Home > Leadership > Handcuffed in Saudi Arabia

Handcuffed in Saudi Arabia


Bob and I boarded our Ethiopian Airline flight from Addis Ababa to Kuwait City. It was a late departure and we would not arrive in Kuwait until 1:45 am.

FYI: Flights often come and go in the evening here when the temperature drops to a safe level. Air temperature very definitely affects takeoff performance. All else equal, hot air is less dense. The result is that our plane must be moving faster through it to generate enough lift to take off. Unfortunately, the less dense the air, the less power the engines develop, so it takes even longer to to accelerate to the needed faster speed.

We were tired. We had spent the last five hours in the Addis airport – three hours not so comfortable and the last two in the frequent flyer lounge (but it was hot). I was determined that I would sleep on the flight because after our arrival I would only have a few hours of sleep and then I was speaking four times in Kuwait starting at 8am.

Mistake 1

We lined up to check in for our flight using the Elite check in as we have done many times before. There was a slight difficulty with language as I had trouble understanding the woman. Just as she printed out our boarding pass I asked, “Can you tell me what seats you have given us?”

Bob and I have been flying with each of us on an aisle across from each other. This allows us to get up to stretch and move easily. When she responded to my question she told me that we were assigned a middle and aisle seat in row two.

I explained that we would prefer not to have a middle seat and she politely offered us two aisle seats across from each other and asked if that would be okay.

“Yes, that would be fine as long as row two was not a business class section. What is the configuration of this aircraft?”

She didn’t respond right away but went ahead and printed the row twelve boarding passes.

“Is row two business class?” I asked again.

“No” she smiled back and then reminded us of the frequent flyer lounge location near our departure gate.

Boarding the Flight

Unlike boarding times in North America our tickets say that we are to board the flight one hour prior to departure. It seemed unreasonable at first but we have learned on this trip that the boarding procedures are not as efficient as we are used to. It begins with passing through security again at Addis. This is the third time we have placed our bags on the conveyor and through the xray machine.

Next you are gathered together in a secure room that is too small for the number of passengers on the flight. Our room was filled and 85% of the passengers were young women in Muslim wear although many had their faces showing like they were enjoying their last bit of freedom.

When they announced pre-boarding for the flight it was a zoo when over one hundred young women crushed together, pushing and forcing their way to the front. It was odd if you are a frequent flyer because you know that we are all being directed down several long hallways to a door on the lower level where busses will come, load up fifty at a time and drive you to the airplane. Rushing was not going to do anything, especially because all the seats are assigned – you are not benefiting by getting their first. Now sometimes I like boarding early if I have carry on luggage to ensure I get some space, but these young women were carrying nothing.

As we entered the door of the plane I let out an “Oh no” to Bob.

“What?” he asked.

“Row two is business class!”  I told him. “Oh well I will just talk to them and explain the mistake.”

After minutes of trying to explain that we had boarding passes for row two but the gate agent misinformed us and moved us to row twelve – nothing had changed. We kept having higher and higher levels of staff come to talk with me while Bob stood nearby just wanting to go to sleep.

Now when you are really tired, those front section seats look so wide and plush and inviting. The thought of them fully reclining pushed me to be bolder and stronger than I normally would – remember I am tired.

So they went an brought the man in charge to speak to me who listened to my story again and then briskly said, “We do not have the authority to move you from economy to business class.” He then offered to move us into the exit row to at least provide extra leg space, however he didn’t remind us that the seats do not recline at all. So this flight, Ethiopian #620 was already on our list as the worst flight of our trip (so far).

Mistake 2

Bob had a bad trip. He hardly slept, while I on the other hand did collapse into dreamland even sitting straight upright. We were both relieved when the wheels touched down right at the appointed time of 1:45am. In that half baked, dozy almost nauseating stage of being only partially awake we gathered our things together while the one hundred ladies stayed in their seats – very different from their behaviour on boarding. I said goodbye to Mr. “I have no authority” stepping onto the jetway and started walking towards the airport enjoying the air conditioning. You could tell that even at two in the morning it was still very hot here.

Suddenly a man started yelling in Arabic, and he kept yelling.

I turned around to see what was going on only to recognize the man in the official looking uniform was yelling at me – well Bob too. So in my I just woke up character I asked, “WHAT?”

He motioned for us both to return to where he was by the aircraft.

Right at this time the one hundred maidens started out of the aircraft making our walk back to the man reminiscent of salmon swimming upstream.

When we approached him, he took our boarding cards saying “Kuwait, Kuwait!”

“I know, I know” I said strongly back.

He then said, “This is Saudi Arabia” and he made the motion of clasping handcuffs on my arms as he pushed us back onto the plane through the last women departing the flight.

The plane had made an unscheduled landing in Dammam, Saudi Arabia and the only people who got off were the hundred women and their handlers. Very wierd. I asked Bob, “How much does it cost to get a plane to make an unscheduled stop like this?”

When we finally landed in Kuwait at 3:45am, there was a very nicely dressed man in a suit holding up a sign with both of our names on it. “Oh boy” I thought. Usually when I am going to get into trouble, I like having my lawyer friend on the other side and able to help. This time he is with me!

Well the suit man turned out to be a fellow our host had arranged to meet us and guide us through immigration into Kuwait. Although there were people sitting in the immigration area that looked like they had been there for days – we were processed through in minutes and able to meet my friend and Arrow leader, Warren Reeve who had been waiting for us since 1:45am.

“Don’t worry he said, this stuff happens here.” Warren said graciously.

I slept for two hours before starting to my marathon preaching day. Before falling asleep I quietly pondered what it would be like to be behind bars in Saudi right now?

Then I wondered about the future of those young women who departed where we could not.

  1. brent lock
    June 12, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Never a dull moment with the Pues on an airplane. Good job Brenda wasn’t there with her butchers knife & the immigration part reminds me of every time I have to go to the USA

    • June 12, 2012 at 7:17 pm

      Brent, I thought about buying Brenda a burka but couldn’t find her color 🙂

  2. paul sailhamer
    June 11, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Are you sure the gesture meant “hand cuffs” or chopping off your hands? A taxi driver in Turkey once used the chop-chop gesture on his own hands when pointing to a police officer across the street where he had slid to stop at a red light rather than risk the penalty of going through on the yellow.
    One of your best lines so far:”Although there were people sitting in the immigration area that looked like they had been there for days…”

    • June 12, 2012 at 8:50 am

      LOL Paul – I would have taken a photo of them but think my hands would have been cut off for sure.

  3. June 11, 2012 at 8:25 am

    Awesome!

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