Tea in the desert with the Saudi king
DIRIYAH, Saudi Arabia, March 11, 2015 - Despite the glamorous sounding nature of flying around the world with top US diplomat John Kerry, life on the road often consists of hanging around anonymous hotel rooms or conference centres hoping for a snippet of information about closed-door negotiations.
So when the Saudis gave only limited access for the media travelling with Kerry to visit new King Salman in the ancient city of Diriyah, I jumped at the chance to join the TV and camera crew as a pool person to report back to my fellow journalists on events.
It was a rare opportunity to see beyond the ostentatious Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh with its marble floors, golden chandeliers and six life-size statues of rearing ponies in the lobby - the normal hang-out for reporters during official meetings.
Diriyah, a palm-tree ringed cluster of homes lying in the narrow valley known as the Wadi Hanifa, was first settled in the mid-15th century, and was at one point the Gulf kingdom's ancient capital. To this day it remains the ancestral home of the al-Saud family, and in 2010 it was recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Late King Abdullah also had a home here, but Kerry and his staff and a tiny press pool were heading for the nearby farm of his successor King Salman. None of us were prepared however for the magical oasis which lay at the end of a 30-minute motorcade ride from the Riyadh air force base, where Kerry had just met with Gulf foreign ministers.
Turning off the main highway, the desert, arid landscape dotted with endless construction projects as far as the eye could see, abruptly gave way to a verdant valley topped with ancient, mud-brick ramparts, some obviously restored, others lying in ruins.
Bumping along, the normal chatter in our van died away as everyone looked around in awe. It was easy to see why conservative Saudi Arabia is trying to restore the area to encourage tourism.
Past huge gates at the end of a driveway guarded by a soldier in an armoured vehicle, the vans climbed steeply and the narrow road suddenly opened up to reveal we were on top of a hill overlooking the valley below.
In front of us was a low-storied, fairly simple mud-brick building also adorned by ramparts. This was the home of the king. To greet us, a posse of anxious-looking security staff, clearly unused to granting entry to western outsiders, including women.
In deference to local conservative customs the women in Kerry's group were all modestly dressed, in long, loose fitting trousers and jackets, but did not wear headscarves. Like First Lady Michelle Obama, who chose not to don a scarf when she visited after King Abdullah's death, women staff and reporters accompanying official US delegations usually will only cover their heads to visit a mosque.
US Secretary of State John Kerry with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at Diriyah Farm on March 5, 2015
(AFP / Pool / Evan Vucci)
Hustled inside, we found ourselves standing by a large open air courtyard, laid with beautiful red carpets and ringed by large sofas plumped with cushions printed with a palm-tree design. The square was surrounded by a covered walkway.
Incense and ceremonial daggers
The air was heavy with the soft smell of incense - a traditional sign of welcome for honoured guests. In one corner a fire was being stoked next to a huge wood pile as coffee or tea-makers prepared drinks, wearing white robes and black belts hung with ceremonial golden, curved daggers.
Birds chirped, flying brazenly above the open square, perching on the ramparts. In an adjacent symmetrical but covered square Saudi men in traditional robes and head-cloths gazed at us with naked curiosity. We tried a few smiles to break the ice.
The mud-coloured walls, decorated with white-painted motifs, were hung with what appeared to be woven grass plates, old wooden-handled rifles, lamps, wall-hangings as well as spears and traditional knives. It was breathtakingly simple, and overwhelmingly beautiful.
Within minutes a team of coffee-makers walked past us bearing long-spouted golden pots of steaming beverages. The meeting could now begin.
We were ushered into a small room where King Salman was already deep in conversation with Kerry thanks to the help of a translator. A few seconds was all we were allowed, and then it was back out into the tranquility of the courtyard.
As we waited for the talks to end, we were brought trays of tiny glasses of mint and unsweetened tea to go with bowls of nuts, by attentive servers who clearly did not understand the concept of sipping so eager were they to sweep away and replenish the glasses.
Where were the women?
To my shame, it was only later that I realised that amid all the "pinch-me-is-this-real" ethereal splendour I had not glimpsed any women other than those with Kerry's party.
In this ultra-conservative society, Saudi women are not allowed to mix with men without chaperons who are usually close relatives.
I can only hope that they may have been peering at us from behind a window, and that some day I may get to chat with some women and swap stories about the day Kerry came to tea.
Jo Biddle is an AFP correspondent at the US State Department