Persona non grata in the Middle East

The big news story about five members of an “interfaith delegation” to Israel who were prevented this past week from flying from Washington to Tel Aviv struck a nerve for me.

True, the would-be travelers were bumped off an Israeli-bound flight for their energetic work in promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions cause, a highly objectionable, arbitrary, self-righteously hypocritical, disingenuous and essentially anti-Semitic campaign that seeks the ultimate destruction of the Jewish state.

Other than that, though, they seemed like perfectly nice people.

But my principal response to the small wave of media coverage was not so much sympathy as envy.

It brought back frankly embarrassing memories of the first — and almost certainly last — professional pilgrimage I also once tried to make some years ago to another Middle Eastern destination: Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s rigidly conservative reputation hardly requires amplification. But in recent times — and this is where my planned visit came in — the kingdom has also made a number of genuine attempts to shuck off aspects of its sacerdotal reputation, especially in respect of its surging young population.

It’s a rather big issue. And with nearly 60 percent of its native-born inhabitants under the age of 25, the question of improving education looms large.

The kingdom’s leadership believes it has found an impressive solution to this last matter by investing billions of dollars into building degree-granting institutions, chief among them the then recently established King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

The graduate-level research university is named after the political ruler who underwrote its costs with an opening endowment of more than $10 billion.

KAUST has been charged with devoting this bedazzling financial bounty to running a typical western-style academic operation amid what is one of the world’s most closed societies.

Although I had reported about this in the run-up to the institution’s planned ground breaking, I was still surprised to receive an official invitation to see this educational jewel in the Saudi crown for myself.

For one thing, I had hardly covered the subject uncritically. I also have a recognizably Jewish name, something that in the not-too-distant past would have automatically barred me from gaining entry to Saudi Arabia. As would be being “devilishly good looking,” come to think of it, although that wasn’t particularly relevant in my case.

Would any of this be a problem? Not at all, the Washington-based PR guy — whom I shall call Jeff, because that was his name — assured me, enjoining me to close on this proposed trip as an official guest.

Bullets move like arthritic snails compared with the speed I went to work, first checking with my own Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade here in the South Seas to ensure that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are part of the visa-waiver scheme for New Zealand passport holders. As indeed they are.

For good measure, I also happened to have a brand new passport, which unlike my previous ones had no stamps from past visits to the Zionist Entity (also a big no-no in Saudi Arabia).

The first part of the journey passed without a hitch.

En route I read the late American journalist Thomas Kiernan’s flawed but informative study, The Arabs, which makes much of the Bedouin tradition of hospitality in the Gulf. By the time I arrived in Dubai and presented myself to the officials manning the Emirates gate for the final connecting flight to Jeddah, I was mentally chiding myself for perhaps being a little harsh in respect of my imminent hosts.

I needn’t have bothered. After inspecting my passport, the guys at the gate were indeed polite but firm. No, I was told, I could not board the flight. Nor would I be permitted to enter Saudi Arabia.

Alas, my remonstrations (producing the official letter of invitation, offering contact names, etc) fell on deaf ears.

Finally, I boarded a plane back home, alone and unloved, without so much as a souvenir T-shirt.

And the worst thing of all? Unlike the famous five who also had the welcome mat recently pulled from under their airline seat for their own planned trip to Israel, I left knowing that my own story would never receive any sympathetic media coverage, or indeed any response at all.

There are mysteries having to do with double news standards here that one is tempted to explore.

About the Author
David Cohen is a Wellington-based author and journalist whose work appears frequently in publications around the world.
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