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Saudi Traffic Stop

Dear Rudy,

From 1986 to 1990, I was stationed at the US Geological Survey's Mission in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I served as a field geologist and scientific advisor to the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. I did a lot of traveling in-country, much of it for my own entertainment. During my second tour of duty, a colleague and I took a weekend road trip up into the coastal mountains of the Tihama Province. After a day of uneventful but enjoyable travel, we passed through a large, fairly modern village on our way to one of the many campgrounds inthe surrounding highlands.

At a red light, we came to a stop behind four or five other automobiles. While waiting for the light to change, I noticed a two-striper policeman leaning nonchalantly against the mast of the traffic light. He suddenly became very attentive and, shouting and gesturing his intentions, he began to "detain" all the drivers of vehicles stopped at the light, including me.

I speak passable Arabic and so understood that we were to follow him to the station. We parked inside the compound of what looked more like a 60's-vintage Motel 6 than a police station. Inside, my companion and I were segregated from the locals who had been detained and were shown to a comfortable, freshly whitewashed waiting room outfitted with thick Afghani wool carpets and overstuffed sitting cushions. We were given sweet tea but otherwise ignored for almost a half hour.

My companion spoke no Arabic and was new to the country, so he understandably became very anxious. Spying a three-striper in an adjoining room, I got up, summoned all the authoritative air of an injured potentate, and walked into his office. He was sitting behind a new but rickety wooden desk sipping tea while exchanging pleasant conversation with several of his subordinates. I offered the usual Arabic greeting to a stranger of rank, and politely asked if I was being arrested. The sergeant sternly informed me that I was being fined 300 riyals (about $75 American) for running the traffic light. My partner in crime fumed in English. I knew it would be useless to protest innocence, so I produced my black diplomatic passport. (As a U.S. Government employee in-country, I was officially seconded to the U.S. State Department, hence the "Blackie.")

The ranking officer's expression became much less official and more cordial when I informed him that I held in my hand an "iquama diplomacee," and that if he wanted to fine us, he would have a diplomatic incident on his hands -- something his superior would not appreciate. "No, no, please! I'm sorry. You must leave immediately. It is not necessary to pay the fine, noble sir!" He was all effusive apology and forgiveness as he escorted us out the door. As we hastily retreated to our vehicle, I could hear the echoing laughter of the three-striper and his men.




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