Like millions of Americans, I often took my incredible freedoms for granted — until I visited Saudi Arabia.
For years, I’ve done marketing communications work for technology companies. Four years ago, a client asked me if I was interested in joining her on a project in the kingdom.
“Heck, yeah,” I responded. How often does one get to visit the Middle East, all expenses paid?
No sooner had our Saudi Arabian Airlines plane lifted off from Dulles International Airport in Virginia, however, than I got a quick taste of how limited my freedoms suddenly were: Alcohol is banned on Saudia flights, as it is throughout Saudi Arabia.
I don’t enjoy flying's cramped unpleasantness. A few snorts of Irish hooch always calm my nerves. But I was out of luck.
“No problem,” I thought — “I’ll watch American movies.” I'd been bumped into first class and had my own monitor. But, I quickly noticed, every scene depicting a scantily-clad Hollywood starlet was cut or blurred.
Since most of the movies were unwatchable, I had to pass the longest 14 hours of my life watching “Cats & Dogs” — five times.
Going through customs in the Jeddah airport, I became instantly self-conscious. My sport coat, slacks and large, pale Irish-German-American noggin shouted “American.”
It was worse for my female colleague. She wore a headscarf so big — we call them “babushkas” in Pittsburgh — she could have pitched it as a tent.
At the time, Saudi Arabia's notorious religious police wouldn't have allowed her — or any other woman — to drive. I jokingly whispered to her that if she didn’t increase my hourly rate, I’d tell the police she planned to drive from the airport.
Most Saudis I met during our time there loved America and Americans. But I knew that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. I noted that some Saudis I met loathed Americans — and I immediately sensed that my customs agent was among them.
I sensed that if we’d been in a free country, such as America, this guy — knowing he’d be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and likely to get just a slap on the wrist if found guilty — would have tried to knock my teeth out.
But in Saudi Arabia, there is no presumption of innocence.
Consider the recent murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He made the mistake of exercising free speech by writing columns critical of the kingdom.
Consider Mujtaba'a al-Sweikat. This young man was on his way to enroll in Western Michigan University in 2012 when he was detained at King Fahd International Airport. Alleged to have participated in a pro-democracy event, he was arrested, tortured and, as of 2017, sentenced to beheading.
In any event, I spent most of my time in Saudi Arabia safe within the fortress walls of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology — where the kingdom’s strict laws are slightly relaxed — and met many wonderful, brilliant people from all over the world.
Nonetheless, my month in Saudi Arabia gave me a brief taste of life in an authoritarian country — where absolute power typically corrupts absolutely. The kingdom is so authoritarian that in its 2018 “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House ranked Saudi Arabia seventh among the world's 20 least-free countries.
When we landed back in Virginia — after enduring "Cats & Dogs" five more times — I kissed the ground, then went to the nearest pub to enjoy a badly-needed snort of my fully restored freedoms.