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Saudis Stand Firm Under Shadow of War

But military crisis has left first traces of change on Saudi social and political life

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 1991



RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA

DRIVING and navigating on the high speed elevated freeways that thread among the glass and marble palaces of this desert capital takes a lot of getting used to. But Riyadh residents say that now is the time to learn.

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Traffic is down by more than a third, they estimate - an indicator of how many people have fled the Scud-ridden city for the safety of towns out of rocket range, such as Jiddah and Mecca.

After allowing themselves to be caught up in the euphoria that swept all members of the anti-Iraq coalition in the first few days of the war, Saudis have generally gotten over their subsequent impatience and are taking a more realistic view of how many weeks the fighting might last, Western diplomats here say.

But some Saudis say they are nevertheless perplexed by how long the air campaign is taking, with no ground assault in sight.

``My friends are asking what is taking so long, and what sort of surprises might [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein come up with,'' reports a teacher at King Saud University.

No change in timetable

Though the Saudis are no more eager than anyone else to see the war drag on, there appears to be no foundation for reports that the approach of the month-long Muslim fast of Ramadan in mid-March might force coalition military planners to speed up their timetable.

Ramadan was holy in the Arab tradition even before the advent of Islam and was one of the months of truce between warring tribes in the Arabian Peninsula.

Muslim guerrillas in Afghanistan, however, fought through Ramadan with special dispensation cited in the Koran, and Muslim soldiers in both the Iraqi and Iranian armies fought through eight Ramadans during their war, Saudi political analysts point out.

On the economic front, the six-month Gulf crisis has had mixed effects, officials say. Military and oil-related businesses are flourishing, but many others are on forced vacation and investment is at a standstill.

Although a protracted war would hurt the Saudi economy, says Abdullah Dabbagh, chief of the Saudi Council of Chambers of Commerce, it would not be likely to do serious harm.

The Scud missiles have caused anxiety here, but they have done no real physical damage yet, Mr. Dabbagh points out. And the oil industry, responsible for nearly 100 percent of the country's exports, is working overtime to prevent a world oil shortfall because of the embargo on Iraqi and Kuwaiti sales.

``Nor do I think there is any danger of shortages,'' he predicts. ``Saudi Arabia has strategic depth. And even if the eastern ports [on the Gulf coast] were closed, our Western ports could handle things.''

At a deeper level of Saudi society and political life, however, the crisis and the explosion of war have already left their imprint.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the arrival of foreign troops to defend Saudi Arabia sparked a ferment of debate that still bubbles below the surface, local and Western observers say. The debate has pitted a small but determined group of modernizing liberals against religious conservatives, with King Fahd's royal government holding the ring.

At the outset of the crisis, liberals said they hoped that the dramatic rush of events would catalyze social and political reforms to the absolute monarchy. A broadly extended royal family dominates most walks of life and a woman may not even ride a train unless she is accompanied by a husband, brother, father, or son.

But six months later doubts have set in, and many would-be reformers say that the Islamic fundamentalists have actually used the circumstances to their advantage instead.

``If you take the confrontation between the liberals and the fundamentalists, the fundamentalists have gained from this,'' laments an academic proponent of change.

Conservatives hold reins