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In Saudi Arabia, Nowhere to Go but the Palace of the Orient,
an Ultra-luxury Hotel Matching Dubai's Burj al Arab
By Jim Landers, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 1, 2008 --JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- The Qasr al-Sharq (Palace of the Orient) is a boutique hotel for the billionaire, with 46 suites of Arabian splendor overlooking the gentle waves of the Red Sea.

The Palace Suite goes for $13,500 a night and features 11,480 square feet of living area, with two master bedroom suites (king and queen, with separate locks), a dining room and kitchen, offices, a grand meeting room, a wardrobe room, a sauna and two fitness rooms.

Other suites range from $1,350 a night ("for the bodyguards, executive assistants and nannies," explains head butler Ravi Shankar) to $9,500 a night for a Royal Suite, half the size of the Palace Suite.

Guests of the hotel get the use of the VIP arrival lounge at the Jeddah airport. A Mercedes S-class or BMW 7-Series chauffeured limousine whisks you past the new marbled mega-malls of the coastal highway to an entrance beneath a waterfall running the length of the hotel.

Beyond the etched glass doors, a Swarovski chandelier with 600,000 crystals dominates the lobby's three-story circular staircase. There are 130 pounds of gold leaf applied throughout the hotel, 600-thread-count sheets with gold embroidery on all the beds, and 220 staff -- including a butler for each suite.

There seems to be a need for extravagant hotels renting for exorbitant prices among the Arab oil-producing countries. Dubai has its sail-shaped Burj al Arab, which opened in 1999 as the first to assert a rating of seven stars.

Next to open was the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, a massive, gilded wedding cake hotel where housekeepers move through the long, long halls on golf carts.

The Palace of the Orient opened in 2006 as the third of these seven-star pretenders. (A fourth has opened in Milan, Italy, where the elite suite goes for about $15,000 a night.)

There is something plaintive about these ultra-expensive hotels. None of these extravagant facilities makes it onto Travel and Leisure magazine's list of the top 100 hotels -- because none of these are top destinations.

The breathtaking views of these Arabian palaces are largely found in the lobby. The National Park Service will host you for a more unforgettable experience in the lodges of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Glacier national parks. Safari lodges in South Africa have luxury within and spectacle without.

A khaki armored car with a helmeted soldier manning a machine gun stands sentinel at the Palace of the Orient. It's a stark reminder that al-Qaeda roams Saudi Arabia.

Foreign tourists come to Jeddah for two reasons -- business and pilgrimage. The Palace of the Orient, which is managed as one of Hilton International's Waldorf-Astoria Collection properties, bends over backward to accommodate both.

Religious guides are available to escort hotel guests to Mecca and Medina. And guests are provided laptop computers, personal fax lines and practically anything else they need in their rooms to conduct business.

"We bring the business center to the room," said Palace manager Thomas Huber.

Many of the guests at the Palace are Saudi families who come to Jeddah on royal court business (King Abdullah spends much of the summer at his own palace down the road) or for vacation breaks.

The Palace allows Saudis to enjoy luxury discreetly. Fashion boutiques will bring their merchandise to the hotel for guests to view.

There is a penthouse spa for women.

Saudi Arabia is trying to develop a tourism industry because it generates jobs and diversifies the economy.

But this will be an uphill effort.

The weather is witheringly hot. Saudi Arabia is a puritanical country without many of the indulgences available to a vacationer elsewhere. And there is lots of gender segregation and sex discrimination.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Dallas Morning News

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