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Saudi Arabia Unveiled

Treading lightly at sites long hidden from Western eyes as the kingdom tests its taste for tourism

February 11, 2001|MARJORIE GILBERT | Marjorie Gilbert lives in Purchase, N.Y

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — As recently as 1998, tourism to this insular kingdom simply did not exist. But the Saudis want new sources of foreign income besides oil, so they are experimenting with tourism.

When I discovered that the American Museum of Natural History in New York City was sponsoring a trip to Saudi Arabia early last year, I jumped at the opportunity.

I am a docent at the museum, and my friends are used to my going off on unusual museum-sponsored travels. This time they questioned whether it was appropriate for me, an American Jewish woman, to pioneer tourism to a country of medieval values that was aligned against Israel.

Was I supposed to feel masochistic, disloyal or just plain stupid? I didn't. My curiosity won out--that, and my belief that there's no substitute for personal observation of places that have kindled one's imagination.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 25, 2001 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Saudi Arabia--A cover story about the desert kingdom ("Saudi Arabia Unveiled," Feb. 11) erroneously stated that there is a U.S. military base in the city of Dhahran.

To get along in Saudi Arabia, a land of taboos, we were briefed on the behavior expected of us. Our first encounter with local custom happened when we arrived at the airport outside Riyadh, the capital: The 12 women in our group received ankle-length cloaks--abayas--and head scarves, with the mandate that the cloaks be worn at all times, even in our hotel.

No one complained. The cover-up was a price we were willing to pay for this rare glimpse into a land long hidden from Western eyes. One doesn't just get a visa and hop a plane to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis don't issue tourist visas. One must go as part of a group that has the government's approval. So far, these groups are few, limited to educational organizations, and are small and expensive.

Our group of 22 was well traveled and enthusiastic, mostly professional people from across the U.S. We were escorted by an associate of Peter Voll, a Californian who specializes in academic tours and is the Saudis' key U.S. contact on their fledgling tourism effort. Japanese and European tour groups also are coming in.

Our fidgeting with the abayas and the consequent entanglement of camera straps and purses abated on the drive through Riyadh (pronounced Ree-yahd). My main impression was of an Orwellian starkness, a futuristic city--it was built from scratch, starting in the 1930s--devoid of vitality and activity. The only people out and about were men driving cars; we saw few pedestrians and no women or children. (Women are forbidden to drive or to be seen in public unless accompanied by a husband or male relative. We were told there was one exception: They can go to the market or shopping mall unescorted.)

We also saw familiar signs--Toys R Us and McDonald's--and lots of gas stations, but no bicycles or motorcycles, public buses or taxis, no interesting billboards, no entertainment spots, such as restaurants, movies, clubs or theaters. Apart from traffic, there was no street noise. And no litter.

For two weeks we traveled as a unit, by plane and on chartered luxury buses, and met Saudis by arrangement, occasionally in their homes. We had a wide assortment of international foods, and fruit drinks and artificial beer in place of alcoholic beverages, which are forbidden. Because medical and sanitation standards are high in this wealthy land, we didn't experience the usual American fear of foreign water and food; we ate whatever we pleased.

The sterility of Riyadh was forgotten in our visit to Diriyah, just outside the city. The former seat of power is a ruin of winding streets and deserted palaces, the baked-mud architecture occasionally relieved by beautiful painted doors. This is where the kingdom was born, in 1902, when a powerful clan leader, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, recaptured the city from the Ottoman Turks. By 1932, he had unified most of the Arabian peninsula and proclaimed the kingdom of Saudi Arabia with himself as monarch.

The discovery and exploitation of oil in those years catapulted the country from tribal culture to international prominence. Our hosts often mentioned this rapid change in explaining their society. We heard frequent demurrers about the country's conservatism being cultural, related to desert tribal norms, and not religious.

Yet signs of religious influence were everywhere. At the National Museum, for instance, a natural history and geology exhibit depicted the Muslim version of evolution, starting with the Big Bang and subsequent facets of the universe as created by Allah. The information was shown on elaborate, brightly colored panels displaying familiar terrain: deserts, oases, mountains, the Red Sea, rocks and fossils, marine life and mammals. Vast, uncrowded spaces abounded in the museum. One long hallway lined with magnificent mosaics was empty but for three men prone on the marble floor, praying.

Riyadh is in the center of the Arabian peninsula, a sparsely populated swath of desert that lies between the Red Sea and the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf. Our first trip outside the capital was to Dhahran, 250 miles east, on the gulf.

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