Alan Clay has lost his mojo in a big way.
He's a middle-aged escapee from a disastrous marriage, a ruined career, and various massive failures in adulting. So he's heading to King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC—pronounced "cake") in Saudi Arabia to help Reliant Corp. win a massive IT contract for the shimmering new city rising from the desert sands. Alan feels totally confident that his skills and Reliant's spiffy new hologram-producing technology will carry the day and make him the hero of his own life.
The hard truth, though, is that this gig is Alan's last-ditch effort to earn his fortune and prove to himself and his grown daughter, Kit, that he's not a complete loser.
See, Alan's choices and judgment have been questionable up to this point. He'd been one of the architects of "offshoring," the practice of shipping American jobs overseas to developing countries in order to cut costs.
Alan's efficiency made the profit margins for his company pretty wide—but never wide enough to secure his own job. He found himself out of work and part of a dying breed: the salesman of American-made goods.
He tried to recover by becoming an entrepreneur. With a sizeable loan (and no way to repay it), Alan gambled on his own prototype of an American-made bicycle. It was a thing of beauty, but no one cared. The costs of production were too high and Alan's credit too shaky to inspire investors' confidence.
So, when Alan lands in Saudi Arabia, he's up to his eyeballs in debt. His daughter has had to drop out of college because he can't afford her tuition.
Still, he's optimistic. Alan loves a good opportunity and sees one in the new city. Never mind that the desert is trying to swallow the development and no one wants to buy into KAEC. Alan thinks about how exciting the whole thing is and how Reliant will absolutely be the company that wins the IT contract.
But there are other, not-so-encouraging signs. Alan's young crew from Reliant is housed in a tent outside the posh Welcome Center at KAEC with no access to food and barely any Wi-Fi signal. The city seems full of promise, but it's also desolate, unfinished, and on the brink of obscurity.
For some reason that Alan doesn't know, King Abdullah doesn't seem to have the will to complete the city before his death. And Alan can't get a straight answer to a simple question: when will the king arrive for Reliant's presentation?
So Alan and crew have to wait, their fates in the hands of a whimsical and elusive king. Like Samuel Beckett's Godot, Abdullah has invisible power over the characters here. They have to wait for him indefinitely in the hope that something really good will happen when he gets there.
In the meantime, the young crew wallows in the inadequate tent and Alan does his best to work through all his personal problems. He also drinks a lot of contraband moonshine and tries to write meaningful letters to Kit—he wants to explain about her mother and pass on some wisdom from his experiences. Too bad he keeps getting too hammered to actually articulate anything.
He reflects on his professional mistakes, the miserable relationship with his father, the bizarre suicide of his friend Charlie, and the disturbing lumpy cyst sprouting from the back of his neck.
Yup. It's a real bummer.
Alan also meets Yousef, a young Saudi man who becomes his chauffeur. Yousef, like Alan, feels crushed by dwindling opportunities and a bleak future. He's also got an ex-wife with a jealous/murderous new husband.
When Yousef has to get out of town because things are getting scary, he invites Alan to go with him to his father's house in the mountains.
But on his first day there, Alan puts his foot in it: he tells a villager that he works for the CIA. Alan's trying to make a joke, but his attempt at hilarity gets lost in translation and the villager becomes paranoid. Somehow, Yousef forgives Alan's stupidity and makes peace with neighbors who now think he's harboring a CIA operative.
Yousef even manages to trust Alan enough to invite him on a night hunt to kill a rogue wolf. Alan can hardly contain himself. He sees the wolf hunt as a chance to prove himself, to notch a triumph for his masculinity, and to show that there was some purpose in coming to Saudi Arabia.
But instead of bagging a wolf, Alan nearly kills a local shepherd boy and has to be evacuated quickly from the village. Needless to say, his friendship with Yousef is hanging by a thread.
Alan clings to the hope that the lump on his neck is the source of his poor judgment. But when the lump is removed by the lovely Dr. Hakem and pronounced benign, Alan's at a loss. On the positive side? He hooks up with Dr. H and scores an invite to her bro's posh and vacant house at the seaside.
Alan's bad mojo has extended deep into his personal life, but at Zahra Hakem's side, he feels alive again. However—and alas—his personal baggage gets in the way big time when he tries to get it on with her.
The arrival of King Abdullah is a study in total anti-climax. The Reliant crew nails the holographic presentation, but the king merely claps politely and leaves. Alan never gets the chance to give his spiel or work his sales magic on him.
After Reliant's stunning defeat, Alan realizes that he can't go back to his ruined life in the U.S. empty-handed. He stays on at KAEC with the slender hope that he can win some kind of IT contract for his company.