Corin Dann: 'Grip and grins' and princely encounters in Saudi Arabia

It's very unusual for Western journalists to get into Saudi Arabia. It's a conservative, insular nation that adheres strictly to Islamic law.

So here's a brief rundown of what I noticed.

The first thing to hit you was all the gold. At the VIP airport everything seems to be lined and covered with it. The bling is full on.

The contrast with the land outside the airport is stark: barren desert and rubble as far as the eye can see. But not beautiful desert with palm trees. More like a rocky Mars wasteland. There is no green, no water to been seen.

After half an hour of driving, we near the centre of Riyadh and our hotel.

Traffic is busy like most big cities. The cars are modern. Not many people walk anywhere - it's too hot. 40 degrees. Still cool for the locals. There aren't many women to be seen.

Security is tight at the hotel, with a massive iron gate and barricades. Terrorism is clearly still a threat in this region.

Our camera ops have gone with the Prime Minister's motorcade to film what we call in the business the 'grip and grin'. The meeting of the two leaders. It's the stock shot of these trips. It lasts only a few minutes and there is usually some casual banter. Then they whisk you out.

Not much is said in Saudi. In Abu Dhabi, they talked about the Wellington weather being terrible. Fair enough. I moan about that all the time too.

There have been lots of grip and grins on this trip.

The Saudi version of the grip and grin is interesting as it often involves both leaders being served a number of rounds of special tea in tiny cups almost like shot glasses. We also got to try it. It's thick and aromatic, smells of cardamom or cloves.

While the camera guys are busy we head to the mall. It's crazy. On the face of it, it looks like any other mall. However the vibe is very different.

The one we visit is supposedly a progressive one. There are a few women working which is not that common. Most women don't work. They certainty aren't allowed to drive.

They are fully covered up with the traditional abaya.

But what's really weird is the food court. There is a section for single males, and a section for families where the women sit. I made the mistake of sitting in the families section and was asked to move.

All the women must sit in the family section. Women in Saudi can't be seen with a man other than their husband. Expats are known to carry marriage certificates with them to prove who they are married to.

The food court has all the usual stuff - McDonald's and Chinese joints. But they have two queuing areas at each outlet: one for women and one for men.

At the Body Shop down the way, there is also a sign saying families only. In other words no single men can enter the shop.

From the mall, we go to the weirdest media conference/bi-lateral you have ever seen.

John Key is to meet with Prince Al-Waleed, a $24 billion man who has investments all over the world, including the Four Seasons Hotel with Bill Gates.

They meet on the 66th floor of the Kingdom tower. Not the top. It goes to 100 and looks like a bottle opener.

Apparently Al-Waleed has his own VIP A380 jet.

Everywhere are photos of the prince. A biography of him lies on tables, and row after row of magazine covers sporting his face line the walls.

He's connected to the royal family (there are 12,000 princes in Saudi Arabia) but more significantly is considered the most influential Arab in the world due to his wealth and investments.

His manner is strange. He twitches and looks distracted a lot, but I find it endearing. He's eccentric for sure, but also clearly very well informed and bright.

It's bizarre because the media is allowed to stay and watch. This doesn't normally happen.

John Key and the prince chat about New Zealand, the history of the National Party (Al-Waleed randomly knew about its formation) and in particular the growth rate in China.

It's clear Al-Waleed relished the chance to hear first-hand from John Key about how New Zealand had been so successful in cracking the Chinese market.

While they talked, a cast of thousands handed out round after round of tea and food, to the point where the watching officials looked embarrassed turning it down.

Later he gave a short media conference in which he politely batted away questions about human rights.

Apparently they have been exaggerated by the media. You got the sense it, while not rattling him, was irritating. Saudi Arabi is said to be reforming. But it still has a long way to go.

The rest of the time in Saudi is spent filing and writing in the hotel room. This is often the way of these trips. At least I can get out of my bloody suit and chuck on the track pants I bought before leaving. Comfy cloth makes a difference.

But at 3am I wake in a panic.

A video I shot at the mall buying a chicken burger has made it online. Before traveling here we'd been advised it could be a risk criticising Saudi Arabia while we were in the country. Would they spot it?

The worrying soon fades as we board the bus for the airport.

It seems the Saudis probably had bigger fish to fry.

Overnight King Salman ruthlessly dumped the Crown Prince, and promoted Prince Niaf to be his second in command.

It was 24 hours earlier but from what I remember John Key had a grip and grin with him at the airport.

ONE News Political Editor Corin Dann is with Prime Minister John Key in Saudi Arabia. Source: 1 NEWS