It´s Monday afternoon, and after a casual stroll through Jeddah’s Old City quarter Al-Balad there is still some time left till we are scheduled to reunite with our group at a Corniche Restaurant.
We decide to talk a walk along that Corniche, all of us being experienced with oriental Corniches, be it Alexandria or Beirut. At any rate, walking a city is often the best way to get to grasp some of ist spirit. Besides we are enjoying the mild humid weather that the Red Sea climate provides us with. Soon we discover a strange sight in the distance: A large fountain is sparkling almost above the skyline. Quite overconfident in our judgement we sense the fountain in our range and start heading towards it. Two hours later it still seems as far away as before and we abandon our plan. Wondering about the fountain´s height it´s sheer absurdity comes to our mind. Why would you waste such an amount of water and so much energy just for being in the Guiness Book of World Records? “Only in Saudi Arabia“ – is probably the best answer for it as for so much else in this country. We are equally puzzled by the strange collection of modern art that crowns every roundabout along the corniche, the only criterion apparently being huge and imposant.
Anyway, we decide to take a taxi for the restaurant and as one can easily guess, the driver turns out to be a Bangladeshi. Shy at first, we get into a conversation, after praising the Bangladeshi dance music coming out of his radio. He tells us of the difficulties Bangladeshi taxi drivers are facing in Saudi Arabia. Being bound on a taxi contractor, nothing much is left from his salary. He has to provide all the costs for the maintainance of his car, pay for his flat and food, and the tiny rest of his some 250 Riyal monthly salary goes to his family back home. No wonder he accuses his Saudi employers of greed and decries his at best second class treatment, without being able to demand anything like a higher wage, let alone social provisions of any kind.
A bit surprised about this quite open critique we leave the taxi and enter the restaurant “Al-Nakheel“ (The Palm) at Northern Jeddah’s Corniche. Only at the second glance we grasp that the restaurant is separated into a Men’s and a Family Section, the latter being the place where the rest of the group, mostly the ladies, are already waiting for us.
They are already engaged in a lively, yet casual debate with our host. While vigorously offering us all kinds of Lebanese mezze, he introduces himself as the exiled Sultan of Hadhramaut, a former South Arabian State now being consumed by Saudi Arabia and Yemen. On the outside he seems to fullfill the cliché of an old oil sheikh, visually enjoying the the rich Arabian cuisine a bit to much. Still, quite soon it turns out that he is more of a maverick and quick to present us his critique of Saudi society.
Being himself married to a British academic, he deplores the discrimination against women and explains his view of the Wahhabi´s mental state: “The are afraid that when they grant women the right to drive, they open a door that they hardly can close. Women will show that they can perform certain tasks just as good as men do, and they will start to demand more. The Wahhabis are just afraid of losing more and more. That´s why they so enviously try to defend anything under their tutelage. That´s why they are so conservative and backward.“
He is equally pessimistic about the prospects of a free press sytem: “However reform-minded some Saudi officials are, they can never let a free press system flourish. All the inherent problems of this society, like the women issue or the guest workers, would come to the fore. They just won’t handle it and the whole system, which is built on sand, would crumble.“
Having discussed those basic Saudi issues, we turn to another topic. I ask the Sultan about his opinion on the world´s probably most notorious Hadhramauti: Usama bin Laden. He smiles as he would have somehow anticipated my question and starts recounting the story of the Bin Laden family. He even mentions being once a schoolmate of Usama’s eldest brother and of conceifing of Usama as a tall, shy kid. He the goes on to describe the rise of the Bin Laden family’s enterprise, which was intimately connected to the personal relationship between Usama’ father Muhammad and King Abdulaziz. The late King famously suffered from leg and spine weakness and it was Muhammad bin Laden who equipped the King’s palaces and mosques with ramps. According to our host, Abdulaziz remembered the man from Hadhramaut when he planned to completely redesign the holy sites at Mecca and Medina and entrusted him with these reconstruction programmes which formed the basis of the family’ emerging business empire.
Concerning Usama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the Sultan diminishes the actual role the world’s most wanted terrorist actually plays in planning and executing terror plots. “The mastermind behind al-Qaeda is that doctor from Egypt (=Ayman al-Zawahiri). Usama was useful for the organization, because he is from a rich business family. On the one hand he could provide it with a steady stream of money, on the other hand he was the prove that the membership in the resistance in Afghanistan was not only restricted to frustated middle or lower classs youth.“ Summing up Bin Laden´s role he concludes: “Usama is for al-Qaeda more of a posterchild or a recognizable label. He is like the the Pope consecrating actions, that actually al-Zawahiri designs.“
The conversation is heading towards its end and we are finally eager to know why the Sultan was expelled and why he was staying in Jeddah. “In Yemen, they say I am a security risk“ he says with an ironic smile, “and in Saudi Arabia I am more or less under house arrest.“ His last comment sums up his dilemma: “There is a saying about Saudi Arabia: You either love it or you leave it. I don’t love it, but I can’t leave it!“