After more than a decade of working in Hollywood, actress Jayne Amelia Larson found herself out of luck, out of work, and out of prospects.
When she got hired to drive for the Saudi royal family vacationing in Beverly Hills, Larson thought she’d been handed the golden ticket. She’d heard stories of the Saudis bestowing $20,000 tips and Rolex watches on their drivers, but when the family arrived at LAX with twenty million dollars in cash, Larson realized that she might be in for the ride of her life.
With awestruck humor and deep compassion, Larson shares the incredible insights she gained as the lone female in a detail of more than forty chauffeurs assigned to drive a beautiful Saudi princess, her family, and their extensive entourage.
At its heart, this is an upstairs-downstairs, true-to-life fable for our global times; a story about the corruption that nearly infinite wealth causes, and about what we all do for money. Equal parts funny, surprising, and insightful, Driving the Saudis provides both entertainment and sharp social commentary on one of the world’s most secretive families.
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Driving the Saudis
The drivers were sent to pick up the family and the entourage in the middle of the night. No one was there. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was hushed, practically shut down. I’d been there dozens of times before, but I’d never seen it like that; it was spooky. Even the light seemed different, as if all the exterior fixtures had been gelled and dimmed to create an ominous orange haze.
Everything was quiet but I was not. I was way revved up, like a Ferrari at a race start. I felt as if I was in the middle of a $100 million movie set filming an international thriller. Just as on a movie set, our instructions had been minimal and information was scarce, as well as constantly changing. Everybody was silent as if cameras were rolling, but this wasn’t a film shoot. This was real.
The head security officer said the Saudi royal family wanted their arrival at the airport to be low key, but we had pulled into the airport with at least forty vehicles—Lincoln Navigators, Cadillac Escalades, Porsche Cayennes, bulletproof armored Mercedes-Benz S600s (the big boys), and even a couple of $300,000 Bentleys—all black, with full-on black tinted windows, and we snaked through the horseshoe-shaped airport in a tight convoy as if we owned the place. I’d never driven before in a caravan of so many cars and it was forceful. We had several LAX police escorts, but they didn’t have their bubbles flashing. Even so, we were not low key. We were impressive.
Fausto, the lead driver, waved at us to park along the curb, put our flashers on, and wait. Our windows were open and I could see that many of the other drivers looked as nervous as I felt, their foreheads glistening with beads of perspiration. Our eyes darted about maniacally, trying to follow the torrent of commotion around us; every now and then a driver would wipe sweat off his brow or pull at his collar.
We drivers were told that the Saudi consul and his staff were in attendance to usher the passengers through customs. Since no one spoke to us, we had no idea who was who, but I presumed that the group of men in sharp suits, talking in low tones among themselves just ahead of the convoy at the entrance to the Bradley International Terminal, were from the consul’s office. A cadre of serious-looking Saudi Army officers in khakis came out first and conferred with the consulate staff assigned to greet the family. Several linebacker-sized men in civvies strutted about, stepping away from the gathered men to bark instructions on Nextel radios.
As I looked down our line of sedans, SUVs, and luxury vehicles, my eyes tracked the large assembly of black-suited drivers and armed security personnel attending the family. I was the only woman.
We had started work at noon and then waited around for several hours for the cars to be made available from various Beverly Hills rental agencies. We then made sure they were carefully detailed, inside and out, and provisioned with water—Fiji water only—and assorted snacks and goodies that the Saudis might request. Some of us had a prior list of what we should be buying for the family member we’d be driving, such as Mentos or Ritz crackers, but we had all stocked up on breath mints and tissues.
Most of us had been working nonstop all day prepping the cars and running errands for the family’s security; it didn’t look as if we’d be getting a meal break anytime soon, and it was now late evening. I hadn’t eaten anything since the morning, and hopped-up nerves had made my throat sandy from thirst. I had stocked my car with the required designer water, placing the pint-sized bottles in each of the cup holders and several more in the pockets behind the front seats along with crisp current copies of LA Confidential, 90210, and Angeleno magazines. When I saw that most of the other drivers had gotten out of their cars and were making cell phone calls, tugging at their pants, and lighting cigarettes, I retrieved one of the extra bottles from the trunk of my car and choked down a few sips of the fancy water. It was hot, car hot. It tasted like it could be LA River water. I made a mental note to start carrying an iced cooler in the trunk as I’d seen other drivers do.
My stomach churned from hunger. I took another sip of the car-hot water and popped a few Altoids.
I’d never met any members of a royal family before, so I was keen to know what they might be like and to see if they were really all that different from me. Were they smarter? Were they prettier? Were they happier? Would they like me?
It was an unusually warm July evening, and by this time we had been waiting several hours for the family to arrive. I felt as if I was burning up and clammy at the same time. I had so wanted to make a good impression on the royals, and now that seemed lost for good. As I picked up the acrid scent of wet wool wafting up from the inside of my jacket, it was apparent that the eau de toilette I had spritzed on in the morning was now gone, long gone. I had chewed all my lipstick off hours ago, my feet were pink and screaming in the stiff new stacked heels I had just bought for the job, and the silk lining of my black suit was sticking to me like a wet bathing suit. I wriggled around and shook out my legs. I felt like a snake trying to shed its old skin. Every now and then I’d surreptitiously pluck at my suit to put some air between my skin and the lining. I hoped no one noticed.
The drivers had been told to wear black suits to the airport but thereafter could dress in more casual clothes. I was instructed to make sure that my arms and legs were completely covered at all times and that my neckline was never low cut or revealing, but the male drivers could dress more freely and were permitted to wear polo shirts and shorts. I did not have to cover my hair. I was relieved when I was told that; I have copious amounts of curly dark-blond hair, and wrestling it into some kind of contained state can be something akin to an extreme sport, especially in the blazing California summer weather, when it’s particularly unruly. Fingers, toes, even a champagne cork or two have been known to get stuck in it. Tearing a rotator cuff trying to get it under control after a wild night is not out of the question.
The family had actually arrived a short while before at a fixed base operation (FBO), a half-mile south of LAX, in their private plane. FBO is aviation parlance for a private airport. If you’re Oprah in her Gulf-stream G500 that seats eight, then you land at one of the FBOs operating out of the cozy Santa Monica private airport 10 miles north up the road. If you’re John Travolta in his Boeing 707, or a head of state, or members of the Saudi royal family, then you must land at FBOs such as the ones near LAX, where the big jet planes come in on the 2- and 3-mile-long runways that can accommodate them. Jets cover a lot of distance taking off and even more on landing.
I’d been inside this FBO’s plush reception area before on several past jobs when waiting for clients. It was a first-class lounge, and I knew it offered warm saucer-sized chocolate chip cookies, cool drinks, and refreshing ionized conditioned air, but it was off-limits on this pickup. Clearly no one wanted us to be comfortable.
All the drivers had waited in the heavily secured FBO parking lot lined up at attention and watched through a 16-foot-high chain-link and barbed-wired fence as the Saudi royal family’s plane descended. The jet’s tail had the distinctive gold and blue logo—crossed scimitars above a date palm tree—that I knew to belong to Saudi Arabian Airlines, owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Just as the jet’s engines shut down, several luxury coach buses pulled up and parked at the base of the air stairs truck on the tarmac. The passengers exiting the plane piled in them and then drove off across the airport tarmac in the direction of the Bradley International Terminal at LAX within view of us one-half mile northwest of the FBO.
We drivers looked at each other in confusion, then we looked around for Fausto to tell us what to do but he had disappeared with the family in the first coach. We didn’t know whether we should wait or follow him and the passengers to the Bradley Terminal via surface streets. We thought that we’d be picking up the Saudis at the FBO and driving them back to the hotel, but they had taken off in the buses instead of in our cars. No one had said that this might be a possibility. We had no idea what to do.
After a few tense moments, one of the royal family’s security personnel shouted at us to get moving. We jumped in our cars and took off, jockeying to get in position to exit as quickly as we could, but we didn’t know where we were supposed to go. Just as we were leaving the gated parking lot, another security guy pulled us back. “No! Wait here! Stay in your cars! Just be ready!” he said. So we waited, engines running. Several of the first cars out had to be tracked down and brought back in line. Everyone was rattled.
Ten minutes later we were told to get on the move again and then abruptly stopped a second time. Now we were totally confused. We were supposed to be a smooth, efficient, and highly professional group, but this pickup was completely disorganized and chaotic; it was a mess. I chewed at a hangnail on my thumb until it bled and then sat on my hands to stop the carnage. I haven’t chewed on my nails since I was nine, and I didn’t want to start again.
I come from a big family—my immediate circle includes ten children, fifteen grandchildren, with perhaps more on the way, and two great-grandchildren with the statistical probability of at least ten more—and I am accustomed to chaos. Thanksgiving is bedlam, Christmas is pandemonium, weddings are free-for-alls and funerals are a bust, especially if there’s a dispute about how or where cremated ashes are to be scattered. I grew up in a cacophony of passionate voices demanding this, commandeering that, negotiating whatever and everything—all at top volume and top speed, often in the middle of the night and through the night. One of my brothers built a 16-foot canoe by hand in his bedroom when he was sixteen, realized it wouldn’t fit through the door, hauled it out the window after removing the window frame, and then had the balls to take it down the Raritan River in New Jersey—so I’ve had a deep and lasting relationship with chaos. Even so, this was unsettling.
Finally, I released my hands and called my chauffeur friend Sami on my cell phone. He was driving one of the Lincoln Navigators in the line ahead of me. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“They’re going through customs at Bradley,” he said. “It never takes long.”
“Are you kidding? That could take hours,” I said.
“Not for them, chica,” he said.
Just then, another security guy came tearing out of the FBO waving his arms frantically like a semaphore signalman on an acid trip. “Go! Go! Go to Bradley!” he yelled. After a few unsure moments, we gunned our cars and raced to LAX up the road.
Table of Contents
1 The $100 Million Pickup 1
2 How Did I Get Here? 7
3 I'm Part of a Special Op! 24
4 Where Are the Veils? 33
5 Palace Intrigue 39
6 The Spirit of Partnership 45
7 How Many Hermès Are Too Many? 57
8 I Will Survive! 63
9 Who Are These People? 70
10 Shoot the Go-To Girl 77
11 Like a Hijab in the Wind 83
12 The Real Housewives of Riyadh 100
13 Un-Avoidable 107
14 Kill Me but Make Me Beautiful! 112
15 Alhamdulillah 118
16 Beach Prayer 130
17 Shame Is a Very Personal Thing 137
18 "Yes, Janni. We Know This, Janni." 145
19 The Cool Driver Doesn't Lose Her Nose 149
20 The Lockbox 159
21 You Can Never Really Know a Person 165
22 Go, Nanny, Go! Run for Your Life! 171
23 How Many Bras Are Too Many? 176
24 My Big Fat Envelope 184
25 The $300 Million Getaway 187
What People are Saying About This
"Jayne Amelia Larson spent seven weeks with the .001% and returned with an astonishingly rich story to tell. Honest, compassionate, and deeply entertaining, Driving the Saudis is the story of a woman trying to support her dreams, make a few bucks, and keep a gaggle of pampered princesses happy without losing her mind (or her perspective) in the process." –Suzanne Morrison, author of Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment
“Driving the Saudis is an entertaining, fast-paced read. As someone who has traveled with the Saudi royal family, I can confirm that Jayne Larson provides an amazingly accurate account. So if you want to take a ride with royalty without leaving the comfort of home, read this book.” Jean Sasson, New York Times bestselling author Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia
"Unlike most snappy memoirs about working as a temporary chauffeur for some of the richest people in the world, Driving the Saudis not only contains hilarious detail and horrifying excesses, but also serious social insight and moments of pure heartbreak. In her compulsively readable story, Larson has created memorable portraits of two cultures: theirs and ours." —Jim Krusoe, Parsifal
"A stolen glimpse into the world's most important and intriguing family. A wonderful book, wonderfully written." Robert Baer, author of New York Times bestselling Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude and The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story
"The engaging memoir of a struggling Hollywood actress/producer's experiences working as the chauffeur for the women of the Saudi royal family...Sharp-eyed and humane." Kirkus Reviews
"Larson reveals herself to be an articulate, observant writer. She balances colorful tales of excess and musings on women's roles, and accounts of bad behavior with considerations of the reasons behind it... [a] thoroughly enjoyable read." Publisher's Weekly
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I expected to read much more about the Saudi family and much less about how the author was "almost famous". Most of the story is about how she was so talented and ended up as a chauffeur. Ug
The book title, which includes "Tale", suggests some gossipy information, in my humble opinion. This was a story that chased it's tail. I found it a difficult read as the story was very unorganized. The author wrote quite a bit about Saudi history. I don't know what else to say, I felt defrauded upon trying to read this book. I have never, ever felt so strongly the need to pre-warn readers my opinion about a book.
A sensitive and beautifully written account of an experience unknown to many that bridges a vast cultural gap in a most unexpected way.
It’s been hard to find good books lately. The kind that I sit down and devour right there and then until it’s over. But from time to time I get lucky. “Driving the Saudis” by Jayne Amelia Larson is one of those books. It tells the story of an educated woman that becomes a chauffeur in Los Angeles to make ends meet between creative projects. That’s how she got to drive the Saudi Arabia Royal family during their lavish vacation in the City of Angels. Why Los Angeles I wondered? To shop and visit some of the best plastic surgeons in the world. And for what I ask myself? When they’re in Saudi Arabia they have to be covered up to the eyes, no one sees them, much less the beautiful items they buy by the millions of dollars and are hidden under the chadors. What’s the purpose? But no matter the culture or country, women always want to look good, even if it’s only for themselves. The Saudi princesses also shop because there are not that many activities that they can do and are able to choose for themselves. Everything is chosen for them since birth. But these princesses are not easy to please. They have more demands than the Kardashians and have several servants that follow them around attending to their every need. Upsetting them will cost anyone their job but abiding to their antics sometimes is almost impossible. Jayne Amelia, the always ready chauffeur and writer of the book becomes a superstar and overachiever, procuring over 50 bras all over Los Angeles and finding successfully every weird item that they demand pleasing the ladies and making sure the royal tip that the Saudi’s are famous for would be handsome at the end of their stay. The book also let us see the hard reality behind their lavish lifestyle. These women are trapped and dominated by a male supremacy, first their fathers and then their husbands. Their worth depends on how many male children they can give birth to. They’re not able to drive (Saudi Arabia is the only country that prohibits women from driving) get education, medical procedures or even go for a swim without male supervision and permission. This is an extremely entertaining book that gives a glimpse of a life so foreign to us. It’s entertaining and heartfelt. And the fact that is a true story makes even more attractive. It also let us see that one can own all the money in the world and it doesn’t mean anything. It can’t buy free will or love. Pick it up and read it. It will make your day.
I thought this book was both entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. Getting a glimpse into the lives of the very rich Saudi royals is intriguing. But I also found myself asking "what would I do," if I were in the author's shoes. What would I say? And that's really the value of the book—to ride along with Larson and have to reflect on our own culpabilities and compromises.
Driving the Saudis is not great literature and none of the characters are well developed with the possible exception of the narrator who is the main character. It is fun to read and it is fairly short. It touches lightly on some big ideas related to gender inequality and thus provides some food for thought.
I laughed out loud many times and really enjoyed this book. It is well written, engaging, moving and thought provoking. Driving the Saudis invites you into a world rarely seen by outsiders. I highly recommend this delightful book.
Ms. Larsen intertwines the tale of her experience as chauffeur to the Saudi Royal family with snippets from her own life and throws in some Middle Eastern history for good measure. This is done in a delightful, easy to read format that is both funny and poignant. There are lessons to be learned and the irony of women who spend a virtual fortune on couture and surgical enhancements yet must be covered in their homeland. This book is a splendid gift idea.
Elegantly written and an easy read about a difficult subject. Offers an unusual blend of humor, social commentary, wit and compassion.
A very thoughtful and interesting read!