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Our welcome in this land, warm but limited, reflects the way Saudi Arabia has met the non-Muslim world in the 68 years since it became a nation.
This former congeries of bedouin desert tribes, united in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz, has grown into a powerful regional force by embracing Western petroleum engineering, cutting-edge military technology, superhighways, and high-tech medicine, as well as the English language--everything modern except secularism, which elsewhere seems the soul of modernity.
Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the popular governor of Asir province whose recent poetry reading in Jordan drew 10,000 people, told me in an interview that "twenty years ago was almost a four-letter word." The royal family (and the clerics who rule with them) associated tourism with drinking, gambling, and nightclubs--"with all these things that do not go with Islamic teachings or the Islamic way of life." But he saw it as something that could help his mountainous, underdeveloped region, and he established the kingdom's first bureau of tourism.
Saudi Arabia is no stranger to visitors: between 2 and 3 million faithful arrive every year on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.(The Sheraton Medina is set up for those guests: the five clocks behind the front desk do not show the time in, say, New York, London, Rome, Tokyo, and Mexico City but, rather, the hour of the five daily prayers that the kingdom observes assiduously.) Some 5 million guest workers--25 percent of Saudi Arabia's population--live here.To the country's rulers, all of them descendants of King Abdul Aziz, these "guests" are very different from tourists.I couldn't arrange a meeting with the prince until three days after the rest of the Smithsonian tour had returned to the States.
When we did meet, it was following a grand occasion: the opening of the Prince Sultan College for Tourism & Hotel Sciences.In the Sheraton's lobby are the remaining tumblers of colorful fruit juice, dates, and once-chilled, moistened hand towels we were presented with upon arrival.