Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Every Friday, as the megaphones echo the chanting whine that marks the midday call to prayer, a small crowd begins to gather around the square between the main mosque and the sprawling square in the Saudi capital.
They are waiting for the centuries-old tradition of weekly public punishment of criminals.
But the crowds more often than not disperse after a few minutes, for there are few public punishments these days.
As the rest of the world sorts out year-end statistics and percentage increases, the Saudis will probably be among the few - if not the only - to boast of dramatic decreases in crime.
The Interior Ministry claims various types of murders and attempts were down, in the Islamic year 1401, by 20 to 35 percent. But there were few to begin with: In a country of some 7.5 million, the Saudis recorded only 87 premeditated murders and 21 manslaughter cases, plus 160 attempts and 65 threats.
Theft, the biggest single offense in the kingdom, was down 28 percent. The statistics reflect the general air of security in Saudi Arabia, where a visitor feels no hesitation about momentarily stepping away from a briefcase or purse. Much like the Chinese, the Saudis have such a polite reverence for personal property that any item left behind, even thrown way, in one Saudi city often will catch up with a visitor in the next.
After theft, the biggest crime in the austere Gulf state was the consumption, possession, or manufacture of alcohol, allstrictly forbidden by Islamic law. That, and unspecified ''moral'' crimes, were the only offenses that went up, however slightly.
The Saudis, who live by one of the strictest moral codes in the world, take their crime problem seriously, remarkably small though it be. All laws in the kingdom are based on the Koran and the teachings of the 7th-century prophet Muhammad. Justice is administered by religious courts.
The motivation of the House of Saud in unifying the country, and the basis of its legitimacy today, has been the spread of this strict religious code, known as Wahhabism.
Indeed, the most active threats to the government have come not from reformists but from religious fundamentalists, as seen during the attack on the Grand Mosque in 1979. The fundamentalists oppose introduction of ''corrupting'' influences such as television, women's education, and soccer.
Thus many of the ancient sentences, used in the time of Muhammad, are still employed today, as seen in the controversial film ''Death of a Princess.'' This is a portrayal of the sad saga of Princess Misha'al Bint Fahd Bin Muhammad, who was shot for adultery, and whose lover was beheaded.
Yet Western diplomats say the Saudis have quietly tried to phase out or lower the number of what Westerners consider barbaric punishments.
One such diplomat commented after two years of experience in Saudi Arabia that to his knowledge during his assignment there were only two beheadings for criminal offenses. (By contrast, after the attack on the Grand Mosque, 63 of the accused were beheaded in various cities throughout the kingdom for this treasonous offense).
''It's only in extreme cases with repeat offenders that you're likely to see those kinds of sentences anymore. They're rarely imposed any more, even the whippings for morality offenses, which are still a very touchy matter here,'' commented a European political attache.
Yet in what outsiders might interpret as an ironic twist, caning or corporal punishment in schools has always been banned. And the Saudi founding father, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, publicly forgave some of the tribal factions that fought against him. Occasionally he incorporated opposition leaders, who might normally have been killed, into his government.
Government officials claim foreign influence - there are more than one million foreign workers in the oil-rich nation - and the pressure of rapid modernization are responsible for much of today's crime. They point out that some 34 percent of all offenses were committed by non-Saudis.
These two factors are also responsible for white-collar crime, according to the Commerce Ministry. Dishonest middlemen have moved in quickly to take advantage of the overnight wealth of many are uneducated or unfamiliar with the standards of goods their money should buy.
The jewelry business is one of the prime tagets for fraud. Some foreign exporters peddle low-quality gold as 18-karat, or try to pass off rhinestones as diamonds.
To combat the problem the Saudi Arabian Standards Organization (SASO) has started surprise inspections, using disguised ministry employees, who buy five different types of jewelry in randomly-selected shops. The gems are tested for authenticity.
Gold jewelry has long been an important part of Saudi culture, a common way of investing money, since bank accounts were once discouraged by the Islamic code that prohibits making interest. Ministry officials claim the sale of jewelry in Saudi Arabia averages between $25 and $33 million a day.
To stamp out fraud the SASO has also introduced specifications on imported goods, ranging from construction materials to milk. Commerce Undersecretary Abdul Rahman al Zamil recently said a new statute on commercial fraud was in the works, and that the government hoped to eventually eliminate a large sector of intermediaries by setting up a company to act as purchaser and supplier, beginning with agricultural products .
''Like everything else here, the level of all kinds of crime is a function of staggering growth and lack of preparedness in coping with it,'' remarked a Western envoy. ''Without it, there would probably be so little common crime as to be negligible. Hard as it may be to understand, it is just not part of their culture.''