The Royal Morgue

People often ask me what it’s like to work with members of the Saudi royal family,  they want to know what the Princes and Princesses are really like. In short, they’re just like any other person when it comes to being a patient, but with some financial and social benefits of course.
I wanted to share this interesting and unbelievable incident which will have you shaking your head in amazement and laughing out loud at the absurdity that sometimes goes on when Saudi royals come to the hospital.

The Saudi royal family is huge, estimated to consist of around 15,000-20,000 members, but nobody seems to know the real figure. The royals have their own specific services and VIP wards in some of the Saudi government hospitals, read more about them here:

Although the regular wards are not designated to accommodate VIP’s, occasionally royal patients are admitted there. Some royals actually request to be assigned to a bed on the normal wards. These patients prefer to be treated under the specific medical service related to their illness, rather than the VIP service. This way they get the care related to their condition, not their status. Some of the Princesses have told me they want to avoid the VIP wards like the plague because of rumors within the extensive royal family. Patients have many visitors and apparently others will most likely recognize which family is in question and there will be talk.

royal morgue

The peculiar incident happened when I was relatively new to the Kingdom and not fully familiar with all the VIP protocols and hassles yet. It was an ordinary night shift until the charge nurse received a phone call for an admission from the ICU. I heard her screaming on the phone informing them we didn’t have empty beds, then shaking her head in disbelief and putting the phone down. The other Asian nurses gathered at the nursing station, speaking loudly in Malay and Tagalog. Since by now I’d noticed this was a common occurrence, I thought nothing of it and continued my work.

After a while I saw some nurses getting a room ready for the admission. The ward had already been full, so they’d transferred one patient onto another ward to empty out the room for the ICU admission. I was busy with my own patients, and because I wasn’t the allocated nurse who would be receiving the new patient, continued to ignore the commotion the Asian nurses were causing over the transfer. As was usual, I was the only western nurse on duty, the rest of the staff were Asian. It was very common that the western nurses were not let in on what was going on, unless it was a life and death situation, so I thought it was insignificant.

When the patient finally arrived from the ICU on her bed,  all of a sudden the other nurses, including the charge and the allocated nurse, suddenly disappeared like samboosas on Ramadan. I saw the western ICU nurse pushing the bed with some five male relatives in tow. The patient was totally covered with a white sheet, which is normal in Saudi for the female patients. When female patients are transferred on their beds around the hospital, for privacy reasons the white sheets are normally used to cover the entire patient, resulting in an ‘on the way to the morgue’-look.

Because I was the only nurse around, I went to help and greeted the relatives with salaams and a smile, only to be answered with blank stares and silence. Next we had to transfer the patient to the ward bed. We turned the patient and placed the sliding board underneath, pulling her to the other bed using the sheets. I thought it was odd they still hadn’t wanted to remove the covers, but I had gotten accustomed to seeing all sorts of weird things and again thought nothing of it. I took notice of the expensive watches, pristine white, crisp thobes and strong oud perfumes the men were wearing which made me think they were probably of upper class status.

Next the male relatives started to fuss about the A/C. The most common complaint Saudi patients have when they first enter the patient room is: “the air conditioning is too COLD, please make it hot”. Saudis are afraid the cold air will worsen all illnesses. So I assured them I would adjust the AC to make the room as hot as possible. The looks on their faces were as if I’d said something to the likes of ” I will give the patient heroine”.

The oldest male relative, now clearly upset, replied in perfect English, “No! We want cold air! And bring ice please! We need lots of ice.” I informed them we had an ice machine in the patient kitchen which relatives could use freely. The men glanced at each other and I got a feeling they weren’t liking my services so I excused myself and left the room.

I had been handed over the patient file but didn’t have time to look at her details, rather I wanted to find the allocated nurse to give the file to but she was nowhere to be found. Next a myriad of black clad women started entering the ward. They were all dressed in designer abayas, high heels and had covered their entire heads with the ends of their shaylas (scarves) thrown over the faces. The smell of expensive bohkoor and perfumes filled the ward. I felt a sense of curiosity now and checked the patient name. Al-Saud. And the two names before that made me gulp.

Now it started to make sense why all the Asian nurses had vanished and were still hiding in the patient rooms. I was still the sole nurse visible on the ward, standing like a statue now at the nursing station not knowing what to do. The female relatives asked for the room number and inquired what would happen. Some were weeping frantically and waving their hands in the air chanting something I assumed were prayers. Others were being walked by two Ethiopian maids on each side. One needed a wheelchair. I had seen all the drama Saudi women could create when a patient died but nothing to this scale before.

Finally the frightened charge nurse emerged from her hiding place. I asked her what was going on and the whole insane truth was revealed. The patient was indeed a Royal Princess. As a matter of fact, she was also deceased. They had just admitted a dead body.

I had unknowingly been transferring a deceased royal Princess. I gasped at the thought of not only handling a dead body like one that was alive and thought back at everything I had told the relatives. Why didn’t the nurses inform me?! I wanted to vanish into a tiny hole somewhere and not come out until this royal-hullabaloo was over with.

Naturally in Saudi as in all other hospitals around the world, the deceased patient will always be washed and prepared and then transferred to the morgue. According to Islam the body should be buried as soon as possible and any decaying of the body should be avoided. The process in Saudi is very swift compared to what we are used to in the west, where the bodies might be in the morgues weeks at a time for example. Very seldom are autopsies carried out in Saudi-Arabia. Once the patient dies, the families take it as a decree from Allah and the reason of death to them becomes insignificant, unless they suspect a gross violation from medical staff which is extremely rare (that they would suspect or care).

So why was the dead body of a royal Princess occupying one the beds on our ward, not the morgue, or the VIP ward, which has huge rooms complete with separate guest rooms? Well the reason is simply that’s what the family wanted and because of their status, practically owning the hospital, they could make it happen. They wanted for all the relatives and especially the King to be able to say goodbye and pray for the ‘patient’ before she was taken away. The morgue would not be a place fit for a Princess as high as her and how could the royal princesses visit the real morgue without fainting anyway?

So to get things rolling, ice was brought in by the truckloads to cover body with and the AC was adjusted by special technicians called in to fix it. Gigantic flower arrangements and golden chairs fit for Princesses to sit on were brought in from the VIP ward and when there was no space left inside the room, the hallway leading to the room was lined with chairs and flowers. Expensive bokhoor (normally strictly forbidden) was burned to the point there was so much smoke it was impossible to see anything in the dark room and I had to wonder why the smoke detectors and water sprinklers were not going off. Guards were placed at the door and so the “Royal Morgue” was up and running.

It was well past midnight but visitors kept coming in and out causing quite a lot of confusion in the other patients and relatives who were curiously peeking out of their rooms to see what was going on. There was hysterical crying in the hallways, maids were coming in with endless trays of chocolates, pastries and other sweets. A few Ethiopian maids were dressed in fancy uniforms, serving Arabic coffee from the intricate golden dallahs to the female visitors, who sipped the coffee under their black veils, never revealing their faces to anyone. Drivers and guards were hanging around the hallways, some were watching after children that were thank God, oblivious to the madness that was going on.

One of the younger princesses couldn’t handle the stress and Her Highness was brought to me by a male relative asking to measure the blood pressure. I directed the moaning and groaning princess to sit in a quiet area and took the readings. They were slightly elevated but nothing to worry about, I said. The male relative strongly disagreed and demanded to see a cardiologist at once. He ordered me to give any kind of blood pressure medication on the spot.

I tried to explain to him how, first of all since the young lady was healthy and wasn’t on any medications, I couldn’t just go get a random blood pressure medication, secondly there are maybe hundreds of medications and doses to choose from and thirdly, it would be impossible to get medicine out of the machine without doctors orders AND her being listed as a patient on this particular ward, and fourth, no doctor would ever prescribe any medications based on these readings!

I told the man it’s best we let her sit for a while, drink some water and try to relax, then I’ll measure the BP again and she would be just fine, inshallah. He was clearly upset at what I had suggested, acting as if the woman was going to have a heart attack.

So as is commonplace with this type of demanding Saudi patients, my explanations were not good enough and he needed to hear the exact same things coming from a doctors mouth. I was forced to call the cardiologist on call, who happened to be in the middle of an operation at the cardiac surgery unit, to come down to the floor. The doctor was extremely angry and shouted to me on the phone. I told him how sorry I was but I had to call because it was for a royal princess.

When the cardiologist, a Saudi male himself, arrived at the ward, looked at the patient and saw the blood pressure readings (which were by now even better) he simply laughed and left. I was standing there not knowing what to do next but thankfully the male relative was so upset at the lack of service he took the faint princess elsewhere. I was relieved.

It was now nearing Fajr (early morning)  prayer time and the worst traffic to the newly established morgue had quieted down. The Asian staff were still mostly hiding in the staff room or patient rooms, trying to avoid any contact with the royal family in fear of saying or doing something to upset anyone and as a consequence, loosing their jobs.

There was still no word when the King would make his appearance to say his farewells. There were guards placed on all the entrances and the staff was anxiously awaiting his arrival. I was actually excited to have the opportunity to at least see the King.

By the time night shift was over the ward had started to have a distinct deathly smell to it. Especially around the room-turned morgue, the stench was getting almost unbearable despite all the burned  bokhoor and flowers. To my disappointment I never got the chance to meet the King. Eventually the King had arrived for a quick visit that afternoon and only after that was the body taken to the cemetery for burial. I’m glad I wasn’t on duty that day, can’t imagine what the smell was like by then.

Definitely one of the stories from working as a nurse in a Saudi hospital I will never forget!



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Hello there, I’m Laura, the author of Blue Abaya, the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia established in 2010. I’ve been traveling around and exploring Saudi Arabia since 2008.
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  • AnonymousJune 10, 2012 - 4:00 pm

    oh how i love your stories from the mysterious saudi kingdom lol
    I really dislike it when ppl poor thing it must have been slightly annoying seeing you were educated in this profession and some rich guy was questioning ure ability. Well at least he was worried about a woman which most people presumably think saudi men are women haters.
    What are saudi princesses like? Because of the mystery of the kingdom and the women and especially the royal family its always an intriguing thought i have in mind.
    Umm LujainReplyCancel

    • LaylahJune 12, 2012 - 1:00 pm

      Umm Lujain-oh don’t worry they do that here all the time so I’m used to it! Many seem to think nurses=maids so we don’t actually know anything, just the doctors do.ReplyCancel

  • AnonymousJune 10, 2012 - 4:04 pm

    You should write a book! seriously i would buy it asap you writing skills are intriguing and I’m sure you have so many stories to tell. Ever thought about it? You’ll give Jean Sasoon and her false stories a run for her money.

    • LaylahJune 12, 2012 - 1:01 pm

      Why thank you BOOKWORM :)
      I have thought about it and it has been suggested many times..Don’t know how I would have the time though!ReplyCancel

    • Neli SaracenAugust 27, 2012 - 7:38 am

      Just collect ur blog posts in the book :) and name it like ur blog- Scandinavian Princess in the Magic Kingdom :)ReplyCancel

  • DianneJune 11, 2012 - 12:47 am

    Interesting story here Laylah, and a little bit creepy too since I know they could have arranged this funeral somewhere else with more room without attracting attention given their status.

    I really like stories like this because these are from a person’s firsthand experience. Thanks and keep it coming Laylah. And btw, Filipinos speak “Tagalog” not “Tagalo”. :)ReplyCancel

    • LaylahJune 12, 2012 - 1:04 pm

      Dianne thanks for pointing it out, I’ve corrected the spelling mistake on the post!ReplyCancel

  • AnonymousJune 11, 2012 - 12:02 am

    I was curious to know. Was she the Kings sister?ReplyCancel

    • LaylahJune 12, 2012 - 1:02 pm

      I really can’t tell you that.. All I can say is she was one of the 20,000 royals ;)ReplyCancel

  • Umm GamarJune 11, 2012 - 12:46 am

    Oh the mystery of it all. Ya Allah, why on earth are there such insanity?Keeping the deceased as if she was a patient. Hehehe Umm Lujain, you right, of course Saudi men don’t hate women, they especially hold their mothers up very highly not atypical of the Islamic teachings. I suppose the fainting princess was in tremendous shock, the poor dear.

    Laylah, you do have a way with writing up interesting stories MashaAllah. Maybe during these nine months you could finish writing a book about your accounts in the Magic Kingdom, no pressure :)ReplyCancel

    • LaylahJune 12, 2012 - 1:04 pm

      Umm Gamar, lol I will look into it :) Honestly even keeping the blogs up and running, going through comments, editing and uploading pics, takes many hours of my day! sometimes it’s like full time job!ReplyCancel

  • ربة منزلJune 11, 2012 - 4:16 am

    You should definitely write a book! I could not stop reading till the last word.
    What an experience you had! The Saudi Royal family are very well known for their ridiculous demands, especially when compared to any other royal family. They all seem to have boisterous behavior and claim everywhere they go as their own. I am so glad I have never lived in Riyadh. I keep hearing how the traffic has to stop every time a royal person passes in his car.
    I’ve just read about the Saudi princess in Paris who owes a hotel more than 7 million dollars and refused to pay them. She claimed diplomatic immunity and relocated herself to another hotel. The royal family really needs to be taught its limits.

    I loved your comparison: (disappeared like samboosas on Ramadan.) Very Funny :)ReplyCancel

    • LaylahJune 12, 2012 - 1:05 pm

      Ohhh thanks for the compliment :)Yes I heard about this Princess and her habit of leaving the bills unpaid everywhere she goes..ReplyCancel

  • बिमलJune 11, 2012 - 4:48 pm

    this is very nice to now how the royal family acted as if there is somethingReplyCancel

  • ♥Soso♥June 11, 2012 - 7:04 pm

    I love your stories.. honestly always such a great read.ReplyCancel

  • SAMJune 13, 2012 - 4:41 am

    Good talking but we need access some really actions
    Thanks ,, continue sameReplyCancel

  • AnonymousJune 13, 2012 - 1:23 pm

    My son was born in the National Guard hospital in Riyadh. We were lucky enough that the company I was working for paid for the VIP ward… anyway… the then Crown Prince Abdullah had a Royal Wing in the hospital which included 3 bedrooms and a dining room to seat 60…. I asked the consultant why he needed 3 bedrooms…to which he said…. just because your not well doesn’t mean you can’t have fun…. apparently the wifes moved in also while he was in hospital….ReplyCancel

  • DianaJune 14, 2012 - 3:44 am

    Amazing story! definetely you shoud write a book about your whole experience.ReplyCancel

  • ASeptember 2, 2012 - 6:22 am

    moi layla,

    so my sister has been constantly trying to get me to read this blog since i spent most of my life in saudi and am currently residing in finland! i think i spent a good portion of my morning reading most of your blogs but i couldn;t help but to laugh out loud at:’…and the allocated nurse suddenly disappeared like samboosas on Ramadan’. hahahaha!ReplyCancel

  • Jesus HOctober 17, 2013 - 9:04 am

    Has the CIA ever asked you to poison a Royal ?ReplyCancel

  • RahilaFebruary 9, 2014 - 9:37 pm

    ASallam, wow!! I usually read and think wow or whatever but never can be bothered to comment…but on this occasion your website is very informative and thankyou for it. Your stories mashallah very entertaining and interesting! Stay blessed :)ReplyCancel

  • Best Of Blue Abaya 2012 | Blue AbayaFebruary 26, 2014 - 3:19 am

    […] Princess And The Pimple: Story of a Saudi Princess who wakes up one morning with a huge pimple on her face. Her mother takes her to the emergency room VIP section where the royal pimple receives more medical attention than the dying baby next door. Another funny story of the royal family check Royal Morgue […]ReplyCancel

  • […] ‘The Royal Morgue’ is an unforgettable Chekhovian sketch of what happens when a member of the royal family is deceased in a hospital, the image of princesses in expensive abbayas and smelling of high-priced attars accumulating like ravens around the body of the deceased and the nurses hiding in the corridors and making themselves scarce for fear of offending anyone from the royal family. […]ReplyCancel

  • LaylahJune 12, 2012 - 1:06 pm

    Oh yes sure do! The perks of the job are amazing :)ReplyCancel

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