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Desperate Liaisons in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter.

There is a lot of loose information exchanged on the back channels at embassy parties. Harry Nicolaides, an Australian writer in Saudi Arabia, lives in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh where today’s gossip – like the location of the 15 British Royal navy personnel abducted by Iranian forces – is often tomorrow’s headline.

On a bridge over a highway in Riyadh there are 22 flags heralding the countries represented at this year’s summit of the Arab League. The flags of Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon flutter wildly next to the flags of Sudan and Somalia. The Libyan flag has fallen to half-mast. The rest lift and drop with strong, vacillating winds saluting the intermittent motorcades of consular vehicles as they cross the bridge and then zigzag around large concrete barriers towards the fortified gate of the main entry point to the largest, heavily secured cluster of embassies and ambassadorial residences in the world: Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter.

Typically, every single day Saudi anti-terrorist security forces check vehicles before they enter. However, a few days earlier – for the first time ever – vehicles were stopped and searched on the way out causing significant traffic delays. With 5 of the Arab League member states engulfed by civil war, the South Korean president visiting town and Condelezza Rice in the region the delay was unsettling. Naturally, rumors abounded: Was a foreign spy caught, a rogue general planning to defect or perhaps a homesick diplomat preparing to flee a hardship posting?

It is more than a rumor that the 5 member nations – Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan & Somalia – are at the top of the agenda of meetings held in Riyadh over the next few days. Saudi leaders are determined to end the civil war in Iraq, revive an old Saudi peace plan to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, work on restoring stability to Lebanon and placate an increasingly marginalized, nuclear-armed Iran.

“Is Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi attending the summit this year?” I couldn’t resist asking the Arab politicians I met at the Greek embassy on Greek National Day. “Who knows? Maybe yes. Maybe no. No one can predict what Colonel Gaddafi will do. In fact, he may be here tonight!” It was true – the gadfly of the Gulf was a mercurial politician arriving and leaving previous summits in accord with a timetable of his own. He was also notorious for insulting other Arab leaders, making preposterous suggestions (former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was a Palestinian agent) and hatching assassination plots against Saudi’s King Abdullah.

Greek national day was celebrated like any other embassy function. The usual cast of ambassadors, diplomatic attaches, Arab royalty and European nobility in all their elegant finery gathered around an infinity-edged swimming pool expressing cordial greetings and paying homage to each other with generous compliments while grazing on a lavish buffet of haute cuisine served by cordon bleu chefs.

It wasn’t long before I saw the wife of a senior African diplomat with whom, unbeknown to her, I share a private driver. Evidently, she likes to shop. In fact she likes to shop so much she periodically fills a massive, freight shipping container full of women’s clothing and fashion accessories and has it shipped to her African home where the massive consignment is sold at a considerable profit at weekend markets.

I also encountered the political officer from a southern European country who utilizes the sophisticated intelligence gathering infrastructure of his embassy to conduct surveillance on several young Philippine women he has befriended on the internet. He spends hundreds of hours on the web to communicate with the girls. Often liaising with his diplomatic counterparts in the Philippines, he has compiled extensive personal dossiers on a select group of the women with the object of evaluating them as potential wives. He told me he was leaving for Manila in the next few days – to get married.

Behind him was the economic attaché of an Asian country who is the president of the secret Single Malt Scotch Whisky Society of Riyadh. Every fortnight he invites connoisseurs of single malt whisky – foreign diplomats, British, American and Australian expatriate lawyers & bankers, senior Saudi government officials, prominent Saudi businessmen – to his apartment in a Western compound to consume dozens of bottles of the finest whisky in the world. Gelenmorangie, Glenffidich, and Glenlivit are lined up next to the 30-year old Glen Moray. Under a cloud of Cuban cigar smoke business cards are exchanged, secrets shared and deals made.

Emerging from the crowd I thought I recognized the Iranian military attaché whom I met at the Australia Day function at the Australian embassy some months ago. He was a cardboard cut out of a Cold War Politburo figure, pressed, starched and embellished with a thick golden lanyard, bristling epaulets, assorted medals and military decorations and small brass badges shaped like jets on his broad lapels. Short, stocky and barrel-chested he pushed his way through the crowd until I came toe-to-toe with his grisly, lantern-jawed face.

After an exchange of pleasantries and small talk I made a joke: “Comrade, do you have the 15 British sailors in your Embassy?’ Astonishingly, he thought I was serious and began addressing my question in some detail. He explained that the group are guests of his country and are being treated lavishly. They are staying in a 5-star hotel in Tehran where they are enjoying fine dining, entertainment and companionship. Moreover, the group will be home as soon as a debriefing session is concluded and after the position of the international border between Iraq and Iran is mutually agreed and reaffirmed. On their repatriation to the United Kingdom they will speak very highly of the high level of hospitality extended to them by their Iranian hosts.

I know what you are thinking. It wasn’t Colonel Gaddafi playing a joke.

Harry Nicolaides

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