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It was a sign of the times that on the stage where the prince sat, only three nights earlier, our group had watched an ever-so-touristic dance performance by tribesmen wearing floral headpieces.The crowd today was a bit different: the room was packed with a sea of Saudi students and businessmen in white 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.The school's modest building sits next door to the sumptuous Abha Palace Hotel, the jewel of Asir's infant tourist industry, and after a ribbon-cutting at the school, the prince entered a large and crowded hotel conference room.Everyone stood as a cadre of policemen with submachine guns entered the room, followed by dignitaries in and six bearded men with daggers in their belts and Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, who appeared to be a sort of palace guard.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.
Educationally oriented groups are the target--alumni associations and museums are sponsoring many of the upcoming trips.
I hear a little grumbling along the lines of "The pope doesn't care who visits the Vatican," but mostly our group is accepting.
After all, it's beastly hot outside--and since the fall of the Soviet Union, how many places are left on earth where you can be restricted to your hotel?
(The Sheraton Medina is set up for those guests: the five clocks behind the front desk do not show the time in, say, New York, London, Rome, Tokyo, and Mexico City but, rather, the hour of the five daily prayers that the kingdom observes assiduously.) Some 5 million guest workers--25 percent of Saudi Arabia's population--live here.
To the country's rulers, all of them descendants of King Abdul Aziz, these "guests" are very different from tourists.