Reporter's Notebook: Second-Class in Saudi Arabia

Notebook: U.S. to sell bombs to country with poor women's rights record.


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 14, 2008 — -- The Bush administration announced Monday that it intended to sell 900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions -- or JDAMs those big, precise GPS-controlled bombs -- to Saudi Arabia, a country that won't even let me go to the hotel gym because I am a woman.

The announcement that the JDAMS would be added to a $20 billion weapons package for the region came at almost the precise time I walked into the Marriott hotel gym in Riyadh, to inquire how late it would be open.

A hotel, by the way, that is an American-owned Marriott.

"Sorry, ma'am, but ladies are not allowed in here," the man at the reception desk told me.

As you might imagine, this did not sit well with me.

I'm in Saudi Arabia covering the president's trip across the Middle East. After eight brutal days on the road, hopping from country to country, you need to grab a workout whenever you can.

So I offered what I thought was a reasonable compromise. Let the men work out for a few hours, then let the ladies work out.

"Let me check," the man at reception offered.

I knew it wouldn't happen, but I had to try. After a few minutes, I received the answer I expected. "Sorry, ma'am, but that is not possible."

Now, don't get me wrong.

I respect other cultures and am a seasoned traveler in the Mideast. I know in some places they separate women and men, hence my attempt at offering the compromise.

But this is the first time in decades I was made to feel like a second-class citizen, and it is not a pleasant feeling.

Of course, my experience of being turned away at the hotel gym pales in comparison to the suffering of many Saudi women. The country has an abysmal record when it comes to women's rights.

Recently, a woman who was gang raped was sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes by the Saudi legal system.

But I wondered how President Bush, a self-avowed exercise fanatic, would feel if he were turned away from a gym.

Bush has criticized the human rights record in Saudi Arabia, but judging from the fact that he is spending two days in the country versus only four hours in Egypt, the country remains very high on the president's BFF -- best friends forever -- list.

Perhaps the Saudi men on treadmills and exercise machines were pleased to hear the news that $123 million worth of so-called "smart" bombs would soon be in the hands of the Saudi government.

I don't know how Saudi women felt -- there weren't any around to ask.

ABC News' White House correspondent Martha Raddatz is on assignment in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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