Going international

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Having resolved the range of applications for these scopes, I promptly applied for a BOTB (British Overseas Trade Board) EMRS (Export Market Research Scheme) arrangement. The government awarded me a grant that would refund 50% of all my travel, accommodation and subsistence costs in researching overseas markets, provided I filed a report and claim. I travelled Europe and the Middle East and later extended the deal to include North America. It meant I could go twice as often or for twice as long as our budget might have permitted.

Perhaps my most interesting foray was around the Middle East betraying my complete lack of knowledge of how to operate there. I had completed good desk research on potential clients and was assisted by Rolls Royce Industrial & Marine Division who effected many local introductions. My trip started in Saudi Arabia (Jeddah, Riyadh and Dhahran), Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait and finished up in Egypt. Old Middle East hands I met suggested I had not given myself enough time to achieve anything, but it turned out to be a high-earning trip.

Arrival at Jeddah was testing because it was during the Haj, so there was chaos at the airport. From the second that the door of the plane opened I was hit by the intense humidity, and the airport had no aircon. All passports had been collected and placed at a health desk. My Jumbo Jet flight had been perhaps 90% Arab and fewer that 10% of other origins. The health desk opened the passports and called out the holder’s name, who was given two large Tetracycline tablets to take. There was one small wooden dish (small soup bowl sized) and a tap to assist. They called out all the Arab names first, and so we ‘others’ watched as almost 300 rather disreputable-looking Haj pilgrims used that bowl. Then it was our turn. The dubious origin of the water and the previous users led to the only time I have ever managed to dry-swallow tablets. An American ‘other’ advised me to carry a screw-top Schweppes-sized bottle of water for the future. He suggested you could sell it on to the next ‘other’ in the queue for many dollars.

I held all the correct documentation for the scopes and camera bodies. I carried them in a smart cut-out display briefcase. The Customs guys were clearly unhappy and were expecting backsheesh to let me through. But I had no idea if offering this would get me into deeper trouble. Fortunately, the queues were swelled by two more Jumbos arriving and they finally waved me through untaxed.

By now my clothes were soaked in sweat. A little local lad stepped up calling out ‘Taxi’ and, before I had realised, grabbed my case and sprinted off. I panted along behind him as he wended his way through a car park to a dark forbidding corner of it. There were two adults standing there arguing in Arabic and pointing at me, one with a rifle as I summoned up the energy to be sure to take one of them with me, I wasn’t going lightly. Finally, I was invited into a taxi and I tipped the lad. The taxi drove me perhaps 300 metres to my hotel and then demanded the equivalent of £20 – welcome to Saudi Arabia!

Jeddah in the 1970s

The next day I met up with the British Military Attaché who was brilliant, he drove me onto military bases and introduced me to the people who mattered. He also had a series of great stories of his time there.

ASIDE: The Military Attache explained that the embassy smuggled in booze for their functions by sea, the manifest describing the package as a piano. They received a call from their contact at the docks to come quickly because the crate was leaking and attracting attention. The attaché’s predecessor in full uniform went to the port, marched up to the large group of officials gathered around the package. He looked at the manifest, handed it back and said, ‘Send it back, British pianos DO NOT leak!’, and calmly marched off.

One day I walked into Jeddah airport to find the Saudia Airlines engineering base, it helped to be completely oblivious of the high security nature of the facility. I entered a room with a guy leaning back in his chair with his feet up on his desk. He sported a pair of worn cowboy boots, his Stetson was hanging on the wall and a nameplate indicated this was Woody Pridgen, self-evidently a Texan even if I had missed the Lone Star flag. He looked at me speechlessly, as if I was a mirage in my suit, collar and tie and carrying a smart briefcase.

I filled the silence by opening the case to reveal my scopes and camera bodies and explaining why I was there. He still looked dumbfounded, reminding me of Slim Pickens in Dr Strangelove. He picked up a phone and asked someone ‘Has that order gone yet?’ and was told ‘No’, he said ‘Don’t process it’. He then explained he had just been about to order scopes and cameras for twelve Saudia bases around the kingdom from ‘Fort’ my French competitor. However, for my cojones in turning up at his office, he would give me the deal. What absolutely confirmed the order was that I could also include the supply of colour video cameras and screens – although these were mooted for use with the scopes, I got the distinct impression they would be for personal use. I left with an order for close to £80,000 worth of kit. But the leaving was not quite so simple, I should not have been on the site, so Woody hid me under a tarp on the back of a pick-up truck and drove me out.

On another occasion I met a rather subdued British guy at my hotel who had been awarded a poisoned chalice. He worked for the power generator CEGB at home and they had agreed to manage Jeddah’s power supply, promising no power outs through the coming summer. I later learned more of his impossible task, when Woody had to order a large number of light bulbs from me for our light sources. They were rated to operate for 200 hours but were lasting him only 20. A great deal of the local power supply was by gas turbine generator (essentially ground-tethered aero-engines) and these had a characteristic problem. When the sun rose, locals switched on their aircons and these turbines took a finite period to get up to speed, in the evening when they switched off the AC, the turbines took a long time to slow down. As a result, Woody recorded the actual power supply, rated at 120v, was in fact oscillating between 40v and 180v, it was this that burned out our bulbs. The CEGB guy had been there only a short while when I met him, he already had a haunted look in his eyes.

During the trip he dragooned me via my RR contact to visit a remote generating site to do an inspection. The route to it proved very circuitous because it was close to Makkah (Mecca) and as non-Islamics we were not permitted into the holy city. Thankfully our vehicle had tinted windows. A few miles closer, I could have claimed Hajji status – if I had converted!

Riyadh in the 1970s

I moved on to Riyadh which had one immediately disturbing feature. There were small planes flying over the suburbs almost constantly and when I asked, I was told they were spraying DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) to keep down pests and to control disease. DDT’s connection to breast and other cancers, miscarriages, development delays, male infertility, nervous system and liver damage was already well-documented. Its use was outlawed in Britain in 1986 and banned worldwide in 2001 with a few exceptional cases.

ASIDE: My hotel had a weird bath. A very heavy spherical rubbed ball sat on the outlet, but there was no sign of any inlet. You turned the tap on and the water pressure lifted the ball and filled the bath, switch it off anf the ball blocked the hole. The water had a rusty colouration which added to the disturbing thought that the ‘fresh’ water was coming in through where every previous resident’s dirty water had flowed outward. Never seen this before or since

My Riyadh hotel waiters had an annoying habit too, when you arrived back to the hotel to get out of the 40+C heat, they would smile pleasantly and ask if you wanted a beer. But, of course, what they brought you was a Swiss non-alcoholic apple concoction that really did not hit the spot ‘as advertised’.

Riyadh taxi

Riyadh was also a nightmare for travel arrangements. There was an ‘Arabian Express’ system for reconfirming flights that had you back and forth to the airport. The taxis you needed to use were another frustration, the drivers threw a headdress over their meter and had no interest in what it might display. You had to negotiate a round-trip with them, including any waiting time arrangement, before setting off – without knowing how far it was, or how long it might take! These taxis were also notable for having their own biosphere, they were full of travelling mosquitoes.

ASIDE: I am familiar with the sciences, but one thing that has often worried me is why flies and mosquitoes do not get crushed at the rear of a plane, or taxi. A plane travels at say 400 knots, so is the fly achieving 405 knots as it flies up through the cabin? Another issue is Einstein’s theory of relativity which includes a time-dilution feature that says an air traveller’s lapsed time means he/she ages more slowly than those left on the ground. I’ve flown a great deal but have yet to note any anti-ageing effects. Perhaps pondering why flies aren’t smeared on the back of the cabin is prematurely ageing me and that cancels it out?

So, let’s get back to the Arabian Express. This meant I had to go to Riyadh airport two days before my outward flight to reconfirm my booking. This involved joining a large queue of largely Yemeni, Iranian and Pakistani labourers and wait my turn. They exhibited a complete lack of understanding of the concept of personal space – or of personal daintiness. I stupidly slipped sideways from the crush as I neared the desk. The Saudi official decided I had pushed in and sent me to the back of the queue. When I was finally served, I was reconfirmed, then told I had to do the same thing the next day for seat allocation. Which I duly did, yet many fellow travellers advised me that if a local prince decided to take the flight then they often dumped off any non-Arab, and I would have to start all over again.

I was transiting through Dhahran to Bahrain and my internal flight appeared to circle for fifteen minutes or more before landing, making my connection time even tighter. When my bag arrived, I threw it onto a trolley and started my jog from the internal terminal to the external. An old local grabbed the handle, wanting to push my trolley for me. I confess I lost it somewhat and shouted at him because he was holding me up.

Close up and personal

This prompted a first for me (first of three to date!), a guy in uniform suddenly appeared and drew a pistol, putting it to my head – it certainly got my attention and calmed me! He asked in good English what the problem was, and I explained my hurry and the old boy was holding me up. He politely said the old man had a living to make and lowered the pistol, I said please tell him we need to run. When we got to the other terminal the old boy made an outrageous demand for cash for the hundred-metre dash and I refused, giving him a lesser sum. I passed into a waiting area for my flight and was the only non-Arab in there as the old boy, leaning around the entrance harangued me in Arabic. My flight was delayed, and he had a good forty minutes to berate me. As you might imagine I was quite glad to leave.

Bahrain proved to be much more relaxing, I bought some electronics at the souk and even had a day on the Sheikh’s beach, where he was known often to host a barbecue. I managed several good meetings too.

From there I went to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, neither of them anything like the modern cities of today. Perhaps my lasting memory of both was their taxis. There were no road signs and no road numbers so if you were to attend an appointment you needed to take copious notes. Your client would direct you to him via a series of tall buildings, for example ‘head for a three-floor greenish building, then look to the south’ for another landmark, and so on. They’re little better today, particularly if you take a taxi from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, the driver has no knowledge of the other city and vice versa. Visiting my son at his current Dubai villa today, using an Emirates-supplied car from Dubai, we are still reduced to doing much the same, go to this road, this mall and then ourselves point out the final location.

Kuwait Tower – original one

Next stop was Kuwait, where I learned the ruling family ran the supply of booze and it was therefore a little more relaxed and again quite fruitful for sales.

When I got to my final stop, Cairo, I found it provided much broader scope, it was then the case that most of the Middle East was run by Egyptian engineers and Lebanese financiers. Egypt was emerging from close cooperation with the Soviet Union under Nasser. President Sadat was re-establishing links with the West, but many factories still bore the Soviet stamp and look, I visited for example the ex-333 Factory. This was an aerospace operation originally led in the 1950s by their group of German scientists, it was attacked by the Israelis in the 1960s and had more recently been expanded by the Soviets. While I was there it was negotiating deals with Rolls Royce Engines and Westland Helicopters.

I had to wait my turn in a majlis (a place of sitting or council), where I had to sit patiently until called forward. This was odd because I could listen to the other business conversations, which included Westland, as they went into details with the factory’s top people. They served a really bad coffee, which I stupidly drained quickly at first, but realised that they kept topping it up, so slowed my consumption.

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