Penetrating look behind the Saudis' petroleum curtain
Are you prepared for a voyage through the looking glass?Skip to next paragraph
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For most Westerners, Saudi Arabia has been forbidden territory, a mysterious desert country noted mainly for the fact that under its soil lies more than one-quarter of the world's oil reserves. Thus, the reluctance of the Saudis to open themselves to foreign inspection has created a kind of petroleum curtain.
Jo Franklin-Trout stepped right into the looking glass. Her three-part series Saudi Arabia (PBS, three Tuesdays starting April 27, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for days and times) takes an almost unprecedented look at an almost unknown ally. Filmed on location throughout Saudi Arabia, the series examines the history of the Saudis, the effect of their seemingly unending supply of petrodollars, and their pivotal position in the modern world.
Ms. Franklin-Trout -- who is also co-writer, director, and producer of the series -- penetrated to desert spots never before reached by foreigners. She interviewed nomads and sheikhs, tradition-bound Saudis and modern Saudis. But even more important, she listened, photographed, learned.
''Saudi Arabia'' is itself a bit like a wildcat well, spouting information, fascinating desert lore, and interpretation in every direction. For three months Franklin-Trout filmed in the cosmopolitan capital, Riyadh, in the deserts, and in neighboring kingdoms. In the first segment, ''The Kingdom,'' the history of the people is traced. How the Saudi family came to power and how it has retained its power is discussed (one method, by the way, was to marry into every major tribe, thus integrating most of the country into the ''family'').
Second in the series is ''The Race With Time,'' in which Franklin-Trout examines the social dilemma posed by the invading Western technology and its concurrent culture. Final segment in the series is ''Oil, Money, Politics,'' in which the power of oil in world as well as domestic affairs is investigated.
''Saudi Arabia,'' photographed with lyrical intensity by a dedicated crew of cinematographers for the Pacific Mountain Network, performs a major public service A chat with Jo Franklin-Trout
Jo Franklin-Trout radiates knowledgeable enthusiasm about her subject, and when she talks about the Saudis, the interviewer knows she means business.
Did Ms. Franklin-Trout find the social taboos concerning women very constricting?
''Well, I wore long skirts because I didn't want to be the only pair of visible legs in the country. And I wasn't allowed in the hotel swimming pool when the men were there. I couldn't drive a car. But otherwise, I found nobody bothered me at all -- in fact they were very respectful since I was obviously a Westerner . . . and noticeably pregnant. They adore children and show great respect for pregnant women.''
Do the Saudi women who say they are satisfied with their status in society really feel that way?
''There seemed to be a personal need in them to see the better aspects of their society. In other words, they viewed some of the restrictions as protection and I wondered if that was a personal compensation for having to learn to live with those things, because it might be a lifetime before things change.''
What would happen if the current regime is overthrown?
''Probably something worse. I don't think they have yet developed a well-trained bureaucracy that could take the country over and run it.''