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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 17:13 GMT
Getting to the top in Saudi Arabia
By Andrew Bomford
BBC Radio 4

Prince Saud Al Faisal
Saudi Arabia's elusive foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal
An interview with a key member of the Saudi Arabian royal family is rare - it's rarer still for a BBC reporter to be invited to the Kingdom for it.

It started mysteriously, and then got stranger.

First, an unusual phone call from the Saudi embassy in London.

"You should go to Riyadh to cover the Gulf Cooperation Council summit. It is very important. We will give you a visa."

Arriving in Riyadh in the early hours of Friday, the holy day, is not the best time to go about securing a rare interview with Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Foreign Minister, and closest confidant of the King Abdullah.

Going through official channels, when someone eventually answered the phone, was not promising, but after another fruitless encounter with someone from the Ministry of Information he offered me a vital piece of advice.

"You need to know someone here to get anything done. Contacts. That is how we do things here."

Busy weekend

Well, I was up for the challenge. And so I embarked on a long series of conversations, handshakes, cups of coffee, meetings, and more phone calls, until, eventually, during yet another chat I happened to mention to my latest newest friend that I was trying to get an interview with Prince Saud.

This man, it was about to transpire, was a "contact". He was about to get it done. "Well, shall I ask him?" he said, casually, "I will give him a call if you like - he is a good friend of mine."

Five minutes later, and Prince Saud had said yes of course, he would be happy to talk to the BBC. Simple as that. It was just a case of scheduling. Only I happened to have picked the busiest weekend in ages.

The next day, at the summit, everyone seemed to know that I was doing an interview with Prince Saud. Government officials congratulated me. Journalists wanted to know how I'd got him to say yes.

"When would it be?" they asked. "I don"t know", was all I could say, "insha'allah, it is god's will".

Later I was half way through sending a report back to the BBC from my satellite dish at the al-Dariya palace, when my phone started ringing. "Come now quickly, the prince will see you. Quick!".

I've never packed a satellite dish so fast, and arrived, hot and sweaty in the royal palace, cables trailing all over the place, having barged my way, wild eyed, through four layers of security. "Just sit down", they said, "relax, it will only be a minute."

An hour and a half passed.

"I'm sorry", said one of the flunkies, "we have run out of time. Prince Saud has got to go to the official state dinner. Let us try again tomorrow"

Opulance

There was some compensation for me though. I was invited to attend the dinner.

Arriving at another palace, for which the word opulent does not do it justice, I walked along the receiving line and got on nodding terms with King Abdullah and the five other Royal rulers of the Gulf states at the summit.

The dinner was magnificent: course after course, elaborately choreographed by the army of ant-like waiters who kept every offering so much to time that at one point, as my fork was poised mid way to my mouth, the plate and fork were taken away from me so as not to delay the arrival of the next course.

Looking around the vast banqueting room, with its huge chandeliers, gold leaf, and silver tableware, I told the man next to me, dressed as almost everyone else was in a long black robe, a bisht, and head-dress - the keffiyeh - that I thought it was all much more impressive than Buckingham Palace. He was very pleased.

The next morning, feeling good - no alcohol you see - I was leaving my hotel for day two of the summit, when I had another one of those phone calls.

"Where are you? Stay there, a car is coming to get you. The Prince will see you soon."

Half an hour later I was back at the al-Dariya Palace, sitting in the same seat, waiting. This time though, it was not for long, and I was ushered in to see Prince Saud al Faisal.

Eleven minutes and 30 seconds later, trying to ignore the frantic signalling of his sidekick because I'd over-run my allotted ten minutes, I had my interview done, and I was on my way outside to grapple once again with the satellite dish.

An exclusive encounter with Saudi royalty for the BBC.

Was it worth it? Most certainly, but the getting of it was almost better.




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