With students at Chinese colleges accused this month of conducting cyber attacks on US businesses in and outside China, plus the alleged Mossad involvement in the assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai, I’m reminded of Paul Ulrich’s spy thriller Saudi Match Point, in which Chinese and American spies compete to seize control of the Saudi oilfields. An excerpt below.
“WAIT A MOMENT, MUSTAPHA. Pull over.” Nick instructed the driver to bring the consulate’s vehicle next to a beat-up car with its hood propped open and a man in Indian dress bent over the engine, peering inside. Nick had noticed the same broken-down sedan on the roadside of Dhahran twenty minutes before while en route to the commissary.
“Can we give you a lift?” Nick called out.
A bedraggled man straightened himself and wiped the sweat from his face with a dirty sleeve. “Thank you, that is most kind, good sir, but I do not wish to leave my car. I think the battery has died.”
“Hold on, we’ll help you jump start it.”
First, at Mustapha’s suggestion, they tried the easy way, seating the man behind the wheel, shifting the car to neutral, and pushing. But the engine still failed to turn over and catch. They then opened the back of the consulate’s vehicle to fish out some cables for a jump start. As Mustapha and the stranded driver began attaching them, with Nick looking on, a second SUV pulled up.
“Nick, what are you doing in this heat?” It was Ma Ling, unveiled, in the front passenger seat. “Get in. We’ll give you a ride.”
“I’m trying to help out this fellow. . . .”
“Your driver seems able to handle it. You haven’t forgotten our game, have you?”
“No, Mustapha was going to drop me at the club. I suppose your taking me will save time and leave him with one less thing to worry about.”
Nick grabbed his bag, climbed into the back seat behind Ma Ling, and gave his driver some final instructions. “If the cables don’t do the trick, please stop at the nearest service station and have them send a tow truck for this guy.” Mustapha did not reply but cast a bemused look at Ma Ling and back at Nick.
As they pulled away, Nick asked, “Ma Ling, don’t you think this might seem improper?”
Ma Ling turned with her elbow propped on the front seat. “Oh, you are an old ninny, Mr. Hansen. I always sit up front. We Chinese are egalitarians.”
“Not just that. I mean, driving with an unrelated man…”
“Who? You or Mr. Huang?” she said, looking at her driver who was decked out in a tan cap, matching gloves, and loose-fitting Mao-style jacket. “That is one of the local inconsistencies, isn’t it? If the religious police found me alone with you—a non-related man—they could take me away to be whipped as a prostitute. But I’m not allowed to drive, so must have this unrelated man take me all over town. Of course, with Huang Lei, no one would dare insult me in such a fashion. Please introduce yourself. He’ll be amazed to hear you speak Chinese.”
Nick greeted the silent driver, whose broad bulk and close-cropped, gray hair reminded him of a calmer Ambassador Gewalt. Huang’s face lit up in a big smile. He looked at Nick in the mirror and replied in a deep voice that Nick couldn’t understand. Ma Ling translated. “His accent is very strong, so you won’t catch much of what he says, but he follows you perfectly.”
Nick said, “If it weren’t for that driving outfit, I’d think he might be a bodyguard.”
“And you’d be right! Oh, you are clever!” Ma Ling laughed. “I tell Huang the gloves are a bit much, but he is too vain about the scars on his hands.”
“I’ll have to be more careful around you.”
“Before my husband left, he would often drive me when I needed to go out, but Huang has been a good companion since then.”
“I didn’t realize you were married…”
“Divorced and, fortunately, there are no children to fight over. We came out here three years ago as employees of China Oil and I became liaison to Saudi Oil, but there was little for my husband Ruan to do.”
Nick tried to imagine what Ruan was like. He must have had his hands full with this one.
Ma Ling continued. “He is a Party member and did some work for the embassy in Riyadh, but I think resented my getting on better than he could. I guess my being Muslim and knowing Arabic helped. Or could it be my vivacious personality?” She turned around and winked at Nick.
“So you’re not in the Party? Isn’t that the way to get ahead?” Nick asked.
“Certainly, but to be in the Communist Party, you must be an atheist. That is incompatible with my religion. Even though I’m not devout, it wouldn’t be right. But like the other Hui, I support my country and will fight for it.” She clenched her tiny fists to make the point and shadow boxed with Huang’s large shoulder. “Did you know that one of the five stars on China’s flag stands for us Hui?”
“But it’s still one of the four smaller ones, right?”
“Yes, but unlike the other Chinese Muslims—the Uighurs—we do not harbor terrorists and we look Chinese, so the government trusts us.”
Nick nodded. “I doubt I would ever see any Uighurs posted here. Your embassy would assume they would be scheming with al-Qaeda. The last thing you need is to turn Xinjiang into a Chinese Chechnya.”
“Actually, I grew up in Xinjiang and have many friends who are Uighur. There are only a few bad pears—or what you call—‘apples.’ ”
“So you must be a natural for this place. Oil fields and deserts are nothing new to you. Tell me, how does China view the U.S. in the Middle East?”
“The same way I view you—warily.” Ma Ling laughed. Then turning serious again, she said, “Although we keep our heads down, we are a proud people. You know, the West humiliated us for centuries.” She glanced at Huang. “But now, like a sleeping giant, we will one day stand up and challenge America.”
Nick took this comment as an idle boast, borne of feelings of insecurity, and thought of his stay in Beijing in 1999 as an exchange student. Then, the U.S. bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy had led to government-organized street protests that subsequently fizzled. What if something similar happened now? Despite aggressive U.S. policies in recent years, neither side could afford to rattle its sabers any more.
The two fell silent as the car reached the Saudi Oil club. John, Fatima, and Ahmad were already suited up and waiting for them. Approaching from behind, Nick overheard Fatima chatting with John: “When I first told Ahmad I wanted to play tennis here, he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. What you and Faisal do in the U.S. is your business, but when Father is away, I am responsible. Let me consult the Koran to see what it says about games with sticks.’ ”
“I was joking!” Ahmad protested. Then turning and seeing Nick, followed by Ma Ling, Ahmad waved at Ma Ling and shook Nick’s hand in both of his. “Mr. Nicholas. Good to see you again. I came with Fatima.”
Nick grinned at them and said, “Yes, it’s a good idea for Fatima to have a chaperone, particularly with John present.”
Kaddish parried the barb. “Now, now, boy. Ahmad and I go way back at Saudi Oil—don’t we, mate? We’re both propeller heads—technical nerds, that is,” he explained to Ma Ling’s puzzled expression. “Although this is the first time he has introduced me to his sister, or even told me he had one.”
“Well, John, your reputation preceded you.” Ahmad laughed.
Fatima kept John on the defensive. “And I was safely hidden in the U.S. for much of that time.”
Kaddish turned to Nick to deflect the ribbing. “And you are escorting…?”
Nick introduced John to Ma Ling, who gave a mock curtsy to his exaggerated bow. All five then walked to the courts, Ahmad climbed into the referee’s chair and said, “Now someone tell me how to keep score.”
John called across the net, “Nick, shall we go for the usual thirty-point spot per game?”
“Let’s see how the rallies go.”
In the milliseconds that enabled him to rate another player by the swing of the first stroke, Nick noticed that Fatima had the graceful motion of someone naturally gifted as a late learner or brought up from childhood with lessons. He suspected the former to be the case. Ma Ling, on the other hand, hacked at the b