DAMMAM, SAUDI ARABIA, AUG. 22 -- The Saudi government took foreign reporters to the royal court of the oil-laden Eastern Province's governor, Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd, today to show that life is normal despite the massive U.S.-Saudi military activity here. But they found that Kuwaiti refugees are becoming a big part of "normal" life in the kingdom.
In a marble-and-glass palace, desert tribesmen, businessmen, Kuwaitis and one poet -- all clad in flowing robes and headdresses -- lined up to petition the prince.
Some came with scraps of paper and others with bound legal documents to seek redress of grievances. It was the governor's daily majlis, or assembly, a tradition of Saudi rule. The issues included land disputes, personal financial problems and pledges of support for the government. The poet wanted the prince to listen to a poem.
The prince is the second-oldest son of King Fahd. He is the final authority in the kingdom's most important province, where a quarter of the world's oil reserves lie.
"I think this is democracy," Prince Mohammed told reporters in fluent English, after listening to 20 or 30 pleas and passing the petitions to aides for answers. "Anyone can come here and complain to me."
"Democracy is where people can say what they have to say and somebody else can listen to him and solve his problem," the prince said. He had been asked how the kingdom was responding to the demands spreading through the Arab world for greater democracy.
The prince fielded reporters' questions about the impact of the current crisis on everyday life in the province: whether gas masks were being provided to the population, how subjects were reacting to the sudden intrusion of Americans into the kingdom's conservative Islamic society.
With the skill of a trained diplomat, Mohammed dodged some questions, while emphasizing that business continued pretty much as usual in the province despite the influx of U.S. troops and materiel.
There were "no complaints" at his court about the American presence and "everybody is becoming accustomed to it," he said.
But the repercussions of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait were clearly rippling through his province. There were now "over 100,000" Kuwaiti refugees in the Eastern Province, he said, and he was having to provide housing, food and gasoline.
Fortunately, the government built a lavish high-rise apartment complex on the outskirts of Dammam in the early 1980s that no Saudis ever wanted to inhabit and that has stood empty. The prince said he planned to house 3,000 Kuwaiti families there free of charge.
Mohammed said most of his petitioners today were Kuwaiti refugees either thanking the Saudi government for its help or asking for it. He said, "I hope they will go back to their homes" eventually.