An Awakening – Can You Sense It?

A gorgeous sunset over the bustling urban capital of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The Marine Security Guard Program

The year was 1998 and I was serving as an enlisted Marine at the American Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal.  After serving as a HAWK Missile Systems Operator with the 1st Light Anti Aircraft Missile Battalion, that was located at the Marine Corps Air Station, in Yuma, Arizona, I applied for the special billet position of Marine Security Guard.  The Marine Security Guard is the polished, well-kept, and physically fit Marine that is assigned to one of the many US diplomatic missions that are located across the world.  Their role is to protect classified material, government property, and embassy personnel while serving in a highly visible position that is directly responsible to both Diplomatic Security, and Marine Corps' chain of commands.

Before being posted in Lisbon, I had spent the previous fourteen months at the American Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia was a fluke from the best that I could understand as my initial orders upon graduating from the MSG Program were for Rome, Italy.  Another graduating Marine, however, had been stricken with an illness so severe, that his departure had been delayed, and I was given his orders to Riyadh, instead.  My departing orders to Riyadh took me by surprise, after having spent the previous few years in Yuma, Arizona and before that Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and decided that living in another desert was the absolute last place that I had wanted to be.

There were only two requisites that I had asked of myself before leaving for MSG Duty:  Please, Marine Corps, don't send me to another desert and Commandant, sir, in all of your infinite wisdom, please don't send me to a terrorist haven.  While those Marines being assigned to posts in East Africa were under far more duress than any of us could ever have imagined, Saudi Arabia was always at the top of the list when Middle Eastern terrorists came to mind.  The parking lot scene with gun-toting terrorists in a VW Bus, and a time-traveling DeLorean – as seen in 1985's Back to the Future – is a good example of how a young person from Ohio would see this.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Little did I know that Saudi Arabia was a hidden gem for those Marines being assigned to posts in the Kingdom, including those at the consulate in Jeddah, as the diplomatic missions had shifted a great deal since the end of the Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm.  The Marines in Riyadh were accustomed to a higher than usual quality of life that included a driver, a personal cook, their own gym and workout facilities, an on-site swimming pool, tennis courts, and a fully-stocked cash bar that was open on occasion to the diplomatic and expatriate communities.  This is an important thing to remember when your host country bans the use of alcohol due to its stringent religious practices.

The trade-off was a limited social setting outside of the embassy compound that was common in many Arabic countries, and included no interaction between unmarried men and women; the veiled threat of the mutaween, or the religious police, that when combined with the civil police force could prove to be fatal for those without diplomatic protections; the imminent threat of radical Islam that was growing stronger by the day and, of course, the heat of the Saudi Arabian desert that could swell to well over 120° F on a balmy, summer day.

At the time, one of our greatest concerns was the emerging threat of al-Qa'ida, a relatively undisclosed force that was being led by an angry Osama bin Laden, who had been actively calling for the violent removal of American forces from the Arabian Peninsula.  These forces have been in place since before the end of the Gulf War and comprise of an agreement between US and Saudi governments to modernize, train, and assist the Saudi Arabian National Guard, and in an effort for the Saudi military forces to be able to effectively defend their own borders against neighboring threats.

Saudi Arabia, a land revered as sacred for Muslims across the world with its two two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, was a mix of religious extremism, human rights' violations, extreme poverty, incredible wealth, an abundance of natural resources — and with all of that — an influx of Western expatriate workers that were needed to support their growing infrastructure.  This means that most modern specialized industries including healthcare, telecommunications, private security forces, and, of course, oil-producing corporations were always staffed with English-speaking Canadian, American, British, French, German, Australian, New Zealand, and other Western nationalities that were living and working in-country for financial gain.  At the time, a skilled worker could come to the Kingdom, earn a high wage and pay no income tax, thus alleviating their high student loan debt they had acquired in obtaining that skill.  Nursing, for example, was a common career move for those living in Saudi Arabia, and for those that were members of our extended diplomatic and expatriate communities.

Saudi Arabia is also a central demarcation point for those wishing to travel throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.  It was very common to hear stories from these expatriate workers of their recent travels to Mediterranean and African locations.  It was also common to hear of weekend excursions to the Red Sea for scuba diving or tourism, and to remote areas of the Saudi Arabian desert for relaxation and outdoor recreation.

Exploring the Egyptian Mysteries

One of my only goals since youth was being able to visit the ancient Nile Valley of Upper and Lower Egypt and I was afforded that opportunity while serving as a Marine in Riyadh.  Although it was not common for us to leave the compound for any more than a few hours, the exception being official business, or overnight stays with trustworthy sources, we could, with permission, be allowed to leave the country for a few days at at time.  In this case, one of my peers that was rotating to his second post in Central America, and I decided that his departure would make for good timing, and a pristine example of how to best optimize government-funded travel.  A short weekend in Cairo would do the trick, although due to escalating security concerns in Egypt at the time, getting permission to actually visit the country took a bit of persuasion on our behalf with our chain of command.

Upon my arrival, I had been greeted by a local tourism guide that promised me for only the low, low price of $50, that he would drive us anywhere that we had wanted to visit in Egypt.  Hesitantly, and out of concern for our own personal safety, I had agreed to his price because it seemed so cheap.  No where else were we going to find such a hospitable companion that would help us overcome the language barrier, while enjoying all that we could while visiting the country.  After checking in to our hotel that afternoon, we decided that our first stop the following day would be Saqqara, the famed Step Pyramid of Djoser, that sits near the ancient capital of Memphis.

My first impressions of Cairo is just how many people live there, and despite what a tourism brochure may try to sell you, is one of the busiest, and probably the dirtiest city that I've ever visited.  With jam-packed city traffic moving as quickly as 60 or 70 miles per hour, and as closely as an Indiana Jones' movie would make you believe, I was taken aback with their lackadaisical attitude toward their nation's history.  Here we were, in the land of all lands, steeped in the ancient mysteries, that were literally covered in trash.  The entrance to a tomb over here?  It was littered in garbage, and the pathway down to a historic pyramid entrance was locked behind a frail, iron gate that had appeared untouched for years.

It was surprising to see the reality of what these tourist attractions had become, since fantasizing about them since youth.  Of course, with the Giza Pyramids sitting on the horizon, and covered in the grey, hazy, mist of a polluted modern city, it's easy to see how the romantic notion of visiting this land appeals to so many.  Its history is unparalleled in the course of human history, and its basking sun invites the splendor and lore of those that have lived here.  I, like many people, came to the familiar realization that I had been here before; although when, and where — who was I remembering?