Shuaibah.

In July 1989 the diving company Algosaibi, asked me to take a diving team to the Red Sea, for a civil engineering job. I readily agreed because a new environment would break up those excruciatingly long 110 day trips.

My day rate was increased as I would be supervising the job.

There was a lot of paperwork, identity passes, Saudi driver’s licenses and letters of permission to travel within the kingdom, all in Arabic with photos attached, to be applied for and secured before we could go anywhere. Those bureaucratic formalities took several weeks, but eventually, the team was ready to go.

I was to meet with a representative of Mitsui Engineering, the builders of the plant, where the job in question was to be carried out, in Shuaibah, upon our arrival there.

The scope of work as Algosaibi understood it was to demolish some concrete piles.

How the job was quoted for and the contract awarded, was a mystery. Most likely the Arab owners of Algosaibi a were related to whoever was the ‘big noise’ over that side, or whatever.

The diving team, as selected, consisted of me, two Filipino and two British divers and we were to work during daylight only.

Our gear had to travel across country by truck, so we spent two days selecting all that we would need from the huge, well stocked warehouse in Tanajib while our paperwork was processed.

The chamber, all the diving equipment, breathing air compressor, road compressor, hydraulic power pack, a collapsible dive shack, to be de un -collapsed on site, four quads each of breathing air, Nitrox and O2 plus the mountain of tools that might be needed.

Two days after loading the trucks and armed with a thick sheaf of transit paper paperwork each, we went to Dhahran airport for our ritual humiliation by Arab immigration and Customs.

In those days, internal flights within Saudi Arabia left and arrived from a different terminal to international flights. So at this other terminal, we were given a good old ‘scrutinization’ by the authorities, who probably saw us as somewhat exotic, non-Muslims travelling within the kingdom.

I was taken into an office for some extra ‘going over’, where I became very worried that, that extra attention would include an internal examination. However, a very large and mustachioed military officer came after a half hour or so, and told me in English that my Saudi identity cards details had not been sent to the immigration police in time. However that was all sorted out now, so me and my colleagues could pick up our belongings and repack them, after they had been thrown around the place by the immigration and customs officials.

The Saudia flight to Jeddah, took a little over two hours, a dry flight obviously, Nescafé, some cake and Coca-Cola being the order of the day.

Jeddah is close to Mecca, so the flight was full with pilgrims doing Hajj, dressed in their typical white toweling pilgrim wraparound garb, a bit like Mahatma Gandhi’s daily apparel, even though he was Hindu. 

It is the solemn duty of every adult Muslim to make Hajj, at least one time in their life, once they can afford the journey, and the upkeep of their home and family, whilst they are away.

This duty is of sacred importance to Islamic people, and the trip is often taken by those who have saved for years, and have little knowledge of modern travel. The departure lounge in Dammam was a scene of utter pandemonium, as families, groups and individuals, all dressed similarly tried to bring huge cardboard boxes, and rope secured packages of belongings, through to airside.

I was surprised at how guards, and other officials treated these relatively naïve people with utter contempt, and occasionally aggression.

Spare clothes, footwear and other non-essential items had to be jettisoned at the gates

The aircraft stewards had their hands full too.  

On a full to bursting flight, controlling passengers, who disregarded, or did not understand warnings from the cockpit, seemed an exasperating and endless task.

One steward on our flight, had to use both diplomacy and anger to dissuade a group who were on the verge of lighting their paraffin stove in the aisle, to brew their ‘chay.’ And I had to show the elderly Pakistani couple next to me how to buckle up, they were trying to tie the two ends of their seatbelts in a knot.

In Jeddah, where our documents were scrutinized closely but smilingly and politely, unlike in the Dhahran, firstly by immigration, then police, followed by army and finally a few civilians in short-sleeved white shirt and black trousers.

They all riffled through our papers, shouted rapidfire Arabic into their respective radios, whilst regarding us intensely but in a not unkindly way.

It took a long time to get through, but it was not an unpleasant experience. There was no threat and the people who examined our credentials, smiled at us and nodded a lot.

When we were finally cleared for release, we were politely handed our paperwork and we were invited to move through to arrivals, I’m sure that we looked like aliens, real space aliens to the almost 100% Arabic Muslim crowd being disgorged at that time.

We were picked up by a very dark Arab man, dressed in once white Berber clothes, who fussed over us in Arabic as he herded us to his dusty white minibus, that didn’t have air conditioning.

Our destination, Shuaibah was just over two hours distant, skirting Mecca and then across some Sun blasted brown dusty desert.

We bypassed Mecca on the eight Lane ‘pilgrims’ highway, which caters for the huge numbers of Muslim pilgrims, converging on their holy city at various times during the year, particularly Ramadan.

The highway itself is vast, with overhead signs indicating in Arabic and English, which lanes drivers should occupy, depending on where they were going.

The one that we mooched over into, seemed to be a lonely little lane, set aside for

‘Non-Muslims’. That’s what it said, we felt discriminated against.

We stopped for fuel at what must be the hottest service station on earth, it passed as a motorway services in Saudi Arabia.

There didn’t seem to be any reason to have services just there, apart from the road.

Our driver indicated to us that we should have something to drink, and take a pee.

Having something to drink was reasonable, but using the toilet was out of the question. It was filthy, smelled abominably and was literally covered with flies.

We all decided to hold on until we got to where we were going.

Inside the sweltering interior, there were fridges with bottled water, and cans of Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Fanta, Dr Pepper et cetera et cetera.

Overhead fans swished desultorily and three or four Arab /Berber men, reclined on benches, smoking through their hookahs. They were not particularly interested in us foreigners, who had just appeared from nowhere.

My colleagues opted for soft drinks and water, as did I, but I wanted to try Arabic coffee.

I indicated to your man behind the desk, while saying coffee in as many languages as I could, that I would like some.

He disappeared behind some American cigarette display cabinets, and reappeared a few moments later with a filthy cracked, probably once upon a time,  maybe nice piece of ceramic tea ware, handle less cup of grey, primarily grinds, liquid, which he offered, rotten tooth gapped smilingly, to me.

I was horrified, but my adventurous spirit had caught me out, and suddenly I felt every eye in the room upon me.

I politely took the dreadful cup of tepid concoction, smiling weakly, but there was nothing for it, I had to drink it, so I did.

Back then‘twinkle, twinkle’ (little)  ‘Star’  wasn’t even that in Buckseye, but if that vile ichor had been coffee, that wonderful partnership, and the many others dispensing the wondrous brew, would never have come about!

Whatever it was, Coffee it was not! Heck knows what it was, but it took all of my self-control to smile and indicate that I liked it. I have never tasted swill, but I’m guessing that that drink was similar in taste. Even though I tried to filter out the grit with my lips, some got through and grated on my teeth , until I could wash my mouth out with water, out of sight of the ‘services’.

Pepsi got rid of the horrible rank after flavor of it.

In our travels, we saw herds of goats and camels, with their masters sheltering in the shade of the former beasts, and exactly what the animals were eating, I had no idea.

At first sight, life appeared very different on this side of the Arabian Peninsula.

There didn’t seem to be any Filipinos or Indians doing the work. Arab men themselves were carrying out menial tasks such as driving and serving in the shop.

The people were also much darker and more polite than their compatriots on the Persian Gulf side.

The road that we were on, the service station, and the huge desalination plant were the only man-made structures that we saw after leaving Mecca; there was no oil boom over there.

Apart from the city, one wonders if this side would be settled at all,

Really if they weren’t going to develop tourism, Allah and Mohammed should have thought the thing out a bit better.

My first sight of the azure blue of the Red Sea, almost took my breath away!

It’s hard to describe its exquisite beauty.

 The Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, nothing in my experience, compares to it. Even the Northern part of the same sea, where it is heavily touristed in Egypt and Israel, could in no way be described as a muddy pool, but in comparison with down there, I’m not sure.

It’s like a jewel, a Sapphire set in the desert. I have never seen anything as exquisite.

Shuaibah is a place on the red Sea about two hundred km South of Jeddah where

Mitsui construction was building a huge desalination plant.

There was no sign of there ever having been human habitation in the area.

Once through the gate of the site, our driver took us directly to the Mitsui construction office, where amid much bowing to several Japanese engineers and site managers, we eventually got to our guy.

Believe it or not his name was Mr. Fukhi. He briefly explained the job which we wouldn’t see until the following day. Our gear was waiting for us at the site, and we would have the use of a van for coming and going to work. In addition we would have a crane, a forklift and a 40 foot flatbed trailer with truck and drivers for each, on hand when we needed them.

Another man with English came out and took us to the accommodation block, where a slight conflict arose when he showed us ex-pats to ensuite single rooms, but Nap and Sonny, our Filipino colleagues to a barracks like hall of a place, housing twenty or more people.

it app eared perfectly reasonable for them, to house their Malaysian, Indian and Sri Lankan workers in accommodation strikingly below the standard that they would accept, or that they would expect Europeans to accept.

I was very diplomatic and polite but insistent nonetheless, that Nap and Sonny should have accommodation of the same standard as the rest of us.

There didn’t seem to be any problem whatsoever, our guide seemed slightly bemused, but allocated single rooms to them without further ado.

There were no ramifications from head office so; I guess Mitsui did not negatively report back, that their diving supervisor had ruffled feathers within minutes of arriving.

The dusty white Toyota hi Ace van parked outside our accommodation block, was for our exclusive use, and was all ready for me to drive to the mess hall, with our guide riding along.

It was late in the afternoon by the time we had gone through the formalities, about fifteen minutes before the dinner siren would go off, but all was ready in the huge dining hall.

When we got there, it was empty but surely at mealtime, hundreds must be catered for.

There were refrigerated units all around the room, in which just about every sushi dish in the sushi cookbook was represented.

The main serving area was across the front of the hall, which was manned by ten or more chefs in sparkling white clothes, and wearing proper chef hats.

They all smiled and bowed, as we did back. In this hot food section, there were boiled potatoes and boiled chicken, lots of boiled vegetables like cabbage, carrots, turnips, cauliflowers, peas, string beans, pettipois and others that I didn’t recognize. Even if sushi was not your thing, none of us were going to starve.

That first evening the five of us began our meal alone, but shortly after the air raid type dinner siren went off, crowds of Japanese, Malaysian, Indian and Filipino men descended upon the place, in a very orderly fashion.

The Japanese men made great ceremony, bowing to us as they passed; I guessed that they all knew who we were, and what we were there for.

Nap and Sonny were in fish heaven, and I tried a few sushi dishes myself, along with my boiled potatoes vegetables and chicken. J and M, our British colleagues, stuck as close as they could get to typically British fare.

Sushi was fine, I had never tried it before and I found the tastes subtle, except for the ‘Wasabi’ paste /garnish which looked like mushy peas, but which would blow the top of the head clean off.

The Filipino lads told us that it was really good.

Following what had been a busy day of travel, we all slept well that night.

After a breakfast of rice, fried eggs, and Nescafe coffee, at 5:30 AM next morning, our guide from the previous evening, rode with us to the dive site, to meet with the engineers overseeing the project.

Mitsui had made efforts to make the camp as pleasant as possible, given its location in a seaside desert. The accommodation was laid out in straight lines and consisted of many rectangular shaped huts, each containing two individual single man ensuite units, and the bigger huts containing the barracks like accommodation and the mess hall.

The walkways throughout all of the living accommodation were covered with trellis supporting permanently sprinkled climbing plants, which did provide a little dappled shade from the fearsome sun.

Our guide drove our van through the complex which was huge, factory sized buildings, rank after rank marched out into the desert.

There were already smoking chimneys, so something was happening here, whether desalination or electricity generation, something on a huge industrial scale.

We drove along the coast for a kilometer or two, and even there with all this industry going on, the sea still looked exquisite.

On our right side stacks of huge pipes ran alongside the road, and even though we had driven some distance from the accommodation, we were still within that intensive industrial zone.

Mr. Fukhi and two other Japanese men met us on the road, above a tanker loading or unloading facility. Our four trailers of gear, a mobile crane, tractor unit and a very big forklift were parked close by.

Again after much bowing and smiling, I was shown the plans and I was given a briefing by the chain-smoking engineer, as to what was needed from us.

A gas tanker coming in for unloading, had collided with and demolished, one of the mooring dolphins below us, and we were needed to inspect and report on anything that was left of the concrete pile, and then to carry out repairs or demolition and rebuilding, depending on what was found.

I was assured that any of Mitsui’s immense resources were at our disposal.

By simply looking down from the road, we could see the concrete stump sticking up out of the sea bed. However, we needed to see if that was cracked or in any way undermined.

The water was ridiculously clear, it was 75 feet to the bottom, and we could see it clearly.

It took us three days to set up on the flat section of the adjacent Dolphin; everything had to be craned down by our multitalented Malaysian driver, Eric.

He was a great guy, always smiling, Pidgin English speaking and happily jumping around between the tractor unit forklift and the crane.

We worked from 6 AM to 5:30 PM, with one hour for lunch, which was delivered down to us from the mess hall every day at 12 AM exactly.

We had six, thirty litre water coolers, which were filled for us overnight, every night! We also had a kettle, as much Nescafé coffee, Lipton’s teabags as we needed, an inexhaustible supply of Styrofoam coffee cups and sugar.

Milk didn’t fare well in the heat, so it was black coffee for everyone.

We worked our asses off, mobilising our diving system in that tremendous heat, and by 6 AM on day four, we were ready to go to work.

The Japanese were impressed, because they told me that they had allowed a week for mobilisation.

We were all well capable of running the dives and working out decompression schedules, so I rostered myself into the diving program.

We spent two days thoroughly inspecting the stump of concrete, making drawings, taking many photographs, videoing the debris on the seabed and the remains of the pile from the bottom up to 45 feet off the bottom.

We benefited from my inspection training, my prior knowledge allowed me to direct the program when I couldn’t dive myself, and prepare a comprehensive report, using C Swip and Lloyd’s protocols, to present to Mitsui.

Based on that report, it was decided that we should clear the site of any concrete debris, build a new base of gravel, erect a cage of steel reinforcing bar 1.5 m² around the stump, then build a 2 m² shutter, initially up to the top of the stump and then once the concrete was poured, in 3 m stages from there.

Mr chain-smoking Fukhi came back to us with a comprehensive work scope plan of his own, and drawings for each phase of the build, and allocating us an initial timeframe of eight months.

Forget the job for a moment.

The diving conditions were simply beyond belief. The water was warm, even on the bottom, so hot water was not going to be needed.

Looking up from 75 feet, our dive platform was visible and if the diver required an extra tool, a hammer perhaps, those on the surface could simply, aim at the diver, throw it in, tell him that it was on the way, and he could watch it flutter down to him. Don’t try that at home folks.

Obviously that procedure was not appropriate for heavier tools such as jackhammers.

Even though the seabed there had been flattened to facilitate the piling in of mooring facilities, 20 m from the work site was a pristine coral reef, the like of which I had only ever seen on TV shows.

Every exotic creature associated with warm water reefs were there in a profusion and gigantism that was breathtaking.

None of us, not even Nap or Sonny, had ever seen anything like it.

There were grouper so big that they could have swallowed a small diver if so inclined. There was a red snapper that was so big it could only swim head down, and there was a genuinely playful, or so it seemed to us, octopus that lived in an empty coral head, near our site but who, as time went on, was quite happy to roam around, watching us and feeling the tools that were lying around the site.

The star of the show by a long way was the giant clam that was the size of a couch. There was no Wikipedia in those days but Sonny and Nap reckoned it to be over one hundred years old.

When circumstances allowed, we all took the opportunity to explore the reef and take small shells and coral souvenirs. Some of those mementos still grace shelves in our house, and they still look spectacular.

I didn’t pull rank often on anyone, we were a team and I depended on the diver’s expertise as much as they depended on mine. However, I absolutely forbade the killing for food of the clam or our octopus. The odd shark (not whale), rays (not manta), snapper (not the huge one) and the smaller grouper in moderation, was okay, but not the big things.

I mentioned this prohibition in my hand over notes for the Supervisor who took over from me, and I hope that those magnificent animals survived, and still live happily on that beautiful reef in Shuaibah

Even though I was six weeks into my trip when I went to the Red Sea, I stayed there for three months.

We did some great work on the erection of that new dolphin, and when I left we were a good three quarters of the way through the project.

Mr Fukhi and I got on very well, and I took him diving after about a month, to see the progress for himself. He was a bit scared, but very happy to be able to get a close up of the work site.

After three and something months in Shuaibah I was the colour of mahogany, my hair was shoulder length and while lean from the diet; my muscles were hard from the tough physical work that I had been doing.

Steel erecting on land is hard, underwater it’s doubly so.

In the dry, scaffolding would be erected to allow access, underwater there was no such luxury, we finned!

I loved sushi and was eating more of that than boiled chicken and potatoes by the time I went home.

They fed us and looked after us so well on that job, I really liked it and would have loved to finish it, but I was homesick and physically tired, seven days a week for all that time, takes it out of you.

I left Shuaiba on the tenth of November 1989, and left Jeddah on an Air France flight to Paris on the eleventh.

My driver to Jeddah was taking his proselytising vows as a Muslim very seriously indeed.

If he had had more English than, whiskeya, fucky fucky, too and much, then I might be a Muslim now.

Throughout the two hour journey to the airport, our entire conversation consisted of him gesturing with drinking motion and saying “too much whiskeya”, and then with a hip thrusting gesture “too much fucky fucky”, all the while pointing at me in an accusatory way with his gnarly brown index finger.

There really was no defence that I could put up, so I sort of ignored him.

I was sitting beside an American on the flight to Paris, and as we got palsy walsy over 

 a few drinks and cigarettes, he enquired as to what I thought of the wall coming down, and I genuinely answered “what wall?”

To which he responded “Goddamn son, were yall been? On the moon”. “The frigging Berlin wall”

I then realised that in effect yes, I might as well have been on the moon.

Letters from home were still going to the head office in Dhahran, and in the three months that I spent in Shuaibah, we had only had one mail drop from them.

I knew nothing of the great and momentous movement that toppled the USSR,

 and it’s hateful symbol of oppression, the Berlin wall.

My new best friend told me all about it as we drank and smoked ourselves to Paris.

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