly enough. Waiting in line at the Chinese consulate, when the Chinese official just walked away from the long lines of Saudis and one Brit, the people in line were not only friendly (a combination of smiles, nods and pigeon English) but even let me jump ahead a bit at the risk of themselves not being seen. No, hanging onto the idea that 98% of the planetary populace is anything other than decent and friendly is counterproductive and plainly false.

Jeddah is close to Medina and Mecca, the two holy cities of the Muslim faith (Islam), which makes it a preferred destination for Muslim butlers. The Rosewood hotel here is the hotel to go to in the area (or so a fellow passenger, who had not been able to secure a room there, confided in me as we were landing).

My suite looked out over the Red Sea, which the entire month I was in residence, was inexplicably blue.

The training took place in the staff compound about a mile away, which entailed piling into a bus, as the temperatures, even at that time of year, do not allow walking in a suit. Probably one of the reasons why the locals wear the clothes they do. Although I still cannot understand why the ladies have to wear black abayas (dresses), when white would reflect the heat so much more effectively. But when I did sneak a peak at an abaya (one does not look at the ladies, and certainly does not touch them nor, as I did once, smile courteously), I saw they were of a very fine material and probably quite comfortable to wear.

Speaking of which, when I saw an abaya walking past speaking cockney, I realized that ladies of all nationalities are expected to wear abayas here. Even though there is a religious police here, I only ever met one who came banging on my door one night with great authority. I am sure he was as surprised at the sight of me standing in front of him in my bathrobe as I was of him in his short robe (theirs do not go all the way to the ground) and long beard. Through sign language, we worked out he was lost and I directed him to his intended destination. Decent chap, we enjoyed a laugh together.

Although not a Muslim myself, I can only respect and appreciate the way religion is such a central part of their life. Qu’rans (Korans) and prayer mats are provided in each room, and usually an arrow in the ceiling marks the direction of Mecca. The Imam calls people to prayer via loudspeakers I think five times a day (not so convenient at 5 am at the next hotel where I stayed, as my suite’s windows were yards from the mosque). The other trainer who was with me (there were two of us because we had rather a lot of butlers to train) is a devout Muslim and a truly wonderful person who really lives and loves his religion, practicing its tenets in his life. He, Budi P (he says his surname is too long to pronounce with ease) naturally, made his way to Medina on a pilgrimage on one of our days off, including having his hair cut short, which is the tradition. So many fascinating details, some of which I learned as he explained his religion over the many meals we shared during our assignment.

I have no interest in changing anyone’s religion or political affiliations, and try to steer clear of talking about these subjects, and sex, in social company for reasons that they sometimes stir passions beyond the point of reasoning; but I do feel obliged to counsel against any tendency to stereotype or operate on information one may have heard third- hand concerning, say the nature of Islam. There is so much it has in common with many other religions and everything that is good about man, that it deserves respect. There are those who misuse the religion just as there are those who interpret other religions in destructive ways, and it is constructive to differentiate between these relative few and the vast majority.

Meanwhile, back to earth, we had three torrential downpours while I was there (I am fuzzy on how long it had been since the last rains, but it might have been a decade), each of which resulting in a fleet of tankers with long probosci (noses) traveling the streets to suck up the huge lakes of rainwater that had collected. Almost never having rain, the city planners had opted not to build any drainage system. The same goes for sewers, which is why these trucks with probosci are also seen emptying tanks of the stuff and transporting them to a ginormous man-made lagoon in the desert that seemed to have burst its banks into a nearby city as a result of the rains. A good example, methinks, of a solution becoming a problem. As the building codes also do not anticipate rain, some buildings in the city were the wetter for wear, impacting electronics and yes, the Internet. Not as bad as when I was in Dubai the year before and undersea cables were cut in both the Mediterranean and Gulf, rendering connections to many countries more than problematic. How quickly we have forgotten how to interact without the Internet.

The training continues well and the butlers are perking up. I perked up one evening when dining with the GM and other executives. I would say that the Swiss are famous for watches, for being the only landlocked country to win the America’s Cup, and for their banks. One other category deserves mention: the number of extremely competent and upbeat Hotel Managers and General Managers around the world who are walking around sporting those cadences particular to the Swiss language. HP is no exception. During dinner, he received a call. He discreetly issued a couple of instructions and said he would be over. The news, it transpired later, was that almost none of the electronic keys and therefore elevators were working because of the torrential rain. He did not rush his guests, but we were out within ten minutes on the way back to the hotel. On the drive back, he fielded another call. As it transpired later, a royal personage, not looking where he was going, had fallen into the lobby fountain, broken his leg, and was threatening to sue (a US import, I suppose). The GM quietly acknowledged the caller and continued to drive sedately to the hotel. He offered to drive us to the front entrance and then park the car, but realizing something was up, we opted to park first. He escorted us to the front door and then, seeing the ambulance was already on the premises, calmly proceeded to the fourth floor to see about sorting out the electronic key situation. Unflappably efficient is one of the requirements for a butler. HP was indicted into the Hall of Fame as an honorary butler based on what we saw in that short glimpse into the life of a GM. For that matter, Alec the Scotsman, his #2, was, too, and so have been many of the executives we have had the pleasure of working with for.

The newspapers are starting to carry unsavory news about the economy back home on the skids. Hate to say “Told you so” but this was not news to me. One cannot invent US $1.4 quadrillion out of thin air and then expect the bubble/Ponzi scheme not to implode at some time. This is a lesson that financiers have not learned for close on 600 years. By financiers, I mean people who fiddle with currency instead of doing an honest day’s work. I mean, I learned about financial froth when I studied at boarding school (where one has nothing better to do) about the South Sea Bubble of 1720, in which a speculative boom in the shares of the South Sea company ended with the company’s failure and a general financial collapse. So I earn my way through life with exchangeable products and services that clients find of value.

And now there is talk of hundreds of billions of taxpayer bailout…Hmm, the very fundamentals of economics show that inflation is printing more money than there is product in the economy, and deflation/depression is having too much product and not enough money. Why did the Fed stop reporting the M3 money supply statistic a few years ago unless they were printing up a whole bunch more money than they should and so making the money supply go out of balance with the amount of product in the US?

I could go on, but will spare you. There’s enough of this in the media. You know, butlers trace their roots as problem solvers for the master of the house all the way back to the Roman comedies of Plauto and Terenzio in the Third Century BC, with modern day re-runs courtesy of such as the Jeeves and Wooster series (or even Blackadder, at the crass end), and no doubt American TV series of the same general tenor. I would certainly relish being the Head Butler in the White House, because I would feel inclined to offer discreet advice from time to time (and let the boss take all the credit, of course).

So, back to Jeddah; my training done, my goodbyes to the butlers and executives said (again, wonderful people, especially my key contact: a Scotsman with a heavy brogue that is mixed with a Saudi accent that has one mesmerized at how he does it without seeming to notice he is a unique linguistic phenomenon), I left Budi P to complete the practical sessions in the suites and go to a nearby palace as a mystery guest.

Now, this palace is nothing short of superb. It used to belong I think to the King or his brother, but he decided not to live in it and turned it into a boutique hotel mainly for fellow royalty. I have never seen so many chandeliers (two in my junior suite alone), the cuisine is excellent.

The butlers need a bit of work to match the property, but that is speaking from a very high standard, so I wouldn’t want them to feel bad about their best efforts. They rumbled me fairly soon after I arrived (being one of the few Brits they had served didn’t make it so easy to remain incognito), and I became aware that suddenly they were being a lot more attentive than they had been when I had first arrived; but the GM kept the pretense going long enough for me to complete my mission. That involved sampling all the services they offered, including haircut and massage (which I could have had in my suite), as well as the cigar room, which was a pleasure. I asked one concierge (as a test) to arrange for some ladies to see me, and he took it in his stride, politely declining: How refreshing to find ethical standards alive.

Finally, the time to leave Jeddah is at hand. At the last minute, I changed my flights from Beijing to Tampa as the Chinese client I was to train for next, postponed the visit (this is after considerable effort to obtain a Chinese visa while staying in a foreign country, not the easiest bureaucratic hurdle to clear). I found out later that the city he is in was being hit particularly badly by closing factories and laid off workers as a result of the slowdown in orders from the US. So the dominoes fall. But life is to be lived, not trembled at, so onward and upward!

Tags: Butler as problem solver, Butler history, Butler training, chandeliers, floods in a desert, Islam, Jeddah, Muslim, mystery guest, palace, religious police, Rosewood, Saudi Arabia, standards, Swiss hotel managers, unflappable efficiency

Category: Blog, Butler training, General, News, Travels

About the Author (Author Profile)

Steven Ferry is chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers and the author of bestsellers "Butlers & Household Managers 21st Century Professionals" and "Hotel Butlers, The Great Service Differentiators." He also trains and consults for the profession around the world.

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