There are princes and then there are princes--four or five thousand of them in Saudi Arabia, a few destined for greatness and riches, but most destined simply for riches. Of the former variety, Prince Khalid is exceptional. Tall, white-bearded, with quiet eyes, he looked like one of the three wise men of my imagination. When Khalid made any move to sit down or stand up, the nearest minion rushed to help with the chair as though his life depended on it. At the end of the meeting, the prince was surrounded by admirers. Eventually the crowd dispersed, and I was alone in a room with him, an aide, and a guard.
The opening of the nation to foreign visitors wasn't solely Prince Khalid's achievement. He told me it got its biggest push from the global drop in oil prices of the past 10 years. "We need other sources of income in this country," he said; as their coffers slowly emptied, other members of the ruling family finally agreed. The prince--who it seems would scarcely be moved by vogue--said with a little smile, "Tourism is now the fashion." In the capital of Riyadh, Khalid's nephew, Prince Bandar bin Saud bin Khalid al-Saud, elaborated on that theme in his airy office. "Tourism lets the rest of the world understand more about Saudi Arabia and its people. We have always been perceived as a closed society, surrounded by walls. Anyone who sees it like that would always assume bad things are happening inside these walls. But the walls are there to protect, not to hide."
Surprisingly, according to Bandar, the Persian Gulf war speeded this process. "The gulf war was very good for Saudi Arabia," he said, despite the fact that Scud missiles from Iraq landed only a mile or so from his downtown Riyadh office. "We were always afraid that if journalists came here, they might start hammering us. But the best reporting about Saudi Arabia was during the war, and it was because journalists got to see the people, know the country. That has changed the whole mentality of how we think of tourism."
A hot sun pounds our heads at madain salah. it's said that this spectacular collection of tombs, carved into red sandstone bluffs, is somewhat less impressive than its cousin at Petra, in Jordan. Perhaps, but whatever it lacks in monumentality is more than made up for by the fact that we have the place nearly to ourselves. The old Hejaz Railway, made famous by attacks against it orchestrated by soldier and adventurer T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), passes nearby, and we cross its railbed several times; we eat on the ground in the shade between our bus and an old railway workshop that has been restored by the government. It is arid, windless, dusty. The prophet Muhammad did not like this place, and many Saudis believe it to be cursed. But those who stay away are missing a true marvel. Nabataeans lived in this area, which somewhat resembles Utah's Monument Valley, between about 100 b.c. and a.d. 100. The most prominent excavated enormous tombs for themselves in the sides of the smooth, rounded red-stone formations that dot the desert floor.
Inscribed on the tombs' elaborate pediments, in an ancient script, are warnings to those who would dare approach them: "This tomb is sacred. . . . Whoever has inheritance rights may never sell this tomb or allow anyone to take control over it, nor shall he lease nor rent the tomb nor write on the tomb. . . . May (the gods) Dushara and Manutu curse whoever changes what is written above. . . ."
The desecration of the tombs by vandals over the years has given the place something of a bad vibe. I wonder whether that's why one of the problem travelers in our group--a woman in her eighties with a strong misanthropic streak--has her worst moment here. I've nicknamed this woman the Hermit Crab: she often won't let people sit next to her on our (nearly full) bus, and she generally scorns most of her co-travelers ("The women on this trip have an average I.Q. of about seventy," she informs me one evening). Madain Salah is an amazing photo op, and she's an avid photographer. The problem is, we're all in her way. In telling me to move, she's simply rude, but in order- ing our Kenyan bus driver to move, she employs a racial epithet. "I'm not going to stand here and wait for a ------!" she blurts out. Those nearby are appalled, and we apologize to the driver. A group leader has a talk with the Hermit Crab. Reportedly, she agrees to try a little harder.
Archaeological ruins are part of the texture of many small Saudi towns; the minimal rainfall means that some stone-and-mud structures endure for hundreds of years. We visit a number of the sites, including an enormous fortress, Qasr Marid, in the town of Domat al-Jandal, whose 100-foot walls look as if they might crumble at any second. Apropos of nothing, our guide says cheerily that "Islam came here and chased the Jewish." His remark raises a pressing question: Are Jews now welcome in Saudi Arabia?When we sent in our applications for the trip, the tour leader had told us that anyone whose passport bore an Israeli stamp had better get a new one. But then we received a letter saying things had changed and such precautions were no longer necessary. The Saudis now profess not to care. A Saudi Arabian Airlines executive I spoke with said being Jewish is no impediment at all to visiting the country, never has been. ("Didn't Henry Kissinger come here?He's a Jew.") Prince Khalid told me that the only thing the Saudis have a problem with is Zionism, a subject I did not pursue further with him.
What many of us most want to know about is what is hardest to see: the lives of ordinary Saudi women. I assume that the flight attendants on Saudi Arabian Airlines are Saudis but am set straight by the first one I talk to. She is Egyptian, she says; a Saudi woman would never be allowed to hold a job that brings her into contact with the public--"only in a school for children, say, or a women's bank." (Women in the kingdom conduct their banking separately from men.) "If you're on vacation," she asks, "why didn't you pick somewhere fun, like Egypt?" The other flight attendants are from Tunisia, Morocco, the Philippines--never Saudi Arabia. They love the New York stopovers but hate the ones in Saudi Arabia, where a curfew requires them to be in their airline-provided quarters by eight every night.