The state visit by His Majesty King Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud to Malaysia from Feb 26 to March 1 reminds me of the official visit by a Saudi prince to Kuala Lumpur in 1975.
I was then working for a company which operated the largest fleet of tour buses and limousine taxis in the country.
The Public Works Department (JKR) maintained a pool of cars for government officials to use on special occasions.
Whenever JKR could not supply, government agencies would book the limousines from my company.
Although I was working in the office, I was roped in to drive a limousine during the Saudi prince’s visit.
It turned out I was driving a spare car as I drove alone from the Subang airport to the hotel and continued over the next few days.
But I remember to this day the hospitality accorded to all the drivers at the residence of the Saudi Arabian ambassador’s residence along Jalan Ampang.
The prince had dinner there but the drivers were not left to fend for themselves. We were ushered to the back patio where we were allowed to help ourselves to many dishes spread on the table.
It was the first time I saw bite-size pieces of boneless chicken meat stacked on top of one another in a big pile. That one dish alone is enough to satisfy many.
I particularly enjoyed the Arabic tea but most of all, I was deeply touched by the hospitality as drivers usually had to wait for work to be over for their meals.
On departure day at the airport, a driver standing next to me said he saw a Saudi aide counting a big bundle of cash at a counter and described that he was feeling hot and cold alternately.
Every driver, including me with no passenger, was given a RM500 tip, which was a lot of money 42 years ago. My salary then as a tour coordinator was only RM350.
‘An officer and a gentleman’
In 2000, I drove metered taxis and met many Saudi tourists. One in particular stood out. He was an air force colonel training fighter jet pilots.
Far from being a stereotyped military man, he was gentler than an English gentleman, with a kind and knowledgeable wife, and children who were bright and disciplined.
I was so impressed that I persuaded them to visit the Selangor Pewter factory as I planned to buy an ashtray, have it engraved and presented as a gift.
But I had to settle for a smaller ashtray with my limited budget and the words had to be shortened to ‘Colonel Abdul Hameed, an officer and a gentleman’.
After his shopping and just before leaving the showroom, I handed my gift to him and said “From Malaysia” with a smile.
Next day, I drove them to Sunway Lagoon. Upon reaching there, he handed me a box and said it was perfume for my wife and another box for me. Inside was a gold watch.
I was thankful but more embarrassed, as it did not occur to me that I might get a gift in return. Years after I stopped driving taxis, I still get calls from Saudi Arabia from my passengers or those recommended by them.
In 2008 and 2009, I was the rapporteur when the International Conference on Muslim Tourism, Haj and Umrah was held in Kuala Lumpur and the Saudi Arabian ambassador was one of the speakers.
This year, the Saudi Arabian government has reverted the quota for Malaysian haj pilgrims to the original figure of 27,800.
But more than 2.3 million Malaysians are on the waiting list to perform the haj. Together with a large number of Malaysians who went on umrah and the good behaviour of Malaysian haj pilgrims are good reasons to raise our haj quota.
In any case, Saudis are much welcome to Malaysia. Last year, 133,500 came, an increase of 23.5 percent over the previous year.
Likewise, we are proud and honoured with the visit of King Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud together with a delegation of more than 600 people to our country.