While Sudan and Qatar might be tougher bets, most Americans could spin a globe and pinpoint Saudi Arabia’s deserts with relative ease. Even if your geography fails you, you’ve no doubt at least heard of Saudi and perhaps recall Peter O’Toole shouting across the desert sands in Lawrence of Arabia. The average American might know that the country is the world’s largest oil producer, that it has two coasts—its arid land mass is sandwiched between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf—and that it is one of America’s allies in the Middle East (this, in spite of the fact that Osama bin Laden was a Saudi national). You might also believe, if you’ve watched certain afternoon talk shows, that women there are imprisoned in their homes and regularly beaten. Or, if you are a Michael Moore fan, that the princes of the Saudi Kingdom have conspired with the Bush family to start wars for oil. If you listen to right-wing radio, you might think that the country is almost entirely populated by people who hate freedom.
My wife and I have friends in Saudi Arabia. Bob and Reem—he from rural Pennsylvania, she a Saudi national from Jeddah—are a pair of doctors who live in one of the many employee compounds designed to give Westerners a little slice of home in the desert. They have been asking us to visit for too many years, hoping not only to show off their country but to bring a bit of understanding about the place to Americans—any Americans. So recently, my wife and I became unlikely tourists for three weeks in the desert kingdom.
It’s not easy to visit Saudi Arabia. There’s really no such thing as a tourist visa. Westerners go to Saudi because they are working for the government, have business there (usually oil business), or are pilgrims on a Hajj. Upon calling the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, and inquiring about how to get a visa, I was asked my occupation. But the attaché interrupted before I could say “writer.” “Ah, ah, ah! I don’t want to hear it. Listen . . . get someone to say you’re working for them, and you’re all set.”
“But I’m not—”
“Ah, ah, ah! Forget it! Just do like I say, and you’ll be fine.” With that, he hung up.
Fortunately, Reem’s family has Vitamin Waw, or Wasta, what the Saudis refer to as “connections.” Her uncle agreed to sponsor me as a contractor with his vast refrigeration company. And just like that, we had the necessary documentation. “You’re going to have to lie to airport security?” a neighbor asked. “That’s ballsy.” He had a point. For the remaining weeks before we landed at the Dammam Airport, I cooked up a long story about my work in the refrigeration business, hoping my lie wouldn’t be exposed.