Lobster and lamb at lunch with Saudi King Abdullah

RAWDAT KHURAIM, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - It is rare for a journalist to have a seat at the table, let alone at the lavish dining table of Saudi King Abdullah at his desert retreat.

Lobster and roast lamb were on the menu, along with shrimp, pheasant, chocolate mousse, chicken soup, two kinds of cake, dates and dozens of other dishes laid out along a buffet that ran for yards (metres).

In a gesture rare for a foreign dignitary, let alone a monarch, the king invited the reporters who travel with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to enjoy his hospitality in the desert outside the capital Riyadh.

Described as the most austere of the king’s holiday homes, the retreat is a blend of peaked beige tents, modern luxury trailers and the spacious, six-pointed tented structure where the king hosted the U.S. delegation.

Clinton began her visit by walking beneath five chandeliers and past two dozen mother-of-pearl inlaid tables -- each set with fresh flowers and sweets -- to meet the king at a tea ceremony.

The king inquired about the health of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and shook hands with most of her party -- from senior diplomats to the two-man television crew that flew with Clinton on a three-day visit to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Seated side by side in upholstered armchairs, the two then bantered for about 15 minutes, including about the camels Clinton saw on the one-hour drive to the retreat and the perplexing matter of how to judge a camel beauty contest.

They then moved to a dining room where guests could choose from the dozens of dishes on the buffet or, if they wished, sit down and serve themselves food placed before them at the table.

There were too many dishes to count, but they included three kinds of roast lamb with rice, endless supplies of fresh squeezed orange juice and an array of desserts, among them strawberries dipped in chocolate fondue.

The king and his guest of honor sat at the bottom of a horseshoe-shaped table, with a large flat-screen TV facing them that showed, in turn, a soccer game, off-road car racing and Arabic news during the meal.

It also provided some privacy for Clinton and the king to talk without being overheard by the several dozen Americans and Saudis who shared their meal.

After lunch, they repaired to a small room for nearly four hours of talks with only their closest aides.

Meanwhile, the rest of the U.S. delegation sat outside in a reception room sipping tea -- ginger, green and regular were all available -- and nibbling from large baskets of chocolates and boxes of sweets.

While described as among the simplest of the king’s holiday homes, many of its appointments -- from ashtrays and teaspoons, to faucets and lavatory hinges -- were gold. It seemed churlish to ask if they were genuine.

Editing by Tim Pearce