From the moment that I signed the two-year contract to go to KAUST, I told everyone who asked, that “Yes I will meet the King.” I honestly thought that I would, but I had no clue it would happen in the manner that it did…
Last night, at the 25th anniversary opening of Janadriyah (imagine a State Fair in the USA, but for an entire country) in the capital city of Riyadh, the magic unfolded… like a mosh pit at a Bad Brains concert with mascara-lined punks replaced by live TV cameramen, heavily clad militia, and a collective swarm of the richest, most powerful men in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
From what knowledge I have of the event, every year, the festival is patronized by the King, who proceeds to visit a specific exhibit. This year, with his treasure, KAUST, making its debut; it was only fitting that he visit the school’s extravagant display.
I was fortunate to be chosen as one of six KAUST students to participate in the opening ceremony that was nothing more than a scaled-down version (but no less spectacular) of the inauguration last September here at KAUST.
As with everything that involves the King, there’s no way that anyone can make plans, because everything is done on the King’s clock (and rightfully so!). This being said, while you might not ever know WHEN exactly he’s coming, you ALWAYS KNOW if he’s coming or not.
The preparations that go into every event involving the King would make for an Oscar-winning documentary. From the millions of dollars spent by event planners to the hours and man power displayed by the Royal Guard to make sure that every venue is safe and secured; you’re constantly reminded of the significance of this single human-being. Last night was no exception.
Running on very little sleep and an empty stomach (except for the dozens of dates and cups of coffee that Saudis from around the entire Kingdom generously offered us) and without access to a sanitary bathroom, I need not describe the physical and mental state that of each of us when “the moment” came.
Leading up to the King’s entrance, we had been forewarned that there would be a number of cameramen, militia, and “important” people with him; but that was a gross understatement. We had also rehearsed the exhibit walk-through countless times (if it’s possible to rehearse standing in one spot and hoping for a handshake) in hopes of a peaceful 5-10 minutes where the King could meet and greet some living products of his vision; but even the rehearsals went for naught.
On his golf cart accompanied by younger brother and Crown Prince, Sultan, and the King of Bahrain, the King eventually made a loop through the exhibit as the ‘eye of the storm.’ Fatigue completely washed away by adrenaline and “star power” that emanated from the King’s cart, it took a few swim maneuvers over stray guests for me to finally step out and greet him when he reached my section of the exhibit (fortunately I had good basketball coaches in high school and can get through a screen!).
Standing just a foot away from the man who is the reason or my being in the Kingdom, I couldn’t help but smile like his spoiled grandchild. After being formally introduced by the KAUST VP and another staff member, I greeted him in Arabic, which he responded by offering his hand.
A moment frozen in time, I was praying someone was catching this handshake with a camera and that his response would be nothing more than a formal reciprocal welcome. In a classic case of freezing in the limelight, he asked how I was doing (in Arabic) and what little Arabic I did know immediately left my mind; leaving me smiling like a foreigner begging for forgiveness for not being able to respond in this foreign tongue (but wanting to SO BADLY). So with a bow of the head and a thumbs up, I gave a hearty “shookran” (thank you) and off went the first TRUE KING (and Head of State) that I’d ever met… phew, awesome.
What took place in the next instant though, is something that I NEVER EVER could’ve foreseen happening, and will surely never forget. All of those beautiful years that I spent living the dream in Santa Barbara, at a school that I’d grown to love after being politely rejected by the likes of UCLA and USC (a pride point for most Gauchos) paid themselves off with the single shake of a hand.
On the second golf cart were another two VERY IMPORTANT Princes. To be completely fair, I only remember ONE of them. After being introduced as an American (by possibly the politest Saudi I have ever met, Mr. Al-Thunayan) the Prince closest to me asked what part of the USA I was from. Before I could finish saying “California” he was telling me that he had gone to school at “UCS” (followed by the longest pause of my life, probably 1 second, not even kidding!) “B. UCSB!”
Still partially blacked out from just meeting the King, all shields were instantly removed and I was completely taken aback. As if suddenly talking to yet another fellow Gaucho, I jumped back, made an announcement for everyone around us to hear and demanded a second handshake from this “Good Man” (as I called him). It’s always fun meeting someone who’s been to California here in Saudi, but this connection took my excitement to new heights. For the next few minutes, walking with his cart as it was exiting the exhibit, we spoke as fellow Gauchos might about the physical beauty of Santa Barbara and how much we both enjoyed our time there.
Now completely blacked out, I must’ve looked like a crazed man who’d just won an NCAA Championship but hadn’t slept in a week and was seeing stars (at least that’s how I felt).
Coming to my senses soon thereafter with the rest of the students, I could only think to myself, Damn! With a Gaucho at the helm, maybe the Kingdom IS the place to be after all…
(photos to come soon, Inshallah. KAUST wasn’t permitted photographers who some reason, but official pics come in next week)