Sunday, August 07, 2005

Never Far Away From the People

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

I was asked in a live TV show to highlight the best achievements of late King Fahd and the merits of King Abdullah. It was difficult to summarize, but I tried.

I said: The best title for King Fahd’s era is “infrastructure building.” Internally, he built great networks of roads, communication, schools, universities, civil institutions and public services. The holy cities of Makkah and Madinah witnessed the greatest expansion and development in history. Internationally, he built a great economic and political infrastructure that enhanced the country’s standing, influence and prestige. He initiated the first Arab peace offer to Israel in 1982, Lebanon’s Peace Agreement that ended its long civil war, and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Whenever we needed political backing, it was readily availble, like during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The king took a courageous stand, then, by calling on foreign help and a respectful and grateful world obliged.

Before I talked about King Abdullah, my time was up. Here is what I wanted to say: I met the then Prince Abdullah for the first time around 1982. He invited a group of journalists to attend the National Guards annual training, and I was lucky to be among them.

We were waiting for him at the VIP language at Riyadh airport. When he arrived he wholeheartedly and humbly apologized for being late and presented his valid excuse. Then he went around shaking hands in highly friendly and charming spirit with everyone, including a teenage reporter, like me.

Later, in the desert camp, we experienced more of his unique merits.

He was very open and simple, talking to locals, eating and sipping coffee with them, and discussing everything from the weather to personal needs. They called him by the first name or Abu Miteb (father of Miteb) or ibn Abdul Aziz, (son of Abdul Aziz). The journalists rode a school bus, and were supposed to follow the prince’s four-wheeler. But the Bedouins wouldn’t respect this order. They came, with their dusty pickups, between our car and his. In camps, they jumped before us and took the best seats. We, the official guests, had to sit in the back or stand around. When I asked why security wouldn’t organize that, I was told the prince would hate to upset them.

Once I came late, and all the spaces around the prince were taken, so I sat in the empty place next to him. This was supposed to stay available to unexpected senior guests. Many were surprised at my daring move, but the prince was not. To show all that it was OK, he started talking to me about the weather. He said: I smell rain, can’t you? I asked: How can he tell? He smiled his fatherly, loving, encompassing smile and explained: The air is wet, you know! He should know. A Bedouin at heart, he is never away from the desert or the people.

A Yemeni office boy told me once: (I used to visit Prince Abdullah regularly. One evening, he was sitting in the garden with some visitors. I saw him from where I stood at the gate, and tried to get in. The guard refused to let me in. This was private, he said, and advised me to come later for the prince’s open “majlis.” Abu Miteb saw that and hurriedly came to greet me. He told the guard never to treat his guests this way again. That night he sat me beside him. At the dinner table he was cutting meat and putting food on my plate. And when I left, his secretary gave me double the amount I used to get as princely gift. I am but a poor, old man, with many kids. I won’t take a blow for anyone, but I’ll take a bullet for him.)

I wasn’t surprised to hear that story, it was one of many. When we were in the desert camp I saw him treating poor, simple people like kings. I saw him serving his guests and filling their plates with food himself. And I witnessed how he was giving more attention to the less expecting, like the young journalist I was. I would take a bullet for him, too.

May Allah have mercy on King Fahd’s soul, and help King Abdullah to take us to higher flights on the same path his father and brothers led us on. There is a lot to be achieved and 14 million Saudis — men and women, young and old, Sunni and Shiites — are ready to help achieving it.

No comments: