- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — By day, they are chief executive officers managing information-technology companies, owners of big businesses, doctors, princes. They are respected leaders in their communities and this country’s movers and shakers.

From corner offices in high rises, they tap on keyboards connected to the Internet by high-speed broadband, keeping tabs on the price of North Sea crude oil and the latest breaking news.

They fire off e-mails, chair meetings and close business deals worth millions of dollars.

They own the latest technology, are chauffeured in elegant cars and feel at ease discussing world politics with visiting reporters. They talk about President Bush’s poll ratings, the war in Iraq, security in the kingdom or other current affairs.

By night, however, they metamorphose, leaving behind the business ways of the West and returning to the traditions of their Bedouin forefathers.

Occasionally, these influential men gather for dinner — a men-only affair, as the sexes in Saudi Arabia are strictly segregated. They convene in a “rest house,” a pleasant villa where entertaining is done so as not to intrude on family life in the host’s home. On this occasion, the rest house was a good 20-minute drive — at incredibly high speed — from Riyadh, the capital.

For a society that traditionally takes life at an easy pace, it is amazing how fast many people drive their cars — especially the young, who make up about 60 percent of the kingdom’s population of 25 million.

At the rest house, the guests sit on rugs placed on the floor, and a scattering of large pillows serve as arm rests. The men sip tea and eat dates. Every few minutes another guest arrives, some accompanied by sons as young as 9 or 10 years old. The boys are accorded the same courtesy as their fathers, greeted with a traditional handshake and several kisses on both cheeks.

Everyone stands to greet newcomers as they make their way around the group, arranged in three sides of a square. New arrivals are invited by the host to sit in the center of the middle line — the place of honor.

Conversation includes politics and business. It touches on the war in Iraq and the latest clashes between Islamic insurgents and security forces, with a few jokes thrown in for good measure. All the guests say they are confident Saudi authorities have the situation well in hand.

Several guests ask the only foreigner, a visiting reporter, if he thinks President Bush can win re-election in November. When told that Mr. Bush is leading Democratic contender Sen. John Kerry by as much as 11 percentage points, one of the guests says that a Bush victory would be “catastrophic.”

Several of the men complain of the treatment of Arabs in general, and Saudi citizens in particular, when they apply for American visas or arrive at U.S. borders. They also have a hard time understanding the logic behind the war in Iraq.

“Everything is good about America except its politics,” said one guest to nods of approval. Most of the men present earned their college degrees at American universities. They fondly remember their college days in Houston, Los Angeles or other American cities.

The talk is interrupted by dinner. The party moves indoors, to a room that is bare except for the sand-colored wall-to-wall carpeting. Large pots filled with cooked rice and mutton are placed on three throwaway plastic sheets protecting the carpet.

Cutlery is not used here. The men, who earlier that day handled silverware while lunching with Western business contacts, revert to traditional ways, scooping up the rice and meat with bare hands. The foreign visitor is given a plastic spoon.

Such ingrained traditions also persist in Iraq, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries, where customs clash with change and shed light on how important traditions remain in this part of the world.

As one Saudi official put it: “Before you can install democracy, you need to have democrats.”

For the moment, those are hard to find in most of the Middle East.

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