A Saudi Arabian prince flew into town Wednesday, and we mean just that: He piloted the small plane himself.
His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a grandson of Saudi Arabia’s ruler, came to Kansas City for opening ceremonies of the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Museum officials and the prince himself say the 200-plus artifacts, excavated over the last four decades, dispel the notion that Arabia was some distant desert outpost but was actually a center of culture and innovation.
The exhibit “rewrites history,” said Prince Sultan in an interview Wednesday afternoon in the presidential suite of the InterContinental hotel on the Country Club Plaza.
As president and chairman of the board of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, which organized “Roads of Arabia,” the prince has become one of the chief promoters of his country.
Kansas City is the fourth of five U.S. cities hosting the exhibit, and the prince is hoping to spread the message that Saudi Arabia is much more than oil. Visit his country, he said, and you’ll see “oil turning into” schools, universities and hospitals.
The exhibit, which opens to the public Friday, demonstrates that Arabia has a “very, very rich, deep history,” he said.
“A lot of the civilizations came and didn’t just cross. It was a place where people settled and created wealth and left a lot of wealth underground.”
Dressed in a navy business suit, the prince inquired about steak and the Chiefs, two topics close to Kansas Citians’ hearts. At one point, an aide attached to his lapel a pin of two tiny flags, U.S. on the left and Saudi Arabia on the right. (For TV interviews and Wednesday night’s ceremonies, he’d change into “national dress”: a flowing robe and head covering.)
And when informed of Kansas City’s own royal traditions, like the baseball team and the every-autumn horse show, the prince joked that he was “no relation” to those.
“I’ve heard a lot about this place, and I know this country very well,” said the prince, 57. “The thing I like most about being in the U.S. is really flying and traveling by myself, (with) a couple of friends. So I’m not always dressed up in a suit and surrounded by all kinds of people.”
He earned a degree in mass communications from the University of Denver and later a master’s degree in social and political science from Syracuse University in New York.
The prince, a former Royal Saudi Air Force pilot, has been in Kansas City before, for an aviation conference in the late 1970s. He also happens to have visited outer space. In 1985, at the age of 28, he represented Saudi Arabia on the space shuttle Discovery. One of its jobs was launching an Arab communications satellite.
Beyond what he learned as a pilot on the space shuttle, it was “a powerful visual experience.”
The prince was due to fly out immediately after Wednesday’s dinner at the Nelson, but next time he gets here, he hopes to explore the countryside: “I’m not much into big cities.”
He owns two farms, one that grows dates and about 20 kinds of fruits and vegetables, “even blackberries, in the middle of the desert.” Livestock? Only if Saluki hunting dogs count, which “myself and my small daughter are very much fond of.”
His other farm, up in the mountains, grows roses and cherries. The prince discovered that piece of land while piloting a glider.
He said he and his family live in an adobe house, small but modern, with fiber-optic Internet and air conditioning. “You couldn’t give me a palace big enough to change the way I live,” he said.
The Wednesday night dinner at the Nelson, for 300 dignitaries and museum patrons, was to include a speech by Prince Sultan. Parts of the evening were to be broadcast live online, particularly for the benefit of Saudi students studying at U.S. universities.
The dinner menu: salad, braised lamb with couscous, and almond cake with “rosewater macerated strawberries” and citrus cream. Each place setting contained four wine glasses: one for a syrup made from dates and pine nuts, plus a yogurt drink, apricot juice and water. There was to be no alcohol served at the head table.
Before dinner, gifts were exchanged among the prince, the museum, Mayor Sly James and exhibition sponsors. The Nelson, for example, presented Prince Sultan with a colorful beaded feather fan, “Horse Spirit,” it commissioned from American Indian artist Monty Claw.
“Roads of Arabia” begins in Paleolithic times, with stone tools and, perhaps most compelling to the Nelson’s curators, a stone artwork that may be the earliest depiction of a domesticated horse, from as early as 10,000 B.C. The exhibit also includes ancient tombstones, huge sculptures of kings, a bejeweled pendant and gilded treasures.
“In the exhibition, you will end up seeing this incredible history unfolding,” Prince Sultan said, “culminating in a nation that is very proud of its history.”Opening Friday
“Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” opens Friday and continues through July 6 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. Tickets cost $12 for adults, $10 for seniors over 55 and $6 for students with ID. Free to members and children under 12. For tickets, call 816-751-1278 or visitwww.nelson-atkins.org
Zahid Gishkori contributed to this report.
To reach Tim Engle, call816-234-4779 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @tim_engle. Zahid Gishkori on Twitter: @ZahidGishkori.