The Semester Comes to a Close

Ramadan Kareem, Ramadan Mubarak, my friends!!

End of Spring Semester

With the last round of final exams yesterday, my first semester at KFUPM winds down. My sophomores had the last finals period, with their Physical Geology exam at 1:00 Friday, which turned out also to be the day before the start of Ramadan. The expat CPG faculty crew got together for dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Dhahran Mall, and we chose to sit outside. By 9:30 PM or so, the temperature had plummeted to 32°C, from a high during a clear, dustless day of 44°C (that’s 90°, down from 111°F in the early afternoon). It was actually quite pleasant, even though it sounds dreadful.

Much of the discussion revolved around summer plans. We are officially released for the summer on June 9, and are required to report back again on August 13. Classes for the fall semester apparently don’t start until September 20, although we still don’t have an academic calendar for the coming year. Our summer release works out to 60 days paid leave for the calendar year. We also get off for the Eid celebrations and for National Day. As I mentioned earlier, for US federal tax purposes, I have to be outside the US for at least 330 days in a year (starting from the time I left). Thus, I’ll only spend part of my summer break in the US.

Right now, my travel schedule looks pretty intense. As I write this, I’m on a KLM flight to Amsterdam, where I’ll connect to a flight to Lisbon. I’m spending a week with my kids in the capital of Portugal. I haven’t seen them since I moved to KSA, although modern communications have made it easy to stay in touch. This is sort of a mid-point locale where we’ve never been before, and we’re looking forward to exploring museums, castles, beaches, parks, and the like. I’m especially looking forward to gorging on oysters and fine wine (both molluscan shellfish and alcohol are haram in the Islamic faith, and alcohol is illegal in KSA). Mostly, I’m just thrilled to get to spend a dedicated week with my spawn. But, I’ll need to be back at KFUPM in a week and will then have just about a week at work before we go on break. So, this is kind of a stealth vacation (but I got it cleared and I deserve it – more on that later).

Here’s a pic of my children, Rebeca and Jack. Rebeca just graduated last week from the University of Vermont (my undergrad alma mater, so I couldn’t be prouder). She double majored in English and Spanish and had a minor in Gender Studies. She finished up a semester early, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, graduated magna cum laude with a 3.92 GPA, was the top graduating Spanish major, made the Hispanic Honor Society, and also spent a semester in Buenos Aires. Rebeca interned with Southwest Airlines for the past five months and was offered a full-time position at the conclusion of her internship. She starts in two weeks as a technical editor for SWA. Jack just finished his junior year at Boulder High and is beginning to consider college choices and map out visits this summer. Can’t wait to see what’s next for him!

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Jack and Rebeca at Rebeca’s UVM graduation, Burlington, Vermont.

I really had a fantastic semester. The new college has set its sights really high, and with continued support and additional new hires (faculty and postdocs), the College of Petroleum Engineering and Geosciences at KFUPM is going to turn heads worldwide. My colleagues are dedicated to seeing this happen. In the Geosciences Department, we’ve been busy with designing new curricula and getting University approval for a new Geophysics PhD degree and final degree revisions of BS degree plans in both Geology and Geophysics. I took the lead on the Geology BS revision, and that absolutely consumed me in the last month of the semester. I’m confident that it will all get approved, and a truly cross-disciplinary set of degree programs will begin in the fall semester.

My senior-level carbonate geology students were great all semester long. A small class, relaxed atmosphere, and excellent questions throughout made it a joy to teach. As I’ve said, my sophomores were principally civil engineering students, along with two petroleum engineers. I really don’t think that these guys had ever had anyone like me before. It was gratifying at the end of the final exam to have several of them shake my hand, thank me, and tell me how much they liked the course. One even asked for a selfie with me! A really good and respectful group of guys.

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Final exam, GEOL 201 Physical Geology, semester 162 KFUPM.

Smiley, The Dentist

We have a medical clinic on campus and I’ve been a couple of times to renew prescriptions (which, while not free, are greatly reduced in price). A couple of weeks ago, while there to renew a script, I decided on a whim to see about having a dental checkup and to have my teeth cleaned. The front desk guy plugged in my ID number and gave me directions to the dental office, no appointment necessary. I waited only about two minutes before I was called back to the checkup room. There was a dentist and an assistant waiting in the room. The dentist, a relatively young guy and quite personable, asked me if I was having any troubles and had a quick look. Unfortunately, it was too close to the mid-day Dhuhr prayer and lunch closure for me to get the cleaning. He told me to come back mid-afternoon and they’d take care of me.

Upon arrival, I was guided into a different dental room, where I found a different dentist sitting at his desk (and another dental assistant). He barely looked up to acknowledge my presence and said, “What’s wrong with you?” (kind of a loaded question, right!?). I told him I was just there for a cleaning and checkup. The only other word he said to me over the next 15 minutes of torture was “rinse.” The assistant ran a cup of water for me and dropped a dark blue tablet in it that started to dissolve. Dr. Szell (of Marathon Man movie fame) then set about cleaning my teeth. This was not a delicate scraping of plaque and polishing that I’d been accustomed to my entire life. No, this was an attack on my teeth with an instrument that I could only imagine was some type of hand-held proton beam large hadron collider ™. The beam must have come from a nuclear synchrotron from the nearby Saudi air base. I believe the blue tablet was some type of cauterizing, blood coagulating astringent. Rinse.

After the oral assault, Dr. Smiley simply walked away and sat down at his desk and again looked down at his papers. I took this as my cue to leave. I made a point of thanking him, and got no response. I then said thank you much louder, so that he was basically forced to respond. Fittingly, his response was just a grunt of acknowledgement. Man, that guy was a dick. But my teeth were clean. Possibly even cleaned of all the enamel.

Probably won’t repeat that experience.

Get a loan, get a car!

My car saga has ended with great success. The short solution was this. I was in country long enough to have gotten three paychecks (monthly), and I was therefore eligible to either get financing for a car, or to obtain a personal loan and pay cash for the car. On the advice of several friends and colleagues, I chose the latter. I picked out a car, obtained a personal loan for the sales price, paid for the car, and drove it away. For most of you, that’s all you need to know. However, now that my blog has been picked up by expat.com, I thought it worthwhile to go through the steps I had to go through to make this happen, so that other expats, or future expats, know what they’re up against. If you just want to see pictures of my beautiful new car, feel free to move along. For other expats who are in the market for buying a car in KSA, read along.

For the record, and for those of you who know me well, I like cars and I like my car to be an Audi A4. My previous three cars were A4s, and my intent all along was to make it four in row by buying a new one in the Kingdom. I supposed I could have saved up to buy the car outright, and avoided financing or a loan altogether. However, I became sick of spending money monthly on a rental Hyundai that still smelled of cigarette smoke after four months of driving it. I went for the instant gratification, like a true American. Again, based on advice, I chose the personal loan route rather than financing.

The advantage of buying a car with a personal loan is that once you acquire the car, it’s yours. In US terms, that means you get the title from the get go, and it doesn’t reside with the bank for the duration of financing. Also, higher interest rates come with financing, and the personal loan rate is very reasonable (akin to model year-end financing in the US). However, and this may be a big however for some of you, the terms of a personal loan for expats dictate that you pay the loan off in one year. Financing can be stretched out (e.g., 36, 48, 60 months), significantly lowering the monthly outlay. Truthfully, I didn’t know about the one-year restriction until the day before I was going to sign for the loan. Just make sure you talk to your banker – it’s possible that those terms were just for my bank, but I doubt it.

After I had gotten my third paycheck, my banker actually called me to tell me I was now eligible for a loan/financing plan. This bank has a branch office on campus, and is the bank that the University uses as default for direct deposit of pay. These are the things you’ll need to get the loan processes started. Three months of pay, your Iqama, your passport (with visa), a salary certification letter from your employer, and a mysterious thing loosely translated as a salary continuation letter. You should have no trouble getting a signed salary certification letter from your employer’s payroll or faculty affairs office. This continuation letter thing though… I still don’t really know what it is for certain, because it’s all in Arabic. It required a half dozen signatures and/or initials from people within faculty affairs, payroll, and accounting. One guy had to sign after he had initialed and after someone else had signed. It had to go in the proper order. No one could really explain to me what it was. It seems to be some sort of guarantee that the university gives to the bank that the employee (me) won’t go changing banks at some point during the loan. I don’t want to think about what the penalty would be for doing such. After four trips to the main admin building and two trips to the bank, the mysterious letter was acceptable to both sides.

It was then loosely explained to me that the Saudis do “Sharia banking” and after the loan is set in motion, I’ll get a call and I should just agree to what was being asked of me on the other end of the line. Sure! What could go wrong with that? So, a few hours later I get a robocall asking me if I agree to sell some number of bushels/tons/train cars of rice from India that would equal the loan amount. Sure! I’ll sell rice I don’t have! I indicated that I agreed to do what was being asked of me. The call ended and sat around perplexed at what had just happened. I guess it’s similar to doing a short sale on stocks you don’t own. Within two hours, I suppose the rice transaction went through, and I got the automated message from my bank that I now had the full balance of the loan in my bank account. Well.

I won’t give a full accounting of the process of actually buying the car. Some of it was straight forward, and some was convoluted. Many signatures are involved. My main suggestion here is that you should pay for what is known as “full” insurance. This is mostly like “comprehensive” insurance in the US. Cost of the insurance for one year should be no more than 5% of the value of the car. I used an insurance broker recommended to me by my car salesman. If you plan on driving to Bahrain or other GCC countries, make sure the insurance rider states that you’re covered in those countries. I’m not sure how much of an increment that was on the full insurance price, but overall my insurance came out less than the 5% mark. Know full well that there are a lot of uninsured “motorists” out there, and most everyone drives like poop.

Well, that’s my car from a number of angles. Audi technology in the cockpit is ridiculous.

Dawn Returns to the Kingdom

Dr. Dawn Jobe, holder of a MS and PhD from Colorado School of Mines, visited the “mother ship” for two weeks recently. And by mother ship, I mean Saudi Aramco. Dawn works as a research geologist for Aramco Services, an Aramco satellite research lab based in Houston, TX. As the newly appointed Seminar Chairman, I took the opportunity to invite her to give a technical talk to the Department. Several colleagues from Petroleum Engineering and CIPR (research entity for the College) also attended. She did a great job and the talk was very well received. Beyond that we were able to attend a function on the Aramco compound and also got together for one of the consulate high teas just before she headed back to Houston.

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Dr. Jobe giving the Geoscience Department seminar in May.

Squash

I’m also going to acknowledge and thank Dr. Mohammed Hamdan for rekindling my love of the game of squash. The Academy was a fantastic experience – I made many friends and secured current and future squash partners. It’s good to have an indoor sport in KSA, especially this time of year! It’s pretty certain that we will continue with the Academy in the fall. Unfortunately, I had to withdraw from the Dhahran Squash Club annual tournament, held on the Aramco campus, because of an injury. Not to worry, I’m recovered and back playing 2-3 times a week.

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Dr Hamdan in action on the Academy announcement.

Finally, here’s a teaser for the next blog entry.

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Castelo do Sao Jorge, Lisbon, Portugal

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