secret_history (2006-26)

The Saudi Line

A memory of the summer we learned how to solve our problems

by Jack Neely

That summer I was working in the hot sun, tending to a line of people waiting to get into Saudi Arabia. In those days Saudi Arabia was just a little to the south of Korea, with its back to 11th Street. It was on its own, not clustered with anybody else like most of the other pavilions of the 1982 World’s Fair.

I was in crowd control, and had different assignments every morning. I tended to be assigned to attend the Saudi line on certain late mornings and early afternoons.

Each line in front of each pavilion was different from the others, and the Saudi line had its own peculiar personality. Theirs was just one of the plain pavilions of blue corrugated steel, without much to it, no live shows or anything—all I remember of what was inside was some sort of diagram about their oil production, a color portrait of King Fahd, who was crowned that summer, and a large model of Mecca, and that it was all very bright and clean. It was the first time Saudi Arabia had ever run an exhibit at an American fair.

It didn’t offer as much entertainment as the Japanese and Chinese and Australian exhibits did. Still the Saudi line would ebb and flow without obvious cause. It wouldn’t exist for much of the day, and sometimes I would notice a Saudi in his headdress looking lonesome at the door, waiting for customers. Then, suddenly, there’d be several hundred meaty Americans in shorts and T-shirts jamming to get in there, and we had to wade into the crowd in our red shirts and put them in neat lines, within white plastic chains. They got about 5,000 visits a day.

I knew representatives from all the nations that had pavilions at the fair. I knew a few of the Japanese, several of the Australians, some of the various Europeans, on first-name basis; they showed up at the Down Under Pub, where we’d drink tankards of Foster’s together, or at the Strohaus, or sometimes even outside the fence, at parties in Fort Sanders or in clubs on the Strip.

I never saw any of the Saudis at the Down Under. I felt sorry for them. No nationality seemed more out of place at the exposition. The whole point of the 1982 World’s Fair, after all, was to show ways to wean ourselves off the consumption of petroleum, and petroleum was poor Saudi Arabia’s only asset.

They seemed proud, in their native robes, with their big framed pictures of a desert king, but in 1982, they seemed like a relic of the distant past, and of the way Americans used to consume.

In the future—certainly by the end of the 20th century—we’d be using little or no petroleum for fuel. It was too costly, everyone agreed: more expensive than ever before, and only likely to get moreso, considering the finite world supply.

It was costly in terms of air pollution. Global warming was then a theory, something that scientists thought might happen in years to come. But even in the otherwise cheerful Official World’s Fair Guidebook, right after the greeting from Ronald Reagan, an introduction by Dr. E.G. Silver of ORNL warned of a looming meteorological catastrophe of “world climate change” in our near future if we didn’t change our ways quickly.

And oil was costly in foreign relations. By 1982 we knew Saddam Hussein was a bad man, as we’d known the Shah was a bad man. And even though they were cordial and smiled nicely in their portraits, we were pretty sure King Fahd and his heir apparent, Prince Abdullah, were not very nice guys, either. Certainly they had no interest in, nor respect for, American democracy. But America danced to their tunes, sent them money, and more money, and arms when they wanted them, because we needed their oil.

It would all be straightened out soon. All the other pavilions said so. We’d soon be using cleaner, renewable fuels. The Ford pavilion was showing off Alternative Fuel Vehicles powered by natural gas, methane, and propane; major production seemed imminent. The Filipinos had vehicles powered by alcogas and coconut-shell charcoal. The French had a truck that ran on wood. Ethanol was here, and electric cars; hydrogen-powered vehicles were just around the corner. A solar vehicle rolled around on the fair site, slowly.

But in the guidebook, Dr. Silver warned that in the short term, we needed to count mainly on conservation. The fair showed us lots of ways to save fuel. The Brits were proud of their Leyland Mini Metro, and France showed off a street-tested Renault that got over 91 miles to the gallon. 

With so many choices, the American consumer would find ways to use less gasoline so that we wouldn’t have to make all these dangerous deals with foreign cultures we don’t understand very well. He would make the right choices, even if they cost more and were a little less efficient than oil. The American consumer wasn’t a reckless, amoral dope, after all.

Look around, we said. It was 1982, and most of the people who still favored big cars with V8 engines were quaint old men who still wore hats and suspenders. We couldn’t expect old men to catch on to modern ways.

That was 24 years ago. And it was a funny thing. America’s consumption of oil didn’t decline. In fact, America’s consumption of oil increased, in the years after the 1982 World’s Fair-, by about 30 percent. Part of that’s population growth—but in spite of improvements in fuel-efficiency technology, in spite of state and federal investments in alternative transportation, in spite of presidential exhortations to conserve, even per-capita consumption of petroleum has increased. The average American is using more oil in 2006 than he did in 1982, when a World’s Fair showed us dozens of ways to use less.

And today it’s more dangerous than ever, in ways we didn’t even know about then; indications are that a significant percentage of the money we spend on gasoline is ending up in the hands of people who hate our civilization and want to kill us.

If the 1982 World’s Fair had offered a realistic vision of America’s near future, the Saudi Arabia pavilion wouldn’t have been the oddball among the exhibits of progressive nations. It would have been be the only one there.