Somewhere in the Arabian Desert, a Rolls Royce Silver Spirit rockets along the highway under a smuggler’s moon.  The driver is a Saville Row bespoke-suited expatriate.  By day, he teaches English.  By night, he transports illegal consignments of alcohol from Bahrain to Riyadh through sandstorms of biblical dimensions and past curious Bedouin tribesmen.  Above, a small private jet en route from a camp in Iraq to a palace in Riyadh also travels toward the capital.  It is laden with drugs and guns.  The jet reaches its destination with cargo undisturbed and intact.  The expatriate is found dead in his apartment a week later.

This story of the eccentric Englishman who was a teacher by day and smuggler by night is often told by expatriate teachers in Saudi Arabia as one of several cautionary tales about the dangers of living and working in the kingdom.  William Sampson, a Canadian national who was wrongly imprisoned for two-and-a-half years and sentenced to death before being granted clemency over a car bombing resulting from an alleged alcohol-smuggling racket, is another such story.  However, the most gruesome image is of the decapitated body of American expatriate Paul Johnson, discovered in a remote area of Riyadh a few days after he was kidnapped at a fake police checkpoint and beheaded on film.

Riyadh is honeycombed with black markets in pirated goods, arms and munitions, drugs and alcohol.  There are more guns in neighboring Yemen than there are people.  Most of these guns can be purchased openly at arms souks (markets) and are then smuggled across the border.  Kalashnikov rifles, hand grenades, and rocket launchers are bought by Saudis for recreational use at their desert camps, where they chase African ostriches and hoon around on muscular quad bikes.  Recently, when a student drove me home from a camp, I was not surprised to see a loaded revolver in the glove box of his luxury four-wheel drive; most students have their own firearms, as evidenced by the number of ammunition shells I find on the ground—even in the classroom.

Did you know that the attack of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in New York City didn’t really happen?  Yes, this is the view of a number of students in my advanced English-communication class.  They screened a documentary for me which purports to demonstrate that the official explanations of September 11 simply do not reflect the evidence of eyewitness accounts and film footage.  The CIA, it was explained to me, had created an elaborate hoax as a pretext to start the “War on Terror.”  The Saudis are very insular, suspicious people.  Anyone who is not a member of their large tribal groups is a suspect.  The September 11 hoax is one of a catalogue of conspiracy theories the Saudis entertain involving their kingdom and the rest of the world.

On the other hand, students treasure their bootleg copies of Borat (banned in Saudi Arabia); they don’t know that Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish.  The topics some students choose to give oral presentations about—Adolf Hitler, Viagra, Conjoined Twins, and the Bermuda Triangle—are prompting me to indulge in my own conspiracy theories about them.  “Saudi Arabia needs more terrorists,” blundered another student.  (Read: tourists.)

Pornography is not an urban myth in the kingdom.  It is beamed into every home wired up for satellite television—including mine.  While women in the kingdom are covered from head to toe in black abayas and images of women in conservative lifestyle magazines are blotted out by the censors’ black markers, a galaxy of hard-core pornographic television programs is available on a subscription basis.  There are also dozens of free channels that promote phone-sex services.  Of course, pirated copies of Hollywood films featuring flesh scenes and themes are available under the counter at video stores throughout the kingdom.  And, while the internet is officially filtered, my students are well aware of dozens of proxy websites that provide an anonymous, uncensored portal into everything on the web.

For those who know where to look, there are unlimited opportunities in the kingdom that allow you to take the step from illicit fantasy to reality.  On a recent train journey to the east coast, my colleague and I encountered many truly hospitable and sociable Saudis.  It wasn’t until we were having our breakfast at Starbucks in the coastal town of Al Khobar that a Saudi gentleman offered us a ride along the Corniche in his four-wheel drive.  He introduced himself as a doctor at a military hospital.  We were a few kilometers down the road when, from the back seat, I noticed the Saudi man’s hand massaging the inner thigh of my anxious, perspiring friend sitting in the front passenger seat.  Later, when I tried to explain to the Saudi man that my colleague is heterosexual, he was surprised: “Is he fasting?”  He then suggested we all go swimming at a place called Half Moon Bay in the Arabian Gulf—naked.

While many compound-dwelling Western expatriates have to build and maintain small distilleries in order to enjoy alcoholic drinks, I was invited to join the secret Single Malt Scotch Whisky Society of Riyadh.  Every fortnight, a group of connoisseurs—foreign diplomats; British, American, and Australian expatriate lawyers and bankers; senior government officials; prominent businessmen; even some Saudi royals—meet in an apartment in a Western compound to consume dozens of bottles of the finest whisky in the world—some as old as 30 years and others of limited edition worldwide that are specially bottled for societies such as this.  Under a cloud of curling wisps of Cuban-cigar smoke, interesting topics are raised for discussion—World Trade Organization standards, the Galileo satellite navigation system, the looming introduction of new national Saudi identification-card technology—before business cards are exchanged, secrets are shared, and deals are made.

The erstwhile eccentric Englishman who taught English by day and smuggled alcohol across the desert in his Rolls Royce Silver Spirit by night ended up dead because of his racketeering—or did he?  In Saudi Arabia, foreign nationals have been kidnapped at fake police checkpoints, and British-embassy staff have been investigated by Scotland Yard, while innocent men have languished in Saudi jails because Western powers didn’t want to jeopardize multi-billion-dollar defense contracts with the Saudi power elite.  In fact, in Saudi Arabia, life often imitates art.  I sometimes suspect that Harry Lime is about to emerge from the shadows and then disappear into catacombs beneath the labyrinthine maze of the diplomatic quarter where I live.

There is no doubt that living in the kingdom is dangerous.  There have been dozens of isolated, targeted killings of Western expatriates in recent years—not including the 2003 Riyadh compound bombings, which resulted in 35 fatalities and over 160 wounded, including Americans, Australians, and Britons, in a single coordinated attack on three residential compounds.  Of the isolated murders, some were killed waiting in supermarket car parks, using ATMs, shopping, sitting in their cars at traffic lights, driving to work and opening mail.  While there were incidents in the late 90’s, the current campaign of targeted assassinations of Western expatriates began in the year 2000 and continues to this day.  Despite these events, thousands of Western expatriates continue to live and work in the kingdom as engineers, lawyers, nurses—and English teachers.

To leave the kingdom, foreign nationals must obtain exit visas.  The application process is laden with layers of bureaucratic officialdom.  Many of the teachers at the college where I am working are desperate to leave by the time annual holidays roll around.  They have endured stifling temperatures—which the government reportedly misrepresents to avoid declaring public holidays—and Western-lifestyle deprivations and restrictions.  The lucky few with wasta—the Saudi social currency of knowing people of influence—obtain their visas and leave early.  The others—like the dispossessed European émigrés in Casablanca—wait and wait and wait . . .