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Hillary Clinton gets royal treatment at Saudi king's retreat

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; A06

RAWDAT KHURAYIM, SAUDI ARABIA -- There's nothing like having tea served by men with guns dangling from their shoulders.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton got the royal treatment, literally, on Monday when King Abdullah hosted her and her entourage at his winter retreat here, about an hour's drive northeast of Riyadh, the capital. Few visitors are invited to the king's desert sanctuary, and reporters are almost never permitted. But the king not only allowed the media to venture inside his soaring black tent but personally greeted each of them.

The royal surroundings -- the result of the House of Saud's autocratic control of the country's oil wealth -- are both spectacular and surprisingly banal.

The tent, which from a distance looks like a six-top black circus tent, is actually a mini-palace with a tented top. It stands on concrete, with one grand sitting room and one equally large banquet room. It is surrounded on all sides by semitrailers, recreational vehicles and dozens of other real tents (with carpets covering the sand and air conditioners running nonstop). A helicopter landing zone is just steps away, as is a zoo stocked with deer, falcons and other creatures.

In many ways, minus the rugs and fancy finishings, it looked like a U.S. military facility in Iraq.

Clinton traveled here on the king's bus, a massive vehicle with 11 seats arranged in a circle in the Saudi fashion. When she arrived, the king greeted her in the sitting room, which features five chandeliers and a single carpet stretching 82 feet. Along one wall is a giant 60-inch television, surrounded by 32 smaller sets. (Apparently the king can always keep an eye on every cable channel.)

Each member of Clinton's entourage was given a card with a number, which showed which overstuffed couch he or she would sit on. As dozens of servants, including the gun-toting men who poured single gulps of tea, bustled about, the king, through an interpreter, and Clinton (along with each country's ambassadors) engaged in lighthearted banter about camels for about 15 minutes.

The camel diplomacy eventually ran out of steam, and the king motioned that it was time for lunch.

The 86-year-old monarch slowly led the way to the banquet room. The food selection was worthy of an elaborate wedding, a Hollywood opening or a fancy bar mitzvah. Arrayed along the side, at least four dozen types of meat, fish and chicken dishes, including huge platters of lobster, awaited the guests. The tables were groaning with even more food and dishes, too numerous to count, let alone eat. The scented hand fresheners were made by Bulgari.

In the center of the room stood yet another huge television, which came out of a cabinet on a hydraulic lift. The king and Clinton sat down with their food, facing the television. The king immediately turned it on, at high volume, to a news and sports channel.

That spoiled the atmosphere a bit. But the king and Clinton seemed to be chatting during the meal, so the TV may have been intended to keep their conversation private from the curious ears of the other guests.

After the meal, servants stood by with bottles of French cologne to spray on each person's hands.

The ceremony then was over, and the king and Clinton repaired to a private room for serious talks. The reporters waited in the sitting room, occasionally offered tea by the men with guns.

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