Postcards from Saudi Arabia

Black Gold … or Black Plague?

Whereas Islam is certainly the soul of Saudi Arabia, oil is its blood. Bob calls Saudi “a third-world country with first-world wealth”—wealth that gets pumped out from vast tracts of land in the north. (Control over these rich fields remains a point of contention between Sunnis and Shiites.) If doctors are to be found in this desert community, they are here because of the oil companies, if only by a degree or two of separation. Computer technicians are here to assist in the discovery and extraction of oil. Universities are built out of the desert sands by the oil that flows beneath them. Gas is very inexpensive, less than a dollar a gallon, and when we visited, the Saudis were happy indeed that their benevolent king had just lowered the cost by about thirty cents. Needless to say, we found no hybrid cars among the SUVs lumbering in great herds over the sand-swept highways. Surrounded by all this oil, we began to notice it everywhere—woven into our clothes, wrapping the food we ate, in the toys children played with, in hospitals, on soccer fields, in libraries … oil is in everything. At the same time, Saudis regard global warming as a joke—a particularly silly inside joke that only Westerners would know or care about. I wondered what would become of this country without its oil. For while oil may be its center, surely that center cannot hold.

Saudi Aramco, the country’s national oil company, is the largest in the world, and its presence is felt nearly everywhere. We toured the Aramco oil company museum in Dhahran, about an hour from Reem’s family in the Eastern Province. Despite some fascinating exhibits on Arabic history, the museum visit was a bizarre experience; endless displays proclaimed the great triumphs of oil, culminating in a computer game where youngsters distilled crude into a variety of products to satisfy their customers. I took a crack at the game and failed. “Your customer left to find jet fuel somewhere else,” the computer told me.

The Bootleggers of the Desert.

At an American Independence Day party a few nights after our arrival, we first encountered Sadiqi, which is Arabic for “friend.” Commonly referred to as “Sid,” Sadiqi is abundant and easily found tucked away in garages and pantries throughout the compound. Almost all expats have enjoyed the company of Sid in its different variations: brown, white, and a pale-green variant that is supposed to approximate gin. Sadiqi is, in the parlance of southern America, moonshine.

Sid exists because alcohol is strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia. One expat we met, whom I’ll call Nate, made Sid for his own enjoyment, with no apparent profit motive. He had a small still in his garage and produced a few gallons every now and then. Sid can be a lucrative business, though; rumor has it that one expat makes so much money distilling and delivering his product that he lives on the proceeds and invests his entire company check. Reminiscent of the proverbial buckets of beer in the Capone era, delivieries of the libation are made to people’s doors in green juice bottles with “Sid” written in red pen on the remnants of the scratched-off labels.

Sadiqi is harsh stuff, no doubt made more palatable by its lack of competition. The mash comprises grain and sugar, products that cannot be made illicit and that are in abundance in every part of the world. As the expats began their miniscule fireworks show, I tried some bootleg gin with a mix of hesitation and a burning thirst for hard liquor. It tasted as I imagine nail-polish remover would, albeit cut with tonic water and a splash of lime. Nate admitted he never expected his degree in physics from MIT would someday lend itself to making bathtub gin in the Middle East. “But we’re no backwoods moonshiners,” he said, not without some disdain. “We’re scientists, for God’s sake—distilling is second nature.”

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