Driving the Saudis
1 The $100 Million Pickup
The drivers were sent to pick up the family and the entourage in the middle of the night. No one was there. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was hushed, practically shut down. I’d been there dozens of times before, but I’d never seen it like that; it was spooky. Even the light seemed different, as if all the exterior fixtures had been gelled and dimmed to create an ominous orange haze.
Everything was quiet but I was not. I was way revved up, like a Ferrari at a race start. I felt as if I was in the middle of a $100 million movie set filming an international thriller. Just as on a movie set, our instructions had been minimal and information was scarce, as well as constantly changing. Everybody was silent as if cameras were rolling, but this wasn’t a film shoot. This was real.
The head security officer said the Saudi royal family wanted their arrival at the airport to be low key, but we had pulled into the airport with at least forty vehicles—Lincoln Navigators, Cadillac Escalades, Porsche Cayennes, bulletproof armored Mercedes-Benz S600s (the big boys), and even a couple of $300,000 Bentleys—all black, with full-on black tinted windows, and we snaked through the horseshoe-shaped airport in a tight convoy as if we owned the place. I’d never driven before in a caravan of so many cars and it was forceful. We had several LAX police escorts, but they didn’t have their bubbles flashing. Even so, we were not low key. We were impressive.
Fausto, the lead driver, waved at us to park along the curb, put our flashers on, and wait. Our windows were open and I could see that many of the other drivers looked as nervous as I felt, their foreheads glistening with beads of perspiration. Our eyes darted about maniacally, trying to follow the torrent of commotion around us; every now and then a driver would wipe sweat off his brow or pull at his collar.
We drivers were told that the Saudi consul and his staff were in attendance to usher the passengers through customs. Since no one spoke to us, we had no idea who was who, but I presumed that the group of men in sharp suits, talking in low tones among themselves just ahead of the convoy at the entrance to the Bradley International Terminal, were from the consul’s office. A cadre of serious-looking Saudi Army officers in khakis came out first and conferred with the consulate staff assigned to greet the family. Several linebacker-sized men in civvies strutted about, stepping away from the gathered men to bark instructions on Nextel radios.
As I looked down our line of sedans, SUVs, and luxury vehicles, my eyes tracked the large assembly of black-suited drivers and armed security personnel attending the family. I was the only woman.
We had started work at noon and then waited around for several hours for the cars to be made available from various Beverly Hills rental agencies. We then made sure they were carefully detailed, inside and out, and provisioned with water—Fiji water only—and assorted snacks and goodies that the Saudis might request. Some of us had a prior list of what we should be buying for the family member we’d be driving, such as Mentos or Ritz crackers, but we had all stocked up on breath mints and tissues.
Most of us had been working nonstop all day prepping the cars and running errands for the family’s security; it didn’t look as if we’d be getting a meal break anytime soon, and it was now late evening. I hadn’t eaten anything since the morning, and hopped-up nerves had made my throat sandy from thirst. I had stocked my car with the required designer water, placing the pint-sized bottles in each of the cup holders
and several more in the pockets behind the front seats along with crisp current copies of LA Confidential, 90210, and Angeleno magazines. When I saw that most of the other drivers had gotten out of their cars and were making cell phone calls, tugging at their pants, and lighting cigarettes, I retrieved one of the extra bottles from the trunk of my car and choked down a few sips of the fancy water. It was hot, car hot. It tasted like it could be LA River water. I made a mental note to start carrying an iced cooler in the trunk as I’d seen other drivers do.
My stomach churned from hunger. I took another sip of the car-hot water and popped a few Altoids.
I’d never met any members of a royal family before, so I was keen to know what they might be like and to see if they were really all that different from me. Were they smarter? Were they prettier? Were they happier? Would they like me?
It was an unusually warm July evening, and by this time we had been waiting several hours for the family to arrive. I felt as if I was burning up and clammy at the same time. I had so wanted to make a good impression on the royals, and now that seemed lost for good. As I picked up the acrid scent of wet wool wafting up from the inside of my jacket, it was apparent that the eau de toilette I had spritzed on in the morning was now gone, long gone. I had chewed all my lipstick off hours ago, my feet were pink and screaming in the stiff new stacked heels I had just bought for the job, and the silk lining of my black suit was sticking to me like a wet bathing suit. I wriggled around and shook out my legs. I felt like a snake trying to shed its old skin. Every now and then I’d surreptitiously pluck at my suit to put some air between my skin and the lining. I hoped no one noticed.
The drivers had been told to wear black suits to the airport but thereafter could dress in more casual clothes. I was instructed to make sure that my arms and legs were completely covered at all times and that my neckline was never low cut or revealing, but the male drivers could dress more freely and were permitted to wear polo shirts and shorts. I did not have to cover my hair. I was relieved when I was told that; I have copious amounts of curly dark-blond hair, and wrestling it into some kind of contained state can be something akin to an extreme sport, especially
in the blazing California summer weather, when it’s particularly unruly. Fingers, toes, even a champagne cork or two have been known to get stuck in it. Tearing a rotator cuff trying to get it under control after a wild night is not out of the question.
The family had actually arrived a short while before at a fixed base operation (FBO), a half-mile south of LAX, in their private plane. FBO is aviation parlance for a private airport. If you’re Oprah in her Gulf-stream G500 that seats eight, then you land at one of the FBOs operating out of the cozy Santa Monica private airport 10 miles north up the road. If you’re John Travolta in his Boeing 707, or a head of state, or members of the Saudi royal family, then you must land at FBOs such as the ones near LAX, where the big jet planes come in on the 2- and 3-mile-long runways that can accommodate them. Jets cover a lot of distance taking off and even more on landing.
I’d been inside this FBO’s plush reception area before on several past jobs when waiting for clients. It was a first-class lounge, and I knew it offered warm saucer-sized chocolate chip cookies, cool drinks, and refreshing ionized conditioned air, but it was off-limits on this pickup. Clearly no one wanted us to be comfortable.
All the drivers had waited in the heavily secured FBO parking lot lined up at attention and watched through a 16-foot-high chain-link and barbed-wired fence as the Saudi royal family’s plane descended. The jet’s tail had the distinctive gold and blue logo—crossed scimitars above a date palm tree—that I knew to belong to Saudi Arabian Airlines, owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Just as the jet’s engines shut down, several luxury coach buses pulled up and parked at the base of the air stairs truck on the tarmac. The passengers exiting the plane piled in them and then drove off across the airport tarmac in the direction of the Bradley International Terminal at LAX within view of us one-half mile northwest of the FBO.
We drivers looked at each other in confusion, then we looked around for Fausto to tell us what to do but he had disappeared with the family in the first coach. We didn’t know whether we should wait or follow him and the passengers to the Bradley Terminal via surface streets. We thought that we’d be picking up the Saudis at the FBO and driving them back to the hotel, but they had taken off in the buses instead of
in our cars. No one had said that this might be a possibility. We had no idea what to do.
After a few tense moments, one of the royal family’s security personnel shouted at us to get moving. We jumped in our cars and took off, jockeying to get in position to exit as quickly as we could, but we didn’t know where we were supposed to go. Just as we were leaving the gated parking lot, another security guy pulled us back. “No! Wait here! Stay in your cars! Just be ready!” he said. So we waited, engines running. Several of the first cars out had to be tracked down and brought back in line. Everyone was rattled.
Ten minutes later we were told to get on the move again and then abruptly stopped a second time. Now we were totally confused. We were supposed to be a smooth, efficient, and highly professional group, but this pickup was completely disorganized and chaotic; it was a mess. I chewed at a hangnail on my thumb until it bled and then sat on my hands to stop the carnage. I haven’t chewed on my nails since I was nine, and I didn’t want to start again.
I come from a big family—my immediate circle includes ten children, fifteen grandchildren, with perhaps more on the way, and two great-grandchildren with the statistical probability of at least ten more—and I am accustomed to chaos. Thanksgiving is bedlam, Christmas is pandemonium, weddings are free-for-alls and funerals are a bust, especially if there’s a dispute about how or where cremated ashes are to be scattered. I grew up in a cacophony of passionate voices demanding this, commandeering that, negotiating whatever and everything—all at top volume and top speed, often in the middle of the night and through the night. One of my brothers built a 16-foot canoe by hand in his bedroom when he was sixteen, realized it wouldn’t fit through the door, hauled it out the window after removing the window frame, and then had the balls to take it down the Raritan River in New Jersey—so I’ve had a deep and lasting relationship with chaos. Even so, this was unsettling.
Finally, I released my hands and called my chauffeur friend Sami on my cell phone. He was driving one of the Lincoln Navigators in the line ahead of me. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“They’re going through customs at Bradley,” he said. “It never takes long.”
“Are you kidding? That could take hours,” I said.
“Not for them, chica,” he said.
Just then, another security guy came tearing out of the FBO waving his arms frantically like a semaphore signalman on an acid trip. “Go! Go! Go to Bradley!” he yelled. After a few unsure moments, we gunned our cars and raced to LAX up the road.