Monday, 30 June 2014

Sitting in Bahrain Airport the other day.......

Sitting in Bahrain Airport the other day, waiting for a flight back to Riyadh and sipping on a cold beer, that old familiar feeling returned that I know so well, here I go again back to Riyadh, starting back to another year in the Kingdom, and reflecting on how transient and different and sometimes  lonely life has become in the last few years…

July 2011, I left Ireland to take up a posting on a remote Military base in Afghanistan, Its now three years later, I’m working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and life is so different to what it was ten years ago
I can only describe the last few years as a mixture of adventure, relief, grief, a sense of a transient lifestyle, sometimes loneliness, always interesting but to be absolutely frank, a world completely turned upside down from where I was ten years ago.

Back in 2004, I was married, I had just set up my own business, I was Dad to a two year old son and was anticipating the arrival of a second , was about to go on holiday to Lake Garda in Italy which turned out to be a fantastic trip abroad that summer. I can still remember having Daithi perched  on my shoulders heading off for pizza in the warm evenings.

This is not where I now compare life to the present day and bemoan the cards I’ve been dealt, that is of no use to me or indeed to you the reader and I actually  believe I’ve been fairly  fortunate,  though the ride has certainly been rough at times and like many things, some aspects are positive, others not so.

The Financial meltdown from 2008 was a massive blow to Ireland, and its repercussions are still being felt, though there are now signs of recovery in parts, primarily the greater Dublin area and also Cork. This is certainly to be welcomed, though I personally would have concerns about other Irish towns such as Limerick for example where recovery is somewhat slower and I belong to an industry that was effectively wiped out and will take some time to recover properly back home.

My experience of the years from 2008 to 2011 was of running a business which was less than five years old and seeing turnover literally collapse by 80% in two months, Its only now when I look back, i appreciate how dramatic that was for business owners up and down the country and the effects it had on families and local communities, right up to this day and beyond in the form of failed businesses, unemployment and for many of us, emigration.

When I finally gave up on the business in 2011 after doing as much as I could possibly do to keep it alive and to also re-invent myself for other roles, it came with a huge sense of failure, that you have let your staff down, your family down, you deny it and try to battle on, but it’s actually a huge sense of failure which can lead to a dark place if it’s not addressed.

Emigration has been a way back, a sort of redemption, a return in confidence, not something I had anticipated in the first year when based in Afghanistan and with confidence, comes perspective again and a new focus on the future. I have recovered a lot of lost ground financially thankfully, and have relocated here to Riyadh since 2012 with an Irish Company and I have much to be grateful for and which I am.

The change is challenging, there is very little one can do about it other than adapt. Here in Riyadh, its very transient, people (particularly ex-pats) come and go fairly regularly, Its incredibility hot,( 43 this week), it lacks a sense of place for a lot of us and its culture and societal norms can take a lot of getting used to by comparison to other near-by countries. I have formed new friendships and relationships, I’ve sadly lost others, but life is going on and there is much to look forward to also. My boys are growing bigger and smarter, the banks now write polite letters to me (wasn’t expecting that, and to be honest, I don’t take it too seriously either), I get more time off than I used to in my own business, I’ve visited a lot of countries I never expected to and have come to understand the Middle East so much more than I did before, and on the other side, yes, It’s been a struggle at times, I really do miss home and look forward to the day when I can return and re-establish a life in Ireland. Now there’s something to look forward to.

"It doesn't matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes, What matters most is getting off. You cannot make progress without making decisions" - Jim Rohn




Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A few things I miss from Home….


I am just about to commence my fourth year away from Ireland and am already into my third here in Saudi Arabia, where does the time go ? Its been a time of great change for me both personally and professionally and I’m often asked what I miss most...

My Sons
The recent trip to UAE with Daithi & Oisin was amazing and we all enjoyed it hugely and it won’t be long before the next trip back to Ireland for a trip to West Cork, but of course, it doesn’t replace the school homework, eating together, going to the movies and regular “tickling fights”, though we do our best to catch up on those when I’m home !



Talk Radio
I’m always struck at how little radio exists here in Riyadh, everything from music to chat show, yes, there are some but very limited and certainly don’t replace some of the shows I used to listen to back home, "The Last Word" with Matt Cooper was a favourite of mine in the evenings , with great discussions on current affairs, sports and the odd wacky interview with a “Healy-Rae” about pot holes or drink driving or Kilgarvan hosting the World Cup as an alternative to Qatar…

The Pint
Saudi Arabia is a “dry” country so I really miss the Friday evening Pint of Guinness, or a few watching Munster in the Rugby or Clare in the hurling….



Tay
When I was a child, there was no coffee and even when there was, it was in a jar and tasting “horrific”, however there was always “Tay”, and copious amounts of it for every possible punctuation in the day, for every chat, or break. You can get Tea here of course its just not the same as Barry's Tea or the like which we were all reared on back home. The suitcase on the return journey to Riyadh is always packed up with at least 80/100 teabags to see me through to the next juncture. 


Friends

Though I have made many new friends here in the Kingdom, and we do socialise as much as we can, It just doesn’t replace meeting friends you have had for many years. I left Ireland later in life like others as a result of the economic problems, it wasn’t ever my plan, so I've left behind many good friends and I struggle to catch up in person on trips home and relying on Skype and Facebook is just not the same as meeting in person and finding out how things are with them.

I'm sure this list could go on and on, its just a few of the things that I miss, some small and some far more significant......

Friday, 2 May 2014

Boys in Arabia....


It’s been almost three years now since I left home to come and work in the Middle East region, and I’ve mentioned many times here how I miss my sons, who are now 11 & 9. We had a great trip last summer to London and it was there that we hatched a plan to do a trip to Dubai in 2014.

So on April 11th last, I took a flight from Riyadh to Dubai and arrived there just before my two sons boarded an Emirates flight from Dublin for the first time on their own, to meet me in Dubai.

It’s a strange feeling knowing your children are in the air on their own for over seven hours, an odd feeling where they’re not in either parents care, rather un-nerving…
Late that evening, in fact after midnight, I waited anxiously at Terminal 3 at Dubai Airport and along they both came to arrivals, cool as you like, as only boys of that age can be, “Hi Dad”, an incredible feeling, here they were, in “my world” after 3 years, a great feeling of pride, my two sons, older, bigger, confident, discovering the world, a very emotional moment that will stay long in the memory.



What followed was an amazing week, a road trip around the United Arab Emirates in which they discovered and ran free in the sand dunes of Al Ain, rode the fastest roller-coaster in the world in Abu Dhabi, walked through the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Mosque, went to the 124th floor of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, visited the Souks and bought a traditional Kandoura, Gutra and Agal (Traditional Emerati Clothing), and took a boat trip across the Dubai Creek.


It meant so much to me to share this time with my lads, as it wasn’t that long ago when I doubted whether I could ever take them on holiday at all, given the difficult times back home. Daithi & Oisin went back to Dubai Airport after their week, at least 2 inches taller in their sense of confidence and sense of discovery and adventure, yes, a poignant moment, but also a great moment. Simply an Amazing week…..

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Empire State of Mind........

I was back home last month to wet and windy Ireland and enjoyed a break with my sons in lovely Galway, the boys thought me how to a head-stand in the swimming pool , always a first !!

They also showed me this video clip, Oisin got himself a laptop from Santa and is busy e-mailing, skyping and writing his stories.

They showed me this clip which they made at home a few weeks back, I know I'm biased but I think its awesome !!.....enjoy........


Monday, 23 December 2013

A Middle East Christmas....

Saudi Gazette - Snow in Tabuk, KSA
This will be my second time spending Christmas away from home, I spent one in Germany some years back and it snowed and was good fun, it was a change from the normal Christmas chaos that goes on back home.
This is my third Christmas as an Emigrant now, though my first not being home in Ireland to see the boys open Santa’s gifts on Christmas morning, however, I will be home just after Christmas and before New Year’s Eve.

Christmas here in Saudi, well,  just isn’t really Christmas !, the word isn’t used at all in this devoutly Islamic country, I’ve heard many references in recent week s to “end of year holidays” or “December vacation”. Unlike UAE, for example, even the commercial aspects of the season aren’t really apparent here, so you can actually just get on with life and forget about it until you’re on that flight home, which is pretty much my strategy this year !

The Muslim Holidays of Eid-Al-Fitr & Eid-Al-Adha are the big family holidays here and those of you who are familiar with the Hijri Calender will also know that the dates of these holidays move backwards every year as the calendar is lunar and not solar as the gregorian one is. This is the time of year, when you will see the street decorated and plenty of business being done at the shopping malls and families preparing for large gatherings at home, sound familiar ?

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE
The Region is however not without some festive cheer, in the last few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of our Christmas Party in Dubai, eating outdoors by the Marina in very un-Christmassy weather, also a wonderful Breakfast at the Irish Embassy here in Riyadh, a smaller festive gathering of some Irish ex-pats and a really nice trip to Abu Dhabi last weekend to catch up with some old friends and also visit the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

I am of course however, really looking forward to seeing my boys in Ireland in a few days, even if it’s after Christmas Day, to catch up on what Santa brought, eat together, talk together and catch up, also a chance to catch up with others close friends on the short visit home. It’s amazing how Ireland has changed so much in the past few years and how so many are taking similar trips home this time of year, and sadly others who either can’t go home for Christmas or can’t get out of Ireland either to find work and improve their lot.
As for snow, well as you can see from this photo taken in the northern region near Tabuk, it does snow in Saudi Arabia !!!


Nollaig Shona Dhuit !

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Life for an Afghan is random, ruthless and unforgiving.....

An Article I wrote for thejournal.ie – 3rd July 2013


Life for an Afghan is random, ruthless and unforgiving....

After living in Afghanistan, I got to see first-hand what the people of that country go through, writes Noel Scanlon, who says he wishes he could be more optimistic about the country’s future.

IMAGINE FOR A moment what it feels like to be within a few hundred metres of bomb blast. I had this experience back in 28 July 2011, just one month after arriving at the Forward Operating Base at Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan, Afghanistan.

A group of insurgents attacked the government’s compound not far from the Main Gate to the Base at midday with lots of locals about. More than 20 people lost their lives that day, many of them innocent women and children, and a local BBC correspondent.

This was a moment that will forever stay with me from my time in Afghanistan, a normal hot July day, temperatures running over 50, still struggling to adjust to the new strange and alien environment I was now working in.

Bomb blasts
Suddenly a blast, which you instantly knew was not the “normal” controlled explosions that regularly happened on base, went off. This did not have a warning and had that shock factor about it, that puts fear in you. Here I was in the middle of this never-ending and nasty conflict – here we had Afghan killing Afghan.
I reflect on my time in the country from where I’m now based here in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, particularly when I heard about the formal handing-over of security control to the Afghan government and the recognition of the Taliban’s new office in Qatar, along with the announcement of imminent talks with both the US and the Afghan government.

The real impact of these past 12 years is on the country’s people, on their lifestyle, their expectations, their incomes and their families. These are a grizzled and tough people who have known nothing else only war, conflict and poverty for over 30 years. What will these latest developments mean for them?

Ismael – a hard worker with enthusiasm
Ismael is from Tarin Kowt and worked with us on the Base every day, he would arrive each morning around 8am after taking an hour to get through the regular and rigorous security checks and would immediately change out of his traditional dish-dash into jeans and a branded t-shirt that we had given him and then set about his daily chores with great enthusiasm.

His job was to clean the public areas, toilets, recreation room, showers and the office, and then would assist in the kitchen with preparing vegetables and assisting our Indian cook for lunch. His hard work and enthusiasm always impressed me and he would only stop to eat dinner and pray. His English was not so good but he always came with a broad smile every morning and would ask Abdul to communicate with me about how much he like working for us and the difference it was making for his family.
In the evenings he would collect the leftover cardboard and packaging waste that we had and would set off back home to his family with it which would be used for bedding and fuel.  I also recall returning once from leave and meeting him and being greeted with a warm smile, handshake and a hug, and he was bursting with excitement to tell me that he was getting married and was again thanking me that it was his work with us that allowed this to happen, as marriage here involves payment of a “dowry” to the family of the bride.
He arrived a little late one morning and was without his normal warm smile, I enquired through others later in the day who explained to me that an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) had been left in a trash can in the town and that Ismael’s uncle has been working close by when it exploded and killed him. This unfortunately is life for an Afghan, random, ruthless and unforgiving.

Abdul – fluent in six languages and a good businessman
Abdul is from Kabul, a father of ten, and also worked with me in Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan. He was one of my primary suppliers and someone I had to build a working relationship with early on as getting building materials, fuel, transport to and from Kandahar and indeed food were absolutely crucial for us on camp.
Abdul is a qualified engineer having studied in Russia and spoke fluent Russian, Pashtu, English, Dari , Farsi and Urdu. He loved to visit regularly and always wanted to talk about his love of music and dancing (and indeed would often demonstrate his dancing abilities around the office). He worked hard under very stressful conditions and was always positive, he was a good businessman and understood our need to have materials on time and he loved nothing more than a good old haggle over some lunch in our camp kitchen.
He spoke proudly of his children, and even more proudly that he had five of his daughters going to university, this meant everything to him and was the reason why he came from Kabul in the north to work here in the hostile south, people like Abdul are the exception rather than the rule and he yearned for a time when Afghanistan’s youth could have sustainable education and where they could re-build the country.
Sadly, he was also pessimistic and had a view that regardless of what NATO and Karzai got up to, the real power in the country was with the local warlords who were now being legitimised and given uniforms and titles such as Chief of Police or Governor, and that ultimately these were power hungry local chiefs who lacked the vision and leadership to really make a difference in the country. A very impressive man that I still think about sometimes.

Over 30 years of conflict
Afghanistan is now over 30 years in a state of conflict of some kind or other – be it the Soviets, their own internal factions, the Taliban, or indeed the US/NATO/ISAF in more recent years.
So what will these new developments do for the Abduls and Ismaels of Afghanistan? In my opinion, very little and if anything, it’s even possible that their lives will become even more challenging. The Multi-National Base at Tarin Kowt is being demobilised as I write this and will be handed over to Afghan control along with most other Forward Operating Bases in the country. Gone with them will be the business opportunities for Abdul and Ismael’s employment and, some would say, also the security that was provided by NATO.
This is a harsh land where making a living is difficult at the very best of times and we now have a scenario where the Afghan government have to take control of security – a task that many say is either many years off or even beyond their capabilities entirely.
I know that this outlook is somewhat pessimistic, and I genuinely feel that the people of the country deserve much more than this and have been let down by so many people in the past, however it’s a honest personal view from my experience of being there, and I can only wish the very best for my colleagues Abdul and Ismael.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Across the King Fahad Causeway...



Last week, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz bin Saud of Saudi Arabia  decreed that the weekend in the Kingdom would align itself with its Gulf neighbours (Friday / Saturday) from the normal Thursday / Friday weekend in Saudi Arabia, which means we had the advantage of a three day weekend last week so we took the opportunity to take a road trip to Bahrain…..



Bahrain is a small country made up of islands that sit just off the east coast of Saudi Arabia close to the cities of Dammam and Al Khobar in the Eastern Province. Its just a little larger than the Isle of Mann and has a population of 1.2 million, some 500,00 of whom are non- Bahraini’s, so it feels a lot like its Gulf neighbours, United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
King Fahad Causeway

It is connected by bridge / causeway to Saudi Arabia via the King Fahad Causeway which was built back in 1986, so one can drive from the Riyadh to Manama, the capital of Bahrain in five or six hours.

We set off (four of us) in a hire car from Riyadh at 4:30am on Thursday morning last, heading eastwards on the large open highway through the desert, and took an early coffee at one of the rather chaotic, stark and rather untidy service stops, the logic for the early start being that we knew that traffic volumes hitting the causeway at the weekends can be high and given we had a longer weekend, was likely to be much busier.
Manama Skyline


We hit the Causeway in four hours  and parked up the car at the border which is in fact on a man-made island halfway across (the causeway is some 24 km), where we met our pre-arranged Bahraini taxi and were over the formalities in about 30 mins and by 11am were in our hotel in Manama relaxing, we later heard that the afternoon queues at the Causeway were running at five hour delays…

Bahrain is a typically modern Arabian city with a very multi-national feel to it, there are some very fine hotels, restaurants and bars and we even found a rugby club to watch the Lions second test against Australia on Saturday afternoon before we returned back to the Kingdom….a good weekend.



Sunset in the Eastern Province

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Haya Tours....

I attended a really excellent presentation last evening at the Irish Embassy by Ms. Salwa Al Qunaibit , who is the owner and driving force behind Haya Tours, a business she founded a few years back .


Tourism in Saudi Arabia is in its infancy and as Salwa explained in her presentation, needs a lot of development and support.


She spoke how on her visits to Ireland where her children came to summer school to learn English, she came across various bus tours and day trip operators such as Paddywagon Tours were major influencers on how she envisioned how Haya Tours would be run.

Haya operate city trips, day trips and weekend trip right across the Kingdom, from trips around Riyadh to visit Masmak Castle, Shoura Council and Al-Diriyah to more adventurous trips to Al Ahsa and the UNESCO site at Mada’in Saleh.

Salwa spoke about the use of local Saudi tour guides to provide the most authentic travel guide experience with expert knowledge of the history and culture of the various provinces.


She also explained that the Arabic word “Haya” essentially means, “Lets Go”, her presentation was very impressive and I was taken by her passion and vision for the business , her aims of building effective Teamwork between the various Governement Officials and other stakeholders for the future and her desire to see the industry develop in the Kingdom.





I wish her well and would ask you to view the site and the excursions offered here….

The images here are all Haya Tours Images from various trips © Haya Tours


Monday, 17 June 2013

Saudi, Diabetes & Junk Food....

I’ve been struck in my time in the Kingdom at the problem of obesity here, just on visual evidence, there is a larger than normal proportion of adults that are clearly overweight, I have discovered that the result of all this is that Saudi Arabia has the world’s highest prevalence of Diabetes, with figures between 25% - 30% of adults having the condition. Studies are calling it an epidemic...

Diet and lack of exercise are given as major factors in Diabetes and this is clearly evident living here. The over-bearing conditions and urbanization of the country in the last 30 years have made the cities very “car orientated” with very few public parks or pedestrian areas to walk and exercise has made people much more sedentary.

I have only seen about three areas in the city where you could actually go for a walk, and that’s in a city with over five million inhabitants, cycling here would be like playing Russian roulette as there are no lanes or parks to cycle and even less driving skills and etiquette on the road.

Saudi culture is also not necessarily supportive of women exercising and sport among females is seen as taboo, remember all the media noise about the first Saudi female athletes at the last Olympics, this means that it’s not at all straight forward for females to exercise in any kind of open manner though I understand that this is changing…

The other major factor here is diet and as I shop regularly here in Riyadh, I’m completely taken aback at the sheer volume of chocolate, cakes, and sugar laden food on the shopping shelves, its actually startling, the picture above was taken in a typical Riyadh Supermarket….shelves and shelves of the stuff……


Saudi Arabia, having been very influenced by American culture is also overrun with Fast Food outlets, they are literally everywhere in every city, McDonalds, Dunkin-Donuts are on every street and every mall and you have to look a bit harder to find the healthier options…… 

I'm not saying that I know better as I've seen similar issues back home in Ireland but here given the culture and climate is certainly at a different scale and is something that definitely needs to be tackled.......

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Irish in Riyadh….

It occurred to me recently how effective Irish people are at sticking together, socializing regularly and generally being there for each other wherever they are in the world, Riyadh is no different ….

After being here for a year now, I have found that I have built a decent network of people, not all Irish of course, however in this conservative society, even the Irish have developed great ways to meet, eat, play sport and have fun together.

The Embassy of Ireland in the Diplomatic Quarter, currently resided by HE Dr. Niall Holohan and his wife Felicity are very open and generous hosts and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting both the embassy and indeed their home on a few occasions and they are extremely welcoming and helpful to all comers but of course always have a kind word for recently arrived Irish, they regularly host various events including a fantastic event on St. Patrick’s Day last when some 400+ Irish from right across the Kingdom attended.


Riyadh also has a GAA Club, Naomh Alee GAA Club has been running successfully here for many years and has both Men’s and Ladies Team’s who compete with neighbouring clubs here in the Gulf, and the club not only attracts Irish ex-pats but also has Australians, New Zealander’s, South African’s and Germans playing gaelic football and regularly host kids events too. Patrick Moynagh from Cavan is the current chairman and we had the pleasure of attending the end of season get-together last week, which was another great opportunity for the Irish (and many others) to get together for a bit of “craic” as we say back home.


On a smaller scale, there are many other smaller gatherings held in homes across Riyadh from time to time, much more informal gatherings with some good food and company, and telling stories of how long they’ve been in the Kingdom, how their work is, how the kids are doing, when were you home last ? etc., or to discuss the latest encounter with the “Religious Police” perhaps….


It struck me also that Riyadh and Saudi Arabia is a very transient place. At each gathering, I meet people who have been here many years, have just arrived recently, are back for the second time or are heading home for good in a few weeks, a kind of “Airport Terminal Waiting Lounge” of sorts here in the Middle East.