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Middle East » Saudi Arabia » Dammam
May 9th 2020
Published: May 9th 2020
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What makes something valuable? This question is long debated by the economists and traders throughout the world.

Marx would say my mother’s rhubarb crumble should be valued at the sum of the ingredients plus the effort of the chef. And given that Mum can whip one up in minutes and the rhubarb grew in the garden, Marx and I may disagree on the value. Keynes might argue value is defined by scarcity and demand for the pudding. Truly, everyone knows that my mother is singular in perfecting this treat, whilst demand is from all the family. Thus, Mum could drive a high price yet it is provided freely! You should however “Mind your Ps & Qs” as Val would have said – the cost of a lack of politeness will weigh heavy on your heart.

Both models fall down over a human’s trait to perceive value in that that is assigned value. For although I was given it freely, I would not trade it for another crumble made anywhere. I have the ability to assign the value myself from my own perception.

A Saville Row suit by name alone is given value by some arbitrary arbiter, or do you believe that the temperature, humidity and atmosphere of North London is a unique environment that breeds a tailor of the higher quality? And what if we simply stop defining value in a name, then as we saw Thomas Cook, Woolworths and British Steel turned to dust.

What does this have to do with Saudi Arabia? That is what this blog post is about, right?

Well, whilst travelling you will find that value assignments become often vastly different to other parts of the world, if a commodity, these differentials are ripe for some Phoenician traders to exploit, as they run along the shortest path like electricity finding earth. And until my future PhD, this is only interesting anecdotally so here we go.

On the gulf coast of Saudi is Dammam, a large city between the desert and sea that services the country’s industrial base. Driving past the iron smelter or gasworks takes the best part of 15 mins on the highway, each one with a nest of pipes and chimneys, reminiscent of one’s industry zones of Sim City 2000. In the centre of town, there is a bustle like any town on the peninsula, flat rooved two story buildings line the streets, with the odd hotel or office block extending up a bit. The sound of the mosques at prayer time resound the streets. When the shops reopen after prayers so do the car horns and sounds of the traders. I explore the hardware stores in search of some supplies for my work. Fuel is practically given away, a low value assigned, whilst car batteries seem to be inexplicably expensive, whilst other useful trinkets seem forgotten, unassigned any value.

But apart from the commodity prices, aspirational value is also different. A home’s finest crockery may be made of unbreakable plastic of exciting colours, rather than brittle porcelain with its weary faded blues and greens that sit dusty at the back of the cupboard. The mosque’s flare and modernity may mean it is adorned with fairy lights, of that found on a garish fairground ride. A fine restaurant marks its high status by evergreen plastic flowers and faux gold trim. An identical flat in a tall tower is a hot property unlike the unique but drab and drafty detached house with its lack of security. Magnesium strip lights are a powerful display of lighting force, over the weak filaments of Edison.

This reversal of the British nostalgic love for the decrepit is not only found in Saudi. As I rummage through a pile of discarded 20th century furniture with the other expats on Lomtalanitas days in Budapest, I might find the old woods of mahogany or cedar casually displaced by Ikea’s finest fibreboard. The thatch and Tudor mud of Barrington, Cambridgeshire is indication of wealth, whilst the grass rooves and adobe brick of Elegu, Uganda are locally considered for those without. Conversely, a tin roof is seen as a status of quality, yet would be scoffed at if found in Barrington. Australians on the other hand might say there is nothing finer than a quality metal roof. And so value is given by all, and aggregated together.

Family value is also varied; Spend any time with a Spaniard or an Italian and you will note that they will call home to their parents on a daily basis. Arabic cultures will command the return of entire family members on key family occasions and national holidays, and being a doctor on call would be considered only just a bearable excuse, and the offender would be reminded of his poor ability to remember or schedule his time for a considerable length of time. Many cultures will have family elders dictate the passage of one’s life, whom they must marry, how many children and even how to raise those children.

I have heard many talking of suffering as they enter their family homes to endless inquisition into their personal lives and the when the next rite of passage will occur (marriage, children, career). Numerous stories have been confided in me from these peoples of how they miss their family but stay away because they can’t handle it until they have found a wife, had a child, got a degree.

On the other side, in Britain, we are pushed out of the nest early and told to decide our own destiny. In the US they must follow the proud traditions of their forefathers and go boldly into the world to make something of oneself, to live is to work and with that comes happiness. Yet, the Anglo-American freedom to do as we please gives rise to isolated individuals in a sea of strangers, who cry and eat alone, who fear calling on their family as it signifies weakness. And so the double edged sword can fall on us all. In the same way the fickle value of oil can enrich or destroy an economy.

Saudi Arabia, was a land where I met no national citizens for my entire stay of three weeks. My world was of the many Sudanese, Indian and Pakistani nationals who had lived there for decades. And although citizenship has not been granted, these people call Saudi home, and are glad for the state and all that it provides. Much as one might imagine a Persian merchant being proud of his licence to trade within in the Roman empire. One evening we picnic together in a park, a long table cloth is rolled out, and filled with a mixture of Asian and Arabic foods, prayers are made and we eat by hand, as we share stories from around the world, unforgettable and unsellable value was distributed by everyone.


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9th May 2020

isolated individuals in a sea of strangers
A poignant essay Tim. And if a long residing non-citizen dies in Saudi, are they remembered? What is the value of their life?

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