A 28-year-old U.S.-educated prince with a taste for fast airplanes and American slang has become a folk hero in a country short on contemporary idols for its youth.
Last June, Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn Abdulaziz, nephew of King Fahd, joined a crew of astronauts aboard the U.S. space shuttle Discovery, becoming the first Arab in space.
Since then, the prince, who toured the country last week with his fellow crewmen, has been touted as a national hero. Six months after the discovery flight, Saudi youngsters still flock to his public appearances, and schoolchildren compete in art contests depicting his mission.
Hailed in Arab World
Newspapers, television and radio not only in Saudi Arabia but in other Islamic countries, proudly hail Sultan as "the first Arab Muslim astronaut," whose achievement shows that there is more to Saudi Arabia than oil wells, camels and endless wastes of sand.
"There were a few complaints by some cynical, perhaps more sophisticated, Saudis that all this hoopla wasn't deserved," said one Westerner who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "But from the standpoint of the Saudi masses, particularly the young, it's had a great impact to have a Saudi hero, the first Muslim Arab astronaut."
Four Saudi university professors agreed that the prince's mission had inspired their students to accomplish more in life than make money.
'Maybe I Have a Chance'
"After Prince Sultan's mission, all the students wanted to become astronauts," said one professor. "It didn't matter if they were studying English or business or science. They all said, 'Maybe I have a chance, too.' "
One Westerner who knows the country well said the prince filled a need for modern heroes in a fast-changing society whose traditional idols--desert warriors and poets--seem part of an increasingly distant past.
"In the major developed countries, you find heroes in all sorts of fields," he said. "But not in this society. Except for a few football (soccer) players, the Saudis don't have many heroes in their recent history."
The accomplishment also underscored the vast changes that oil wealth has brought in the short time since Sultan's grandfather, King Saud, united this desert land early in the century in a series of military campaigns often conducted on camels.
As a folk hero, Prince Sultan, a graduate of the University of Denver, fits the Saudi ideal for his role well. In public appearances, the young prince displays a quiet dignity that Saudi customs demand. At over six feet, he stands taller than most of his countrymen.
In a staunchly religious society, he freely tells interviewers that he sees no conflict between science and his Islamic faith.
During the Discovery mission, the prince prayed five times a day as his religion requires, while also helping launch a modern communications satellite to link Arab countries and photographing Saudi territory for geological research.
Aside from his personal qualities and family connection, the prince is a qualified jet pilot with more than 1,000 hours flying experience.
Like space veterans of other countries, Prince Sultan complains that the public acclaim here has put more demand on his time "than I ever expected or wanted."
"But I think I have to be always willing to oblige these demands because I think it's my responsibility to be always there when I'm called for," he said.
Prince Sultan said the Discovery mission had been important to Saudi Arabia because of the opportunity it gave Saudi scientists to work with more experienced Americans in planning and carrying out experiments in space.
"A large number of our own scientists had the opportunity to go into these great organizations to work very closely with the people there," he said. "In the future, we hope to be involved in much more expanded and elaborate experiments in space. . . . I think Saudi Arabia in the future will be seriously and genuinely interested in participating in future space programs."
U.S. Navy Capt. Daniel C. Brandenstein, commander on Sultan's shuttle mission, described the prince as a fast learner and a "very enthusiastic member of the crew."
"His enthusiasm made it easy to integrate into the crew," Brandenstein said at the end of the crew's tour. "His interest in flying was very evident."
Would the prince be willing to fly in the space shuttle again?
"Definitely," he replied. "I'll take any mission that comes along, but I think I'll have to stand in the back of the line now and wait my chance for a few more years to come."