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America From Abroad : Suddenly, It's OK to Be a Yank in Saudi Arabia : It took a near-war to do it, but the friendship has come out of the closet. The Americans' freewheeling cowboy image has transplanted easily to the land of the Bedouin.

October 09, 1990|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — There used to be a rule of thumb at American diplomatic receptions here: If you want 20 Saudis to show up, invite 100. If you want 50, send out 300 invitations. Call them several times to make sure they are coming.

Things had a way of not clicking. There was the time they invited a jazz combo to play George Gershwin, and the Saudis complained about "Jew music." Or the time the American Embassy decided to celebrate the Southern tradition with a Cajun band, and the religious police sealed off the entire Diplomatic Quarter. Some Saudis fled the embassy that night in the trunks of cars.

So, it has come as some surprise to diplomats recently that American receptions and dinner parties are suddenly the hot ticket in Riyadh. Now, you invite 100, and 90 show up. In one of the most sheltered and conservative Muslim countries in the world, it's OK to be American.

"Association with Americans isn't tainted the way it might have been three months ago," said one official. "It doesn't seem as daring as it was. I think, if nothing else, there's a new kind of friendship that's come out of all of this."

With more than 100,000 American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia and American television network cameras probing every private corner in the kingdom, the Saudis are increasingly unabashed about their American flirtations.

They're buying Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts commissioned by American journalists, the ones that say "Kuwait City: Under New Management." They motor down Pepsi Cola Street in the Persian Gulf city of Khobar mouthing the lyrics to a Tone Loc rap tune with their fingers drumming on the dashboard. They order their Hardee's cheeseburgers with extra barbecue sauce on the side and push back their head scarfs from their cheeks to plow into a Baskin Robbins ice cream cone.

Americans, who launched the old Arabian-American Oil Co. (Aramco) more than half a century ago and helped build the kingdom's massive oil industry, are nothing new to Saudi Arabia. Liking Americans is really nothing new to Saudis. Perhaps it's just that, like the little-discussed but longstanding political links that prompted the deployment of American troops here, the friendship has come out of the closet.

"The Saudis have always felt a kind of affinity for the Americans," said one Saudi government official. "Let's face it: The British are obnoxious, the Germans are a little bit like a mechanized tank division, the French are impossible.

"There's something in the Saudi psyche that's very similar to what's in the American psyche," he said. "Maybe it's because the rest of the world looks at us the same way. The world sees the Americans as cowboys, you know, wild savages out on the range, and the Saudis are Bedouins who roam the desert. And the world resents both of us in a way, the Americans because of their innovation and productivity, and the Saudis because of their money."

At the camel market in Al Hasaa last month, an American television crew filmed an old Bedouin who was bringing his prized breeding camel to market. He had recently named him Bush, he said, after the American President. "This camel is strong," he said, "he is fierce, he is intelligent, he is a leader of camels."

Where politics used to be a subject politely avoided at most mixed social gatherings, an American in Riyadh says now he can't stop the Saudis.

"There are people that I would try to start a conversation with two months ago who wouldn't even want to start. They'd say, 'Why do you want to talk about the Arab-Israeli problem? I know what you're going to say, you know what I'm going to say. Why are you doing this? Why are you wasting both our time on this?' Now, they want to talk."

What do they want to talk about?

First, several Americans living here said, the Saudis want information. What's going on? Is Saddam Hussein going to withdraw from Kuwait? Is there going to be a war? When? How bad? Will Saudi population centers be hit?

Also, said one American official, the Saudis "have their own agendas they want to push. Number one is, why don't you hit Saddam, hit him hard, and what are you waiting for? Then they say, when all of this is over, don't forget to do something about Palestine."

Americans in the kingdom, who are used to a dour reception when they fly into Saudi airports, have described being robustly patted on the back by airport officials when returning to this country since the deployment of American troops. One American woman said she was waiting in line behind several Saudi women to use a public restroom when one of them asked her nationality. "Al Hamdulilleh! (Praise God!)" the Saudi exclaimed when the woman said she was an American. "Go to the front."

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