MANILA, February 11, 2006 (STAR) BUBBLE BOY By Philip Cruz - I recently joined my mother Gina de Venecia and House Speaker Jose de Venecia on an official visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. How else would I be able to visit the Arab world, if not vicariously through CNN or a textbook? So, I soon found myself on a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to the capital, Riyadh, for an incredible Middle Eastern adventure.

The official Philippine delegation was composed mostly of representatives of the Muslim South, as well as big businessmen and relevant GOCC heads from oil, microfinance, housing and the like.

During our first breakfast briefing at JDV’s hotel suite in Riyadh, I learned of the pertinent issues between our two countries. Saudi Arabia holds the largest stock of overseas Filipinos outside the US, registering at one million, 70 percent of which are located in Riyadh. As both countries are also bound by Islam, Speaker De Venecia proposed a gamut of things that morning: a railway system in Mindanao, halal and fishery farms, observership status in the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), and Philippine nursing schools exclusively for the Saudi region, among others.

In the succeeding days, while touring by bus and chartered airbus (a.k.a. private jet), I realized that the Middle Eastern landscape was not that foreign-looking at all. In fact, I found it to be a composite of some places I had already seen, like Las Vegas, Marseilles, and Marrakech, but built using a peculiar over-the-top architectural style that oozed "petro-dollars" (i.e., Italian marble, French furniture, Islamic relics, and a heap of gold to rival Fort Knox). This level of wealth was only matched by the amount of security that pervaded the metropolis – from several checkpoints along the highways, to X-ray machines in every hotel lobby, to Saudi military guarding the buildings decked out in fatigues and guns. Flanked by the Arabian Desert, the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf for the Saudis), the Red Sea, and a gazillion palm trees, the scenery looked like something out of the Bible or Disney’s Aladdin. Socializing With The Saudis Our first stop was an audience with Prince Salman lbn Abdul Aziz, the Governor of Riyadh, who just happens to be one the 50 or so brothers of the current monarch, King Abdullah Bin Abdullaziz Al-Saud (the country happens to be named after the royal family). So, still teary-eyed from jetlag, I found myself that morning walking up the gigantic staircase of a heavily guarded terra cotta palace.

"Welcome to Riyadh," the Arab translator said on behalf of the royal Governor right after the doors closed. "The Filipinos here are very well-liked and respected in our country. I have even worn your traditional costume, the barong, on several occasions in Europe!" he related in Arabic while sipping the local coffee, which had an orange gloss due to an infusion of cardamom.

Next on the agenda was a visit to Saudi Parliament. With wide, empty streets and beige fortifications dotted with manicured gardens, from the outside the legislative complex looked more like a place of worship than a place for secular debate. However, past the gilded main doors, the interiors were unmistakably those of a royal palace adorned with enormous European crystal chandeliers. For the next hour, I tanked up on bottomless Arabian mint tea while sitting through the roundtable talks between the two Speakers.

"Champagne, boss?" asked a Filipino waiter during lunch at Parliament. As alcohol is absolutely prohibited in the Kingdom, he poured me some Saudi champagne: an improvised concoction of apple juice and Perrier. All things considered, it was the perfect chaser for the assortment of lamb, hummus, tabouleh and European pastries that was churned out by the kitchen in the next few minutes. Their stock cutlery happened to be Christofle, just to give you an idea of the budget that goes into entertaining dignitaries.

That night, we made our way to Altheriah: the Desert Palace of the King. We were greeted at the entrance of a mud-brick desert fortress by several Saudi diplomats, as well as a herd of Arabian horses and camels. Although the abode looked impressive, with its antique guns and paparazzi pictures of the King with Prince Charles on the walls, what really clinched my night was the five-minute camel ride from the main building to the dining tent. Riding the camel felt pretty much like riding a horse, but double the height and triple the swaying motion. You just have to make sure you lean back in the saddle whenever the animal stands or sits, or else you might find yourself sandwiched between its heel and the Arabian Desert. In Search Of The King The next morning, we flew north to the city of Jeddah, which bordered the Red Sea and housed the current residence of the King. Although it was not red but blue, seeing the Red Sea for the first time made me appreciate all those hours of Jesuit Salvation History and Theology in college. We were then escorted to the heavily guarded Conference Hotel, where we learned that only the public officials in the delegation would be able to have an audience with the King that afternoon while the rest of us had to sit and wait.

Why is there so much security in this hotel? I thought to myself while staring at a camouflaged jeep armed with a machine gun right outside the main door. Even horse-racing magnate Boy Reyno pondered the same question as we watched men garbed in Arab and African traditional costume shuffle between the coffee shop and reception. I later learned that the OIC Conference – the roundtable of the most powerful Islamic leaders in the world – was going to take place in that same hotel a few days later. From Petron To Pinoy Big Brother With a grin on JDV’s and mom’s faces after shaking the King’s hand several times, we flew down south to the city of Dammam for the last leg of the trip.

While Speaker De Venecia went to the headquarters of Saudi Aramco, the owners of Petron, I hit the local mall with my mother. The development looked pretty much like any sprawling shopping complex in California, except for the fact that all the women were covered in black, including their faces. Several shopping and grocery bags later, we met up with the rest of the group to visit one of the few Filipino schools in the country: the International School in Al Khobar.

It was great to see the Filipino community thriving in that part of the world. With the help of the Philippine government, they were able to establish a DECS-approved educational center, similar to the British School here in Manila, aimed at teaching homeland values, language, and culture to around 700 children of Filipino OFWs. All the teachers, parents, and kids were extremely up-to-date with the news back home – down to the latest buzz and dance moves from the Pinoy Big Brother house. Parting Words And Gifts Flying back to Riyadh to catch the connecting flight back to Manila, I realized that I was, for lack of an exact English translation, "uwing-uwi na." Although the trip was spectacular, our stomachs were clamoring for some homemade sinigang na baboy, a dish that can never be legally cooked within the borders of our host country. But judging from the past few days, the generosity and goodwill that the Saudis have towards Filipinos is quite remarkable.

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