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How Saudis really see Americans

If you believe a new Burger King ad playing in the kingdom, Americans are clueless about the Middle East.

The ads exploit — and laugh at — the ignorance of many Americans about the Middle East, and about Saudi Arabia in particular.

For the record, it is true that this oil-rich kingdom has plenty of camels — but not in cities, where people commute by car. There are no oil wells — hand-pumped or otherwise — in backyards. And tents are mostly for recreational use.

Maybe the king’s desert tent — a sumptuous affair where he recently received U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — has two stories, but others do not.

As for fabulous riches, those are mostly limited to an elite. Many Saudis get by on moderate to low incomes, and the number who live under the poverty line has been variously estimated at somewhere between 1.5 to 3 million. Only around 30 percent of Saudi families own their own home.

Ignorance, however, goes both ways. Arabs sometimes have exaggerated visions of America as the land of opportunity, where money comes easily, and jobs are always fulfilling.

And given the image of American society presented in silly sitcoms and sexually suggestive dramas like "Desperate Housewives" and "Sex in the City" — which are top fare on Arab satellite stations — it is hardly surprising that many Arabs have a warped notion of American females as women who neglect their families and hop into bed with any man at any moment.

In a darker vein, some Islamist political groups and clerics deliberately depict the United States in monochrome terms as a drug and sex-crazed nation in order to validate their contention that the West is the source of all evil.

The 30-second Burger King ads, of course, have no such agenda. They are just poking fun, and perhaps showing that a good laugh can go a long way towards mutual understanding.

The crazy things foreigners ask

Launching my own unscientific poll, I sent emails to Saudi friends asking for the craziest thing they were ever asked by a foreigner.

Here are a few of their replies (with answers supplied by the pollster when necessary):