Penetrating look behind the Saudis' petroleum curtain

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Are you prepared for a voyage through the looking glass?

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.

Recommended: How much do you know about Saudi Arabia? Take our quiz!

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.''

Their greatest fear is communism because that would completely destroy their way of life. Scratch the average Saudi and you will find a pro-Western, pro-capitalism individualist.

''If a Saudi woman wanted to make the same series you have just made, would she be able to do it?''

Probably not. It's not a segregated society for me because I'm a Western woman from another culture, but it would still be segregated for a Saudi woman.

''How long will it be before such a thing would be possible?

''At least 20 years.'' The Osmond Story

The story of the Osmond family has become an almost mythical tale of the American entertainment world. The saga of a family that prays together, loves together, sings together . . . gets wealthy together.

Now, appropriately, the complete story of how it all happened has found its way to TV: Side by Side: The True Story of the Osmond Family (Monday, NBC, 8-10 p.m.). Starring Marie Osmond as her own mother, this is as unpretentious a show as the Osmond family itself.

Simply, sometimes painfully, it traces the love story of George and Olive Osmond as they meet, marry, bear two deaf sons, but retain enough faith to continue building a family, finally welcoming six more healthy boys and little Marie to complete the family. A religious family of Mormons, they start singing in public to prepare the two first-born sons for missionary work. But then Andy Williams invites them to appear on his TV show, and the rest is electronic history.

''Side by Side'' makes no effort to inflate itself -- it is pure and simple a fan magazine story, dramatized for television. There are no great revelations, no melodramatic scenes -it is a calm, slightly idealized story of a family that shares its love for one another with the world.

The performances are adequate, considering the fact that the script is so spare. It is Marie's acting debut, and she proves that she can find the essence of a character and make it believable -- in this case, Mom Osmond. Talk with Marie

When Marie Osmond arrived for a talk with me the other day, her wide smile, general enthusiasm, and good humor permeated the room.

''Sure,'' she admits, ''I know that some people sneer at us. They say we can't possibly be that good, that we're all teeth and Pollyanna happiness. They are amused because I don't drink, smoke, take drugs, and because I love my mother and father as well as all my brothers. But it's the truth and I'm proud of it. I even call myself 'Little Miss Positive.'

''People seem to be expecting me to turn out badly - so many young people in the entertainment world have to come to bad ends. Well, I have no desire to do bad things. Life is a series of choices and I make them the way my family has taught me to make them.''

The popular image of Marie as strictly a ''mamma's girl'' might be jolted a bit by her appearance. Her hair is stylishly frizzled and she is wearing a raw silk suit with a wild belt, a cashmere multicolored jacket of blue and yellow and pink. She has been attending acting classes at the Actor's Studio in New York to prepare for future acting roles.

''My close family ties give me a strong base to grow from. They give you more of a desire to try new things because you always know the family is there to go back to. I am free and I don't regard family obligations as anything but a joy.''

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