How Hot is the Middle East?

How hot is it in the Middle East?

When I arrived in Saudi Arabia in May 1985, the air temperature even at night was probably around 40°C.

Stepping off the flight in Dhahran at 2:30 AM, I was sure that the airline steps were right in the path of the exhaust from the engines, but it wasn’t, it was just the heat.

From the airport I was brought to an Algosaibi guest house in the city, where even though there was air-conditioning of a sort, I lay sweating profusely on my bunk until I got the call for breakfast in the morning.

Up to that point, the only extremes in temperature that I had experienced were in Ibiza, Benidorm, Sicily and Greece with the odd (very odd) days on Sandymount Beach during an Irish summer long ago. And I could not believe that anywhere could be as hot as Saudi Arabia in May.

My first couple of days there, waiting for paperwork and getting my diving and work gear from the warehouse, were spent sopping wet and imagining the sun as a palpable weight upon my head every time I got caught in the open.

In fact I’m sure that I was suffering from heat exhaustion because as I recall my thinking processes were muddled back in those days, when bottled water was not as ubiquitous as it is now, so topping up on life-giving H2O had to be done at every opportunity where a water cooler existed.

Eventually, loaded down with my personal and work gear I was herded together with a few other new arrivals, and we were driven to a place called West pier, from whence we would be ferried to our boats waiting on the job offshore.

At West pier we were treated to the ritual humiliation of the Saudi Arabian border guards, which would become all too familiar to any of us who did more than one trip for Algosaibi.

They threw our gear around on the dusty concrete floor of the customs post, before rippling through it with their bayoneted rifles, zoning in on newspapers magazines and books which might contain images of booze or female skin.

In my case, in that first West Pier experience, no contraband was found so we were invited roughly to repack our belongings and move on.

So at last on our little barley air-conditioned water taxi, Algosaibi I we flopped wearily to the ground ahead of a two-day transit out to the job.

There was one air-conditioning unit per each four-man cabin, so first in got prime position near the unit, even with the units it was still stinking hot down below and I soon learned not to touch the metal hull, unless of course I wanted to fry an egg, or my hand, as Sally O’Brien once famously said.

This little story is about the heat but I beg indulgence to use up a couple of words on the food provided for us on our trip.

The Algosaibi I was a small runabout usually used for transporting tools and supplies out to whatever jobs were going on offshore.

It was crewed by a captain and a bosun, both Indian and for them to provide sustenance for any more than two people, was quite an imposition on their usually sedate lifestyle.

Breakfast lunch and dinner for those two days consisted of whatever was left over from the previous meal, exclusively mutton stew and water. There was also toast and there were eggs, to be prepared by whoever wanted them, coffee or tea all but anything hot to drink seemed to exacerbate our need to take on lots of cold fluid.

After two days of skimming across the mirror smooth, azure blue Persian Gulf, we arrived on site at 2 AM in the sweltering night.

I was raucously awakened from a heat induced coma, by someone shouting Nelson you’re on Norris tide, grab your gear and go to the bow.

Now I was fairly sure that I knew which end of a boat was the bow and which was the stern, but in the confusion and sleep fog, I dragged my gear and my sorry ass to the wrong end and so had to go through the same process but in the opposite direction.

I eventually made it on board, found a berth in an air-conditioned cabin, and crashed into an exhaustion induced coma, which lasted until mid-morning on the following day.

When I emerged from the accommodation into the sun blasted world outside, I was momentarily punched in the face by the heat and the light.

The accommodations on the Norris tide were reasonably cool, so inside was bearable, but the heat outside was something special.

It took a couple of weeks to acclimatise to the extremities of heat and light, a few weeks during which people would say oh there’s a pink one, he must be new.

I had no sun protection with me except a pair of sunglasses and a baseball cap both of which helped no end, but I just had to get used to the sun in the old-fashioned way, that he is by being exposed to it.

Previously during holidays to hot places I had never used factor anything and I always tanned, so I reckon I was somewhat naturally protected from the sun’s worst.

Mostly what we wore when not diving and working on deck was shorts and work boots, so quite quickly I fell in with that arrangement. And in the water- which was like getting into a bath  down to 15 or 20 feet- we wore coveralls.

I had signed up for 110 days work and 30 days off, but on that first trip I did 14 weeks straight, and by the time I went home I had completely changed colour from white-ish to black brownish.

I worked in Saudi Arabia until 1990, during which time I developed quite good sun protection based on increased production of melanin in my skin, I never burned badly like some of the guys!

Back in those days, the heat rule in Saudi Arabia was that outdoor workers were not allowed out if the temperature hit 50°C.

Of course the official temperature gauges never reached that temperature, however the independent gauges which we had on board more than once nudged over 50° C, but we kept on working regardless.

Sometimes we could rig up some shade on deck, but it was impossible to provide shade for the entire working area, particularly when we used the on-board crane for lowering work pieces down to an underwater work site, we just became habituated to very high temperatures and strong sunlight.

On one of the trips our boat was tasked with laying grout bags over an existing pipeline on the seabed, in order to protect it from being snagged by anchors and dragged or broken.

Grout bags in this instance are 10’ x 10’ hessian mattress shaped empty bags, which a diver stretches out over the pipeline and then connects the nozzle of a grout (cement mixing) machine on the deck of the boat which mixes the cement and pumps the semi liquid mix down into the bag until it is full.

Counter intuitively, wet cement will go off (harden) even in water, so what you end up with is a series of concrete mattresses over the pipeline affording it enough protection (it hoped) from dragged anchors.

The diver in the water had a nice cool environment in which to work but those on deck laboured in the full glare of the sun, so we usually switched around responsibilities every 30 minutes or so.

The hottest of the jobs on deck was the mixer who necessarily had to be risen up near the mouth of the machine to cut the bags of cement open and empty its contents into the insatiable monster.

It came my time in the top spot, so I armed myself with a dust mask, my baseball cap and my sunglasses and set about my task.

Heat stroke is a funny thing; it turned me into a grout mixing animal that resolutely refused any suggestion of changing him out.

I slashed at the bags with my diver’s knife like a slasher, movie maniac, emptied them into the machine and called for more, keeping the lads below busy throwing the bags up to me.

The same thing happened to me when I was working in Angola in the 90s.

Christmas is the hottest time in those latitudes, so of course, seeing as it was a day off we arranged a football tournament to be played at 2 PM, just after lunch with beer.

The first half wasn’t too bad, we were playing the local police and we were beating them 3-1 at half-time, and apart from some of us feeling a bit hot and sweating a lot, we were doing okay

The beer and cigarettes during the half-time break did not help no doubt, but about 10 minutes into the second half, strange things began to happen.

Confusion was rife in us expatriates; I gave away two penalties when I handled the ball instead of heading it as I normally would have done, and free kicks rubbing your way all over the place by very tired and confused white people.

We ended up being beaten 5-3.

I have no idea how long I actually stayed on the grouting job, but I did get congratulated by the company rep on my industry.

Thinking back, I reckon that I was just mad with heat.

The end

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