In 2005 I was part of an eight person team sent to inspect the operation of the U.S. mission to Saudi Arabia including our embassy in Riyadh and consulates in Jeddah and Daharan. My particular job was to evaluate the mission’s political and economic reporting and advocacy. From messages home:
Two days and counting to departure for Saudi Arabia. Three weeks in DC have gone quickly – there is so much to learn. Someone called it a 12th century absolute monarchy with unlimited resources. One thing is for sure – this is a fascinating, forbidding culture – one I look forward (with some trepidation) to experiencing for real.
Because it is so closed (no tourist visas, thanks), normal outside sources don’t exist and Embassy reporting is vital on key issues like counter terrorism (especially financing), oil, and Saudi Arabia’s influence on the world’s millions of Muslims. (The King is not referred to as King of Saudi Arabia , but rather as Keeper of the Two Holy Places – Mecca and Medina.) With all its faults, the Saud family is the only significant force for moderation in a country whose culture is solidly based on a form of Islam extremely opposed to most things Western. There is real concern here about how little we know of this country that now looms so large in the post-Iraq world.
So far, I have more questions than answers as to how I will be living for the next five weeks. The security situation plus the cultural prohibitions will mean wearing the abaya – a black, tent-like outfit. Unclear whether I will have to cover my head. Unclear if, in this garb, I can walk around at all. We will be in SA for most of Ramadan and the ‘religious police’ – the Mutaween – are particularly active during the holy month. We have heard they even patrol the hotels with their switches looking for women not dressed to their standards. (Apparently that goes as far as a ban on open toed, open backed or cut-out shoes.) Unclear if I, as a female, must eat my meals without the other members of our team in the ‘family’ dining room of the hotels we will stay in. (We will have to move every week or so for security reasons.) Trying to prepare for the worst, I am bringing lots of books, three knitting projects, needlepoint and a portable CD player.
Let the adventure begin!