I’m not a Muslim, but, I feel like I have experienced Makkah!

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Hopefully, that title got you thinking, what is this Australian guy, who works in the Middle East talking about, Makkah, he can’t go there! Well, you are right, whilst I have not been to Makkah in person, having worked with my team in Saudi Arabia for almost 10 years, learning from some of the wisest, thoughtful, patient, gentle and professional colleagues there is, all of whom are Muslim from a variety of nationalities, I feel like I have enjoyed Makkah many times and can speak with authority on various points.

Photo credit: “group around Kaaba, Makkah” by طفاف ابوماجدالسويدي on Unsplash

The thing is, with Makkah being the home of Islam, the rule is that you must be Muslim to enter the city, which I respect 110% as always and everybody should. When I say that I feel like I have been there, my colleagues have taken videos to show me the Mosque area, viewed so many versions of Google maps, worked with the team in Makkah, asked hundreds of questions, listened intently for hours when hearing of the many historical recollections that are within the Koran, allowing me to now understand most of the steps around performing an Umrah and Hajj. You should see the face of some colleagues and family (not in the Middle East) when I start to talk about Tawaf and the stations of Umrah and Hajj, it’s priceless. However, I want to point out, I don’t relay and have never told what I have learned about Islam and Makkah to make myself look big, but to “de-mystify” Saudi Arabia as a whole.

Holy Prophet Mosque – Madinah

You see, around 9+ years ago when I started working with the team, led then by Bander Harbi, the VP Operations of KSA and a Saudi National himself, the whole country was still very closed and very, very misunderstood. Our weekends were Thursday & Friday, with the first day of the working week being Saturday, now that took some time to get used to, but when you understand why, it makes perfect sense. The day of Friday is a holy day in the eyes of all Muslims, it’s the day where you must visit the Mosque for prayers, the mid-day (Dhuhr) prayer time is the most popular, the general trend is to attend prayers at noon, then take lunch with family or friends in the afternoon, this is the norm over the whole Middle East and especially the GCC.

A Friday would be seen like a Sunday in the west, a day of relaxing and reflection, with Thursday being the busy day for all the shopping and chores.

Let me tell you something about Saudi Hospitality. Once, I was escorting a female IHG colleague from Revenue Management into Riyadh and then Jeddah for some training, we went Abaya shopping the night before, the day of our flight, she was shaking like a leaf and even crying with worry, because, as I said before, Saudi Arabia was not well understood. The great thing is, during the trip she met with other Saudi ladies, the team we had in our hotels and visited the cities of Riyadh and Jeddah to understand better, it’s not that different to any other big city, sure, there are rules, but it’s far safer than 99% of so-called open cultures around the world. My colleague had so much fun, made some great long-term friends, ate the most delicious food and she was happy to travel back into KSA, twice more over the next 12 months.

Saudi Flag and Map

The time I started working with the Saudi team, the value of business in KSA was immense, it’s still big now, but years ago when oil prices were higher, different views from the King and a more free hand for spending, one of our BIG hotels was making as much revenue as 12 small to medium sized Holiday Inn hotels in the UK, with a profit of more than 65% making it outstanding income, hence the need to open my company eyes to not only what was taking place there, but what the potential could be with various enhancements to the ways of working and business mix.

So, my role with the company was of course to drive the Commercial performance of the hotels, but also to “de-mystify” this closed, little-understood country to the rest of my company. What for you think? Well, being one small part of a LARGE Corporate company, you need to “leverage” the people with the resources to help you do your job better. You do this by taking people into the Kingdom that need to see it with their own eyes, anything that you can say might be nodded at, but it’s only when they see, hear and experience the Kingdom in person, meeting guests, owners and our colleagues, that they really understand how they can assist us to drive the Commercial performance in this great country.

Photo credit: My selfie or our blessed arrival into Madinah — November 2017 (That’s Me, Gresha Schuilling, Sadiq Iqbal, Yasser Al Youbi & Munir Sharafi)

In November 2017, I was fortunate enough to enjoy my second trip to the Prophets City, Madinah. The city of Madinah is very different from any other city in the Middle East. I’m not going to get into a philosophical story about why suffice to say, but, it’s a really chilled out place, with some of the most beautiful people in Saudi Arabia living there, the food is as always, fantastic, the hospitality superb and the dates, OMG, I love the Saudi dates. In Madinah grows an extraordinary variety of date, it’s often referred to as the Prophets Date and called Ajwa. They are small, very dark in colour and only grow well in and around Madinah. They are the King of all dates, very expensive and of course, seasonal. Our Crowne Plaza Madinah is just over the street from the Madinah Date Market, where you can find all the varieties and also the Ajwa date on display, ready to buy and enjoy. Now, when you eat this date, in fact, any date, always eat an odd number, like 3, 5 or 7 (I would not encourage more than that in one sitting). It’s well known in Saudi Arabia that an odd number is the best way to enjoy, and if you really want to go local, have a glass of Camel milk with a handful of 5 dates, that will keep you going all day.

They are super rich in many great nutrients, natural sugars and fibre, all good for your health and system, personally, I can’t go a day without enjoying some sweet fresh dates.

Ajwa Dates – Madinah City

OK, enough about Madinah and the dates, more of Madinah in the next post, let’s travel back down the West Coast of Saudi Arabia to Makkah. What gave me extra motivation to write this article is the fact that we (IHG Middle East) have just launched our Umrah promotion for the West Coast of Saudi Arabia, these are the cities, Jeddah, Madinah and Makkah, where the majority of Pilgrims will visit when they come to perform Umrah. What is Umrah you say, well it’s a little bit like this, think of Umrah as the prayer ritual you can do anytime around the year, you can even perform Umrah many times a year if you are able? This varies from the Hajj, which is one of the pillars of Islam where every able-bodied Muslim must perform at least once in their lifetime. One of the best places to stay in Makkah, any time of the year, would be Dar al-Tawhid InterContinental, Makkah. When you stay, you feel as though you are visiting right in the Grand Mosque itself, the hotel is so very close, so close in fact, when you walk out on the ground floor, on the Holy Mosque side of the hotel, you take one step outside of the hotel doors and you are standing on the terrace of the King Fahad gate, which is a significant part of the ongoing development of this fantastic place.

Photo credit: Website of Dar al-Tawhid InterContinental, Makkah

I would so much love actually to visit Makkah in person one day, however that may not happen for a variety of reasons, but even if it does not happen, I feel like I have been there a number of times, like I said above, the team are all very thoughtful, caring people who take time out to explain what Islam is all about and when they see you have a genuine interest and mutual respect.

In these tough-talking times of ignorance fueled bigotry, race hatred, loud-mouthed politicians trying to drive people apart with archaic scare tactics, all it really takes is some time and an open mind, nobody is saying that you must follow Islam, but like every other religion in the world, you just need to understand things better, and when you do, you will soon realise that we are all not that different from each other!

Life is short, make it a good one, treat people like you want to be treated, listen twice and much as you speak and treat everybody you meet with dignity and respect.

Onwards and as always, upwards… Damian

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Damian K. ten Bohmer
Senior Director @IHG

Damian is an Australian Executive living #Dubai @InterContinental Hotels Group Middle East & Africa, company man, travel lots, great family, love #SurfSki, #TRX, keep fit & do the right thing. *AVMO

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1 Comment
    • Muhammed Musa
      Apr 17, 2019 21:34 pm Reply

      Great exposure

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