Kudos from a Saudi Sheik

October 1, 2021
By Peter Nicolelis

My position was that of general manager of an engineering company. As such, I had the responsibility for profitability, production, verification of completeness and accuracy of the design/construction drawings and specifications prepared.  

We had a six-day work week, a split 8-hour work day, and Friday was our one day off.  Our morning sessions began at 7 AM and continued until 12 PM followed by a three-hour lunch/siesta break from 12 PM to 3 PM, and then back to work from 3 PM to 6 PM.

Since our employees were all expatriates, there were other more complicated responsibilities for the company GM. He had to interview and recruit qualified staff. He had to provide them with suitable family housing and furnishings, round trip tickets for their annual home leave, travel connections, and, of course, access to medical coverage.

These employee benefits were new ones for me and the ‘local’ personnel assistant (whose name was Khalid) helped me in administering these personnel issues. He knew the local protocols and the local Saudi administrator. He also made arrangements for me to meet the Sheik.

Khalid was a Palestinian expatriate that had lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for several years and knew the local Sheik. His assistance with local personnel issues and government regulations was invaluable for the operation of our business.

Khalid and I planned a visit with the Sheik. We would attend one of his open ‘majlis meetings.’  Before calling the Sheik to announce our plans to attend his next majlis, Khalid suggested that we shop for a memorable gift for the occasion. I hit on the idea of buying him a gold pinky ring, set with a bright deep red garnet. Khalid agreed that would be an appropriate gift.

The Sheik’s majlis meetings were held in a large room which measured approximately 50 feet in width and 50 feet in length – most half the size of an NBA regulation basketball court. Entry into the majlis was controlled by two guards armed with holstered automatic side arms and slung assault rifles loaded with ammo clips. Khalid explained to the guards that we had an appointment with the Sheik. We entered the room and were challenged by another Saudi ‘gatekeeper’. Khalid repeated his explanation and we were directed to a defined section of unfolded wooden chairs which were lined along the walls of this open meeting room, ‘the majlis’.

Khalid and I sat patiently waiting for this process to unfold. The room then began to fill with other Saudis and we could distinguish which Saudi was a Bedouin and which was an urbanite by their dress. The Sheik could be easily distinguished since he wore a dark robe that was trimmed with a woven gold braid and a white headdress held in place by a black double ringed hoop.

Each attendee held a package or, as I later observed during the meeting, an envelope in an inner pocket of his garment. Upon entering the majlis, each in turn was directed to predetermined sections of the arranged seating and was given the opportunity to make his presentation to the Sheik when signaled by the interior gatekeeper. He controlled the meeting and ensured a smooth organized flow of the program.

When I received my nod from the gatekeeper, I walked to the designated queue-spot marked on the hardwood floor.  I stood facing the Sheik who was seated behind an impressive desk no more than a foul-shot distance from where I stood.

I introduced myself, announced our company name and the name of our Saudi partner. I went on to describe our company and the engineering services we provide for Aramco – the Saudi company that managed the country’s oil resources. I went on to request a quantity of exit and entry visas that I would need for employees that were planning to take their annual home leave and return to Saudi. The Sheik agreed to issue the required documents and asked that I provide him with the individual names, passport information, and the dates required. Without any hesitation, I unceremoniously took four quick steps forward, reached out my right hand, shook the Sheik’s hand and presented him with his gift. I was impressed that the Sheik did not take the time to open the small ring box. Instead, he casually opened one of the side desk drawers and placed the ring box next to the stack of ‘fakelakia’ (envelopes) he had received earlier from other majlis attendees.

Two weeks later, I was at the local Saudi bank for some company business. As I was preparing a deposit slip, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned quickly and came face to face with a smiling Sheik. He extended his hand, we shook, and he motioned for me to follow him to a seating area outside the bank. We sat and the Sheik opened the conversation by telling me his story of coincidence.

He claimed he had seen me once before our official meeting at his majlis two weeks earlier. I had no idea how or where that could have happened. The sheik explained that he was an invited guest of the Archirodon construction company at their Easter Sunday lamb roast celebration. He dined on the Archirodon’s dormitory ship which was tied up along a jubail pier. He was able to view the festivities –  ‘kefi’ and music and dance participation of the Greek expatriates from his vantage point looking out from one of the port holes of the captain’s mess.  He went on to describe one particular dancer of the zeibekiko that had impressed him.

Much to my amazement, I realized that the Sheik was talking about the same Archirodon, Easter Sunday ‘panigiri’ (festive occasion) that I had attended and that he was telling me that I was the dancer he remembered dancing the zeimbekiko. What a euphoric moment that was for me!

The sheik seemed very pleased to have shared his personal story with me. We connected, we shared, we smiled, and had a good laugh together.

We became friends.


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