Friday, April 25, 2008

My Night with al-Nukhbah (the elite)

I wasn't going to go to the Ambassador's National Day party (4th of July celebrated 3 months early because of the summer heat and everyone getting out of Dodge) because the embassy announcement said "business dress" and I don't have a suit. But a young coworker said to me, "Just wear what you have and say that's your business dress. I'm just going for the food and free drinks." So I changed my mind, put on my best shirt and my new slacks (which were 2 inches tight when I bought them but after getting back into the gym I can now squeeze into them) and walked over.

It was a great night. The ambassador's house is immense but the whole event was held outside. They covered over the tennis court, had tons of food, a not-too-bad band singing everything from the Eagles to Alabama, and I rediscovered the diplomatic beverage of choice gin and tonic. They had invited at least 1,000 guests, most of them Saudi and from other embassies. Whether by chance or by providence, I met and talked to at least four very interesting people, all of whose English was perfect.

The first was Khalid Al-Saeed (they all give you their business cars) who is director of the Western Press Communication Center. His job is to write rebuttals or responses to things that are written in the Western media about Saudi Arabia. He said his articles have appeared in many American newspapers, and they are all translated into Arabic and read to King Abdallah. When I get to work (where the computer connection is better than from my house) I'm going to google him and see what I can find. He said that some of his articles but not all can be googled. I asked him if he had seen the Human Rights Watch report that had just come out about Saudi women (which I had read that day). He said he hadn't but would like to, so I'll email him the link. I The key to meeting Saudis is first, when you shake hands let them release the handshake first (they hold the grip longer than we do which can be a little disconcerting initially). I realized last night that a second key is to continue the conversation until they decide to stop it. So after talking to Khalid for 20 minutes or so, another person walked up and greeted Khalid. Khalid1 introduced Khalid2, and then Khalid1 slipped away.

Khalid2 is a professor of Hospital Administration at King Saud University (a good future contact perhaps for Edward if you decide to work out here). We chatted for awhile and he told me likes to have parties at his house "for ambassadors and people like that". He asked me to email him, so I'll drop him a line. He then slipped away with, "I have to met a couple of friends", and a few minutes later I greeted a young man named Awwad who works for Chevron.

Something about Awwad just blew me away. His English was absolutely perfect, he had gotten a BA from the States, and was thinking about going back for a degree in corporate law. I told him about the Saudi I had met in Jeddah when we were there who started to work for a foreign bank in Jeddah. When he realized that the Saudis had a reputation for being lazy and doing nothing (which is still the case and apparently often true), he determined to be the opposite. He started at the bottom and worked his way up to being the VP of the bank. He then realized he wanted to expand his experience, and switched over to another bank dealing with a different financial aspect. He again began at a low level and worked his way to VP of that bank. We talked about the possibilities of change in Saudi society and the "tipping point" theory of change. He had read the book, but believed it would take a long time here. I told him about the interview I had seen a few nights before on TV with a young Saudi woman who had gone to Dubai against her family's wishes and gotten a job as a TV announcer. She now received calls and emails every day from Saudi girls desperate to leave the country just for the sake of having a real job. I also told him about the conversation I had the previous week (at the embassy's happy hour) with a Palestinian/Saudi woman who works in a woman's bank here (which are the only banks women can work in). She said that the 25 or so Saudi women who work with her are almost all between the ages of 23-29, unmarried, and live for their jobs. They come an hour early in the morning, and leave an hour late. Awaad told me that what she hadn't told me was that those women would likely never get married because many Saudi men are unwilling to marry working women. He said he had two sisters who were both dentists. One of them was unmarried and the other had been divorced.

Awwad then slipped away to meet a friend, and I gorged myself on shrimp and lamp chops for a few minutes, with some Jim Beam and coke to help it along. I was so impressed by the people I'd met and my conversations with them that I thought I wouldn't meet more new people but just wait to see what happened. A few minutes later I saw my boss and his wife sitting under a tree on a nice long stone bench area. I chatted with them for a few minutes, and then greeted a Saudi man who was sitting next to them. I ended up sitting and talking to him the rest of the evening. He is an assistant professor of Management at Prince Sultan University. Three of his four children were born in the states, and his son is now studying in California. He is thinking about sending his daughter, now a senior in HS, to the States as well. He said he would prefer her to be in Washington, near the Saudi Embassy, because "it might be more secure there". He said all his children spoke better English than he did, and his seemed perfect to me.

So...that was my evening. It's strange that as much as I enjoy meeting with and talking to Arabs, I have a job that allows me to do it only rarely. I'm glad I went last night, even if I was the only American there not wearing a black suit and tie.

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