Saudi Arabia notebook: Across desert by Mustang

September 16, 1990|By Vicki Barker | Vicki Barker,Vicki Barker is an NBC radio network reporter on assignment in Saudi Arabia.

Dhahran, Saudi Arabia -- The refugee was 20 years old, a recent graduate of Kuwait University. A gold watch glittered against his starched white robe. His family fled Kuwait a few days after the invasion. He stayed on for another three weeks, trying, and failing, to hook up with the resistance. Eventually, he left.

"How did you get out?" he was asked.

"In a 1988 Mustang," he said.

"You drove a MUSTANG though the DESERT?!"

The refugee shrugged.

"I didn't think the Jag would make it," he said.


For journalists, the hottest ticket in town is a Saudi visa. For every one reporter whose passport receives that coveted imprint, there seem to be 10 more clamoring to get in. Mr. N, in the Ministry of Information, developed a reputation for having a sympathetic ear. He reputation spread rapidly through word of mouth. The telephones on his desk rang more and more insistently.

One day, a British television reporter called and asked for Mr. N.

"Mr. N is dead," said a familiar voice.

"Oh dear, I'm terribly sorry," the reporter said. "What did he die of?"

"Too many journalists!" the voice said.


Any reporters who arrive in Saudi Arabia with the idea of covering new journalistic ground with camel and Bedouin guide are quickly disabused of the notion. Journalists are escorted in air-conditioned minivans. Field trips are frequent and well-organized. The biggest challenge is getting to sign-up sheets as soon as they're posted, since there are roughly 30 reporters for every opening.

Those who don't make it onto the guided tours consume alcohol-free room service meals and place telephone calls to the Kuwaiti government-in-exile's American public relations men.

This regimen has led one reporter to dub it "Club Med in Hell."


A Saudi dignitary recently invited a small group of journalists to dinner. After graciously welcoming the group to his home, the host turned to the only woman among them and said, "And now I would like you to meet my wife." The reporter was taken into another room and introduced to the lady of the house, who engaged her in animated conversation. After a while, dinner was brought to the two women.

Then dessert.

Then coffee.

Around 11:30 p.m., the wife said, "Now I suppose you would like to say goodbye to my husband."

He saw her and her male colleagues to the door.

"When more of you ladies arrive, we will certainly organize activities to interest you," he promised her. "Tea parties! Fashion shows!"


There is a U.S.-style Safeway in downtown Dhahran that sells everything from fresh produce to American toothpaste to tents. A big sign in front says, "OPEN 24 HOURS." A smaller sign beside it lists the five times a day the store closes for prayer.


After as much as four weeks in Saudi Arabia, U.S. troops are starting to run out of such supplies as paper, cigarettes and soap. They say the growing shortage of envelopes is the hardest thing to bear because it cuts off their links to home.

But soldiers are nothing if not resourceful. Some Marines have begun using the cardboard lids of their meal cartons as postcards. One side contains the message. The other describes what they had for dinner.

"I've already sent my kids postcards of Potatoes au Gratin and Western Omelet," said Sgt. Anthony Santo of Long Island, N.Y.

But other Marines say they can't tell where the cardboard ends and their meal begins.

"We finally figured out what the 'au gratin' means in potatoes au gratin," said Sgt. Glenn Ochoa of Greeley, Colo. "It's French for 'from hell.'"

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