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Volume 37, Number 4July/August 1986

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The Kingdom in Touch

Written by William Tracy
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

During Expo's three-day opening in May, about one seventh of all ticket holders passing through the entrance turnstiles found their way to the Saudi Arabian Pavilion, one of 54 international pavilions on the grounds, and most of them came out surprised. As one white-haired lady put it, "Here I am with one foot already in the grave and I had no idea that Saudi was anything like this."

Few people do. Though Saudi Arabia, in three generations, has been transformed the Canadian lady's image is probably the one that most people in the West retain: an image of deserts, camels, Bedouins, and oil. At EXPO 86, therefore, Saudi Arabia has gone all out to present a balanced, well organized series of exhibits which do not neglect the kingdom's heritage but try to make it clear that today its schools, universities, housing, factories and, above all, communications and transportation are as modern as any in the world.

The Saudi Pavilion - composed of six prefabricated modules, a total of 1,500 square meters (16,140 square feet) - is in Expo's pink zone, just across the monorail line from Switzerland, with its giant watch. The entry, on the side away from the main pedestrian street, opens onto the Pacific inlet called False Creek, and that side of the building is painted to resemble a white washed fishing village on the Red Sea coast. Inside, photographic portraits introduce the founder of the modern kingdom, King'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud and six of his sons, including King Fahd, the present ruler, and another introductory display explains that although Canada and Saudi Arabia did not open diplomatic ties until 1973, more than 4,000 Canadians already live and work in the kingdom, many employed by Bell Canada, which helps manage Saudi Arabia's vast new telecommunications system.

Subsequent exhibits tell the story of the Arabian Peninsula from the early days, when its trade routes linked Asia to Europe and parts of Africa, through the rise of Islam and the growth of the Islamic Empire, to the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in this century and its recent emergence as a modern nation.

One exhibit, rich in statistics, showed how Saudi Arabia, with 77 kilometers of mostly unpaved highway (See maps) in 1951, has changed: today it has more, 80,000 kilometers (50,000 miles) of roads, nearly half of which are paved, including many ultra-modern intercity expressways. Facts like this overwhelmed one school girl. "If you had to do a project on a country wouldn't this be the perfect place to come? They have all the facts and figures."

Nearby and a bit later, a man and his wife examining the same exhibits were also impressed. "Imagine, in 50 years from camels to all this," the husband said. His wife nodded. "What impresses me is not just the obvious prosperity, but the wisdom with which they've put the wealth to work. It makes me think of North America as being rather young."

With the Muslim faith the central fact in Saudi Arabia's history, the pavilion naturally devoted considerable space to Islam. The Islamic displays for example, include three handsome fragments of a Kiswa, the black-cloth covering which is prepared anew each year for the Ka'ba, the sacred cubical structure in Makkah (Mecca) considered to be the physical center of Islam. It is richly embroidered in gold with passages from the Holy Koran. (See AramcoWorld, September-October 1985). There are also color photographs of Islam's three holy cities, Makkah, Medina and Jerusalem, as well as a panorama of Makkah as photographed by an Arab pilgrim in 1886.

In a small theater nearby, beneath a simple dome suggesting the architecture of a mosque, visitors can see an eight-minute, multi-image slide show. It features powerful images which show how Islam, as it spread across much of the known world, both enriched and learned from the cultures it encountered. It concludes with scenes of individual pilgrimages: men and women of every race and color making what the commentary calls "The journey to the heart of Islam ... to Makkah, that focal point of a lifetime of prayer, where each one must make that fearful private journey to the depths of his own heart."

Education is another theme stressed at the Saudi pavilion, a theme echoing the Prophet Muhammad's insistence that Muslims "seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave." There was not a single government school in the Arabia of 1932, but by 1972 there were 4,000 educational institutions at various levels, and today two million students, boys and girls, men and women, are enrolled at all levels, including 80,000 at colleges or one of seven universities (See Aramco World, September-October 1985). Another 6,000 Saudi Arabs attend school in North America, chiefly in graduate or specialized studies.

Near the Islamic section is a theater, painted to resemble a mud fort, with paintings by contemporary Saudi Arab artists hanging on its walls. The theater seats 50 and shows a changing program from a file of some 20 films on topics ranging from petroleum - and Aramco - to experimental greenhouse gardening, Arab folklore and an archeological dig on the famous pilgrimage route from ancient Baghdad, the Darb Zubaydah.

To help tell the Saudi story, pavilion officials also recruited a corps of guides and hostesses. The hosts are young Saudi men from as many as a dozen of the kingdom's ministries, agencies and companies, including Aramco; they're being sent to work one- or two-month tours in Vancouver on a rotating basis throughout the summer. The hostesses - Canadians, Palestinians and Egyptians - were recruited locally and tutored at tea parties by the wives of several of the guides on the nuances of Saudi life. Since they wear traditional dark ankle-length dresses with colorful embroidery, their heads draped with fringed chiffon scarves, they blend in unobtrusively with Saudi women graduate students from universities in North America who are helping during their summer vacations.

The guides and the hostesses answer visitors' questions about such items as traditional clothing, weavings, inlaid chests, baskets and colorfully painted wooden shutters. They explain that the coins which visitors have been tossing into the reflecting pools by the entrance will be donated to a Canadian charity when Expo ends. They point out ceremonial coffee pots and incense burners in glass cases, plus displays of gold ceremonial swords and the elaborate silver Bedouin jewelry, traditionally one of the few visible signs of social status among the independent-spirited nomad population.

In this area too, is a small domed, whitewashed octagonal room, with plush cushions on carpeted floor and walls hung with photographs of Saudi Arab children - and examples of their artwork. The room represents a traditional majlis, a sort of sitting room, where an Arab host welcomes his guests or a king his petitioners. Some pavilion visitors use it to rest and think about what they have seen. One lady, at the opening, sat there discreetly nursing an infant while, not far away, another woman read a wall plaque explaining the traditional cultural qualities most valued in Saudi Arabia. She called her two sons to her side. "Listen," she said, reading aloud to them. "Valued most highly are the family, honor, hospitality... you hear that?" she said. "The family!" Mother, obviously, liked to see her own cultural values reinforced.

One hit of the opening was Ali Abdullah Sinan who sat at a small table beside the fountain, writing visitors' names for them in exquisite Arabic calligraphy. He wrote in black ink on note paper imprinted in green with Saudi Arabia's own Expo logo (See cover and page corners). It was so popular that many waited for up to an hour to get such personalized souvenirs.

On the far side of the platform opposite Ali's desk is pitched an authentic Bedouin tent, or black "House of Hair," traditionally hand-woven of goat hair by the women of a tribe, the panels on the downwind side of the tent raised so that visitors can see such items as carpets, water skins, hanging lamps, mortar and pestle, coffee pots, a hearth, a leather bellows and a wooden camel saddle.

Frequently, during a typical day, Mishan bin Mijwal Al-Rashidi sits inside the Bedouin tent, playing a folk instrument called a rababa, a kind of violin frame covered with stretched fox skin and played with a horse-hair bow. A colorful figure, Mishan wears a black, gold-embroidered vest over his thawb, and often steps outside the tent to perform a traditional Bedouin sword dance while four Saudi Arab musicians and singers accompany him on other instruments, the 'ud (lute), kanoon (zither) and drums. Mishan is around for ceremonial occasions, too, wafting sweet smoke from an incense burner through the air, a tradition of desert hospitality.

On May 6, Mishan was in his glory. For on that day, the Saudi pavilion welcomed Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Though they also visited the pavilions of the U.S.S.R., Britain, the United States and the State of California, the Saudi visit was special, because - as Mishan wafted incense, as Saudi Deputy Minister for Communications Nasser Al-Salloum, Assistant Deputy Minister for Transport Affairs Dr. Khaled Abdulghani and other dignitaries formed a reception line - and as the Saudi musicians took their places in the tent - five-year-old Ghada Al Hussein, daughter of Pavilion Director Abdulaziz Al Hussein, was waiting to meet the princess.

In her richly embroidered floor-length dress, Ghada looked very grown up and calm. But carefully balancing a white satin pillow, - she was undoubtedly nervous, for on it was the kingdom's gift for Diana: a circular gold pendant of crossed swords with palm.

To Ghada, no doubt, the wait seemed endless, but at last the royal couple arrived - actually right on the dot - and all eyes turned to the little hostess. Encouraged by her father, she stepped forward and exchanged smiles with the princess - another example of what Expo 86 theme is about: people and countries not only in motion, but in touch.

This article appeared on pages 22-27 of the July/August 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1986 images.