Friendship in Riyadh 

March 26, a Sunday this year, is a date many retired or current OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) in Saudi Arabia and Yemen will always remember. It was when the war against Houthi rebels in Yemen started.

    On this day in 2015, a Saudi-led coalition launched lightning strikes against Houthi rebels’ positions in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. OFWs now talk excitedly about the Yemeni war as if it is  a badge of honor.

    The coalition  was cobbled  together by Arab  countries, including Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

    The coalition aimed to oust the Houthi rebels who had taken over Saudii Arabia’s  neighboring country in the north, sending then president Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi to seek refuge in Riyadh.

    At the helm of the country  since April 7, 2022 is Rashad al-Alimi.

    I was with Arab News at the time. The then Jeddah-based editors decided that the Riyadh staff would alternate in covering the nightly press conferences on the war.

    The presscons  started at exactly 7 p.m. at the old Riyadh airbase in Suleimania district. Saudi-led coalition spokesman Col., now Major General, Ahmad Hassan Mohammed Asiri gave information on the developments in the war in Yemen.

    The general is now a close confidant and adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

    We were given headphones, which translated Arabic into English. As I  took notes, enthusiasm and excitement gripped me..

    After one full hour, at exactly 8 p.m., the presscon would be over. “Any question?” Asiri, whom I interviewed later for a page 1 story, would ask. There would be silence taut  with excitement and the desire to leave to file our reports.

     With no one raising a hand, Asiri would leave as if in a hurry to do something else. The slew of reporters would break up and hurry out of the building. I would reach the office with enough time to file my report.

    In the office, I would go over my  notes in a hurry, adrenaline pumped into my blood, then closed my eyes to relax before finally writing my report that should be received by the desk in Jeddah at or before nine.

    I had covered other big  events involving those in the corridors of power but covering the press conferences on the war in Yemen was something else.

    It was unique, to exaggerate somewhat. I met the scholarly Asiri, who granted me a personal interview on his family, his growing-up years and education as well as his military career and his studies on scholarship in France. He spoke French.

   I also met the soft-spoken and friendly Australian-Canadian Ian Timberlake, AFP (Agence France Presse) Bureau Chief in Riyadh at the time. His father is South African.

    We hit it off right at the start. We were friendly with other reporters but the conviviality started and ended inside the press conference room.

   Whenever Ian left the Saudi capital or went on vacation, he would ask me if I knew of an Arabic writer who could take over when he was not in town. I managed to refer to him an Egyptian woman with a doctorate degree—Dina Fouad.

   If I needed information I missed during a press conference we both attended I called him.

    Obviously, in recognition of my help, he invited me to lunch. “Tell me where you want to eat. My company has a budget to spend on sources or people who help us,“ he said.

    If he was a big eater, I would have suggested that we go  for a seafood-themed night in a restaurant in one of the Saudi capital’s five-star hotels, like Ritz-Carlton Riyadh or Riyadh Marriott. But he was not, judging by his body build.

    We agreed to meet at the TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday) in the premises of Euromarche hypermart along Takhasussi St. He came disguised. I did not know if it was to conceal his identity for security or just for effect. I did not ask.

    I ordered beef barbecue  and, as expected, he ordered something light.

    Then he said, “My wife Nukan and I will be hosting a reception, cocktails where friends are invited. Can you make it?” I said I would try.

    He met his wife Nukan,  a Thai, in Hong Kong  where she was working.

    During that time, other newspapermen and I were attending many receptions at the different embassies inside the Diplomatic Quarter along Makkah Road so I was non-committal, not realizing that it was a maasalama (farewell) party.

    His place was in a gated   and posh residential enclave along Exit 9. I learned later that they were relocating to Washington, D.C., the United States capital. I did not attend the farewell party, though I wished later that I did.

    Ian had been promoted editor for Asia  and the Middle East. He and Nukan have been living in Nicosia, Cyprus for the last 18 months.

    He will probably be reassigned again or travel on his own to other countries but the fact remains that we first met somewhere in Riyadh.





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