Several months ago while listening to NPR, I hear about this book, Driving the Saudis by Jayne Amelia Larson. The author was being interviewed and I was fascinated with what she had to say. Ms. Larson had spent seven weeks as a chauffeur for a family of Saudis that were vacationing in Beverly Hills. This week I was finally able to read her book documenting those seven weeks and what a harrowing experience it was!
Ms. Larson was an out-of-work actress/ producer and had begun driving as a chauffeur as a side job. When an opportunity to drive a Saudi family arose, she jumped at the chance because she had heard that these families often presented their drivers with extravagant tips at the end of their stay. The rumors were that she could receive $5,000- $20,000 in cash and possibly even expensive gifts if she were to impress her clients. This was no easy accomplishment. Ms. Larson was required to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the full seven week stay. She was to drive anywhere and for anyone that security sent her way. While she never drove for any of the Saudi men, she was assigned for a time to drive the royal hair dresser. He preferred to make the two hour trip every night to the casinos in Palm Springs, stay all night at the slot machines and then she had to drive him back to Beverly Hills early every morning.
When she wasn't driving the hair dresser, she was driving one teenage princess or another. The family arrived in town with millions of dollars in cash. Each day, Ms. Larson witnessed the shopping excursions that lasted all day and visited only the most exclusive designer boutiques. One of the chapters is even entitled "How Many Hermes Are Too Many?". In another chapter, she says, "I saw that most of the Saudi teenage girls were also dressed in thousands of dollars worth of fashionable clothing they were ultra-chic mini-versions of the older women. Saudis buy over 75 percent of the world's haute couture, so I guess they start the girls off young."
Ms. Larson also took the opportunity to learn what she could about the family and it's culture. Although she was not supposed to ask questions, she found people who were willing to explain how things worked. For instance, she was surprised to see that the women were not covered when they were in town. "...they looked like a bunch of Brazilian hotties going nightclubbing. Many of the women were scantily clad in Versace, Gucci, and Prada..." It was explained to her that outside of the Kingdom, they could wear whatever they pleased. She also had many discussions with the more religious, and therefore covered, servants. She learned a lot about the five pillars of Islam. One of the young girl's nannies, Malikah, became Ms. Larson's friend and shared many of her beliefs. "She accepted that each person must come to God in her own way and that this must be done in her own time, and Malikah was content to practice her faith as it suited her without casting aspersions on those around her who were less pious."
In the end, Ms. Larson worked so hard and so many hours that she began to look sickly. She lost so much weight that her clothes were hanging off her body and she was exhausted. As the departure day for the family approached, she looked forward to the big fat envelope that she hoped would hold her tip. She was relieved when the family's 747 finally lifted off the ground. She had spent nearly two months as a fly on the wall. She saw millions of dollars spent on luxury goods and plastic surgery, she watched ambitious servants attempt to work their way up in royal favor and often push others down in the process, she learned about a culture that she had never before experienced. This was a quick read and an enjoyable one. I'm not the biggest reader of non-fiction, but this one was more like listening to a friend gossip. Pick it up, I think you'll like it.