On the Road to Damascus

Street sign near the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus,...

An actual street sign!!!

No I have not “seen the light”, done a Saint Paul, or had some other recent mystical experience.

This post is about my business trip from Latakia in northern Syria by road along the M5 to Damascus and then on to the M1 to Beirut.

The plan was simple fly from my office in Doha Qatar to Latakia Syria (on the Mediterranean just south of the border with Turkey. Doha to Latakia is about 2,000 klms ie Brisbane to Ayres Rock or say London to Sicily. But of course in the Arab world things are never that simple. There are visas, questions about what country’s passport you hold, the reason for the visit etc. The Middle East is not the same as traveling through the EEC even for me with dual nationality of Australia and UK so two passports.

It was decided the day before the trip that we would pop over to Sannaa (Yemen) and Kartoum (Sudan) as we had construction projects in these locations too. Now I have been to damascus before and Beirut but not on the same trip , Yemen and Sudan were my first visits. I was not concerned as we were usually bumped up from business to first class on the plane, drivers waiting at the airport to take us to the best hotel in town. Anyway that afternoon my very efficient PA and Sami brought in my travel documents and local currency for each country. I should point out that Sami does not have a job title, he is a local and he only can be described as “a fixer”. You need a visa, driving licence, tickets for anythink, the Sami will speak to one of his “cousins” who all seem to work at a minisitry of something in the government, and things just happen.

The big surprise for me was amongst the documents there was a form I had to sign – my kidnap insurance, and the port were my body was to be sent to. The reason for this was we were off to Sudan and Yemen. But Sami assured me there should not be a problem as were ere not Americans, my colleague was British. So with lots of enshallas and mafi mushkalas the paperwork was completed and we were off the following morning.

At Doha airport the flight plan had changed it was now Doha to Damascus and then a four hour drive from Damascus up to Latakia, an overnight stay then a four hour drive back to Damascus the f0llowing morning. So we arrived at Damascus and our driver failed to show. So we just hired a car and set off on the M5 which sounds impressive but is not. It is a single lane highway but wide enough for three lanes in either direction. In other words it is a motorway with no line markings, no white lines, no signs, no lights, but does have lunatic Turkish truck drivers, donkeys with carts, and all the pleasures of driving with our arab friends bless em.

Although I had been to Syria a few times previously I had allways arrived at an airport, rushed by car to a nearby hotel etc, this time I had a four hour drive which meant interaction with the locals. This occured very quickly in fact less than a kilometre from the Airport. The traffic lights went red, I pulled up and two local gentelment stepped out from the shade of a tree and tapped on my window – with an AK47. One word from them “papers”, one US$100 note from me and we were on our way. This happened four times so it would have been cheaper to hire a local taxi and armed militia don’t issue receipts.

After spending the night in Latakia and having a four hour meeting we headed back on the road to Damascus. Thje plan being to drive to Damascuss, another meeting then 100klms to Beiruit. We arrived at our hotel in down town Damascus only US$300 lighter and discovered the only way to Beiruit was to fly to Jeddah and then to Ammaan, then Beiruit.

One day in Beiruit. Then down to Yemen where we were met at the airport and at the developers office we were greeted with a sign behind reception which stated that all firearms must be left at reception. From the meeting to the Moevenpick hotel the entrance of which is accessed by zig zagging through anti tank obstacles and army posts not only with machine guns but with anti aircraft batteries. The next day off to Kartoum trying to get a hotel out of the ground but in dispute with the only concrete pump operator in the country. And yes his uncle was the president. No overnight stop here, we got the next flight to Doha.

Four days 12,000 klms, US$1,500 in “fees”, kidnap insurance not used, body not returned by body bag, half the people we arranged to meet did not turn up, and those who did could not make a decision.

Doing business is a bit easier (and safer) in Australia!

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