Memories of another day
GROWING UP in the city of Al-Khobar was a surreal experience.The lush green promenades, the pristine fountains, and the modern architecture that adorned Al-Khobar's skyline made the city a jewel in the Saudi crown. It was indeed hard to imagine that one was in the middle of a desert terrain. The city opened its arms to the expatriates, who constituted almost 30 per cent, as it did the locals. The eclectic population, of diverse nationalities, colour and creed added to the metropolitan face of the city. It made room for everyone, from the blue collared worker to the white collar one. Its vast oil reserves and the establishment of the port gave the jump start to a booming economy.
The rules were more lax in Al-Khobar as compared to the rest of the kingdom. The "Abayah" was not really compulsory, but it was deeply appreciated if one did conform to the local custom, which a large majority did respect. So it wasn't a rare sight to see a non-Muslim American, Indian or Chinese clad in an Abayah walk down the street. The crime rate was almost negligible (thanks to the stringest criminal laws set down by the Supreme Council of Justice), almost the lowest in the world. Of course there were bizarre rules, like women not allowed to drive or those against the socialising of opposite sexes in public, but the pros far outweighed the cons. I remember how, on the spur of the moment, my friends and I would take long walks along the city's Corniche at 1 a.m. The streets were that safe, especially for the women. King Fahd and the Royal Family were looked up to with much reverence. There were hardly any whispers of disgruntlement. The government had the reputation of pampering its citizens. It was hard for my peers back in India to understand how anyone could be content under an autocratic Islamic regime. But for me, Al-Khobar with its Arab-expat cultural fusion and spotless streets was like second home.
That was the 1980s. The prime time in Saudi history. And today, Al-Khobar is back in the news again, but for all the wrong reasons. I find it difficult to acknowledge the fact that the once familiar place is a hub for terrorist activities, and the expatriate crowd, prime targets for hostage taking. I am truly clueless as to what could have gone so terribly wrong in the past one decade. I must admit that I was kind of ignorant to the developments in the kingdom, after we had left the country for good in 1990, and headed for India, totally centred around academic and career goals.
Post 9/11, the world is witness to a bipolar world, the Arab/Muslims vs. the West. A clash of civilisations, some would say. The pan-Islamic terrorist network had found a new breeding ground for it to fester Saudi Arabia. There was the oil and the easy money for funding its activities. The high level of unemployment among the local youth with the "foreigners" reaping the riches of the land added to the disquiet. There was now a total disillusionment with the Royal Family who were seen to be increasingly subservient to the U.S. interests than to the needs of the people. The public sentiments have been deeply hurt with the deployment of the American troops on their land, whom they see as the "invading crusaders" killing thousands of Arab brethren elsewhere.
It is this deep sense of anguish at the betrayal of the Saudi government that has fostered unrest amongst its people, and their shifting loaylties to the insurgents, whom they perceive as their saviours. Thus the city of Al-Khobar with its array of American companies has earned the scorn of the insurgents. The plunder of the Arab resources by the shrewd West. The entire kingdom is in a voaltile situation waiting to explode. The succession duel between the members of the Royalty has worsened the chaos.
As I scan through the news, my mind is an array of images. Familiar places, familiar buildings, now in ruins. A sense of deja vu, almost melancholic, sets in. As children, we tend to see the whole world as nothing but good. Perhaps I was oblivious to the biases and unrest that must have existed even then. I sit back, saddened, that now my opulent bubble has burst, but neverthless a whole lot relieved that I am indeed at home in India, despite all its inadequacies, relatively safe and secure, with only the memories of a place that I had once considered my own Al-Khobar.
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