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Saudi Arabia Partying: Elite, Boozy And Secret

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The DJ had the dance floor rocking. The bartender served up a special vodka punch. The host was a prince – complete with his own entourage.

An A-list LA party? Fashion week in Paris?

Try Saudi Arabia, home of roving Islamic morality police enforcing the most austere codes in the Middle East.

That's the insider account by a U.S. diplomat, whose night on the town in the Red Sea city of Jiddah (mission: to observe "social interaction" of rich Saudi youth) was summarized in a confidential memo released Wednesday by WikiLeaks.

"The underground nightlife of Jiddah's elite youth is thriving and throbbing," the memo said. "The full range of worldly temptations and vices are available – alcohol, drugs, sex – but all behind closed doors."

Wait, this is Saudi Arabia they are talking about? The place where women are banned from driving and can be jailed for socializing with men outside their family? The land whose brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, is perhaps best known in the West for beheadings and its role as somber guardian for the holy pilgrimage cities of Mecca and Medina?

To those unfamiliar with the undercurrents of the Middle East, it all could seem a bit hard to fathom. But the U.S. cable touches on a basic lesson for understanding the region: public mores and private passions can be very far apart. It's a bit like a cultural version of "don't ask, don't tell."

Wild parties rage behind closed doors in Tehran even as Iran's hard-liners tighten their grip. Conservative Gulf sheiks make sure their wine cellars are well stocked.

Outside Saudi Arabia, it's not unusual to see a traveler from the desert kingdom hunkered down at an airport bar or letting loose in Bahrain – a favorite party haunt for Saudis who can simply drive over a causeway and, sometimes, weave their way home.

"What one quickly realizes about the Middle East is that there are layers upon layers in society," said Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

But he does not believe that Saudi officials will face much fallout from the disclosure.

"There's certainly the potential for some embarrassment, but a closed society like Saudi is based on a series of social deals," he said. "It's really not in anyone's interest to call attention to these deals or try to tear them up."

Saudi government officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The American diplomat who wrote the January 2009 cable added just enough flourish to give the invitation to a Halloween party an intrepid feel. It's a look, he writes, "behind the facade of Wahhabi conservatism in the streets."

It begins by clearing the prince's security detail. Next up was a coat-check area where women pulled off their head-to-toe black abayas.

Inside, Filipino bartenders served up a cocktail punch using moonshine vodka. An American "energy drink company" – whose name was blacked out on the WikiLeaks release – helped bankroll the bash that included, the diplomat was told, some prostitutes mingling in the crowd.

"Not uncommon for such parties," the cable said.

"The scene resembled a nightclub anywhere outside the kingdom: plentiful alcohol, young couples dancing, a DJ at the turntables and everyone in costume," the message continued.

Bottles of name-brand booze were behind the bar, but apparently only for display. A black market bottle of Smirnoff, the cable said, can cost up to $400 "when available" compared with about $26 for a bottle of home-brewed vodka.

That appeared even too irresistible a savings for the well-connected host, a prince whose family ties go back six generations to dovetail with the lineage of Saudi King Abdullah, who is currently in New York recuperating after two back surgeries.

The prince's name was redacted from the cable posted by WikiLeaks. But it gave a sense of his privilege. "Although ... not in line for the throne, he still enjoys the perks of a mansion, luxury car, lifetime stipend and security entourage," the cable said.

It's apparently also enough political juice to keep the feared morality police at bay. Their power – always strong – has further increased in recent years as Saudi clerics and others push back harder against what's perceived as threatening liberal trends among the young.

The American cable said the religious police were "nowhere to be seen" near the party.

"Saudi youth get to enjoy relative social freedom and indulge fleshly pursuits," the cable said, "but only behind closed doors – and only the rich."

Wajeha al-Hawaidar, a Saudi activist who has been banned from writing or appearing on Saudi TV because of her support for women's rights, said the private, Western-style indulgences are "well known outside and inside Saudi Arabia."

"When you put much pressure on a society, people will still go on with their life," she said. "We are not rocks. We are human beings."

___

Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.

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