The Bystander is a mystery thriller set in Saudi Arabia where rivalries in the Saudi royal family, religion, and oil money intersect. In a kingdom built on sand, an ambitious and devious prince uses terrorism to disrupt the succession and become the next king.
This week the Department of State published an article on the changing relationships of the the US and Saudi Arabia. The question is what will be the Americans influence in the Middle East in future years. The leadership and military protection provided by the US has been important to the stability of the region. If American withdraws, or its influence wans, watch what happens. It could mean Israel and Saudi Arabia are drawn closer together.
The Saudi death squad is alive and going after other targets that the crown prince wants to silence. This is still going on after the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Fortunately the Canadian government screened the squad at the border and stopped any new executions in Canada. A former Saudi intelligence official who worked with the U.S. on terrorism is living there. The prince ordered him back to Saudi and he has refused. So he is a target. Life in the kingdom as it was centuries ago goes on.
Covid 19 and the drop in oil prices has forced Saudi Arabia and the other rich oil countries to halt plans to wean themselves off oil. The problem is they are still dependent on oil. The result is they are tasking their people to pay higher taxes, and taking away free subsidies for essentials like electricity. Suppression and unrest are sure to follow unless the royal families enlist the support of the people.
Four ballistic missiles and eight explosive-laden drones attacked Riyadh, Najran and Jazan from Iran-backed Yemen rebels as international efforts to end their five-year war have failed. Infighting within the Yemen government have complicated peace efforts. When will it end? No one knows. To date it has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Covid virus has only complicated the suffering.The USA, the UN, everyone is trying to reach an agreement--so far nothing.
No black princes are called that in today's kingdom, but in June 2017, the nephew of the king and crown prince M. bin Nayef, seen as successor to his uncle,was deposed by his cousin M. bin Salman known as MBS, and the king’s son. Besides Prince Nayef there were other princes with more experience than MBS to be in the line of succession. The question of who will rule Saudi Arabia when the 84 year old King Salman, dies is one the world will be watching.
The economy of the kingdom is in trouble. The plan is to cut oil production by one million barrels. Ending the price war with Russia didn't raise the price of oil. Saudi Aramco's profit has fallen by 25% in the first quarter of this year. Now the government is considering raising the kingdom's value added tax to 15%. That is triple what it is at present. How will Saudi citizens, who rely on government subsidies respond? It is a new world for a nation whose economy is based on oil production.
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Muslim lunar calendar. its date annually changes on the Gregorian calendar. Muslims tend to wait for the new month's moon to appear before they announce the first day of Ramadan. The date changes annually on the Gregorian calendar. Muslims wait for the new month’s moon to appear before announcing the first day. Healthy adult Muslims abstain from drinking, eating, immoral acts and anger from dawn until dusk. Muslims also believe the Quran was revealed in Ramadan. Saudi Arabia's grand mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in the kingdom, said prayers during Ramadan, should be performed at home as the pandemic rages around the world.
Hospitality is part of the Bedouin tradition and expressed in drinking coffee, gahwa in Arabic. Yes coffee, almost my favorite drink. I often refer to myself as a coffee-aholic. First the beans are roasted, then crushed. Spices, as cardamom, clove, nutmeg, and bits of saffron are added. UNESCO includes coffee as part of the cultural heritage of the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, and Qatar. The dalah, the traditional Arab flat bottom coffee pot, is often found on posters and imprinted on coins. My experience drinking Arabic coffee was usually in the desert with Saudi friends. The coffee was poured back and forth between pots until the host decided the light blonde roast was ready to drink. Served in small cups, the gahwa was smooth and had an aroma depending upon what spices were used. To me it was the best coffee I have ever had.
Saudi Arabia is a modern country with the usual traffic and pollution problems. How is the the kingdom handling COVIS 19? A 24 hour lockdown is imposed on the cities of Riyadh, Tabuk, Dammam, Dhahran, and Hofuf. Earlier the government imposed a full lockdown on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. All entry to the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina have been halted, pending further notice.
Falcons, known as the Saker Falcon, are everywhere in the desert, in the markets and in conversations with the Bedouin. Their feathers are beautiful, their beak large with a sharp bill. Always they are tethered on a stand, or to their trainer/owner. On the hand and arm of the owner is gauntlet. It looks like armor. That hand is used to feed the falcon usually small birds, quail. Used in competitions the Saker falcon is descendant from an area that included northeastern Africa,the interior of southeastern Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and Asia. In Hungary they are the national bird. The numbers in the wild have diminished and the bird could be an endangered species soon.
What is the truth about the original Qurans? They were hand written from about 568 AD to 645 AD when the prophet died. He was illiterate and learned men around him wrote his visions. The most famous are in the Topkapi manuscript in Istanbul, the Smarkand Kufi Quran in Tashkent, and one believed to be destroyed in an 1893 fire at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Today others are in Sanaa, Yemen, Turingen, Germany (only a fragment), the Codex Pariisiun, parts in France, Russia, the Vatican, and London, and in Birmingham ,Uk (2 chapters from an older manuscript.
A recent music festival in Riyadh attests to changes in the kingdom. One thing remains the same. Saudi women at the festival still wore abayas and head scarves. Western festival goers were in various states of undress, ie not covered heads. So while the latest 3 day concert was a new leaf for Saudi, the old leaf, women's dress remained unchanged.
GPS is a necessity when your camping in the Empty Quarter, the world's largest sand desert. You have to know how to get in and how to get out.The first time we camped out the one problem with GPS became apparent. As the sun was setting, our modern caravan of SUV's was careening across the desert to the GPS spot chosen for our night of camping. I was in the second of 4 SUVs, when we screeched to a halt. None of us could see the problem until we got out. Then it was apparent. We were on the top of a huge sand mountain, and the GPS was taking us further south. No way could we go down this mountain. So we camped and the next morning walking found a less steep way to get to the GPS spot. Modern technology, ummm.
In Saudi Arabia the celebration of Thanksgiving is by the Anglos that live there. Once i attended a Thanksgiving dinner at the U.S. Embassy for the staff and American and European expats. The Americans provided the turkeys and stuffing. The many foreign national staff, Indians, Pakistanis, Kenyans, Syrians, Philippinos, each had a table with their native food (which of course their wives had prepared). For me it was one of the nicest Thanksgiving I have ever had, and remains in my memory forever.
We camped in the empty quarter, but our GPS had us on top of a 1000 ft dune. So we had to wait until morning to find a way down the immense dunes. That night i got up to do a camping out toilet. So i was squatting on the dune, when i heard this loud growl, really a roar. Spooked I almost rolled down the dune. Managing to stay on top, I turned around and about ten feet away was one of the largest camels I have ever seen, back up by a herd of a dozen. It was obvious. hey wanted to know what I was doing there in the Empty Quarter. I looked at them, and slowly they walked on by.
Night time is the most exciting time on the Arabian Peninsula. Because there are few population centers, you feel as if you can see as far as other galaxies. The impact of the sun, rising and setting, is very little because the peninsula is so close to the equator. Daylight savings is not used because there is so little difference in the rising and setting sun. Because I had been use to daylight saving time, all I ever noticed was about an hour or so later the sun set.
What's important about this excerpt is that Ace is going to get 3 visas for a price. Until recently, to get a visa required you to be visiting someone specifically living in the kingdom-they had to vouch for you. Recently, getting a visa has been revised to make it very easy to obtain. At least that is how the newspaper items portray the process. A visa is the first step--then what--you have to be on a tour if there is one, or have a contact in the kingdom. Will stay tuned to see if the process works as easily as it is described in the press.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has been making TV appearances in support of the Saudi response to bombings by drones, believed to be supported by Iran if not done by Iran. He is correct in saying the world would suffer if there was a war between the nations, the economy would tank. He is correct when he says his country has many borders and is the size of Europe. So it's difficult to defend. What is outrageous is his denial in personal involvement with the killing of Khashoggi in Istanbul. He says he is responsible but did not order it. In a country, a kingdom, where every decision is made by the king/crown prince, his words ring hollow.
An event happened this week in Riyadh that i wanted to highlite. --Her high heels clacking on marble tiles, a defiant Saudi woman turned heads and drew gasps as she strutted through a Riyadh mall -- without a body-shrouding abaya. Last year, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hinted during an interview with CBS that the dress code may be relaxed, saying the robe was not mandatory in Islam. The abaya is "not linked to religion". "If it was, Saudi women wouldn't take them off when they go outside the kingdom," Change is coming, but it makes you wonder just how it is going to work out.
I must confess i always liked dates. When we lived in Iowa we would get dates from California. They were delicious and seemed so exotic. Decades later when I was in the Middle Eastern countries I found the dates to unbelievably good. They are chilled and the flavor is retained. To my delight, dates are a holy fruit and the Arabs serve them to show hospitality. Some have said the dates from Southern Iraq are the best. And that the Iraqis made more money from their dates than from oil. Who knows. The Saudi dates, (Medjool) were wonderful. When the dates were in season i went to the market and selected my box(you had to buy in bulk) took it home and with the help of plastic bags filled my freezer. I had wonderful dates to eat all year long. yum yum
What is a hawala? Oh, transfer dollars overseas, not a big deal. Until I saw how they were used, and was in awe. You can send money anywhere to anyone for a small fee I use a mail service in Aurora, CO, and immigrants from Africa and the Middle East use it daily to send money back to their countries. Low cost and safe, that's what makes it. Of course it is a nightmare for law enforcement agencies trying to track illegal transactions or funding to terrorist groups.
Djinns are part of the Bedouin culture and are in Muslim mythology. the Koran mentions them as an invisible spirit. They can be good and bad and take the form of animals. The Bedouin believe certain places in the desert are where djinns hang out. Sometimes they are teasing and sometimes deadly. For me, out in the vast beige on beige desert, believing in djinns and not wanting to anger them, was logical.
The Arabian Peninsula was formed with a network of rivers that ran through it. Today only the wadis, now dry river beds, remain. One exception is Riyadh, the capital, where water supplied by the Wadi Hanifah has been cleaned up and local residents enjoy picnics and bird watching. More often the water is underground under limestone cliffs. To me, so much water in the world's largest sand desert was a surprise. Today what you see, even surrounding an oasis, is a sea of sand.
News from Saudi Arabia focus on Mohammed bin Salman (know as MBS). The Crown Prince was selected by his father, the king, and skipped dozens of nephews and cousins, sons of past kings. Many of these royal princes were much more qualified than MBS. How will the royal princes accept MBS when the king dies? An interesting question and no answer today. Stay tuned.
It is impossible to live in Saudi Arabia and not be aware of the desert and its history. The sand is light beige, soft and gorgeous. What secrets does it cover? We will never know. But we do know for centuries the Arabian Peninsula was a main road for frankincense to go to Ethiopia and to China where it was used to embalm, and for other religious ceremonies. it also was burned and kept away insects, which reduced malaria. The city of Ubar does exist and it is buried in the sand. THE ROAD TO UBAR: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands, by nicolas clapp, was my inspiration for my book. I heard him speak when i lived in Riyadh and was fascinated. I hope you will be just as taken with the sand as I was, and am.
Saudi Arabia is a country where you can buy anything available in the world, with the exception of alcoholic beverages. Yet the social structure is still in the sixth century, although some say it is older than that. The Q'uran states the head must be covered. Even the males are required to wear head coverings. Nothing is said about the face. As with most religions sometimes the mores today are more stringent than the Prophet Mohammed intended.
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