EY 470 AUH-SIN Y B777-300 seat 54K

Another three-hour layover at a time when I’d really much prefer to be sleeping. I picked up a few bottles at the tax-free, noted to my surprise that Romeo & Julieta No.2’s are appreciably cheaper in EY’s in-flight sales than here (US$11.50 vs US$15 for box of 3), tried and failed to find a local souvenir that didn’t involve dates, and then hacked on my laptop for a few hours.

I’m starting to kind of like AUH though. The two-layered squashed-octopus shape means it’s really compact and easy to get around, and the bizarre blue-green tiles roof-fountain-structure pulls off the rare trick of making a terminal really stand out: there is no way you can possibly mistake AUH for any other terminal anywhere. It’ll be a real shame if the new Etihad terminal here is just another soulless box of glass and steel.

I’d picked my seat on this flight carefully. Conventional wisdom says seats at the back of the bus are bad, because it takes a long time to disembark and because the turbulence is worse, but I knew I’d be in no hurry in Singapore (my Access Card would get me past any immigration queues and I’d have to wait for my suitcase anyway, and turbulence doesn’t particularly bother me — I find it oddly relaxing in a “yay, I’m flying!” way. Etihad’s online seat map showed that the back of the plane has two rows with only two seats on the window sides, so I picked the second to last row: this way, I figured I’d guaranteed full recline, I’d have some useful extra space between my seat, and I’d have a fair shot at nobody sitting next to me.

Once in my seat, I realized that the extra space was virtually nonexistent: on eg LH 747s, it’s enough to stretch out both your legs, but here there wasn’t really appreciably more space than the other rows. And yes, the seat next to me stayed empty, but with a load of no more than 40% there were plenty to go around and a few lucky guys — including the guy in 53K — got a whole three-seat row to stretch out on.

Drink and cracker service rolled around soon after takeoff, but it took close to two hours until they got around to lunch. Here’s the menu:

Asian glass noodle mixed seafood salad

White fish masala, biryani and harissa vegetables
Saffron vegetable lasagna with basil tomato coulis
Singapore hawker’s chicken laksa yong tau foo

Ginger and kiwi fruit mousse
Strawberry coulis


Tea and coffee
Hot chocolate

Note to the menu writer: if you’ve got two “coulis” in one meal, one of them atop lasagna at that, you’re trying too hard. Indeed, the crew did the right thing and reduced that down to “fish, vegetable or chicken?”, and I opted for the “chicken” as it just sounded so bizarre. I wasn’t disappointed: the entree turned out to be a collection of tofu, fishballs, shrimp and, yes, chicken on a bed of thick rice noodles with a sauce that was half laksa, half rendang, with coconut shreds, laksa leaf and plenty of spices. I suspect this might be a bit much for people unused to Southeast Asian cuisine, but for me the end result was delicious, and even the noodles had stayed firm instead of degenerating into sogginess. Full points to Etihad for ingenuity!

I watched No Country for Old Men, which isn’t very good in-flight fare because it demands your full attention, but it does certainly deserves its Oscars. I also realized that Etihad’s headphones, which are excellent for economy (solid, padded, cover the whole ear, comfy) also incorporate noise canceling — I’d just gotten a broken set on the DEL-AUH flight, and this time too the wiring was flaky enough that turning my head was enough to flip the canceling on and off.

And then to bed. Even us economy class plebs got socks, eyeshades and earplugs, and even the brown blanket seemed a little fluffier than what you’d usually get in Y. Two seats with a liftable divider ain’t too bad, and while they never turned the cabin lights off, I managed to contort myself into a semi-sleeping position and catch a few Z’s.

The menu had promised us a “refreshment” prior to arrive in Singapore, which I figured would be the same sandwich-and-juice deal as on the RUH flights. But nope: we were treated to cups of frozen-solid Haagen-Dazs instead.

Disembarkation, immigration and baggage claim went fast enough: the only problem was that the handle I used to pull along my diving gear-laden suitcase had been knocked cleanly off. On my previous trip, the same beaten-up old Samsonite had lost a wheel, but off it was to the baggage claim office. Sorting out the claim took a while, and I was told to expect a call sometime within a week — I was thus rather surprised to get a call on Saturday morning for pickup, and even more surprised to get the fixed bag on Monday. They’d even replaced the top handle as well!


EY 316 RUH-AUH Y B777-300 seat 26D

A brutal flight time, as departing from RUH at 5 AM means getting up at 3 AM. Check-in and immigration were uneventful, although I was disappointed (but not very surprised) that the immigration guy couldn’t tell me when my visa expires. Why, you ask? Because Saudi visas don’t state this date: instead, they just have the date of issue and the number of months it’s valid. The catches are that 1) these are Islamic (lunar) months of 28 days, not Western months; 2) business (non-working) visas appear to have a restriction on how many days within that period they’ve valid; and 3) it depends on the visa type if the days start counting from date of first issue or date of first arrival. Gah.

Same plane as last time, but much lower load, maybe 20% in economy. I watched through that creepy safety video again (I think the dead white eyes of the characters are to blame), devoured the sandwich and juice tossed to us after takeoff, and attempted to sleep.

EY 315 AUH-RUH Y B777-300W seat 19C

Again a short hop and an almost unnecessarily luxurious plane, but while similar to the A346 in appearance, the seat pitch was an inch or two more generous. This was a relief: I’ll be flying back to SIN in one of these (or at least am scheduled to), and that inch will make all the difference. Today the usual complement of Filipinas was joined by the lovely Kyeong-Soo from Korea, who pacified us with a tasty chicken or veg sandwich and a small bottle of juice before leaving us to giggle at the inane antics of Juste pour rire, Montreal’s ripoff of Candid Camera that seems to have a remarkable hold on transport operators the world around, ranging from business class on Garuda Indonesia to the buses of SBS Transit in Singapore.  The plane was equipped with the same IFE system as the A346; it was just turned off, and no headphones were passed out.

My stomach was still bubbling discontentedly, and it was approaching 6 AM Singapore time, so I did my best to zonk out — not entirely successfully, but soon enough the 80-minute flight was over and we landed at King Khalid International, quiet as ever in the middle of the night. Having purposely booked a seat towards the front of the plane, I reached Immigration well before the queues formed. My suitcase was out almost surprisingly fast, and the irritatingly persistent taxi tout waiting for me outside Customs turned out to be the first guy in line at the official taxi rank. I negotiated his ridiculous initial offer of SR160 to a somewhat more reasonable SR80 (still a good 25% premium on the official fare), and we zoomed off down the desert highway to Riyadh.

Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode ﺏ

This was my first trip to the Gulf in living memory, and Abu Dhabi turned out to be even weirder than I expected.

Let’s start with the obvious: the city is filthy rich. Not as in “prosperous” rich, but as “ridiculously loaded” rich — a while back, CNN figured that, on average, the net worth of any citizen of Abu Dhabi (who only make under 20% of the resident population, mind you) is a cool US$15 million. This is a city of nearly two million people and vast five-lane boulevards, without even the faintest attempt at a public transport system: the rich are chaffeured around in their Mercedeses, the middle class drive their own humongous SUVs, and the poor like me commute by taxi, which are ubiquitous and ridiculously cheap (metered fares right across the city won’t climb above Dhs 10, or US$2).

The Hilton Abu Dhabi is a bit awkwardly located at the edge of town, but it does have a marvelous sweep of the Gulf right next to it, complete with free (for guests) “Hiltonia” spa/gym/pool/beach complex right across the street. The shallow lagoon between the city and the Marina district’s shopping malls was the temperature and texture of warm spit, but there were enough hot Arabic babes in bikinis (yes, seriously — probably mostly Lebanese/Egyptian Christians) to make up for it.

Causeway to Marina Mall Arabian mixed grill at the Hilton

An interesting twist to the experience was added by Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. Work thus started at 8 (notionally — few bothered to show up at the office before 9), ran straight through what would normally have been lunch, and ended by 2 PM, when everybody headed home to sleep the last hours of the fast. Abu Dhabi, being rather less uptight than some countries in the region, allows restaurants to keep operating for us kaffirs through the fast (as long as they do so behind closed curtains), but as everybody else was also fasting I went with the flow and opted for “Ramadan lite”: a (big) breakfast around 8 AM before work, and then fasting — no food, no drink, no nothing — until evening. And I have to say, I have a newfound respect for people who stick to the regimen for an entire month, especially those who manage it while working outside in the sweltering heat instead of just sitting out in an air-conditioned office.

But the fun began after the sun went down at 6 PM the first strains of the call to prayer wafted in from the mosque to announce that the fast was over. After nibbling on dates and drinking a glass of ridiculously sweet (but energy-packed and quickly absorbed) juices, everybody tucked into giant iftar feasts. Our spot of choice with my colleague Firas was the unassuming little joint behind the Hilton Baynunah, which had unremarkable if decent food, and truly remarkable shisha (water pipe) that makes your eyes roll around in their sockets as you sink into the cushion with a stupid grin on your face after each puff. (All hail Al Fakher!) So after eating, everybody just sat around, digesting their meals, puffing on shisha and occasionally sipping away at the vast variety of bizarre (and often tasty) juices the Arabs have come up with to replace alcohol. (Tip: lemon with mint; not a few sprigs, but a whole load of leaves blended in. Da-yamn.) For the locals, this continued on all the way to the suhur morning meal before sunrise around 5 AM, after which everybody slept a little more again, and then the cycle repeated.

Inside the Emirates Palace Model of Guggenheim Museum

On my last night, I wheedled my colleagues into paying a visit to the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi’s attempt at surpassing Dubai’s iconic Burj al-Arab (the sail-shaped “7-star” hotel). Dubai forked out $1 billion to build theirs, so Abu Dhabi tripled the budget and spent $3 billion. Here’s a math problem for you: if you spend $3 billion on a hotel with 300 rooms and assume full occupancy at $1000 a night with no running costs, how long will it take you to recoup your original investment?

At any rate, the hotel was (seemingly) right next to the Hilton, and I even considered walking there on the weekend, but in the end we went by car and it’s a good thing we did. Security stopped us at the gate:

“Have you been to the Emirates Palace before?”

“No, we haven’t. We’re just going for a drink.”

“OK. Drive straight ahead, take the second right at the fountain, go around the palm trees, then take the second left at the traffic circle, go up the ramp and you’ll get to the main lobby.”

Yessir. We navigated our way through the maze, deposited the car with a valet and walked in. And walked, and walked, and walked some more. Ever been to one of those 10,000-room hotels in Vegas? That’s precisely what the Emirates Palace feels like, only minus the crowds and the slot machines, and the gold is mostly real. We enquired about places for a drink, and the concierge helpfully suggested the Caviar Bar for champagne or the Havana Club from a cigar and cognacs. We opted for the cafe instead, where tasty Turkish (not even Arabic!) coffees served by an army of pretty Filipinas cost around US$10 a pop, and then set off to explore some more. Tucked away in a corner was a fascinating expo on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s shot at buying itself onto the world map — with a budget of roughly $27 billion, they’re going to transform a barren desert island into a cultural oasis, and they’ve b(r)ought in branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre to make sure it blooms, with the first buildings scheduled to be ready by 2011. Your oil money at work!

And then it was time to head to Abu Dhabi airport, a surprisingly un-spiffy structure (under renovation/expansion, of course), for my flight back home. I’d blown a few miles for a bump up to business class, which allowed me to breeze through the premium security queue (muahaha) and check in in no time. The smoky contract lounge was pretty crappy, but I managed to spend my last dirhams on some superluxury dates and then sat around in one of the tentacles of this recursive cephalopod while an insanely confusing boarding procedure took place. Passengers were bused to the plane, but us biz/first pax were not allowed to board the buses for ordinary plebs: instead, we had to wait for our very own bus, which meant sitting around on plastic bucket seats long enough to miss the pre-flight champers on board. Yay.

The bird was coming in from Jeddah and, despite thus having a good 10 hours flight time, was one of Singapore Airlines’s regional models without lie-flat seats. I’d figured this out ahead of time (although, it must be said, only after booking my upgrade), but in the end I was very happy I splurged: two hours into the flight, we were diverted to Mumbai for a medical emergency, where we were treated to three hours cooped up in a plane, watching slumdwellers in Dharavi poop next to the runway. Not too bad in a business seat, probably rather less pleasant back in steerage next to the babies screaming their heads off.

Eventually, though, the flight did take off again and we landed in sunny Singapore. And that was the end of this company-paid adventure: up next, Saudi Arabia or maybe even Iran?