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Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 14:19 GMT
Saudi's sleazy underworld
Saudi market trader
Public market: No alcohol on sale here
Frank Gardner

After the collapse of Taleban rule in much of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia has reclaimed its place as the country with the strictest Islamic code of conduct.

Women must be veiled in public and are forbidden to drive.

Almost all forms of public entertainment are banned, and consumption of alcohol is punishable by flogging.

And yet some people are willing to take huge risks for the sake of a drink.


Filipinos brew the illicit alcohol, he said, while Yemenis and Indians sell it - the prostitutes tend to be from Nigeria and Ethiopia, the drug peddlars are from Pakistan

I met Khaled by chance. He was standing there on a street corner in Jeddah, chatting to a friend. Somehow, he knew at once I was a reporter. Somehow, I could tell he was an alcoholic.

His bloodshot eyes stared out from an emaciated face, his teeth were rotten stumps fighting a losing battle to stay attached to their gums. Khaled was not yet 40 years old but he appeared to have given up on life.

Darker side

He was an educated Saudi with good English and years of work experience in America, but he told me he couldn't find a job here in Saudi Arabia. Depressed and bitter, he had turned to home-brewed alcohol and imported hash.

He asked me if I was being followed. In Saudi Arabia that is not such a strange question. Here, the government controls all the media.

Western journalists are let in infrequently and then steered towards people who will talk only of progress and prosperity. With so much oil beneath the country's sands, there is, of course, plenty of both.

But with rising unemployment and falling incomes, there is also a darker side of life here that the authorities would prefer to keep hidden. Now Khaled was about to show me a glimpse of a shadowy Saudi underworld.

Neon signs

We checked I was not being tailed, then Khaled set off down the street at dusk, flagging down a taxi."'When we get there you must keep your distance," he told me. "If anyone comes up to you, say you are looking for the carpet souk."

Jeddah town centre
Central Jeddah: Far from the backstreets

We drove in silence through the streets of this steamy Red Sea trading port. Neon shop signs passed by the window in a kaleidoscope of colours. The pavements were crowded with all the people of this region: Saudis, Egyptians, Pakistanis and Somalis.

Women in billowing black shrouds squatted on the pavement beside trays of trinkets. A flashing light beckoned customers... to a discount shop for shoes.

Hidden doorways

Khaled spoke to the driver and the taxi swung right into Makhzumi Street, in the south of the city. The shops were smaller here, more intimate. The neon signs had given way to yellow light bulbs.

Rubbish was piling up in the gutter. We stopped, and in one fluid movement Khaled was out of the taxi and off down a tiny alleyway. I followed him, stumbling in the dark on a breeze block left lying on the path.

Through a labyrinth of backstreets we twisted and turned until I lost all sense of where I was. Our feet fell softly on the sand, our hushed voices bounced off walls daubed in Arabic graffiti.

From the shadow of hidden doorways, veiled women detached themselves and drifted up to us, whispering words I couldn't follow. "Prostitutes", said Khaled, "from Nigeria".

"They come here for the pilgrimage, then they stay on."


We separated, but a man began following me, stopping when I did, and pretending to study his shoelace

We pressed on. Khaled's face was sweating now, he was nearing his goal. We emerged at a crossroads and he spotted his contact - a wiry Yemeni with a popstar's hairstyle.

They ducked into the shadows to do business while I watched from a corner shop. I spotted the look-outs, the men on alert for approaching police. There was a tough-looking Egyptian body-builder and a diminutive Indian with shifty eyes.

Jail and lashes

Khaled had told me about the penalties for vice. Jail and eighty lashes with the cane for alcohol, a serious prison sentence for drugs, and deportation for foreign prostitutes.

Drug smugglers are executed. In this city of three million, he told me, different nationalities have their own specialities. Filipinos brew the illicit alcohol, he said, while Yemenis and Indians sell it. The prostitutes tend to be from Nigeria and Ethiopia, the drug peddlars are from Pakistan.

Muslim pilgrims in Mecca
Some women come as pilgrims, but stay as prostitutes

Khaled crossed the road, trying to suppress a smile. He was carrying a plastic bag with three bottles of water. But of course it wasn't water, as he showed me as soon as we reached a backstreet.

Homebrew liquor

He unscrewed the lid on a bottle and took a big gulp. It was 'sadeeki', a homebrew liquor made from fermented palm juice, retailing here at 10 ($15) a bottle.

It was then that I noticed we too were being watched. We separated, but a man began following me, stopping when I did, and pretending to study his shoelace. He could be a dealer, he could be an informer, but I didn't wait to find out.

Here in these broken, ill-lit backstreets, it was easy to lose him. When I reached a main road and slipped into a taxi I could see him standing there, looking about in vain.

As I sped north, back to the air-conditioned comfort of a hotel and a different, law-abiding world, I wondered sadly what would become of Khaled and others like him. How desperate can you get, I thought, to risk lashing and prison, for the sake of a drink?

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 ON THIS STORY
Frank Gardner
"Through a labyrinth of backstreets we twisted and turned until I lost all sense of where I was."
See also:

01 Oct 01 | Middle East
Saudi leaders fear Muslim backlash
26 Oct 01 | Middle East
Analysis: US nurtures Saudi ties
25 Oct 01 | Middle East
Saudi Arabia slams Western media
12 Oct 01 | Middle East
Religious warning to Saudi monarchy
12 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Saudi Arabia
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