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D I S P A T C H E S

+ "Inside the Kingdom"


from Martin Smith

click here for a larger map I traveled here during the Gulf War, but 12 years ago globalization was nowhere near as apparent. Today, on the main streets and inside the malls I see Starbucks, Burger King, McDonald's, Baskin Robbins, Wendy's, Pizza Hut, KFC, Body Shop, Armani Exchange, Saks Fifth Avenue, Hugo Boss, Swatch, J.C. Penney, Nike, Sony and Benetton. And they are just a few of the globo food and sundry stores open for business. Except for the people, the mosques, and all the signs in Arabic, the place looks and feels like Phoenix, Arizona. Dry, hot and impossibly sunny clear skies. The city sprawls for miles, predominantly a mixture of low-built buildings and housing punctuated by occasional glass and steel office towers and large block government complexes.

Around 4 million people live here and they race about on huge, noisy, four and six lane roadways. There are no pedestrians, bicyclists, or camel carts. Not here. This city is as sterile and air-conditioned as a space colony on planet Venus or Mercury. People spend little time outside, walking only those short distances between their homes, offices and shopping malls to their cars where they drive with windows rolled up tight and air conditioning on max with full fan. And for some unknown reason they drive like there is no tomorrow -- as if Saddam Hussein has just launched a nuclear attack. In fact, Saudi drivers (who, by the way, are all exclusively men) are so wild that all intersection traffic lights have been set to allow only one lane to cross at a time. This prevents them from making a left turn into oncoming traffic. It helps, but drivers still regularly make left turns from the far right lane and right turns from the far left. It takes getting used to.

Sunset in Riyadh.
Underscoring their affinity for things American, the Saudis like their cars big. Mercedes, BMWs, new Volvos, Lexus, Infinitis and Land Rovers are common, but mostly the Saudis like the bigger American cars: Lincolns, Cadillacs, Chryslers and all stripes of American SUVs. Most of all, they like the Chevrolet Caprice. Even after GM stopped trying to sell these amazingly ugly, gas alcoholics in the USA, the Saudis went on appreciating their lavish, bathroom-inspired curves. And who cares about fuel costs? Gas is just about free -- a full tank runs five to eight dollars.

Chris Durrance, my associate producer, has been here for three weeks setting up appointments and getting permissions. In fact, he has worked for a year to prepare our way here. It hasn't been easy. This place may look like Arizona but its attitude toward foreign TV journalists has until only very recently been more like that of pre-1989 Albania. Closed. There are still few if any foreign news bureaus here. Not even from Arab countries. No wire services, no CNN or BBC office. The Saudis like control. It's a country which was completely a tribal culture only 40 years ago; it doesn't trust outsiders.

But now there are some small changes taking place. With post-9/11 suspicions and distrust of Saudi Arabia running at all-time highs, there are some members of the royal family who realize they need to open up a bit. "We see the world is changing," one prince told me, "and we see we are in the information age. There are few real secrets anymore. We need to stop fooling ourselves." The result of such sentiments is that some princes are inviting and sponsoring TV news crews. Print reporters have had limited access here for years, but now TV journalists, starved of access, are lining up in Washington D.C. at the Saudi Arabian embassy for visas. I am told the backlog of requests is long.

The process of opening up is a slow one and it is not the case that every one here, including many of the royals agree that openness is desirable or necessary. In truth, we discover, that few Saudi officials have any idea what openness really means. In their conception, reporting should be more about PR than true honesty. It is frustrating for us. Not only do many people not want to talk, the most simple tasks remain impossible. When we arrive, Chris tells Scott that we are still waiting for permission to film from the roof of the hotel. It doesn't seem to matter, that the application was placed a few weeks back. Still no word.

Mall in Riyadh.
We've also asked to film from the observation deck of Riyadh's tallest skyscraper, the Kingdom, built by Prince Al Waleed. The Kingdom is a striking but odd-looking structure. It's a 70-story glass rectangle with a gaping oblong hole occupying the space of its top 20 floors. It looks like a gigantic sling shot or tuning fork. It was built that way, we are told by one Saudi with a black sense of humor, so that if bin Laden wanted to fly planes into it, they would just pass through the hole and leave the building untouched.

Finally, inexplicably, we are denied permission to visit the Kingdom building, but we do get an invitation to visit Riyadh's second highest structure, the Faisaliah. We film there on the night of my first full day in town. I am standing in the warm breeze on the observation deck looking out at the city 60 stories below. Suspended above me is a huge glass ball, inside of which is a futuristic restaurant. Vaguely and sadly, it reminds me of Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of one of the World Trade Center Towers in New York. As a New Yorker, I had dined there on a few occasions.

When we exit the building I notice that Scott is filming a sign at the entrance. I go over to see what he is doing. The lens is close up on a plaque commemorating the grand opening of the Faisaliah. Below in smaller letters, it reads: "Constructed by Saudi bin Ladin Group." I am left thinking how odd it is that the money the bin Laden family earned constructing so many of Riyadh's office buildings and mosques went to destroy the Twin Towers in New York and to damage the Pentagon in Washington. For after all, the enmity between Saudi Arabia and America lies behind a facade of sameness -- Saudi Arabia seems to like looking like America. Driving American cars. But, I think, how many Saudis eating at McDonald's and shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue will tell me how they feel persecuted by Americans for being Muslims?

In the next days, I will learn that Osama bin Laden is considered a hero for school children and that many of them have begun asking their parents to stop taking them to Burger King and Wendy's, to boycott Western products. They've had a year to think about events post 9/11 and this is their reaction.


< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

London
(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

Pakistan
(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

Pakistan
(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

Frustrations
9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

Indomitable
23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

+ Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

Yemen
(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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