Arabia: land of enduring mystery. Nomadic Bedouins mastering a hostile desert. Camels (“ships of the desert”) and prancing black stallions. The Prophet. Mecca. The Caliphates and the Ummah. Saladin. Sheiks. The veil. T.E. Lawrence. And oil. Lots and lots of oil.
If you fly internationally in the service of business, chances are you will eventually touch down in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Aloft, the visiting operator will encounter one of the most modern air traffic control systems in the world, en route and terminal radar everywhere, straightforward ICAO procedures, standard instrument approaches, and huge, modern airports equipped with runways 2 mi. long.
On the ground, though, it's another world in which bustling 21st century cities serve a population that embraces Islam and where rigid sharia law dominates, all activity pauses five times daily for prayers, and women cannot venture outside unless covered in black over-garments. Saudi Arabia welcomes business, but only on its terms, and those who refuse to respect its customs can face imprisonment or be asked to leave and never return. Thus, it behooves the visitor unacquainted with the kingdom's mores and religious traditions to be properly prepared before venturing within its metaphorical gates.
“You need to keep in mind the huge cultural differences between the West and Saudi Arabia,” observed Daniel Warnick, a U.S. citizen who captains aGlobal Express business jet based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's largest city. Your first indication that “you aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto,” Warnick said, “is when your [female] flight attendant needs to don her abaya black robe before getting off the plane.”
Arabia was the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed (570-632), founder of Islam - currently the world's largest religion - and is the location of Islam's two holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina. Formerly a region of loosely organized desert tribes, the modern Arabian state was founded in 1932 by Sultan Abdul Aziz al Saud (pronounced Sao-UHD), who unified the peninsula following a 30-year campaign and was subsequently designated king by royal decree. Today, his fourth descendant, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of the House of Saud, for which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is named, rules as the current monarch, vested with maintenance and protection of the Mecca and Medina shrines on behalf of the Ummah, the extended worldwide Islamic community.
Since his time as a royal prince, King Abdullah has developed a reputation as a reformer of sorts, having allowed elections for a portion of municipal council members in 2005 and in September this year promising to confer the vote to Saudi women and even allowing them to serve on municipal councils by 2015 (although women are still prevented from driving automobiles and must remain covered when on the street). Abdullah also called for global religious tolerance in 2008 and reshuffled his cabinet the following year by appointing moderate ministers and judges, naming the first woman ever to serve at the cabinet level. The country, however, remains an absolute monarchy ruled by the al Saud dynasty. The royal family, constituting princes, princesses and sultans has grown quite large, numbering in the hundreds.
If there's anything that defines Saudi Arabia more than Islam, it's oil. Discovered by the British in the 1920s, oil drives the economy, and the money derived from selling it abroad is what has built Saudi Arabia's world-class cities and amazing airports. Saudi Arabia's 2,149,690-sq.-km (830,000-sq.-mi.) territory is said to hold as much as 20% of the world's known oil reserves - believed to be the planet's largest single source (although Brazil's recently discovered offshore deposits may exceed this) - representing 90% of the country's exports and 75% of government revenues.
Only 1.67% of Saudi Arabia's land is arable; nevertheless, the country grows wheat, barley, tomatoes, melons, dates and citrus fruits for domestic consumption. With natural sources of water declining due to Saudi Arabia's growing population - currently estimated at 26.1 million people - the Saudis have advanced desalination and built several highly expensive desalination plants along its coasts.
But crude oil, natural gas, petrochemicals, ammonia, and some services (like aircraft repair) and locally manufactured products continue to dominate Saudi Arabia's economy. And while the rest of the world saw declining fortunes between 2008 and 2010, Saudi Arabia's GDP grew during that period from $596 billion to $622 billion.
Aviation Is ‘Very Big’ in Saudi Arabia
Craig Hanlon, currently manager of standards and training at DuPont Aviation, was based in Saudi Arabia as a contract pilot during 2009. Describing it as “a very interesting experience,” he went on to point out that “aviation is very big in Saudi Arabia, literally and figuratively.” The general aviation aprons in Jeddah and Riyadh overflow with private jets and “a lot of really big iron,” he went on. “Gulfstream and Global Express aircraft are dwarfed by the presence of BBJs,, , , and some of the older jetliners like 707s and 727s. If you're not based over there, then it's pretty eye-opening to taxi up on one of their aprons and see all the big equipment.”
The huge extended royal family accounts for the operation of a lot of these aircraft, Hanlon said. “Many of the aircraft are foreign-registered and flown by foreign pilots who come from various places. The VIP operation that I worked for had a BBJ, and the captains were from Jordan, the U.S. and Ireland. I flew a GIV and rotated with two other American captains. The airplanes were U.S.-registered and managed by a U.S. company.”
Some of the larger Saudi airports, such as Jeddah and the capital, Riyadh, are equipped with “royal gates” and special VIP parking areas called “royal aprons” to accommodate members of the royal family. These are depicted on the Jeppesen airport diagrams. “On approach, you must contact ATC and request 'parking at the royal gate, VIP on board,'” Hanlon said. “You can only do this if there are members of the royal family on board the aircraft. After the passengers disembark, you will normally have to reposition the aircraft to the general aviation apron for overnight parking. On departure, the procedure works in reverse. A short flight from Jeddah to Riyadh [i.e., Royal Gate to Royal Gate] requires a lot of additional taxi time.” Reportedly, the royal gates enter into walled-in compounds containing lush gardens, waiting lounges and mosques for the daily prayers.
For visiting operators, careful preflight planning is essential for access to the country and a successful flight, as bureaucratic hurdles can be daunting. According to Wendi Gavigan, chief dispatcher for a major U.S. corporation whose flight department frequently transports executives to Saudi Arabia, this begins with arranging a sponsor for the flight, “as you won't get into the country without one - this is paramount.” Obviously, the sponsor should be the individual or company (or a representative of same) the operator or charter passengers will be meeting for business purposes.
Nancy Pierce, business consultant, client solutions, at Jeppesen Dataplan added that the operator or its designated handler must supply the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) with the sponsor's full name, address and phone/fax/email data, “and the sponsor must contact GACA to verbally confirm sponsorship of the flight.” For tech stops, the ground handler can serve as the sponsor.
The next element to consider is visas for both passengers and crew, as no one gets into the kingdom without a visa, and requirements for approval are stringent. “It takes some time to get visas, at least seven to 10 working days,” Keith Foreman, master trip owner at Universal Weather & Aviation, cautioned. (Handling services like Universal and Jeppesen are occasionally able to line up visas in as little as 48 hours; however, operators are cautioned not to depend on this and allow as much lead time as possible in applying for visas and associated operating permits. Pierce warned that operators should bear in mind that the official Saudi government weekend is Thursday and Friday, affecting all agencies including GACA, and take this into consideration in their planning.)
At Universal, business visas are requested for passengers and crew visas for pilots and cabin attendants. Some operators request tourist visas, Hanlon said, which allow multiple entries and are effective for six months. “If you're going to be based there,” he added, “you can apply for a resident visa called an Iqama if you have a local business sponsor.”
Finally, the Saudis allow an option where crew visas good for 72 hr. can be applied for on arrival. (Note that this applies to flight crewmembers only.) George Rowland, a Global Express and Falcon 900 captain in the same FAR Part 91 flight department as dispatcher Gavigan, explained the process once the aircraft is parked and secured at the airport's general aviation terminal. “Crewmembers must have crew IDs and surrender their passports,” he said. “They issue you a sheet of paper that is your temporary visa. As all crewmembers are listed on it, be sure not to lose it.” The PIC then reports to the general aviation operations office to get the crew visas and arrange outbound handling. While some pilots and cabin attendants might balk at surrendering their passports for the duration of their stay in a foreign country, such is the rule in Saudi Arabia, as it pretty much assures that temporary visa holders will leave after the designated 72-hr. time limit.
The Saudi visa application is a comprehensive multi-page form that, among other items, requires applicants to attest to their religion. This - especially one's adherence to Judaism - can represent one of several reasons the Saudis can choose to deny entry to the country. (What if an applicant stated “atheism” or, simply, “none,” we asked a handler. “I wouldn't try it,” he answered.) The form also requires the applicant to agree to being fingerprinted and undergo an iris scan as part of the application procedure.
Accompanying the application is a statement - the one we saw was printed on stationery from the Saudi Embassy in Washington - in English and Arabic, specifying that all forms of alcohol, narcotics, pornography, audio or video recordings, films, or any other reference material that is “contradictory to Islam” is prohibited in Saudi Arabia and that trafficking in any of these items is punishable by death. Dubbed “the death letter” by handlers, it also asks that visitors to the country “respect the morals, customs, values and feelings of Saudi society” and requires a signature testifying that the bearer has read, understood and agrees with the stipulations set forth.
An Ambivalence Toward Women Pilots
As Gavigan pointed out, all these strictures plus one other determine crew composition for any flight into Saudi Arabia. And that additional consideration is women cockpit crewmembers, “as the Saudis will not permit female crewmembers into the country, and we've been denied both flight attendants and captains. They have become more lenient, but you really need to plan to have a backup if they say, 'No.'” Enforcement of the anti-feminist policy appears to be somewhat ambivalent, as other operators and handlers have indicated that at least female fight attendants are permitted if not pilots. “No women captains will be approved for visas, but they will approve a female F/O,” Universal's Foreman said. At Jeppesen, Pierce stated flatly, “We have not had cases where females were denied.”
To add some perspective, it might be appropriate to point out that on Sept. 26, a Saudi woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for having been caught driving, then after an appeal by members of the royal family, was spared three days later through an injunction from King Abdullah. A nascent feminist movement is active within Saudi Arabia, and ranking mullahs and factions within the government perhaps believe that the presence of women professional pilots - especially foreigners captaining multi-million-dollar business jets and seen giving orders to male crewmembers, or otherwise acting in a supervisory position - would present a bad example to Saudi women, especially those courageous enough to challenge the male-dominated paradigm active in the country. And Gavigan added that, while the Saudi government may grant a visa to a woman flight attendant, “it can confine her to the hotel while she's in the country.”
The strictures on women even apply to spouses traveling with male passengers or married women, such as a corporate executive, traveling alone. “If you're an unaccompanied wife traveling without your spouse, you have to indicate that,” Jeppesen's Wynand Meyer, handler relations manager, said. “And couples must have identification papers to prove they are married to each other or they cannot stay together in hotels.”
Once it is clear that the Saudis will allow passage of crew and passengers into the country, the operator can then apply to GACA for a landing permit. “They want a minimum three days advance notice and are fairly firm about it,” Pierce said. “They will allow up to a 48-hr. window on the request for arrival [i.e., once issued, the landing permit is good for 48 hr.].” Documentation required for the permit includes aircraft registration, airworthiness certificate, noise certificate, proof of aircraft insurance, lease agreement if the aircraft is under lease and the AOC for charters. Copies rather than originals are acceptable.
Also, a letter must be filed with GACA on the operator's company letterhead testifying that the aircraft owner will assume full responsibility if there is an incident or accident, signed by representatives of the operator; this must be an original. As Saudi Arabia maintains a preferred routing scheme with many airways requiring RNP 5 navigation accuracy, the operator must be suitably equipped (and this must be reported to ATC on the flight plan, as in most countries). “You can apply for block permits for multiple trips,” Pierce said. “There will be a time frame specified for these; you can get them for at least 30 days coverage.” Overflight permits do not require a sponsor or verification of aircraft documents. These do require three days notice and 48 hr. for approval.
Speaking of the Saudi-based VIP transport operation with which he was involved, Hanlon said, “Our local handler was Arabasco, and they were able to arrange blanket approval for our aircraft if we were using Jeddah, Riyadh or Dammam as the airport of entry. For all other airports of entry they had to obtain a permit for us. Domestic operations did not require a permit but did require a flight plan on file. Arabasco had offices in Jeddah and Riyadh, so flights between those locations were easy.”
The Saudis are not “route-specific” in their entry clearances, Foreman at Universal pointed out, “only a general permit is necessary, with entry specified at no particular point. All they care about is where you're coming from and where you're going. [But once crossing the FIR, you must follow an assigned preferred routing.] You used to be able to fly in from Egypt, but this may change given the recent revolution there - we don't know yet, and I wouldn't recommend trying it.”
Also, it is essential for operators to understand that they cannot enter Saudi Arabia from Israel or file for Israel when leaving, as the Saudis do not recognize Israel's existence. Because of this policy, crews and passengers flying into Israel on other trips are advised to absolutely ensure Israeli customs officials do not stamp their passports if they ever hope to enter Saudi Arabia at any time in the future (with that passport). “If you want to overfly from Israel, I'd route you over another country first, have you land there, then proceed on to Saudi Arabia,” Foreman said.
No Israeli-made aircraft are allowed into or over Saudi Arabia, either, Foreman claimed. This would eliminate the Israel Aircraft Industries Westwind and Galaxy types, but sinceacquired the business jet program, what about the rebranded Gulfstream midsize aircraft, the G150 and G200? They're still built under contract by IAI, then flown green to Gulfstream's Dallas facility for completion. We asked Gulfstream spokesman Jeff Miller whether these Gulfstream models, plus the forthcoming G280, can traverse Saudi airspace. “Our experience is that, with the exception of Lebanon landing rights and Syrian airspace,” Miller emailed, “Gulfstream G150 and G200 aircraft operate normally throughout the rest of the Middle East.” We confirmed that later as a “Yes.”
Operating in Saudi Arabia
With everything arranged, the trip can commence. “Have your permit handy because [Saudi ATC] may challenge you for the number while you're still in the air,” Foreman advised. “As long as you have it set up, they won't bother you too much. But the permit is absolutely necessary.”
By all accounts, Saudi Arabia boasts one of the most modern ATC systems in the world, and according to Chuck Taylor, flight planning and following supervisor at Jeppesen, the country “received a lot of assistance from the U.S. in setting it up.” As mentioned, the system relies heavily on a network of preferred routes detailed in the Saudi AIP and the Middle East section of the Jeppesen Airway Manual. “It goes FIR to FIR based on where you're coming in and exiting,” Taylor said. “It will specify waypoints for overflight or to a specific destination within the country.” Mark O'Carroll, U.K. flight planning shift lead at Jeppesen's London office, added that, “There are very stringent routings for entry and exits from their airspace, very little direct routing, much like the European system of airways.”
Any airway preceded with a “V,” or referred to phonetically as “Victor,” is a domestic airway, Taylor continued. “There are conditional airways with time, day and holiday restrictions that coincide with military operating areas, but they are open outside of normal business hours. For the most part, it's radar vectoring in the terminal areas.”
ATC procedures are straightforward, DuPont's Hanlon said. “You should contact ATC prior to crossing the FIR boundary, but this may not be noted on the chart. After you enter Saudi airspace, you will be in continuous radar contact. ATC procedures during cruise are slightly different from the U.S. After your flight is identified at the entry point, ATC will instruct you to contact the next sector reaching a subsequent point along your route, and you make the handoff yourself. ATC typically won't talk to you in between reporting points. Controllers are easy to understand and good to work with.”
Dan Warnick, the Jeddah-based Global Express captain, also provided his take on Saudi ATC: “Crossing the FIR you probably won't notice any changes. Radio communication and radar coverage are decent, although it may take a couple calls before you get answered. Once answered you will probably have your routing and altitude restated and then you will be given your changeover point and frequency for the next controller, this all in one transmission. I heard a U.S. pilot complain to a controller yesterday, 'That is a lot of information to process!'”
Controllers are skilled, Warnick said, “but don't seem to get pumped up about moving traffic as quickly as possible. You will constantly find yourself thinking that you could have easily become airborne ahead of that traffic on a 4-mi. final or wondering why the ground controller isn't using those parallel taxiways to move traffic in both directions simultaneously. But hey, the system works for them.”
While most Saudi airports have published SIDs and STARs, Warnick claimed he's never flown a STAR in Saudi Arabia, “and the SIDs have all been the simple 'Alpha' (or some other letter) ones at the bottom of the SID list that are 'fly runway heading and climb to [altitude],' versus a multi-waypoint route with turns and crossing restrictions. The large airports have CPT [clearance pre-taxi] frequencies that I have never seen used. That makes ground control very busy at times with flight and taxi clearances all happening on the same frequency.”
The Same But Different
Bill Mehew, a retired747 captain, also did a stint piloting long-range business jets for a Jeddah-based operation, this one managed by a U.S. company. “I flew Part 91/135 and it is almost identical to operations in the States or Europe, he said. “If you operate under the same guidelines as home you should have no problems.” Currently, Mehew pilots a converted MD-87 for a private operator flying internationally.
But there are some differences about which visiting operators should be aware. “You do not call for your ATC clearance prior to engine start as is normally done in the States,” Mehew said. “You request engine start and ATC clearance at the same time, indicating your position, i.e., gate number or spot number. The clearance is then read to you during taxi, which can lead to a busy cockpit if the clearance is different than planned. Also, even though not instructed, you are expected to call the tower after landing and advise them that you are clear of the runway.”
A failure to report runway departure can result in an embarrassing lecture on the tower frequency and possible sanctions, Mark Keiswetter, who captains a Hawker 900XP for Rizon Jet in Doha, Qatar, added. Thus, forgetting to radio “N1234 is clear of the runway,” will “normally cause the tower controller to tell you harshly of [Saudi ATC's] requirement to do so and may evolve into a longer taxi route to the FBO.”
Mehew has his own opinion on ATC communications, which he said are generally good “but the language can be difficult to understand, especially the pronunciation of Arabic words. Unless I was familiar with the routing, I would use the phonetic identifiers to describe fixes and waypoints. 'Say again' was common practice. There can be small gaps in ATC coverage. If you cannot contact a controller, wait 2 to 3 min. and try again or have another aircraft relay your information until you obtain contact. This is something most pilots do anyway.”
Keiswetter also advises flight crews new to Saudi operations to exercise patience in all things and not to “expect the best” from the country's ATC. “They are as flawed at ATC as anywhere. It is common practice to be put into a position of being left at altitude too long and forced to make a steeper than desired approach. They will allow you to descend at the right time, but it is usually only upon the crew's request.”QNH altimetry is used in Saudi terminal areas. “The transition altitude is 13,000 ft.,” Hanlon said, “and the transition level is FL 150 at all Saudi airports. When climbing through 13,000 ft., you set your altimeter to 1013 hPa. When descending through FL 150, you set to the local QNH altimeter setting.”
‘Hot, Damn Hot!’
Operating over and in a desert climate brings its own challenges, so as always, weather is a factor in preflight planning. Warnick said that he's “gone for as long as four weeks without seeing as much as a cloud or raindrop.” Heavy rains and thunderstorms do occur, however, and when it does rain, roads and sidewalks often flood, “making the normally chaotic driving even more challenging.” When the winds pick up, Warnick warned, be ready for reduced visibility due to blowing dust and sand. “I have not yet experienced a full-blown sandstorm but hear they are amazing to behold,” he said. Visibility at times can be hazy.
And, of course, it gets hot on the Arabian Peninsula from about April through October. “Like Adrian Cronauer says in 'Good Morning Vietnam,'” Warnick quipped, “'Hot, damn hot!'” So it goes without saying that operators must always be aware of density altitude restrictions due to high ambient temperatures. “If you are traveling here in the summer months,” Keiswetter said, “you can experience temperatures that put the aircraft on the edge of positive performance. Riyadh is only 2,000 ft. above sea level, but during the summer when temperatures are hitting 45C [113F], a condition that is very common, our Hawker 900XP is limited on both passengers and fuel to meet our climb performance [numbers].”
There are four designated ports of entry (POEs) in Saudi Arabia where incoming aircraft must land: Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam and Medina. Along with Mecca, these also are the most popular destinations within the country. But the capital and largest city Riyadh (population 4.725 million) and seaport Jeddah on the Red Sea attract the most air traffic, with the airway between them the busiest in the country. “We are probably working one or two flights a day between them, as much of our handling represents Saudi nationals,” O'Carroll at Jeppesen said. There are no cabotage issues in Saudi Arabia; however, for a domestic flight to a smaller airport, an amendment to the operator's permit will be necessary for visiting (i.e., non-based) aircraft.
Saudi Arabia hosts 217 airports within its borders, 81 with paved runways, including 33 more than 10,000 ft. in length (obviously to accommodate the high summer temperatures for the heavy iron), 15 between 8,000 and 10,000 ft., and 27 between 5,000 and 8,000 ft. The airports that business jets will more than likely use are all equipped with terminal radar and instrument approaches, generally ILSes. (Saudi Arabia has yet to commission any GPS approaches.) Also important for business aviation operators is that, while classic executive FBOs may not exist in Saudi Arabia, every major airport has a handsome, often new, general aviation terminal with executive lounges, handler offices, customs and immigration, flight-planning facilities, a dedicated ramp with plenty of parking adjacent to the building, and by all accounts, excellent security.
“The two airports I've flown to are Riyadh King Khalid International [OERK] and Dammam King Fahd International [OEDF],” George Rowland, captain for the Part 91 flight department cited earlier, said. “The airports are modern, well maintained and huge. The equipment is all great, their ATC is up to modern standards, they all speak English with a reasonable accent using standard ICAO phraseology and have radar service. So it's like flying anywhere in the developed world and even easier than many places.” Handler Wynand Meyer at Jeppesen described the major airports as “behemoths - you can taxi for up to 30 min. just to reach the runway. You may have to cool your brakes before takeoff!”
Other than seemingly endless construction, “sort of like at Teterboro,” Dan Warnick sees “no real problems” at Saudi's airports. “The airports are big and the runways are long,” he said. The fields are busiest between midnight and about 0400, perhaps because of the ambient temperatures or due to the flow of traffic aligning with European connections. “One safety issue I see is the amount of rubber buildup in the touchdown zones of the runways,” Warnick pointed out. “When your landing lights hit the area at night it looks just like you are about to touch down on black ice. I would like to see that stuff scraped off a bit more often than they seem to do it. Fortunately, rain is rare and the runways seem to be well crowned.”
Facilities in Riyadh & Jeddah
Riyadh King Khalid International Airport (OERK) serves the capital and is located 22 mi. north of the city. It has two parallel runways bracketing a four-terminal complex, 15R/33L and 15L/33R, each 13,796 ft. long (and once designated as emergency landing strips for the space shuttle). The airport is open 24 hr. daily and is a 45-min. drive from the city. No slots are required for access. “The general aviation apron [and dedicated terminal] is on the far east side of the airport,” Rowland said, “and so you typically land on the closest runway, 15L/33R.” The Royal Pavilion, located in the center of the airport, contains gardens and fountains and a ceremonial hall 1,280 ft. long that connects it with a domed mosque.
“Going into Riyadh,” Rowland recounted, “you'll get radar vectors to the ILS, usually a fairly long final - last time I was there, we had a 15-mi. final - very straightforward, so no need for speed control. There are full ILSes on both sides of the airport. At the general aviation ramp, large and well lighted at night, the handler will have a marshal waiting for you. You simply follow the yellow line to your marshal.
“When you look at the airport diagram,” Rowland continued, “you will see that the taxiways off the general aviation apron will go to Runway 15L/33R but not to the ends of the runway. Taxiway Hotel 4 goes to 15L and Hotel 1 goes to 33R; however, these intersections still allow at least 10,000 ft. of runway, so it is possible to do a safe intersection takeoff. Backtracking on the runway is not allowed, so to use the full runway, you would have to taxi to the ends. The ACN and PCN numbers should be checked ahead of time for really large aircraft.”
Jeddah King Abdulaziz Inter-national Airport (OEJN) lies 12 mi. north of the port city but, more significantly, at 45 mi. distance, is the closest major airport to Islam's holiest shine, Mecca, birthplace of Mohammed, and site of the Hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage for all Muslims. As such, the airport serves as terminus for some 13 million Muslims who visit the city and its environs annually. To accommodate the influx of pilgrims, the airport is equipped with a standalone five-million-sq.-ft. terminal dedicated specifically to the Hajj. Complete with its own mosque, it can house up to 80,000 passengers at a time. Two additional terminals host regular airline service. The airport recently relocated its general aviation terminal to the north side of the field. It is shared by Arabasco and Jet Aviation.
Jeddah International has three parallel runways: 16L/34R, 13,124 ft.; 16C/34C, 10,825 ft.; and 16R/34L, 12,467 ft. OEJN is a 24-hr. airport, with no slots required. It is approximately 25 to 45 min. from Jeddah's downtown, depending on traffic.
Ground support at the major airports is rated as good to excellent, but operators are cautioned that the pace of activity may be less than the expedience operators are accustomed to in North America. “People will take their time, but you can get what you need,” Foreman at Universal said. Keiswetter observed that “we remind ourselves to operate with patience. Things will go wrong. The crew that maintains their cool and keeps an over-the-top friendly attitude will have a much more pleasant experience while here. Learn peoples' first names. This is a must to having good relations here.”
And don't forget the bakshish. “I always flew with local currency for the country I was flying to, as tipping is common and expected in most places throughout the Middle East,” Mehew said. “However, once you put some money in a ramp worker's hand, they will be on you like flies . . . so be prepared. But it does work to tip . . . especially the ops supervisor who will usually meet the aircraft. At some FBOs, if tipping is not done, it may take you inordinate amounts of time to get your fuel or flight plan, even though the fuel truck is sitting there idling or your flight plan is simply [laying] behind the desk in ops.”
On arrival, operators' handling agents will be waiting for them at the generic general aviation terminal. Foreman claimed that even during the Hajj, parking will be plentiful. Fuel of good quality is always available (not surprisingly) and pricing is claimed to be competitive with sources in Europe and North America. Ramp security at the major airports is considered sufficiently effective that operators will not need to hire guards for their aircraft.-style security inspections of passengers and flight crewmembers and baggage examinations are conducted in the general aviation terminals both arriving and departing.
Nevertheless, due to the convenience offered by the general aviation terminals, processing in and out of Saudi Arabia can be reasonably easy. Rowland described how it goes at Riyadh: “We will typically have someone from our company and the sponsor meet us at the parking stand,” he began. “They pull up a car to the airplane, shake the passengers' hands, and usher them into the car; luggage is placed in the back of a pickup following the car. Passengers clear customs and immigration in the general aviation terminal, which is right in front of the ramp. Back on the ramp, the handler will have all the servicing waiting - lav, fueling, even ice if you've called ahead to arrange it. It's prompt and professional, and the people are familiar with general aviation aircraft. Turnaround typically is 45 min. No waiting.
“The crew is then escorted to the same terminal for customs and all the baggage is x-rayed,” Rowland continued. “It might be easier at Riyadh for the PIC, if direct billing has not been arranged, to have a credit card available to pay for services. Once you've arranged all this, you are free to go. Typically we have the handler arrange our ground transportation. You will have to show the temporary visa [or a regular one] to the hotel when you check in. The Intercontinental Hotel is 50 min. from the airport in rush hour traffic. The Four Seasons is closer, much nicer, and has better food; however, the Intercontinental has a nine-hole golf course.
“Leaving is very easy,” Rowland con-cluded. “The PIC will have to report to the ops office where the dispatcher will issue the pre-filed flight plan, weather, NOTAMs, the same stuff you get at any international airport. If on a temporary visa, you will now get your passports back. You report to the airplane, fire up the APU and wait for the passengers, who are driven directly to the airplane. From there, it's just like any other international departure. You should review your procedures ahead of time.”
A Drink of Single Malt Isn‘t Worth Jail Time
Absolutely everyone interviewed for this report, pilots and handlers alike, emphasized the importance of securing all forms of alcohol aboard the aircraft before landing in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, in their role as guardian of Islam and its holy places, enforce strict prohibitions against possession of illegal narcotics and alcoholic beverages, punishable by fines and ejection from the country. If government officials believe that visitors are trafficking in these items, sanctions can include imprisonment and execution. As Keiswetter put it, speaking only of alcohol, “It is considered to be as illegal as cocaine in any other country and will be treated with the same seriousness.”
Of course, the easiest way to accommodate this is simply not to stock the bar on your aircraft or otherwise bring liquor into the country on any flight. Barring that, the aircraft should be equipped with a bar or cabinet sufficiently large to store all alcohol that can be key-locked. “Do not get caught with any liquor outside of the container or forget to lock the container,” Keiswetter warned. “It would be tantamount to violating one of their sacred laws.”
Understand also that once the aircraft is parked, a Saudi law enforcement official will come aboard, inspect the cabin for liquor, then affix a seal to the storage compartment that cannot be broken until the aircraft is in the air again and preferably beyond the country's borders. (Some completion centers equip the bar cabinets on customer aircraft with slotted metal flanges mounted on the cabinet frame and door through which wires for the seal can be inserted.) Evidently inspectors will often reenter the aircraft while it is parked during the operator's stay to assure the seal has not been broken or tampered with. Hanlon advised that when departing you should allow some time before breaking the seal in the event the aircraft has to turn back for any reason and land, as the cabin will be re-inspected for liquor when on the ground. And don't even think about smuggling a flask or one of those little airline liquor bottles downtown for a drink in your room, as you will undergo a full security inspection when you enter the hotel - any hotel. (So, no, you won't be unwinding at the hotel pub.)
The same holds true for any form of pornography in print or digital format (such as a CD or flash drive) or video (tape, DVD or film). This includes “men's magazines” like Playboy and even women's fashion publications - anything that might reveal nudity or an excessive amount of skin. Be advised that all media aboard the aircraft will be inspected and that the Saudis reserve the right to randomly inspect all personal electronic devices carried by crew or passengers - smartphones, laptop computers, tablets like the iPad, flash drives, cameras, MP3 players and iPods, anything containing a memory card - by inserting a USB cable into them and scanning their hard drives or memory cards for offensive material. Devices deemed to hold pornographic images or literature will be confiscated and their bearers either ejected from the country or prosecuted for trafficking.
The jarring contrast between Western influences and Saudi Arabia's religion-driven culture plays out most on city streets. “The Saudis have invested a lot into infrastructure, and you will find the major cities to be modern with very nice hotels and shopping malls,” Hanlon said. “The bigger shopping malls will have good restaurants and nice grocery stores where you can buy supplies for the aircraft. Money is easy to obtain through ATMs regardless of the day of the week.”
Visitors should be aware that the Islamic prayer times occur five times daily, normally for an hour, and that during these times, businesses and restaurants will close. The prayer times vary by city and change slightly throughout the year based on sunrise and sunset times. Hanlon advised that prayer times can be found on the Internet and downloaded to smartphones for quick access.
Women Must Be Covered in Public
As noted, women must be covered at all times in public (which means any time they are out of their homes, hotel rooms or the aircraft). “Female flight attendants should be prepared to wear an abaya, a black over-garment that covers the head and full body but does not cover the face,” Hanlon said. (The general aviation terminal administrators and some handling agents can either loan or sell abayas to flight crews.) Some cities are more religious than others, Hanlon maintained, and there may be some locations where flight attendants can get away without wearing abayas. However, under all circumstances, crews should verify this with their Saudi agents, as the muttawah, the religious police, patrol the streets and are vested with the power to enforce Islamic dress codes and behavior. “Once you're at the aircraft, then the normal flight attendant uniform or attire is appropriate,” Hanlon said.
Rowland added his own strictures when on the street: “Don't have eye contact with women. Do not talk to anyone of the opposite sex. You do not see a lot of women and no children on the streets. The women you do see will be entirely covered.” Warnick added that “Shopping is a big pastime for our flight attendants, but they only go out in pairs or with a male crewmember.” Even for males, conservative dress is advised. “Some guys wear shorts outside of the hotel, but not me,” Warnick said. “I haven't seen a written rule against it, but it just doesn't seem right to me when I look around.”
“Our cockpit crews wore airline-style pilot uniforms,” Hanlon continued. “A foreign crew should check with their handling agent ahead of time to find out if uniforms are required. In most locations, business attire and a crew ID should suffice if you have a handling agent to walk you through immigration and security. You can expect airline style security screening at all locations. At any locations without a general aviation terminal, you will typically have to use the security screening in the airline terminal.”
And security is omnipresent in urban areas. “There is a noticeable security presence just about everywhere in the major cities,” Hanlon said, “and even the hotels conduct security screening when you enter the lobby. It is safe to walk in groups in the immediate vicinity of some of the nicer hotels and living compounds, but security should be suspect everywhere else. Taxis can be easily arranged, but it is better to arrange for a car through your handling agent or hotel. Rental cars are available, but the cars are small, very expensive, and driving can be very confusing and risky.”
Thanks to the security in the cities, Warnick said, “Crime is low, and we walk the streets day and night without looking over our shoulders. One of our mechanics did have his Blackberry picked from his hands mid-text by a thief zooming by on a bicycle.”
“Insha Allah” (“God willing”) is a common religious phrase used throughout the region,” Mehew observed. “Basically it means that you can request something like fuel, catering, ice, whatever, but if it doesn't show up, 'God willed it not to happen.' Thus the person with whom you made the arrangements takes no responsibility, accepts no accountability, for your request not being fulfilled - it was 'God's will.' Even though I made arrangements the previous day and called to confirm my requests before going to the airport to assure that everything had been completed, I usually showed at the airport an hour to an hour and a half prior to departure just to ensure that my requests for services were actually met and avoid an unnecessary delayed departure. On many occasions, they had not been done when I arrived at the airport.”
But these are just minor annoyances, Mehew affirmed, “as the overall experience was tremendous and rewarding. The culture is intriguing and very different from the Western World, and I found this fascinating. The flying is a great experience that any pilot would welcome. Just have some patience as things will happen on the 'Saudi clock,' not yours. So be proactive, don't let things happen to you - make things happen for you.” BCA