How Saudis really see Americans

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — “Have it your way!”

The long-time Burger King slogan usually refers to pickles, onions and cheese.

But a new series of hilarious ads for the hamburger chain created for Middle East consumers puts a whole new spin on the well-worn phrase. And in the process, the commercials make some interesting social commentary.

The three spots — which are airing on YouTube to test public response before going to satellite television — feature two young Arab men having a Burger King meal with two young American women they just met.

The women are clearly clueless.

“Middle East? Isn’t that the capital of Arabia, or somewhere?” one asks.

“Do you guys, like, drive camels to work in the morning?”

“You must be loaded!”

Instead of being insulted, the men play along as they demolish their whoppers.

One says he lives in a “double-story tent.” The other relates how he has “oil wells in the backyard and once a week a group of businessmen comes to us and we pump the oil by hand.”

One of the wide-eyed women starts imagining these scenes. In her mind’s eye, for example, she sees her dinner partners in traditional robes standing by a hand-pump and being given a paper bag from a tall man in a cowboy hat.

“Here’s your cash and your whopper,” he says in an exaggerated American accent.

The woman’s fantasies all end with “Have it your way!” and Burger King’s logo flashing on the screen.

The ads were developed by Dubai-based Tonic Communications for the Gulf region’s Burger King franchise-holder, Riyadh-based Olayan Group, a Saudi-owned international conglomerate.

Olayan officials did not respond to an email and phone messages seeking comment, and a Tonic official said he was not given permission by his client to speak with a reporter.

But it is clear that the ads are targeting the Gulf region’s savvy and travel-loving young adult population. Of the 70,000 Saudis studying abroad on government scholarships, about 24,000 of them are in the United States.

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):

 From an advertising firm employee in Riyadh:

“Pre-911 [sic], I got a lot of the typical: ‘Does your family own an oil well? Do they live in tents? Do you guys ride camels?’

“Then there was 911, and the questions became: ‘Is it safe over there? Aren't you afraid someone is gonna bomb you? Do people spray each other with machine guns all the time?’

“Absolutely no more camel & tent questions.

“It is quite obvious that people back in the USA assume I live in SaudiRaqiRanOstan.

“But the silliest question asked recently was [with a slight Southern accent]: ‘Is it true that if you look at a woman over there they will cut off your ding-dong?’”

Answer: No

From a Saudi woman studying in New York:

“I would have to say the most ridiculous question I keep getting is whether or not I'm a princess. I wish, but no, no … For some reason, being a female from a Gulf state and showing a somewhat reasonable propensity for styling yourself a certain way makes you a princess. Hey, I'm not complaining. It's just ridiculous in that it's so, so untrue!”

From an employee of a U.S. corporation with offices in Riyadh:

“I actually had an executive visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time to take part of an event I was doing. I was expecting a series of questions about security and safety of the country as those were very common. However the funniest and most outrageous question I got was: ‘Is English understood commonly?’”

Answer: Yes

From a Saudi male blogger in Riyadh:

“I got asked by a visiting female member of parliament: ‘Is it true that if your house has a girl ready for marriage you have to put a flag on your roof?’”

Answer: No

From friends of the blogger, which he collected for me by Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr:

“Is it true that a Saudi can marry four wives?”

Answer: Yes

“Are all your taxis BMWs?”

Answer: No

“How many wives do you have?”

“Have you seen Osama [bin Laden] before?”

“What is the name of the city in Saudi Arabia that allows alcohol??”

Answer: None. The questioner was thinking of the neighboring country of Bahrain, which permits alcohol consumption.

From an American who grew up in Saudi:

“The craziest thing I have ever had anyone sincerely ask me was if I spoke Muslim.”

From a Saudi student in Virginia:

“All the people that I know are quite educated, and I have never heard a crazy or stupid comment about Saudi Arabia from any of the people that I have met. I would call Americans, even those who are well-educated, outdated for the lack of a better term ... They still think that if you steal [in Saudi Arabia], they will cut your hands off!

“I usually respond by saying it's a law, but it's not implemented or enforced anymore — just like cohabitation laws in Virginia.”