Study Guide

A Hologram for the King Visions of Saudi Arabia

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Visions of Saudi Arabia

He knew you couldn't just call a taxi in Jeddah or Riyadh—or so said the guidebooks, all of which were overwrought when it came to elucidating the dangers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to foreign travelers. The State Department had Saudi on the highest alert. Kidnapping was not unlikely. Alan might be sold to al-Qaeda, ransomed, transported across borders. (II.28.9)

Alan has a few run-ins with the guidebooks of Saudi Arabia, mostly because they don't really reflect the complexity of the society. He often finds himself surprised by openings in this closed society. But in this case, Alan doesn't see any reason to doubt the guidebooks' advice. He's pretty sure that striking out across the desert on his own will result in total catastrophe.

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)

Alan declares that he likes his hotel in Jeddah: it's non-descript, cool, and clean. It helps him to forget that he's dealing with an unknowable culture just beyond the exterior doors.

And that's a feeling the developers worked hard to evoke from guests. As with KAEC, the city of supposedly expanded freedoms, this hotel is constructed to break down the sense of restriction in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The problem is that not everyone is playing by the same rules—there's no sense that the illusion has any basis in reality.

They left hotel roundabout. At the exit they drove past a desert-colored Humvee, a machine gun mounted on top. A soldier was sitting next to it, in a beach chair, his feet soaking in an inflatable pool. (III.52.24-25)

Saudi Arabia is full of surprises and coded sub-texts for Alan, and this is a prime example. The menacing, fully armed soldier is undercut by the baby wading pool he needs to keep from scorching in the desert sun. Alan isn't sure whether to worry or laugh—and that's a theme that follows him through his whole adventure.

"It might have happened at one time, but there's no more money. Emaar's a bust. They're going broke in Dubai. Everything was overvalued and now they're busted. They owe money all over the planet, and now KAEC's dead. Everything's dead. You'll see." (V.31.39)

No matter how optimistic (or gullible) Alan can be, Yousef simply isn't buying the propaganda about KAEC's shiny future. He's too aware of the social and economic realities of his country to support Alan's "gut sense" that the desert city holds limitless promise for development.

The road was new, but it cut through absolutely nothing…It was as if someone had built a road through unrepentant desert, and then erected a gate somewhere in the middle, to imply the end of one thing and the beginning of another. It was hopeful but unconvincing. (V.41.40)

This is not what Alan expects to see when he arrives at KAEC with soaring expectations. It's also a real "Man v. Nature" or "Ozymandias" moment—the desert has no intention of letting humans make their mark. And it's not the last time that Alan will view the vastness and harshness of the Saudi Arabian landscape with despair.

There was a black plastic barrier on either side of the balcony that prevented them from seeing anything but the sea ahead. And, he assumed, prevented anyone below from glimpsing the world, egalitarian and free from restrictions, within the Black Box. This was the cat-and-mouse game being played in the Kingdom. Its people were forced into the role of teenagers hiding their vices and proclivities from a shadowy army of parents. (XIII.57.93-94)

Saudi Arabian society operates on two levels and sends mixed signals to those who are trying to get a handle on it. It gives Alan the sense that no one really knows what the rules are—or when they're breaking them. Just like the elusive King Abdullah, there's always a sense that the moral police are just a hair's breadth away, waiting for someone to think the society is more open than it really is.

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)

There's a sense of environmental catastrophe looming over this narrative, and it's often paralyzing for Alan. Yet he can't stop himself from dreaming about how to capitalize on the ocean before him. While Alan's horrified about the potential of environmental collapse, he also wishes he had the money to capitalize on the wide open coastline along the Red Sea.

"All the married women," Yousef explained, "have a second phone. It's a big business in Saudi Arabia."

The whole country seemed to operate on two levels, the official and the actual. (XVI.128-129.124)

That about sums up Alan's whole experience in Saudi Arabia. He wants to do the right thing and not be an ugly American…but he can't quite get a handle on the place. Turns out, this ambiguity is hard-wired in the culture.

Alan understood nothing in this country. He had not seen even one rule observed consistently. He had, moments before, been among an army of impoverished Malaysian laborers seeming to be squatting in an unfinished building and now he was two floors up and in the most sophisticated dwelling possible. (XXV.95.227)

Perhaps Alan has never been so alive to things like wealth inequality before he made this trip to Saudi Arabia. But now that he's displaced himself, he's really beginning to see the inconsistencies and baffling unfairnesses in the world around him. We don't blame him for the whiplash he's feeling—it's just strange that he's never observed it, say, in his own country.

He talked about a certain recklessness in the face of a grinding lack of opportunity, about how death was not much feared. About the drag races held deep in the desert, where young wealthy men raced their BMWs and Ferraris and some of them would be hurt or killed and none of it would be widely reported or known. (XXVI.83.239)

When Alan ventures outside of Jeddah with Yousef and Salem, he gets an earful about the reality of life in Saudi Arabia. His companions are young men, but Alan understands that their hopelessness is much more like his than it ought to be. They're already weary of their lot in life. It's a malaise that's part of youth culture in Saudi Arabia, as Dr. Hakem later confirms.

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