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Saturday, November 26, 2011

THE SAUDI POLICE






This article should interest Nigerians in general, and officers and men of the Nigeria Police Force in particular, as there are lessons, I suppose, for all of us to ponder over. Police is police anywhere in the world, including Saudi Arabia; corruption, blackmail, false imprisonment, use of pepper spray on protesters, extra judicial killings and torture, among others, are evils associated with police the world over - only that I saw another side of the coin with the Saudi Police. They can be all of the above and even more but they are a hardworking force, physically fit and committed to their duty. We are not happy when they divert the traffic in Arafaat, Minaa or Makkah but we hardly appreciate what would have happened if they were not on their posts.

The police in Saudi Arabia command everybody’s respect. Call it a police state if you like; that is not the subject of this piece. Nobody is above the law here, unless, may be, you are a member of the royal family. At check-points, (there are countless here; only the occupied territories of Palestine can rival Saudi Arabia in check-points); you must slow down signifying your reverence to the police manning the posts. Many motorists here don’t use seat belts unless they approach the nuqtat taf teesh (police check-point). Officers at such points can stop any vehicle, not minding whosoever is behind the wheel, for extra checks which may be confined to asking the driver his particulars, or the papers of the passengers he carries; it may be extended to searching the whole vehicle in the event of suspicion or a road marshal’s forwarding of the plate number of that car for exceeding speed limit. These papers are called ithbaat, covering passports and iqaamah, residence permit. At such stop-and-search points you cannot answer your phone; doing so is a sign of disrespect to the honoured force and sanctions in form of tickets may follow. It is like the clock stops at check-points; no phone calls, no smoking; everybody is quiet and listens attentively. You must show utmost reverence to the officer and respond to questions with respect – a sharp contrast with the way we relate with police in Nigeria where, oftentimes, the officer has to wait for the ‘big man’ to finish an endless phone conversation before he attends to him.

There was a time that I reserved and paid for a room in a three star, Marhaba (not real name) hotel, Makkah for a period after Ramadan. I was not yet a travel agent then. I and my wife travelled for Umrah with Sudan Airways; our return date was open, no confirmed booking out of Jeddah. When we visited the Sudan Airways Makkah office we were able to find seats on a date three weeks after Eid. So, obviously, there was a need for another reservation for our extended stay. As there was no availability of rooms in the hotel we were staying during that period, which was more convenient and nearer to the Haram, we had to seek for accommodation elsewhere, hence the new reservation in the hotel under discussion. But few days to Eid there was an opening; the reservation office said we could extend our stay, and we confirmed. Of course staying here will save us the trouble of packing, checking out of this, and checking in to the Marhaba hotel, and all the attendant inconveniences of moving out luggage in the crowded streets of Makkah. I called the manager of Marhaba hotel to cancel my reservation which is a standard practice, for which the hotel may charge cancellation fees of a minimal amount and refund my balance. But the manager insisted on keeping the room for me, that cancellation was not possible and that I was not entitled to any refund. My visit to his office to iron things out made him only to be more obstinate.

I reported the case to the Haram Division of the Saudi Police. I and my wife were conveyed by two officers in a police van to the Marhaba hotel. The front office staff told the police that the manager was out of the hotel. One of the officers said the manager must appear in two minutes otherwise the entire building would be sealed up. And there appeared the manager; that he was answering the call of nature and the front office assumed he was out of the hotel.

The supreme police council of two conducted the proceedings in this way without invitation to the station or writing of statement and what not:

‘Have these pilgrims called to cancel their reservation with your hotel?’

‘(Na’am sayyidy; yarhamullaahu waalidaik) Yes sir; may Allah bless your parents.’ Answered the manager with trembling hands; his eyes became dim, and, as if, his heart gaped up to his throat.

‘Why did you refuse to refund their money when they gave you ample notice of the cancellation of their booking?

‘May you live long! I was only jesting, and they did not wait to get the import of my words. Ah, the full money is here… yes…, and shall be refunded right away.’

One of the officers told me to give him the receipt. I did. He handed it over to the manager and instructed him to give me the value with immediate effect. And so it was that the money was refunded in full, even the cancellation fee was waived by the manager. I was so relieved that, in the Nigerian mentality, I purposed, once we were alone in the van again, to offer the entire money to the officers as a token of my appreciation, but as soon as all was settled, they told us to find our way back to the Haram. They denied us another ride in their van, as if they knew what I wanted to do. How does this compare with Nigeria?

A Nigerian-Saudi resident friend of mine told me what happened to him and his family during Eid celebrations some time ago. It was Eid; he wanted to give his wife and six children a feel of another part of Saudi Arabia, so he travelled with them to the shore of Dammam or Abha, I cannot remember where exactly. In this part of the world, Eid is mostly celebrated by sea side with families having their lunch and even dinner sitting down on the grass or carpets. The meals are homemade, and only brought there to be served when needed. Grownups would play myriad games, swim and stroll along the shore, while children would build sand-castles and fly kites; everybody will enjoy themselves.

My friend and his family after travelling for about three hours to their destination and spending an Eid day full of activity on the shore became tired and exhausted. They slept off on their carpets on the sea side. They were the only family left. The whole sea side was empty but for their presence. They woke up around 3 am to find a deserted shore; only the blue and red flickering of a police van could they spot from a comfortable distance. The police came patrolling the shore and they saw the sleeping family. They did not disturb their sleep or go away, instead the police kept guard from a far waiting for them to wake up. When they did wake up the police van started approaching slowly. The officers asked them for their papers (residence permit, etc.). As their identity was established; they were not illegal immigrants or visa over stayers, the officers urged them to leave; they escorted them to about 60 kilometres of their trip just to further ensure their safety.

I leave you to imagine what would have happened to this family if the above scene were the Lagos Bar Beach.

Apart from the annual wash the Hindus of India do in the Ganges River, i know of no other annual event that brings about 5 million worshippers to the same mosque and other venues at once for two or more weeks. You can only begin to imagine the sheer logistics of crowd control. The Saudi Police and Army do a joint duty of ensuring the safety of the pilgrims- the army to a lesser degree. Bear in mind that they do not bear arms of any kind, not even 'koboko', and that they are trained not to hit you or rough handle you. All the weapon they use is words adjuring all to be patient and gestures to the same effect! Each time one sees them at work, you marvel at the supreme discipline required to guide millions of people, quite a number of whom seem to actually relish breaking the law, without recourse to shouting or 'koboko'.

I saw Saudi Police motorcycles and they seemed much larger than the ones in Nigeria; at closer look, I discovered they were each equipped with life-saving equipment. They had fire extinguishers and oxygen tanks.

Another remarkable thing about the Saudi Police was that one never saw any looking flabby or unfit; they also looked very neat. Of course you know what image comes to your mind when you think of Nigeria Police. We can borrow a leaf or two from these Arabs; we will congratulate ourselves if we do.


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