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Driving Princess Zaahira: One Woman’s Story

An intimate look inside a Saudi royal family

Like many Hollywood multi-hyphenates, actress, script developer and film producer Jayne Amelia Larson found herself on shaky financial ground several years ago. She needed to make money—fast. One night a friend sent a limousine to take her to a party, and Larson chatted with the chauffeur. He explained that he loved his job because while his clients would be off schmoozing and boozing, he’d sit outside in the car and read.

Larson secured a job at a limo company, but after a few months, she acknowledged that the gig was not working for her on any front. She was still broke, the hours were exhausting and driving kept her from going on auditions or developing movie projects. But then she heard coworkers talking about a wealthy foreign family coming to town in need of a crew of chauffeurs. Enticed by the rumors of $10,000 gratuities and gifts of gold watches, she interviewed for a spot and was hired. Here, adapted from her upcoming book, Driving the Saudis, is the story of one job she’ll never forget:

It was the middle of a warm summer evening at Los Angeles International Airport. I stood outside my car and behind me stretched a caravan of armored Benzes, Bentleys, Escalades, Navigators and scores more vehicles, each with its own driver. We were waiting to meet our high profile, highly devout Middle Eastern clients, and we were all on the alert for women in black robes and head coverings. As I watched one sexy group of ladies emerge from Bradley terminal, I wondered, Did a flight from Rio just land? Scantily clad in Versace, Gucci and Prada, with layers of perfect makeup and long, lustrous hair, they looked like a bunch of Brazilian hotties going nightclubbing.

I’d just been treated to my first glimpse of royalty—Saudi-style. I’d never met any royals before, so I was keen to know: Were they smarter than the rest of us? Prettier? Happier?

I was the lone woman driver in the regiment that would be transporting Princess Zaahira of Saudi Arabia and her entourage during their Los Angeles stay. [Note: The names of all of the Saudi clients and their identifying details have been changed.] The princess was traveling with several of her prince sons, her one princess daughter and assorted sisters, friends and cousins, and there were dozens of servants to wait on them all—maids, secretaries, nannies, tutors, trainers, cooks and doctors, even a psychiatrist, a masseuse and the royal hairdresser. There were about 40 people accompanying the family of 7.

The princess was in her late thirties. She had an open, smiling face with high, wide cheekbones and luminescent, flawless skin. All of her movements were measured and graceful. Maysam, one of her teenage servants, informed me that the princess was worshipped by her husband. I assumed it was because she was so beautiful, but I was told later it was because she’d given him seven sons. As a result, she was his favorite of his many wives.

What had brought her to Beverly Hills? Shopping, for one. Princess Zaahira went shopping almost every day, sometimes all day. It was endless. If it was true that the family flew in with $20 million in American currency, as rumored, then they ended up spending every penny. I knew they paid their hotel tab in cash—at least 50 rooms for seven weeks, including the presidential suite that cost $10,000 a night. Even the massive royal tea set had its own $500-a-day hotel room, with a balcony overlooking Beverly Hills—servants streamed in and out of this room at all hours preparing tea for the princess and her entourage.

On the shopping trips, Zaahira’s head servant was in charge of the cash and paid for everything in hundred dollar bills. None of the royals touched money, ever. If you were assigned to drive someone who was shopping with the princess, you had to follow in your car as they strolled up and down Rodeo Drive. The cars had to be close in case anyone wanted to be driven back to the hotel, which was two blocks away.

We’d be seven, eight or nine empty cars in a row crawling up the street, tailing the princess and her hangers-on as they stopped in every store, even if they had cleaned it out the day before. Occasionally, one of the servants would hurry over to the chauffeurs with bags and bags of Jimmy Choo shoes, or armloads of Christian Dior dresses, or Hermès Birkin crocodile bags in every color available. The booty was thrown into the back of a van that made periodic runs back to the hotel. I watched as every week, hundreds of huge crates were filled and shipped back to Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis wanted something, they bought it, then bought more, then bought more, then bought more. It was staggering.

Shopping seemed to be more than just a diversion or hobby for them—I saw that, perhaps, it was an act of empowerment. In Saudi Arabia, where the sexes are heavily segregated, many women send their male relatives or servants into shops since most businesses are traditionally owned and operated by men; strict adherents to Islam believe their religion discourages women to work outside the home. In Los Angeles, where there are so many female -run or -staffed establishments, the Saudi women could shop freely everywhere, and they did.

As the only female driver, I was frequently dispatched on personal errands. One day, Princess Zaahira’s secretary, Asra, summoned me and showed me a brassiere that the princess’s cousin Princess Basmah had purchased at Neiman Marcus and liked very much. It was a $500 delicately detailed scrap of satin and lace. Asra said Basmah wanted as many of that bra as I could find, in all of the colors available—pink, blue, black, nude, butterscotch and ivory—and she needed to have them by the following afternoon. It took me a full day of driving to all the luxury stores in a 200-mile radius to secure close to 60 bras. When I proudly showed Princess Basmah the lingerie I’d spent hours procuring, she dismissed me with a wave of her hand without even looking in the bags.

Another time, Princess Zaahira’s secretary ordered me to get 27 bottles of Hair Off cream depilatory. No other brand would do, and the 27 bottles were needed right away. On my way out of the hotel, one of the princess’ servants pinched my arm and begged me to hurry. “Yalla, Janni, yalla! The princesses, they need tonight, Janni, tonight, tonight, tonight! Yalla!”

I went to more than 20 stores. Most stocked only two or three bottles, so I had to drive all over L.A. County. Twelve hours later, I’d finally gathered the 27 precious bottles of depilatory. Once again, when I returned with my strenuously acquired bounty, the bags were tossed aside, forgotten.

I couldn’t help but wonder why the women didn’t just go in for laser hair-removal treatment and be done with it. After all, the other main reason the Saudi women had come to Beverly Hills, the mecca of medical enhancement, was for plastic surgery. If they weren’t shopping, they were in surgery. If they weren’t in surgery, they were shopping or enjoying refreshments at a restaurant between shopping and a minor procedure. Liposuction, tummy tucks, rhinoplasty, mammaplasty, eyelid lifting/stretching/cutting, even vaginal rejuvenation were surprisingly routine. An older member in the entourage, a prune of a woman whom everyone called Auntie, had full-on bodywork: face-lift, liposuction and breast augmentation, all in a few weeks’ time. For many of the women, this was standard operating procedure.

One afternoon I picked up Princess Zaahira’s friend Amsah after she’d had buttock augmentation. Amsah was a substantially endowed woman in her fifties. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she was escorted into the clinic waiting room in a wheelchair by a nurse who gave me instructions for her care and then scurried away. As we took the private elevator down to the parking garage, Amsah promptly nodded off.

“Amsah! Amsah! Wake up. C’mon Amsah, wake up!” I clapped my hands, but she didn’t stir. Shit, shit, shit, I thought. There’s no way I can get her into the car like this. She was at least 180 pounds

I saw several Saudi women exiting the garage elevators, including Sajidah, Amsah’s cousin.

“Sajidah? Could you speak to Amsah in Arabic, please? Tell her I can’t get her into the car unless she wakes up,” I pleaded.

“Do not interrupt. I am talking to my son in Washington,” she said, holding a cellphone to her ear. She didn’t seem at all put out that her cousin was out cold. Sajidah herself was walking stiffly and with great difficulty because she’d had a bunion removed the previous week; today she was also sporting a thick white chin strap, so it appeared she was getting work done top to bottom.

Amsah started to whimper and cry. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sure it hurts to sit down.”

Then she murmured something—it sounded like “ . . . the lovely bottom, yours such the lovely bottom.”

I wanted to be gracious but didn’t know how to reply, especially to that kind of compliment from a woman who’d just had balloons stuck in her butt cheeks.

Shukran [thank you], Amsah. Insha’Allah [if it is God’s will], hopefully your bottom will be as beautiful as mine soon too. Insha’Allah.”

Insha’Allah,” she moaned

I saw my window of opportunity, and I jumped through it: “Insha’Allah, Amsah. Right now, Amsah, Allah wants you to get in the car. I’m going to ask the valets to help us.” I ran over to them. They quickly encircled her and started to lift her, but it all went way wrong immediately—Amsah screamed in pain. I suppose the valets had never dealt with buttock implants.

Cuidado!” I yelled. “No toca el culo! Don’t touch the butt!”

Amsah screamed again and passed out. We finally moved her into the SUV after much struggling and crying. Sajidah rode to the hotel with us. As Amsah moaned and groaned in pain, Sajidah prayed to Allah, wailing and keening, begging for him to save her. I doubted it was Allah’s will for Amsah to have butt surgery, and I wished they’d both show a little self-restraint.

The royal who made the greatest impression on me was Soraya, Princess Zaahira’s lovely 17-year-old cousin. She looked nothing like the other Saudi girls who emulated the older women with their haute couture and heavy makeup. Soraya was slender with short black hair and dressed simply in a striped T-shirt, pressed jeans and clean white sneakers—reminding me of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

“Hello, driver,” she said. She spoke with a refined, slightly British accent. “My name is Soraya. It is a pleasure to meet you. I would like to visit the Krispy Kreme, please? And I would like to visit the beach, please. Thank you.” As I drove out of the hotel driveway, she tried to power down the window. It didn’t budge. She frowned and tried again. “Excuse me, please, driver? Will you unlock the window, please?”

The family’s security personnel had sternly ordered us to keep all the doors and windows locked at all times.

“I’m sorry, Soraya, but I was told . . . ” I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her beseeching expression. I unlocked the controls.

She beamed. “Thank you!” she said. Then she stuck her head out the window and smelled the air like a big puppy, smiling. I watched her in the mirrors as she slid from one side of the car to the other, looking out at the world passing by.

“You are so lucky. Do you like to drive? I would like to learn. I am sure I could learn.”

Then she looked down. “It is not possible for me to learn how to drive,” she said. “I must return home to my family soon. It is un avoidable.” She said unavoidable as if it were two separate words. Un Avoidable.

“I would like to stay here very much. I would like to study here. I have just come from a summer program at Berkeley. It has been wonderful. I have been so happy there and in San Francisco, because it is a great walking city, and this was new for me. I had a very pleasant time.”

“Your English is exceptional,” I said.

“I enjoy school very much. It does not seem like work to me. I wish that my father would permit me to stay for this year, but that is not possible. I have asked him many times, but he always says no.”

Soraya was quiet for a minute and then said, “I must return home. It is un avoidable.” As she spoke, she powered the window up and down. Up and down. Up and down. “All my family will celebrate. I will make my family very proud. It is un avoidable.” Then I heard her begin to cry softly.

I wasn’t sure what to do, and I didn’t want to intrude. I continued driving to the beach, and all the while I could hear her sob; it was the weeping sound of resignation, not indignation. When we could go no farther west, I stopped the car along the Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the ocean.

“Here we are at the beach, Soraya.”

She wiped away her tears with the back of a hand and looked out the window. “It is so clean,” she said. We were both quiet and watched the waves and the surfers in their black wetsuits silhouetted against the sun.

“They look cool, don’t they?” I said.

“Yes, they look cool,” she said. “Very cool.” Soraya looked out the window as she wiped her eyes again.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

She turned to catch my eyes in the mirror.

“I am to be married. My husband is waiting. He is a colleague of my father’s. I am to be his third wife. I was told he is very kind.”

“I see,” I said.

“So I am happy, I am very happy. I will make my family proud.”

Then we sat in silence for a little while more.

“Don’t you want to get out of the car?” I finally asked. She seemed surprised. “Oh, no, I will just look. Thank you.”

“Are you sure? Don’t you want to walk on the sand or put your toes in the water?”

“No, thank you. I will just look. Thank you.”

I drove Soraya around all afternoon. We stopped at a Krispy Kreme, where she asked me to run in and buy her several dozen donuts to share with her cousins back at the hotel. In Santa Monica, I doubled-parked near the promenade, and we ate quietly in the car as we watched and listened to crowds of chattering shoppers pass us by. We spent six hours together, and she never got out of the car. Not once. She just looked out the window as if memorizing everything.

I never saw Soraya again after that day, even though I repeatedly looked for her. I asked security and the servants, but no one could or would tell me anything. I presume she did return to her family and to the future that awaited her, and I hope that she is happy.

Adapted from Driving the Saudis by Jayne Amelia Larson. Copyright © 2012 by Jayne Amelia Larson. To be published by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc., on Oct. 13. Printed by permission.