Saudi cities, dominated by huge construction sites, bear witness to an almost unprecedented human experiment: the transformation, within a single generation, of a pastoral, nomadic society into a highly developed, modern country.
Understandably, the Saudis, bent on upholding the value system and social structures of their forefathers, at the same time are attempting to keep the social price of their leap into the 20th century as low as possible.
"No one really knows if it can be done, but no nation with our resources has ever tried," says a ranking official of this desert kingdom, which is the world's largest oil- producing country.
Nevertheless, the Saudis feel confident that their country can take what it needs from industrial civilization and leave the rest.
The Saudis wish to prevent at any cost the repetition of what some here regard as the "moral degeneration" of the West, where they believe that technical progress and industrial development have undermined social values.
Looking back at his own career, Deputy Planning Minister Dr. Feisal al-Bashir says: "I am an optimist. Taking my background into account, one wonders how it could happen. I came from a nomadic life, from camel drivers to whom education was second to everything."
Like most ranking Saudi officials, Dr. Bashir spent many years studing in the United States. Despite the temptations of the "American way of life," he never considered settling abroad, nor did he find it difficult upon his return home to slip back into the traditional Saudi dress -- a flowing robe and covered head.
Saudis cite both family relationships and religion as the sources of their internal strength. Together, These two pillars are said to enable Saudi Arabia to use the most advanced acquisitions of human knowledge as a takeoff point into something that many in the West feel is a social and cultural incongruity -- a fully automated country, worthy of science fiction, which, at the same time, abides by social rules of centuries ago.
"Until the end of my life, I will kiss the hand of my father and my mother every morning," says Deputy Minister of Industry Dr. Fuad al-Farsi. By spending a lot of time reading and "carefully selecting my friends," he maintained his life style while studying at a university in the United States. "Also, I never missed a prayer in the States," he adds.
Dr. Farsi believes that there are "many bad habits in the United States, but it probably suits them. However, that is not freedom. Freedom is a state of mind."
Safeguarding the spiritual heritage is a constantly echoed theme in Saudi Arabia. Undeniably, Saudis are self-confident enough to believe that they are preserving a morally superior culture, A feeling that stems, in part, from a genuine attachment to their way of life, and that makes it difficult for them to relate emotionally to other cultures.
Repeatedly, Saudis point to what they view as achievements to prove that "the impossible is possible":
Saudi Arabia is one of the few third- world countries that does not have to cope with the problem of "brain drain." Saudi officials estimate that less than one-half percent of their students abroad opt to stay overseas rather than to return home after their schooling.
"They had good times, but none of them ever thought for a moment of starting a permanent life in the United States, for instance," says Dr. Farsi. He adds that "You can offer me a house in paradise, but I will never leave Saudi Arabi. One cannot be a human being without identifying with something."
The concept of the nuclear-age Western family remains alien in Saudi society. "You do not find Saudis sending their uncles or fathers to old-age homes," as in the United States and Europe, Dr. Bashir says.
Moreover, Saudi officials point to the fact that they successfully control their development process at all stages. "We would rather have our development slowed down than see our ways destroyed," a ranking Saudi official says. This official is adamant that "the price we will not pay for development is our religion."
"Our safety valve is the Islamic society," Dr. Bashir says. "No government on earth can play with our religion. . . . religion is basic to us. A king comes and goes, but religion has governed us ever since the prophet Muhammad."
To prove his point, Dr. Bashir stresses that "even a Saudi who is drunk talks about religion. It his refuse. Although he has violated the law, a drunk Muslim is a Muslim. He cannot deny his religion no matter how much he trys to show off. The deviant will always return to Islam because it is part of him and part of the society he lives in."
Furthermore, Saudi society remains a closed close-knit unit. The kingdom refuses to bolster the size of its population and to diversity its human resources by granting citizenship to its foreign workers. "The United States is built on immigration, but look what happened to the original owners, the Indians. We do not wish to witness a repetition of this," a senior official said.
"We are not trying to copy anyone," says Dr. Suleiman al Soalim, deputy minister of commerce. "We have our own traditions, our own needs, and our own hopes for the future, which we try to reconcile."
He points to the fact that Saudi Arabia was never occupied by a colonial power, "because they did not know what was under the desert."
Saudis believe that changes in their society must take place by concensus. "What is done in the US Congress is done here in a less organized fashion," a Saudi official explains. "If you come from the United States, the process appears to be slow, but if you come from some remote village, the changes appear to be dramatic."
Saudis are given the feeling that they have a say in determining which direction their society is to go. From King Khalid on down, Saudi officials are directly approachable by their subjects.
"People don't hesitate to air their grievances," Dr. Soalim says. He points out that as deputy minister of commerce he is responsible for supplies. "If there is a shortage of cement in some remote villages, my desk is immediately flooded with telegrams."
Moreover, constant debate and accessibility keeps Saudia Arabia going, according to Saudi officials. "If our King, Crown Prince, and ministers would lock themselves up in closed closets or smoking rooms, this country would have collapsed a long time ago," one official said.
"You cannot force people to cooperate. They have to see their own best interests. Change has to occur within every family, and we have to operate within our own traditions," Dr. Bashir says.
Nevertheless, the Saudis do admit that change, even in the social fabric or their society, is inevitable. Whether they will succeed without the usual shocks and struggles associated with change remains to be seen. Says Dr. Farsi: "Only time will be able to judge this."