Usually, three weeks prior to departure, an IRP trip schedule is mostly complete. For the Saudi visit, though, we still had no official appointments by that point. Worried, we called Mr. K., who responded, “Why the rush?”
Trouble was brewing on all fronts. Any mixed gender meeting in Saudi Arabia is fraught with difficulty. A routine request to meet with a group of male and female university students, something IRP did in every country, stalled. MOCI refused to sanction it (I later learned they could have given the go-ahead, but that would have meant extra paperwork.)
I moved to Plan B—work around the Ministry. I enlisted the help of various sympathetic Saudi officials. I contacted the institutions we wished to visit directly. No one would budge without the official MOCI letter. I asked one Saudi official what would happen if the Ministry failed to deliver. “Then,” he replied, “you’re screwed.”
Of particular concern was our visit to Saudi Aramco, such a fixture of foreign delegation visits I had assumed it would be a routine matter. But the all-important MOCI letter to the Ministry of Petroleum, which must approve all Saudi Aramco meetings, went missing. We had to run a backdoor play to get the visit.
Not all Saudi ministries function like MOCI. Saudi Arabia’s powerful Ministry of the Interior—in charge of internal security and quashing local dissent—organized a very interesting anti-terrorism briefing and visit to what he called a jihadist rehabilitation center for us. Their spokesman’s office, run by the affable Major-General Engineer Mansour al-Turki, a University of Washington graduate, is efficient and professional. And Saudi Aramco has a sophisticated PR department. Where it matters, the Saudis can deliver.
The delegation arrived in early May. To sidestep the university gender problem we asked to meet medical students at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. Only at Saudi medical schools and the isolated King Abdullah University for Science and Technology do men and women take classes together.
One sensitive meeting we had requested was with the head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), often called the muttawa or muttawein, but known to most Saudis simply as al-hai’a, “The Commission.” The King had recently appointed a new “reformist” director in an attempt to curb its excesses. We were eager to hear his views.
Apparently our request provoked a battle royale. We were a foreign group and worse, mixed gender. Mr. A, a suave TV political commentator assigned by MOCI to assist us, suggested that the women in the group exclude themselves from the meeting. The Commission director would talk to men, but not women. I declined the offer.
In Jeddah, our next stop, the task of organizing the student roundtable seemed to be beyond MOCI’s organizational capacity. After much phone calling, a little more than an hour before the event was to start, we got the green light. We entered a conference room at the medical school. The editors set up their cameras and recording equipment.
But there were no students.
University officials responded to this state of affairs by grabbing students as they got off the elevator and delivering them to us. Three poor souls, shoved into the room via this method, looked at us in terror. Over the next half hour, more students entered, until there were 15 students of both genders. The men sat themselves on the left, the women on the right.
While most of the male students wore scrubs, the female students’ attire was interesting. By law, all women in the Kingdom, including foreigners, must wear abayas—long-sleeved robes (usually black) that completely cover their bodies—in public places. Only female medical students and other female medical workers may wear white, hip-length lab coats. Most of the women had jeans and sneakers on underneath. Several wore the niqab, or face veil, widely used in Saudi Arabia. But I was surprised that so many women chose to show their faces.
Here is the punch line: the students were terrific, particularly the women. Bright and assertive, eager to engage, they were helping the medical school faculty revise and modernize the curriculum. Several women planned on becoming neurosurgeons, and most intended to continue working after marriage.
Afterwards, our difficulties with appointments continued. Throughout our visit, MOCI and other Saudi officials utilized a variety of ploys to avoid giving offense by overtly turning down a request. The following are some common Saudi avoidance strategies:
Wait Out the Clock. The institution you are dealing with doesn’t say no, but it doesn’t say yes. It simply waits until a deadline has passed or a trip has ended, and the problem takes care of itself.