Sometimes it takes a little plane ride halfway around the globe to put the world in perspective. And so it did this past January when I found myself having drinks on the patio of a Mexican restaurant overlooking a golf course on the far eastern edge of Saudi Arabia, home to the kingdom’s oil fields.
My host had taken me there for some quiet conversation when the desert sky suddenly gave way to the roar of jet fighter planes. In pairs they took off from a nearby military base, made a wide circle and returned to the runway, one pair after another.
It was just their regular training, my host assured me, and a raucous reminder that this famously wealthy Arab state ranks third in the world in military spending as a percent of its GDP. As we were recently reminded by the kingdom’s bombing raids to the south, Saudi Arabia is in a cold war with Iran that threatens to move Yemen’s localized troubles onto a much dicier geopolitical grid.
We have to work to convince the decision makers to realize that what they are doing is killing us.
Seven years ago, I might have been there to examine this Gulf state in the context of terrorism, because that’s what I was doing in 2008 for The New York Times: Snooping around in Arab states, taking the measure of militant jihadis and how the war on terrorism was fueling their ability to gather funds and recruit. Since then, however, I’ve been reporting on another war – one that tends to get overshadowed by violent conflict, but also one where human lives are still very much at stake. What brought me to Saudi Arabia now was another GDP stat. Where the kingdom’s guns ranked third globally, its spending on health care ranked sixty-seventh in a 2010 survey by the W.H.O. And that meager attention to public health, along with an influx of American-style processed foods and the kingdom’s own cultural ways, has predictably created a looming health crisis for the kingdom. As it is in so much of the world, obesity and diabetes are surging.
On this trip to Saudi Arabia, I attended a medical summit in Dammam where I gave not one, but two talks about my book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us and the food reporting I’ve been doing since the book was published in 2013.
The summit was full of surprises.
Alarmed by the health consequences of junk food and overeating, the meeting organizers were far from timid about criticizing their government. Rather, they spoke as openly and forcefully on these topics as anyone I’ve heard. Said one of the organizers to kick things off: “We have to work to convince the decision makers to realize that what they are doing is killing us.”
“We are what we eat, and we’ve been watching all those commercials on TV in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, advertising to children. It is not ethical to see unhealthy food claiming it is healthy. They can’t just hold up power drinks, energy drinks and say these are making people strong. This is scientifically wrong. There is no power in power drinks. Where is the responsible marketing? There are ethics in business.”
I was surprised, too, by the pomp and circumstance. The summit had the good fortune of being blessed by the region’s governor, HRH Prince Saud bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz al Saud, and I’ve included here a little video I took of his entrance into the hall.
But what really awed and humbled me were the university students attending the summit. The women, especially, have been battling for educational opportunities. And in a room off to the side of the conference hall a group of ten female students in full black veils set up a table to demonstrate their latest food project.
They had taken some of the now hugely popular American-style snack foods, and amended them graphically to show just how much salt, sugar, fat, and calories they contain. I’ve seen similar projects by students at schools from Rochester, NY to Greensboro, NC. But somehow, here on one of the world’s great geo fault lines, this line being drawn in the sand by students taking some personal risk was hugely impressive. Here is one of the photos I took, which I’m deeply honored to now use in my lectures and talks about junk food: