Friday, 28 October 2016

Stunned Falcons, Layla Lakes and Water.

The picture is beautiful.  A blue water lake fringed with green grasses and a jet boat pulling a water skier.  If that is in Saudi we need to go find it, I said to Hubster. So Google was searched and searched again for the location of Layla Lakes.

We took Mr UK with us on this trip.  He was on a short stint back in Riyadh and loves road tripping with us.  Either that or he didn't have a better offer this particular weekend.

We set off quite early because our first stop was just south of Riyadh to watch a falcon display in the desert.  There were Ooooo's and Ahhh's as the birds were carried out on their perches and displayed.  Then Oooo's and Ohhhh's as the live bait was bought out and released into the air for a raptor type breakfast.

Mr UK and the rest of the group were impressed with all falcon related activity and the falcon handler was a wealth of information.  The birds displaying their speed, grace and aggression as they swooped in on their prey in the brilliant blue sky, a perfect backdrop to the brick red dunes on a crisp but clear autumn morning, was spectacular to watch.

The sight was only marred by all the rubbish sprinkled over the desert. If someone could please invent biodegradable plastic bags - and cheap ones because Saudi businesses won't buy them otherwise - that would be great.   (And I'm looking at SABIC here - you great massive corporation of plastic related inventiveness.  Take up the challenge for your country if not the world and create truly safe, biodegradable plastic bags!  Either that or sponsor nationwide education on how to put rubbish in bins, preferably in all languages of those who live in the country because, lets face it, its not just resident Arabs throwing their shit around the countryside. Or sponsor the supply of reusable canvas bags in supermarkets while training the grocery packers on the concept of ”Less plastic, Better Environment."  PS - I know someone happy to spread a Two Bag Rubbish Revolution message if you'd like to sign him up).

The ducks who made a dash from their open cage narrowly escaped becoming a mid-morning falcon snack.  We watched with mounting tension and nervous chuckles as one escapee waddled up the dune past a falcon resting in the sand seemingly oblivious to the imminent danger, while the falcon, looking on in total disbelief at the sight of the bird shuffling through the sand in front of him, seemed stunned into inaction.

We're out....RUUUUUNNNNN!

Falcon: What the......?
Duck:  Got to escape, got to escape...puff, puff, pant, pant.
Falcon:  Ya shittin me...

Falcon:  (Confused, stunned, falcon face)

Falcon:  (Doing a double take)  (Contemplating action)
Duck:  Got to escape, got to escape....I'm at the toooooppp!!!

Falcon:  *Sigh*...doing nothing is making me look bad.
I have to go check this idiot out.

Falcon:  Hey duck
Duck:  Got to escape, got to escape

Falcon: From? (raised eyebrow look)
Duck: (realizing this is a Falcon) ARRRRGGGGGGGHHH

Duck:  please don't kill me, please don't kill me

Falcon: Hmmmmmm...(pacing, thinking like)

Today's your lucky day duck.
Get outta here before the Falcon man sticks you back in the cage
The Falcon man caught the duck and put it back in the cage.  We asked why the Falcon didn't seem interested in ripping the duck to pieces.  Probably, he said, because the duck was too big.  The birds won't take on large prey if they don't have to because of the risk of damaging a wing.  Wing damage is not good for a hunting bird.

A sigh of relief was breathed for the duck that this Falcon had already eaten.  This group was not into totally unnecessary blood letting.

To top off the morning, everyone who felt inclined got to hold a falcon. Or rather, the Falcon got to hold them.  The claws on these birds are quite large and very sharp.  Leather gear is a necessary accessory for this photo opportunity, as is not minding holding bits of shredded pigeon - presumably an incentive to keep a falcon steady and quiet for the photo shoot.

After a spot of qahwah, a few more photos and a chinwag with fellow early morning Falcon watchers, it was time for us to head out of town, further south, to our intended destination of Layla.

Layla is about 300km's from Riyadh.  It wasn't so much to the township we were heading as to the lakes outside of it.  According to my research there were 15 lakes in all, some of a very large size.  Having unearthed a map on Google we headed toward the pin drop on my phone, and yes, having an almost direct route to our destination felt like I was cheating on this expedition.  We are so used to traversing this country almost mapless.

Although our early exploits in the desert had taken place in the cool of the morning, we arrived in Layla in the hottest part of the day.  Possibly not the best planned timing but then I was driven by this picture of water based sports...
Yes this is Layla lakes only a few short decades ago.

On the other side of town we turned onto a side road at the end of which was a rather long fence, slightly old, and a gate, slightly ajar.  The vehicle was parked and we walked through to see what could be seen.

Topping the Saudi version of a country fence - sand piled into banks by a digger all along a boundary line - a squeal of excitement passed my lips. The boys clambered up to see what brought on such uncharacteristic behavior.  

Is that someone's house?
It looks a bit wrecked.
Where's the water? 

Just a few of the comments being made by my weekend travel companions about the deserted buildings we were looking at.  They were confused.  I was excited.  We were in the right place.  This was the reputedly never opened Layla Lakes Resort, built when the lakes were a weekend respite destination from the heat of the desert.

Now the lakes are dry sinkholes -  geological marvels of little use to the man who spent a fortune erecting the nearby retreat.  The depleting of the country's water table sank the resort as the water in the nearby lakes disappeared before his eyes.

We stood at the edge of the now dry lake beds  They are rather large.  So large in fact, we didn't make our way around them - the heat beat us back.  We looked for ways to walk into the bottom of the deeper hole - the water must have bubbled up from some cavity in the ground and that would have been a great find - but there was no easy trail.  Part of a natural bridge between two of the deeper lake's had caved in as well, suggesting a search in that area might be a risky adventure.  The pigeons we disturbed were easily flying in circles in the shade of the deep wells, teasing us with our clumsy efforts. 

The small formations on the side of the big lake, shaped like cups that one could imagine making excellent cascades as water poured over them or making homes for fresh water critters, and the much larger ball and boulder shapes making up the sides of the deeper lakes are apparently of significant geological interest - a Saudi Caves article has more information for you geologically inclined readers who would like to find out more about this.  All I know is the formations are slowly, but surely, turning to dust.

Though this location can be marked off as something interesting we visited in Saudi, it was a sad sight not just because of the haunted looking buildings.  Saudi has a major water crisis that I'm not sure everyone in top positions has been appropriately addressing in their rush to build new homes and expand their cities.  And for people who hail from the desert the Gen Y and Z populous don't seem to have much of a water conservation mindset.  Water is wasted everywhere.  Drivers can be seen early in the morning washing sponsor cars every day, I've watched maids run water in the kitchens cleaning the dust from between the drupelets of blackberries till the fruit practically shines - a completely unnecessary exercise if you ask me.  And it is possible to stroll past water leaking on to the road from a hidden but obviously broken pipe for days in Riyadh.  In saying all that  though, I have to admit, as I look out at my well watered compound residence with its green trees, lovely swimming pool and quaint but unnecessary rockery water feature, my choice of home probably isn't helping the water situation much.


Rumour has it that the guys responsible for this country's watery plight are now playing a 'Steal from Peter to save Paul' strategy, which basically means locations in Saudi that still have sufficient underground water for their local population, like Al Ula for example, are being 'encouraged' with lots of wheeling and dealing, much to the disgust of the local residents, many of whom are small plot family farmers and gardeners, to send their precious resource to other areas of the country marked for rapid expansion.  Not exactly a long term strategy and one can easily envisage Al Ula winding up with sinkholes like Layla Lakes and Al Kharj (whose sinkholes you can read about in this post Al Kharj and the Eyes of Najma).

We left Layla Lakes contemplative of the future of this country and its drive to rapid modernization and growth wondering if it was all really worth it if such action is bleeding the country dry.  One day, perhaps like the falcon and the Layla Lakes resort owner, the country will be left stunned at how it buggered its water supplies up because of their early arrogant lack of concern for its limits.

Ka Kite,

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Saudi Waiting For Change?


There is a Deputy Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia who, according to recent accounts, is wearing himself out because he wants to drag this country into the 21st Century.  There is also a huge youthful population who want to start living in that century in more ways than just buying the latest iPhone release. We were discussing the other day, a few peeps and I, how these same youth don't seem to have jumped on board the 2030 plan and shouted out, loudly and clearly....'Yes! At last!  Finally someone to get us ahead'. Why is that?

The majority of Saudi youth, so I gather, want social modernization more than economic reform.  As a bright, well traveled and well educated young Saudi man told me, he sees that many of the issues considered immoral in Saudi Arabia today are only a problem in this country.  The rest of the world seems to have moved on and he wonders what is it with his own countrymen that they are happy to remain behind in many ways.  His family question his attitude, asking why he is not happy with the norms that have sustained this country for centuries.

There are young women I know with degrees in the business sector who have been told they must stay behind their frosted glass office with no view out at all, ladies (and not all of them young) crowded into a hot, shared, noisy space while their counterpart males get spacious, individual offices with views of the street out in the main business area where all the high flying discussion takes place. And the young women wonder what is so special about them to get such treatment?  The answer from the Saudi man in charge of the office is 'That is the way it is'. Their question behind their glass cage is, 'Why?

The other question young people ask is "What are our people afraid of?"

The answer to that question is easy.  The old guard are afraid of change.   The young people know this already, though not all of them are sure what to do with that knowledge.  On the one hand this could highlight their immaturity or on the other is a reflection of the respect that most Saudi youth hold for their elders who they consider to be wise and worthy - even if on modernization issues they largely disagree with them.

The old guard fear has its own.  Those who have become powerful, whether in the business arena, the Mosque or the home from the entrenched norms aren't about to give up that power without, at the least, a personal internal struggle or, at most, voiced protest.  That voice usually comes in the form of stern words that generally say things along the lines of 'you're being un-Islamic, of not being Saudi, of chasing infidel values, of going to hell. Of do what I say or else... '

In the past such a dressing down may have instilled fear and doubt in the hearts of their intended target.  What the old guard have forgotten is that the youth of today are, for the most part, well educated, globally connected and influenced, large in number and looking for answers that gel with the modern age.  In other words, such tactics don't work so much any more.

What the conservatives of this country also seem to have missed, which isn't so obvious unless you know where to look, is that the youth have quietly gone about advancing their goal of social modernization despite efforts to prevent it.  And they have, either cunningly or unwittingly, used the economic, political and cultural situation of the country to their advantage.  While the focus of the world, media and general Saudi population in recent years has been on the state of the Saudi economy, Saudi politics, Saudi oil, terrorism, Middle East conflict, new kings, Ministerial reshuffles and the Deputy Crown Prince as he pushes ahead with economic reform, the youth have been implementing strategies, presumably developed in youth based digital media circles that the old guard are deliberately kept out of and ably assisted by forward thinkers within the government, to create centers that are, well, modern.

There is no frosted glass.  There is no gender favoritism of space.  And the world hasn't ended.  More importantly the young people in that space are positive, energetic, happy in their work environment and getting things done.  Prior to discovering these bastions of progress I did wonder why there seemed to be silence from the youth sector regarding the economic reform plans and rather pitied the Deputy Crown Prince as without voiced support from the sector who will most likely, fingers crossed, benefit from his plan because many of his ideas include improvement for youth, his seems an uphill battle.

It was only while out the other day, chatting and laughing with some young women at a cafe while some from the old guard frowned at the fun being had, that I was reminded that cheering in this country, that emotively driven act of shouting for joy or singing praises, has been so completely discouraged in the past that the population is cautious about such expression in the public sphere.  It's ironic how advantageous that forced impassiveness has been for youth who, I sense, prefer to keep their cheering regarding social modification of their spaces to a minimum else it attract unwanted attention.

Here's hoping some part of the 2030 reforms include promotion of the normal human emotion of expressing happiness.

Change is not an easy thing to implement or to face and it has been interesting noting the two different methods for creating change in Saudi - one very public, the other quiet and steady.  Recent reform policies, such as public sector pay cuts and various price increases, have thrown up consequences that the Saudi population had not bargained for and the youth probably had not even considered possible in the bright future they dream of.  Should the reform policies begin to adversely affect their comfortable lives the youth may start viewing the nations makeover more seriously and vocally.  For now, being born into a life of plenty and having not had to face economic downturn before, coupled with that natural youthful optimism we of more mature years remember having but cannot for the life of us figure out where it went, the youth are keeping themselves buoyant, seemingly relatively unperturbed and quite upbeat because their desire for changes in the social arena is bearing fruit.  Long may their happiness last.

Ka Kite,

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