Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Dealing with the Saudis -- Excerpt from Memoirs

Plead guilty
By Dr. Alaf Khan
The Saudis, ever since 1988, require all applicants for Umrah and Haj visas to have themselves vaccinated against meningococcal infection before entering the kingdom. I apologize to the Muslim Umma for causing this continuing inconvenience. Here is the story behind my apology.

We received into our Medical-A ward a patient with meningococcal meningitis on 02 January 1988. The number of cases shot up to 18 by 21 January 1988. Two neighbouring medical units had similar experience. One meningitic patient per day entering one of the three medical units was something unheard of. The influx of patients continued unabated over the ensuing few weeks. All the victims were persons who had returned from Saudi Arabia after performing the annual pilgrimage (Haj) in the last quarter of 1987. It transpired that large number of pilgrims with the same illness were hospitalized in the two Holy cities. Some died, some recovered and some left the hospital against medical advice, with unknown ultimate fate. I got the phone number of Dr. Barlas who worked in King Fahd Hospital in Madina. He confirmed that there had been an outbreak of meningococcal meningitis during those six weeks of Hajj.

We treated half of our meningitic patients with a combination of intravenous penicillin and chloramphenicol 8-hourly, and the other half with intravenous Rocephin (ceftriaxone) daily in standard doses. Both groups made uneventful recovery with equal speed. The outcome of this small open trial was published in the fortnightly Doctor International (now Pulse International), Karachi. Relying on our empirical knowledge, we did not vaccinate any member of our medical or nursing staff. It is surprising that no health caregiver is known to have contracted the infection from his or her patients.

I telephoned the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad about the issue. His Excellency the Ambassador wasn’t willing to speak to a lowly creature in the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar. The Consul, named Ghamidi, stayed equally aloof. It was always the Ambassador’s Secretary, Mrs Barlas Haideri, who answered my phone calls. I wrote a memorandum to the Ambassador on 30 May 1988 recommending vaccination against meningococcus A and C for all who were planning to perform Haj or Umrah for the ensuing two years. No vaccination was recommended for those who intended to perform Umrah outwith the Hajj season and those going to the Kingdom on work visa.

Bringing any issue to the notice of Saudi authorities amounts to putting your hand in the hornet nest. They are the proverbial automatons (lakeer ke faqeer). You launch them on a track for some short term purpose, and they will go on treading it unthinkingly well beyond eternity. Rational argument is tabooed in the Kingdom and its Embassies. Are foreign military personnel, diplomats or officials of European and American oil companies also required to be vaccinated before entering the Kingdom? Only Muslims pilgrims or those holding work visa from anywhere in the world remain subject to this rule for all these decades. It will probably remain in force as long as the Monarchy lasts ------ insha Allah!

A separate memorandum was sent to our Provincial Health Secretary asking him to alert all doctors in the Province about the incidence and management of the infection. Our media statements recommended two tablets of rifampicin, 600 mg each, twice daily for two days for the possible carriers who had returned from Hajj that season but had no symptoms.

Intending pilgrims from the USA and some other countries now face hardship in getting vaccinated. The disease is almost nonexistent in those lands and pharmacies do not generally stock the vaccine.

Meddling in Saudi affairs proved taxing. The Ambassador’s Secretary, Mrs Barlas Haideri, phoned that all persons from NWFP applying for Saudi Visa for any purpose will be referred to me for vaccination and certification. Special paper with watermark was sent to me for writing out the certificates. I got columns printed on it for the Applicant’s Name, Passport Number, National Identity Card Number, date of vaccination, brand name of the vaccine, its batch number and its expiry date. For almost two years my Medical Officer, Dr Manzoor Ahmad, and I vaccinated dozens of applicants every working day from 11.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. and issued them the certificates. We had vaccinated, and documented, 379 visa seekers by 20 September 1988.

Our politicians and bureaucrats are not accustomed to being inconvenienced by having to present themselves in person for such formalities. A Provincial Cabinet Minister and his Secretary had planned to perform Umrah and were referred to me for vaccination. An assistant of the Minister brought their Passports for vaccination certificates in absentia. The two VIPs looked disgruntled when they had to come in person for the jabs. A Maulana (cleric) from Peshawar was so eminent that the road at which he resided was named after him. He sent his son with the Passports of all the adults in his family asking for vaccination certificates. He too was visibly unhappy at having to present all the applicants in person.

I had performed Umra in 1986 and Haj in 1987. The Saudi hospitality and civility were not very endearing on those occasions. My friend Dr Mahboob Ali from Wales and I decided to go for one more Umrah together by British Airways from Heathrow. The Captain announced, an hour before landing at Jeddah, that we would soon be entering Saudi airspace where there was prohibition of alcohol. “Order your last drinks now if you wish”, he announced. A few Saudis ordered Double or single Scotch like the non-Saudi passengers. Many of these passengers had shaking legs and slurred speech at the Immigration counters at Jeddah airport. Their breaths filled the arrival zone with rancid alcoholic aroma. The Immigration Officers, like the proverbial monkeys, saw nothing, heard nothing and said nothing. A Saudi Passport is a potent vaccine against punishment for such a breach of their own law.

The BBC Urdu Service published a report on 04 December 2015 about the easy availability of alcohol in Saudi Arabia and the equally easy means of making the Saudi Police (Shurta) blind, deaf and dumb.

I had vaccinated myself before leaving home and had filled out the same certificate that I had been issuing to visa applicants for over two years. I did not expect any special treatment from the Saudi officials. I did, however, assume that my vaccination certificate for myself was as good as the hundreds I had issued to pilgrims and labourers in the preceding two years. Taking anything for granted in the Kingdom is an error. The Immigration Officer looked at my Passport and the certificate. He tossed the certificate back at me in a rude manner. “No good; you make it yourself”, he said scornfully. Every second person in the airport seemed to be a an Abdullah. One such Abdullah took me to a paramedic for an unneeded second jab. The same Immigration Official most probably had seen and accepted dozens of such certificates under my signature and seal.

Friends who performed Umrah recently told me that the Saudi officials no longer accept a certificate of meningococcal vaccination. Each pilgrim is given a shot on arrival in the airport ---- a sad reflection on the integrity of some doctors and the intending pilgrims themselves.

I had in my handbag a VHS cassette of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke’s delightful movie, Mary Poppin, for my children. The cassette and I landed in a scrutiny room where a guy played a few scenes on his VCR. Julie Andrews, in her graceful Victorian robes, was dancing with cartoons and the two little children under her care.. “Bad, very bad; woman dancing”, he mumbled. I thanked my stars for being let out of the room, even if the video was confiscated. You could visualise him watching the lovely video with his wives and kids that evening.


I spent a week with an old friend in Jeddah. My host and I were one day walking along a road in Jeddah when a young driver lost control of his car and ran into a lamp pole. The guy was manifestly drunk and his female companion badly shaken. The Shurta (cops) were on the scene almost instantly. “The bloke has had it”, I whispered to my host. “Nothing will happen to him”, he whispered back. “How come! He is stocious drunk”, I queried in disbelief. “Well”, he explained, “The Shurta will take him to the Qadhi Court on a charge of drunken driving. The Qadhi will dismiss the charge on the grounds that nobody can possibly be drunk in the Kingdom when no alcohol exists at all in the country”. Logical enough, even if hypocritical.

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I faxed the Saudi Ambassador’s Secretary on my return to Peshawar to inform her that I won’t be vaccinating and certifying visa applicants any more. She asked for the reason for my decision. “If my certificate is not good enough for myself, it can’t be any use for others”.

I have kept a bulky file of correspondence with the Saudi Embassy in memory of those days. It was stressed to the Ambassador’s Secretary that there was no need for continuing the vaccination indefinitely. Outbreaks of meningococcal meningitis occur cyclically every 10 - 12 years in conditions of overcrowding in confined zones, but the location of these outbreaks is not necessarily the same each time. This plea has made no sense to the Saudi establishment . Playing the flute to a buffalo is an Urdu proverb that aptly describes the futility of such pleas with some folks.

Ethnic bias, racism, color prejudice and linguistic barriers exist in every land. Stratification of humanity into The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a global reality. In the Kingdom, however, humans are classified into The best, Better than the best and The scum. These categories correspond to the native Saudis, the whites and the rest of mankind respectively.

Inside a huge shopping Mall in Jeddah is an all-glass elevator. By its side is a gigantic pillar on which is written the following Quranic Verse in mesmerizing calligraphy:

O’ Mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may recognise one another. Indeed the most worthy of honor amongst you in the sight of Allah is he who obeys Him the most (49 : 13). An irony indeed, if there was one. And all this in a land that God chose to be the recipient of His final message to mankind.

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The Saudis earn a massive fortune from the Hajj and Umrah every year. The number of Umrah pilgrims during Ramadhan alone is a staggering figure. Some may consider it blasphemous to suggest that the Umma, by consensus, should forgo the Hajj and Umrah for just two years. The many princes will feel the pinch of losing their billions of dollars brought by the pilgrims. The Saudi annual GDP must be a colossal sum. Of that sum 3% comes from these pilgrimages. The Kingdom’s income from Hajj and Umrah in 2013, according to Arab News (05 January 2013) was 16.5 billion US Dollars. The expected income from the 2014 annual Hajj alone was 8.5 billion US Dollars ( Saudi Gazette, 25 Aug 2014 & Al Arabiya, 26 Aug 2014). Many pilgrims from around the globe travel by Saudi Airlines for their pilgrimages. That is no small source of the kingdom’s additional income. Add to this the billions that the pilgrims spend on food, hotels, transport and shopping in the kingdom every year.

An International Committee representing all the Muslim countries, and representatives of Muslim expatriates in non-Muslim countries, ought to manage these pilgrimages at nonprofit basis. The committee, based in Makkah, may be chaired by a non-royal Saudi citizen or some other eminent Muslim by rotation. That same committee should have the power to grant specially designed Visas for Hajj and Umrah only without any visa fee.

The fossil oil won’t last forever but the Hajj and Umrah will. Extravagant and ostentatious lifestyle, diamond-coated cars and billions worth of ‘Flying Palaces’ may one day become sad relics in the history of Saudi dynasty. It will then be too late for a voluntary change. Al-aana! Wa qad asaita qablo ( Now? And you have been reckless in the past : Al-Quraan 10 : 91).

The Saudi and Gulf princes spend millions of dollars every year on falconry hunting the migratory rare Houbara bustard birds in the southwest of Pakistan.
Professional falcon trappers in Pakistan catch the falcons as they come down for a drink on the banks of the Rainwater Reservoir (baaraan dam) near Bannu in KP. The princes pay a fortune for each falcon. One such falcon catcher was my patient when I was posted as District Medical Specialist in Bannu during 1970. I asked him why were these princes so keen on the Houbara bustard when the French millionaires and American tycoons flock to the Scottish Highlands for grouse shooting as from 12 August every year. ‘Doctor Sahib’, he spoke with a knowing smile. “It is not just a bird to them; they believe its flesh enhances sexual power (libido) and prolongs the climax”. Phantasy invents its own logic, even if patently silly.

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Despite its colossal earnings from the oil and the pilgrimages, some sources report an overall unemployment rate of 12% in the Kingdom. A staggering 30% of the jobless are said to be young people. It is a case of scarcity in a land of plenty (Middle East Eye, 28 September 2015).

Thousands of laborers from Asian and African countries are stranded in the Saudi kingdom for months during 2015 --16 without receiving any wages. They are living in squalid camps on inadequate food and scant health facilities. Their repatriation is a colossal problem in itself. Some of the workers are promised delayed payment of their arrears through their national embassies. Officials in the embassies and Foreign Ministries of Third World countries have a high reputation for corruption. They will most probably let a small portion of the money reach the workers’ pockets. The plummeting oil prices and the drastic reduction in earnings from the annual pilgrimage has put a squeeze on the monarchy. The New York Times (27 September 2016) reported an unprecedented fall in wages as well as in the government services. Salaries of Ministers have been trimmed by 20%. Pays and allowances of civil servants are expected to hit record low. The Saudi government is about to sign a 10-billion dollar loan with international banks in order to shore up its sagging economy (BBC Urdu Service, 27 September 2016). In the middle of October 2016, the kingdom launched its international Bonds scheme in the hope of raising multi-billion dollar capital. Sounds like an error, but it is not. The oil glut and a substantial drop in the number of pilgrims this year have scared the royal family into a panic. Fees for different categories of Saudi visas have just been raised by several hundred percent. Two types of visas that cost 500 Saudi Riyals each will now cost 3000 and 8000 Saudi Riyals. The pilgrimage visa fee mercifully remains unchanged as yet (BBC Urdu Service, 02 October 2016). This exemption will apply to first Hajj and first Umra. Visa fee for second and subsequent pilgrimages may go up from the present 350 Saudi Riyals to 2,000 S.R. Multiple Entry Visas for business purposes have also jumped up several hundred percent. This increase, oddly enough, applies to all countries except the USA and the European Union nations (BBC Urdu Service: 21 October 2016). Sounds like racism in reverse gear.

South African Muslims have already launched a protest campaign against these steps. Egyptian Travel Agents Association and Morocco's Federation of Travel Agencies have suspended Umrah and Haj booking. Turkey and Jordan have expressed their disgust at these measures (International Business Times, October 17, 2016).

Another indication of fiscal desperation is the kingdom’s decision to pay salaries and wages according to the Gregorian calendar year of 365 days instead of the Islamic Hijri year of about 354 days as from 01 October 2016 (Arab News and Saudi Gazette, quoted by Dawn, Karachi, 04 October 2016).

And yet the ostentatious lifestyle of the Saudi royals and the gulf Emirs at times goes beyond vulgarity. No one has proved that golden bathroom fittings make one’s private job more pleasureable. A diamond-crusted automobile is as perishable as any other. Kids of the rich were metaphorically said to come out of their mothers’ wombs with silver spoons in their mouths. Things have apparently progressed in the Saudi kingdom and the Gulf States. Feeding bottles encrusted with 18-21 carat gold and costing 400 -1333 US dollars are now instant birthday gifts to the newborns (Al-Arabia --English-- 04 November 2016)

Disparity in the distribution of wealth is not a crime in itself. It has, regrettably, gone beyond obscenity in some lands. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait happen to be three such states. One can only wish and pray for sanity to prevail among the ruling elite of these countries. The Saudi Printing Press publishes and distributes millions of copies of the Quran in many languages. The many Kings and Princes, sadly, don’t seem to have read verses 8:28 and 64:15, “your wealth and your offspring are a test for you”. Tests, remember, always have results. By then it is too late to tread the Straight Path.

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Qisasun-Nabiyyeen (Tales of the Prophets) is a compact booklet written in simple Arabic by Abul Hasan Nadvi. I have before me pages 38 and 39 that describe the fate of a rich community whose people had exceptionally strong physiques and great skills in building palatial houses. Those with tall and expansive mansions looked down upon those with less ostentatious dwellings. They did little else besides eating, drinking and indulging in wasteful sports and silly games. They squandered their wealth on water, mud and stones (the present day RCC, bricks, steel, glass and marble) and built palaces wherever they found an empty stretch of land or some high ground. The rich owned unneeded palaces while the poor had families without houses to live in. And then the calamity truck. Ferocious winds and devastating tornados destroyed the mansions they thought were indestructible. People locked themselves inside their homes, women screamed and little children clung to their mothers’ bosoms. The winds and tornados uprooted trees, destroyed buildings and lifted people and cattles up and dumped them elsewhere. The disastrous storm lasted seven nights and eight days. The arrogant community was annihilated except a few who had believed in, and followed, the Prophet raised amongst them.



The similarity between the present day Arab royals and that community is a frightening one. The possibility, God forbid, of a similar catastrophe is a chilling thought.

No religious or secular law anywhere in the world prescribes death penalty for possessing narcotics. Many states in the USA have legalized the cultivation, harvesting, sale and consumption of marijuana. Even some nuns are reported to be growing the herb in the backyard of their churches in the USA. I have seen registered heroin addicts in Swiss cities lining up for their daily shots of heroin at specified dispensaries.

Dozens of people are beheaded every year by the Saudi government for possessing narcotics if they are caught on arrival at any one of the country’s International Airports. We are yet to hear of a single person losing his head because of actual narcotic consumption. It is pretended that there is no demand for these substances within the Kingdom and the substances do not exist outside the International Airports. Passengers carrying narcotics in their baggage, or in their interiors, are said to be transiting international smugglers even if they hold confirmed Return air tickets to the Kingdom and back.

A vast and lucrative market, and chains of middlemen in the peninsula for these commodities, are realities despite the official denials. Those caught in the country outside international airports are simply deported. A relative of mine from Mohmand Agency in Pakistan made many trips, stayed in the Kingdom in different places and was deported each time. And every time he went back to the Kingdom within days, with a new Passport under a different name and another consignment of drugs. The Computerized National Identity Card and Machine-readable Passport ended his oft-repeated Umrahs. One fateful day he fell out with his business partner over their shares of the Riyals. He shot dead his partner’s brother inside a passenger bus in the center of Umarzai bazaar (KP, Pakistan). The partner avenged his brother’s death by shooting dead my relative’s younger brother. The council of tribal elders (Jirga) negotiated a settlement on a quid pro quo basis. I have banned that relative from visiting my house and have left a Will that he is not to attend my funeral if I happen to precede him on the way to eternity.

Makkah and Madina are pivotal to the very existence of Muslims as an Umma. It was brotherly concern, prompted by sympathy, that made me dwell at such length on the way the leaders of the Muslim Umma live squander Allah’s provisions sorecklessly..

O’ Allah! Guide us to the straight path -- the path of those whom You have blessed, not the path of those who are cursed, nor the path of those who have gone astray (Al-Quran, 01 : 6 & 7).
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