R.F. Burton
April 22, 2005 6:03 PM   Subscribe

Burton had his time. Now "R.F. Burton", a long time pseudonymous expat in Saudi Arabia, is writing occasional pieces on the place he calls the Magic Kingdom. They are by turns appalling, alarming, fascinating, outrageous, odd, dispiriting, interesting, depressing, enlightening, and provoking. Eleven so far. The index (along with the latest entry, if you have the stomach for it) is here. Request to those who know Saudi first hand- is the brush too broad or are the pieces nicely observed? Or something in between?
posted by IndigoJones (27 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Wow. Read two so far. Will read the rest.
posted by alms at 6:54 PM on April 22, 2005

A fascinating account of Saudi society through a foreigner's eyes. Absolutely worth a read.
posted by clevershark at 8:05 PM on April 22, 2005

This is good. An excellent read. Thank you for the post.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 8:47 PM on April 22, 2005

very good ... and to think these are our "allies" ...
posted by pyramid termite at 8:52 PM on April 22, 2005

The articles often raise more questions than they answer. For instance, the claim that most rapes are of young boys: does this simply mean that women are not available in the segregated society, so men seek out boys to rape? or does it mean that rapes of women go unreported? Western women who have married Saudis report shocking harassment by their husband's male relatives, which they dare not report.

Then there's the question of why his apparently hip, moderate Saudi friend goes around with a video of a rape in his camera-phone.

It does have priceless gems such as I wanted to tell him that Eid is the best time to be in the Magic Kingdom because most of its inhabitants are gone, but I don't think our friendship would survive such honesty.

This week Saudi Arabia concluded the third and final round of its very first municipal elections in history, even as security forces clashed with militants on the outskirts of Mecca (where Westerners -- at least non-Muslims -- are forbidden to go). And although this isn't the aspect that makes the papers, it's almost certain that some of these militant activities are either labeled al Qaeda for the convenience of the government, or explicitly involve political jockeying among the royal family, a dissolute lot of rich million-dollar-babies given frighteningly little to do. Some of them may well fund al Qaeda offshoots for entertainment.
posted by dhartung at 9:15 PM on April 22, 2005

An amazing find! Thanks!
posted by archae at 9:52 PM on April 22, 2005

Great post, really fascinating and well written. One might also want to purview this sadly defunct blog, which was written by a highly critical Saudi. I only hope this blogger wasn't disappeared by the muttawa.
posted by Falconetti at 10:22 PM on April 22, 2005

Thanks a lot indy. Excellent. If he's talking accurately, it's appalling. I can't see how any true happiness exists there or any place where women are treated like garbage.

I'd like to know why he's living there or keeps living there -- perhaps its in one of the essays....I'm not sure.

Moreover, didn't we embargo South Africa for crimes against blacks that were sort of like what women have to go through in Saudi (or, even Kuwait)? A couple years after that embargo, due to enough of a Western influence (and Western established capital not being to go anywhere) you had apartheid's end.

Now, I'm not a big advocate of the blind embargo but I situations where corporations are almost as powerful as the government -- I feel things can change. And, I'm assuming Big Oil is not going to stand buy and let a big guzzler like us stop sucking from them.

Sorry if I got a bit off track, but it's just really sad we buy our oil and pretty much ensure that society and world continues as terribly as it does today. In poorer societies, you can never excuse but at least understand that behavior. Among that oil flush area though, it's despicable that America lets it go.
posted by narebuc at 10:46 PM on April 22, 2005

Dhartung, what's going on in that video you linked to?

(Great links up there)
posted by Anonymous at 10:56 PM on April 22, 2005

I'd also like to hear if these experiences parallel the experiences of other people who live in Saudi Arabia. On further review, the website itself isn't a, er, bastion of unbiased commentary (not that it ever claims to be), so another perspective would be cool.
posted by Anonymous at 11:15 PM on April 22, 2005

schroedinger -

My best guess is that they are into drifting, although without much self control or interest in public safety...
posted by Samizdata at 11:34 PM on April 22, 2005

That video reminds me of what happened when the Saudi's bought a bunch of tanks from the US after the '91 Gulf War. They would go out driving like lunatics across the dunes and go shooting off rounds all over the place. Unfortunately, none of them would sully themselves to maintain the upkeep of the tanks so in short time they managed to run most of the tanks into the ground.

I know quite a few people who have worked temporarily over in Saudi doing all sorts from construction, training and all sorts of other things. I cannot think of a single person who came back and didn't go on a drunken bender afterwards. During the alcoholic haze most of them revealed how fucked up things were and how they wouldnt go back - and these people were being paid 3-4 times more than normal for their work.
posted by longbaugh at 1:15 AM on April 23, 2005

narebuc: Embargo Saudi? Yes, and watch the oil barrel climb all the way to 200$. If I'm not wrong, they produce about half the world's oil. But I'll be damned if those stories aren't motivation enough to start saving energy. Remember: every time you fill your gas tank you pay the executioner a new scimitar.
posted by Skeptic at 1:56 AM on April 23, 2005

Great post. I add my thanks.

the website itself isn't a, er, bastion of unbiased commentary (not that it ever claims to be), so another perspective would be cool.

Not that there's any such thing as "unbiased commentary" anyway, but I've read a lot about Saudi Arabia (one of the most interesting places in the world, in my opinion) and I've never read anything (other than government/Aramco publications) that contradicted this perspective. Medieval mores + modern technology + ridiculous wealth = extremely fucked-up society. For a very good novel that will give you a feel for what the experience of the Western resident is like, I highly recommend Hilary Mantel's Eight Months On Ghazzah Street
. (And for the experience of the locals, read Abdelrahman Munif's Cities of Salt.)

Moreover, didn't we embargo South Africa for crimes against blacks that were sort of like what women have to go through in Saudi (or, even Kuwait)?

You're kidding, right? Besides what Skeptic said, women's rights aren't exactly a hot priority in US foreign policy.
posted by languagehat at 5:29 AM on April 23, 2005

Well-written, interesting — this is the "best of the web"! Quite a surprise to see something so worthwhile under the aegis of the generally prostituted & raving Victor David Hanson. Thanks for sharing this, Indigo.
posted by Zurishaddai at 9:32 AM on April 23, 2005

Tough read, but very well written.

If Saudi Arabia isn't the last place on earth I want to see. it surely ranks among the bottom.
posted by rougy at 11:12 AM on April 23, 2005


Hillary Mantel I knew, Abdelrahman Munif, not, but he's moved up high on the list of things to read next, and thank you for the recommendation. (You got any more?)

Dhartung, Samizdata- thank you for the video and the explanation. Another example of modern insanity I was not familiar with. Most interesting.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:20 PM on April 23, 2005

You got any more?

Well, this is only if you have a substantial chunk of time to spare and patience for an extremely idiosyncratic prose style that will require recourse to an unabridged dictionary, but one of the best books ever written about that part of the world is Travels in Arabia Deserta, by Charles M. Doughty. Get the two-volume Dover reprint (not one of the "abridged" versions) and follow a slightly crazed but honest and, well, doughty Englishman as he joins a band of Bedouins and heads south from Syria in the 1870s; once you sink into his style and pacing, it becomes utterly addictive, and you wind up feeling as if you yourself had spent months with a group of difficult, often hostile, but endlessly fascinating nomads -- and you get the feel of Arabia before it became Saudi, when the Al Saud were just one of a number of competing powers in the area and nobody had heard of oil deposits. (To get a feel for the style, you can check out the short excerpt here.)
posted by languagehat at 12:37 PM on April 23, 2005

longbaugh: That sounds like many ULs (slightly racist) told about the Middle East. One of my teachers, during the Iran hostage crisis, ranted about how they paved a street where he worked, then tore it up immediately thereafter to install a sewer, repaved, then tore it up for something else. True enough, but the same thing happened to me in Chicago ...

Besides, the Saudis contract out maintenance to companies like Vinnell -- which is why there are so many jobs for Westerners like "R.F. Burton" there. In fact, almost all the technical jobs in the country are done by foreigners.

If I'm not wrong, they produce about half the world's oil.

They have close to half of the world's known oil reserves, but actual production is closer to 12%.

Didn't we embargo South Africa for crimes against blacks that were sort of like what women have to go through in Saudi? A couple years after that embargo ... you had apartheid's end.

There was a UN arms embargo against South Africa as early as 1963 (not enforced until 1977). The Reagan administration, however, blatantly ignored the embargo. You're thinking, instead, of voluntary boycotts and disinvestment campaigns, whose influence was economically marginal but perhaps important in terms of public pressure. Eventually there was a US disinvestment law, but it wasn't anything like a comprehensive embargo, and its influence is still debated.

For more on life in the peninsula, the St. Pete Times had a great series in 2002. Here's a collection of links on human trafficking and modern-day slavery and prostitution in that country.
posted by dhartung at 1:08 PM on April 23, 2005

The US's easy-going approach to Saudi Arabia stands in much contrast to the sheer fucking lunacy it displays in dealing with the Cuba situation.
posted by clevershark at 1:28 PM on April 23, 2005

Doughty, yes! Astonishing stuff. Norman Douglas did a nice appreciation of the book, "this nightmarish, toilsome epic", and the author, in his Experiments (which is well worth tracking down in its own right). He despaired of much readership for CMD even as early as 1925, so you can imagine.

(Ronald Storrs has an interesting take on Doughty and T.E. Lawrence, by the way, here)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:58 PM on April 23, 2005

Thanks, that's a nice piece, with a wonderful Doughty quote:
Under the most rugged of these riders was a very perfect and startling Arab mare. Never combed by her rude master, but all shining beautiful and gentle of herself, she seemed a darling life upon the savage soil not worthy of her gracious pasterns: the strutting tail flowed down even to the ground, and the same mane was shed by the loving nurture of her mother—Nature.
posted by languagehat at 3:52 PM on April 23, 2005

Dhartung, thanks for the links, it's why I love metafilter.

But, is it not true that after 1986, when Congress overrode the Reagan veto, that a "real" embargo actually kicked in then? Almost any UN embargo or European embargo is useless as long as the good ol USA is not part of it (in Cuba, it's the reverse effect -- Europe stays, we won't they let Canadians vacation at their resorts, it's all cool).

Even the disinvestment law for them would be powerful stuff in this situation. It's all so hypothetical and will never happen, but at least it's righteous (and proper) to think about it.

And, I'd advocate tearing apart Alaska and moving some Caribou if it means we can finally stop sucking on the Middle Eastern oil tit.
posted by narebuc at 5:50 PM on April 23, 2005

(in Cuba, it's the reverse effect -- Europe stays, we won't they let Canadians vacation at their resorts, it's all cool).

WTF did you mean to say there? The US dosn't let canadians vacation in cuba, or Cuba dosn't, or what? Cuba welcomes american tourists, if you want to go. They'll even be so kind as to not stamp your passport.
posted by delmoi at 6:33 PM on April 23, 2005

(in Cuba, it's the reverse effect -- Europe stays, we won't they let Canadians vacation at their resorts, it's all cool)

That's utter bullshit. Lots of Canadians go to Cuba every year, mostly because it's still nice out there (tr: the Americans haven't started showing up yet).
posted by clevershark at 8:17 PM on April 23, 2005

Typical pissy, arrogant Westerner working in the KSA...

I recently returned from working there, doing Web work for the state-owned oil company. I was out of work in the wake of dot-combustion, the offer popped up and I figgered it'd be an interesting thing to do. I stayed the agreed-upon contract time and left for a number of personal reasons. (There are better places in the world for single men and my parents are getting older.)

I found it to be a profoundly worthwhile learning experience (and worthwhile professionally, as the work environment and general treatment was better than friends, family, colleagues and I have often enough encountered in the U.S. of A.) I met a number of Saudis who struck me as some of the finest people on the face of the earth and found parts of the country surreally beautiful. There's also a rich history for those who are interested. Traveling in the region was also hugely worthwhile for a number of reasons.

As he noted, there is a massive amount of money involved in working there. In my experience, a lot of what he said is correct, though some of his stories sounded a little like old wives tales. It is damn sure different from what most of us have seen or experienced for any length of time, but it's long been easy enough for anyone considering life in the land of sand to get some sense of what's it's like before they go.

I think this guy--who comes across to me as being a little too fond of what he thinks is his clever, deft prose--falls prey to the too-easy "different = worse" mindset.

I got sick of people from other countries complaining like they were getting paid to do it and saying, "It's not like this in ____." My thought: "You ain't there and you know where the airport is."

The money, though, does keep a fair number of people there for many years and a lot of those people get tired of living there, miss home, rarely leave their compounds and sit around drinking the moonshine or homemade wine, bitching relentlessly about Saudi Arabia and stay and stay and stay.

But those people and our scribe in Saudi Arabia, the world-class judgmental money-slut hypocrites are the smart, clever ones, right?
posted by ambient2 at 12:16 AM on April 24, 2005

They are some really good letters he has wrote but then the other just seem that he is pushing it a bit. I always have issues with westerners complaining about Saudi its what I call another complaining foreigner syndrome. They go there and just hate it but tied by their contract or their debts and just complain. They rarely bother to interact with Saudi's or even get to really know the culture.

I also know people who lived and worked in Saudi over 10 years, and have sworn more than once that they will never return when their contract ended, but after a couple months back home get they get the itch for Saudi and return.

If you want a more detailed account of life in Saudi from and from a Saudi check out Saudi Jeans. I am sure that will give people a better idea of what is life there.
posted by nibaq at 2:44 AM on April 24, 2005

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