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The Bank Run

Doing a bank run, whether it is for a deposit or to get your account unfrozen, can be quite tedious in Saudi Arabia. InterNations member Abu Muhammed embarked on such an odyssey and is here to tell the tale.

The company for once sent an admin assistant to expedite the never ending complication of getting my account unfrozen at a Saudi bank.

“I know what bank we go to,“ Idris said with his thick but passable English inflection which proved to be surprisingly articulate once you got used to it. We took his car, a chronologically new Japanese Sedan that had been rapidly aged by Jeddah roads in ways unimagined by those more familiar with western thoroughfares.  It was the end of the term and I was grateful for any means to avoid the free fall experience of teaching students who were mentally on summer vacation. Idris drove with all the epic tricks of meandering and tailgating the locals were legendary for. I pumped my phantom brake at a pace inclusive to each minute of my ordeal. The bank he knew was a smaller, dingier version of the one I suggested, though it had the same glistening placards and interior design of the newer one.

Idris gestured for me to take the next available seat in a bowed line of mostly locals waiting for their machine-issued number to flash in art of red on black pointillism. My number placed me 17 customers deep among those with a ‘this is hell’ expression on their faces.  Although there were three desks, there was only one customer rep. After a few moments, Idris walked up to the desk and began to make arm gestures punctuated by pointing at me and then waving me to approach.

“Can I see your Iqamah?” He glanced at it as if confirming what he has said and nothing more.

“Hmm, Ameriki huh— Mr. David, welcome”, said the Rep in the baritone Tonto used with the Lone Ranger. I was impressed by his response.  Idris’ face bore the shadow of a knowing smirk. The locals had this strange but begrudging respect for western nationalities. Yet most of the time, it was a façade —a lure to their hawkish relationship with outsiders.

Nevertheless I felt that I was, for the first time in eight years at a real point of advantage.

“We are short-handed. My colleagues are out sick. I can see you next Thursday at about 9 a.m.” he said with a professional cordiality. I glanced over to Idris, who apparently was awaiting my response. He made an attempt to appear faultless in what appeared to be a terminating blow in my quest by averting his eyes despite being close enough to hear all. As far as he was concerned, the door to the solution to my problem was shut and he had done his job.  I thanked the man, as was my habit as a personal reminder to myself that being just the slightest bit annoyed at such circumstances was a waste of energy and often offends the natives. Arabia has never been about productivity but relationships. Ancient habits were hard to break.

New Bank, New Luck

“Let’s go to a bigger bank,” I said. It was the bank I suggested originally — it being closer to work and being bigger, had more people  manning the desk for such things you couldn’t do with a teller.

I did have a few issues with Idris’ driving (my first impression and experience with it was that morning with the ride to the bank). I could probably live with it if necessary, but what really sizzled my nerve endings were those who had less to lose in their unmaintained, uninsured jalopies that used the same roads. Revisionist history and regrets aside, in the shadow of the many ‘ifs’ I lamented that day — the biggest of which was not taking my car instead of his — was the uncertainty  if our next excursion of near misses in the careening post-noon traffic were my real worry, or if the 29-degree-celsius Idris maintained as a comfortable environmental setting would be the most troubling in my next highway ordeal.

“Don’t worry — I am very fast and clever on the road,” he said, perhaps sensing my uneasiness in the stampede of traffic  he weaved through.  It was about noon when Idris dropped me off in front of the entrance, sweaty but relieved the drive hadn’t been longer.

“I’ll wait,” he said, his phone plugs already in. Whatever I ventured to say after that was now beyond his frame of reference or concern.

Waiting for My Turn…

I took my number and sat in the waiting lounge. I checked once again to see if I had my iqamah, passport and requisite letters. Producing a valid iqamah generally was all you needed to unlock a frozen account, but all Saudi bureaucrats, no matter what business, have a different take on the ‘rules’ and procedures. It is always good to bring whatever they could conceivably ask for.

Finally, my life would be back to normal, I thought.  Paying bills and even travel between check points had been a series of calculated risks and negotiated requests between the proxying friends and strangers whom often see your need to keep your electricity as less urgent than a football match they want to watch. It was hard to believe that I was going to regain control of when and how I paid my bills — a necessary evil in the computerized commerce of the Saudi business-scape.  Without a valid iqamah, your rights and privileges are on hiatus. Car rentals, hotel stays or hospital care and even a phone SIM card is out of reach in the purgatory of iqamah expiration.

Done in ultra-modern décor, the bank was separated into several areas by stone hinge–type partitions.

My number was 45 (or twenty minutes deep depending on your point of reference). The uninitiated would see being in a queue of nearly fifty a ‘come back the next day’-event. Saudis however, as a cultural characteristic, like to take their time doing things though they prefer to have things done quickly by others. This is particularly true for those from the deep end of the economic pool. Knowing this, with the usual attrition of the impatient bank customers unwilling to do the wait for the snail pace of the customer service on a good day, my wait could last about twenty minutes or less.

It’s Not the End of the Story

As I predicted, I was at a desk in a relatively short period of time. I explained my account was frozen and presented my new iqamah. The rep, a seemingly alert and attentive Saudi rattling away at the keys of his computer as I talked, nodded as if in agreement with what I said and smiled. He pulled out several forms and circled the areas where he wanted me to sign and date — all of which seemed to take more time than it should have due to the never-ending line of questions about this, that, and the other thing by the occasional passing customer. Though it would be considered more respectful in the west to simply wait until the other person has been helped, the lack of information generally presented to the public about what to do and where to go, even in places as procedurally sophisticated as a bank, a certain amount of time servicing customers had to be sacrificed to direct customers in need of it. He finally stamped the papers I signed and then signed them himself, after which he beckoned another taller Saudi with a managerial swagger to check his work.

At last, I would be ‘legal’ again, I thought.

“Everything is set up, right? I can use my account now?”

“No Mr. David,” the manager told me. “We must make a new account for you and cancel the old one. It has been too long.”

“Okay…that’s okay with me.”

“Do you have a salary letter with you?” he asked.

 Of course I didn’t.


Abu Muhammed (aka J.E. Millington, Jr.) is a writer for the Mideast Posts and a variety of blogs and online magazines. He has been contributing articles to the InterNations Blog for a number of years. He writes news, travels articles, political and social commentary. Originally from the US, he is currently based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where he works as an Education Consultant and ESL teacher.

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