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I couldn't arrange a meeting with the prince until three days after the rest of the Smithsonian tour had returned to the States.

When we did meet, it was following a grand occasion: the opening of the Prince Sultan College for Tourism & Hotel Sciences.

When Khalid made any move to sit down or stand up, the nearest minion rushed to help with the chair as though his life depended on it.

Mecca, where pilgrims circle the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque, and Medina, where Muhammad's message was first embraced and where he is buried, are the centers of the universe for the world's almost 1.2 billion Muslims.

An arrow pointing toward Mecca is attached to the top of practically every hotel dresser in the country so that guests know which way to face when praying.

It was a sign of the times that on the stage where the prince sat, only three nights earlier, our group had watched an ever-so-touristic dance performance by tribesmen wearing floral headpieces.

The crowd today was a bit different: the room was packed with a sea of Saudi students and businessmen in white There are princes and then there are princes--four or five thousand of them in Saudi Arabia, a few destined for greatness and riches, but most destined simply for riches.

"Then again, we're all at least seventy years old." Our two-week trip, sponsored by Smithsonian Study Tours, is the very first to bring a group of American tourists to Saudi Arabia.

Prior to last fall, tourist visas to "the kingdom," as it is known, did not exist.

To judge by my fellow tour members, Saudi Arabia is a destination that appeals to travelers who have been almost everywhere else and are dying for some place new and unknown.

Excepting myself, my photographer, and his assistant, most of the trip's participants are septuagenarians.

I hear a little grumbling along the lines of "The pope doesn't care who visits the Vatican," but mostly our group is accepting.

After all, it's beastly hot outside--and since the fall of the Soviet Union, how many places are left on earth where you can be restricted to your hotel?

In the Sheraton's lobby are the remaining tumblers of colorful fruit juice, dates, and once-chilled, moistened hand towels we were presented with upon arrival.

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