08 April 2013

Return to Riyadh

RIYADH, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—Listening to “Brothers in Arms—loud—on the Emirates Airline entertainment system as the Boeing 777 descended into King Khalid International Airport (KKIA), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I brushed away several tears. During the First Gulf War, I used to listen to this haunting and emotional song on headphones to drown out the overhead roar of American B-52 bombers, accompanied by massive refuelling planes, as they took off from the military airport in Riyadh to rain down fire and death on forward lines of Iraqi troops.

The bombers were so laden with weaponry that they took off underfuelled. After takeoff, and before proceeding to the Kuwaiti border to lighten their loads, the bombers’ fuel tanks were topped off nearby, in midair, enabling them to proceed to their target and create “fields of destruction,” a phrase from Dire Straits’ song, “Brothers in Arms.” These takeoffs were always followed by the release of a Scud missile in our direction, to which we replied with a Patriot missile from the front gate of our compound. The sickening shockwave, as it broke the sound barrier at ground level, used to make my chest reverberate.

My first visit to Saudi Arabia was courtesy of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in which I played a small role as a nursing officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. This time, upon exiting the plane at the airport terminal, I recognised the underground car park where, a couple decades earlier, we had established a 1,000-bed military hospital and set up our evacuation ward. And on my journey home, I walked through shops and lounges where, more than 20 years before, we set up operating theatres and general wards in what was then a newly built, but deserted, building.

This visit was entirely peaceful. I was in Riyadh at the invitation of the General Directorate of Nursing Affairs at the Saudi Ministry of Health to address the Saudi International Conference of Excellence in Patient Care  (SIEPC 2013) on the topic of writing for publication. The conference was attended by “local” nurses from the Gulf states and Jordan, as well as Europeans, Australians, and Americans. The theme of the conference, ostensibly, was about hospitals in the region achieving Magnet status, but it was an opportunity to learn about nursing and, especially, nursing education in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. If the words “Europe” or “United Kingdom” had replaced “Saudi Arabia” or “Jordan” on the program, the discussion would have been much the same.

We share many of the same problems, such as shortages of nurses and nursing faculty, and the employment of immigrant nurses, with the Philippines being a major provider. One difference in Jordan from the rest of the world is the higher proportion of men in nursing, a remarkable 60 percent. It’s actually an issue they would like to address, as it is a symptom of very high unemployment among Jordanian men. There is a deliberate strategy in Saudi Arabia toward “Saudi-ization”—the education, training, and employment of Saudi nationals in a range of professions—including nursing. The initiative is still, however, in its early days.

Meantime, many Saudi nurses visit the United Kingdom and North America to pursue master’s degrees and doctoral education. I have personally benefitted from this. I was met at the airport by Mansour Al-Yami, in full Arab dress, whose studies I supervised at the University of Sheffield. Worth following on Twitter, Al-Yami is involved in his role at the Ministry of Health in recruiting nurses to Saudi’s workforce. Soon, he defends his doctoral thesis in Sheffield.

Yours Truly with Mansour Al-Yami, former student of
mine who is now at the Saudi Ministry of Health.
At the fabulous Four Seasons Hotel, I had dinner with Professor James Ware, director, Medical Education and Postgraduate Studies, the Saudi Commission for Health Specialties, along with Wafaa Al-Johani, who works in nursing education in Jeddah. Al-Johani is one of my former doctoral students, and she made the journey especially to see me.

Wafaa Al-Johani, one of my former doctoral students.
My time in Saudi has been informative, enjoyable and, as I alluded to above, moving. I have three children and a future son-in-law in the military. One daughter returns from Afghanistan soon; she was preceded by her fiancé. Her older sister, a nursing officer in Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, leaves for Afghanistan next week. My daughters complete four generations of Watsons who have gone to war.

I often end these entries on a light note, related to my current location or next flight (Rome in May, as it happens), but I must end this one with a rhetorical question: Will the madness of war ever end?

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

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