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I couldn't arrange a meeting with the prince until three days after the rest of the Smithsonian tour had returned to the States.
When we did meet, it was following a grand occasion: the opening of the Prince Sultan College for Tourism & Hotel Sciences.
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.
On most Saudi Arabian Airlines flights, a giant arrow superimposed on an outline of the plane is displayed on cabin monitors every 30 seconds or so to indicate the direction in which Mecca lies. It's hard to be so close to Medina and not be allowed in.
Educationally oriented groups are the target--alumni associations and museums are sponsoring many of the upcoming trips.
It is a nation that claims the Koran as its constitution; you can even read it on the individual monitors beside every seat of the national airline's new Boeings.
Saudi Arabia is no stranger to visitors: between 2 and 3 million faithful arrive every year on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.
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.