King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Hot, Hot Heat
Desert, guys. Hot, sandy, never-ending desert.
And Alan Clay isn't the kind of guy who dreams about retiring to Arizona and becoming a desert rat. The dude is not impressed with the visuals:
This was not beautiful desert. There were no dunes. This was an unrelenting flat. An ugly highway cut through it. (IV.14.31)
While there are some pretty parts of the countryside—Yousef's father's house is surrounded by mountains and valleys—the landscape is always harsh and forbidding. Alan remarks that this is the type of land that looks like it could kill at any moment…or even that it wants to kill you at the earliest convenience:
From their vantage point, it looked impossibly small and fragile, the kind of settlement that would be swept away in seconds by a flash flood, buried utterly by any kind of minor avalanche. It seemed a ludicrous place to live for a day or two, let alone centuries. (XXVII.74.263)
Even the Red Sea, with its long and unspoiled coastline, inspires a sense of dread:
The Red Sea lay beyond, inert, the whole thing doomed. The Saudis were sucking it dry to drink. In the seventies they'd drained a few billion gallons to desalinize and feed their wayward wheat industry—the whole project now abandoned. Now they were drinking that sea. (XV.41.106)
The impossibility of life in the middle of the desert seems to be asserting itself, even at the idyllic coastline. Still, Alan finds the lure of the Saudi Arabian vision too hard to resist. He may see a dying ocean, but he's still thinking how great it would be to develop the coast and own a condo on the "beach."
This is just one way in which the desert seems to plays mind games with its visitors and citizens: no one can even believe the evidence of their eyes.
A Desert Mirage?
But it's not just the eeriness of the desert that's affecting Alan's viewpoint. There are a bunch of moments when Alan feels like the country he's seeing is dramatically different from the country he thought he'd see.
Inside the hotel in Jeddah, there's a kind of cool urbanity cultivated to put businessmen and travelers at ease. Alan notes that he might as well be at Epcot:
They had built the hotel to bear no evidence of its existence within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The whole complex, fortressed from the road and the sea, was free of content or context, devoid of even a pattern or two of Arabic origin. This place, all palm trees and adobe, could have been in Arizona, in Orlando, anywhere. (III.15.21)
But then there are other instances—like when the workers in the under-construction condo are fighting over a flip phone—where Alan realizes clearly that he's not in Kansas anymore, Toto. When the culture shocks him, it shocks him like an electric eel.
This weird toggling back and forth between social realities makes it difficult for Alan to get a handle on the society and to read the non-verbal cues of its citizens (we're talking about you, Karim). But then again, a whole lot of things are difficult for our man Alan.