The fascinating Saudis

"The only family-owned business in the United Nations" is the way Saudi Arabia has been described, according to CBS correspondent Ed Bradley. "CBS Reports: The Saudis" (Tuesday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) is a colorful socio-documentary, an economically oriented travelogue as fascinatingly ambivalent as the exotic desert kingdom it manages to bring into focus.

Photographed with vivid sensitivity by Greg Cooke, produced and directed by Maurice Murad, and written by Mr. Murad, Ed Bradley, and Peter Schweitzer, "The Saudis" is basially a careful look at the real issues that lay behind last season's electronic "Death of A Princess" controversy. It is an admirable attemp to explain the inexplicable, to demystify the mysteries of the Middle East, separate and identify the dual personalities of an area that is trying desperately to hold on to Muslim traditions as it absorbs the best of Western technological advances.

Yet this ambitious documentary also manages to avoid the trap of oversimplification as it probes with both wide-ranging camera and pinpointed interview. Under the expert and tasteful guidance of CBS Reports executive producer Howard Stringer, there is an apparent reach for responsibility in the handling of potentially explosive material, especially in the area of women's rights in the Saudi's sex-segregated society.

The Saudi women's seeming acceptance of their "second class citizen" position prompts some bemused reactions on correspondent Ed Bradley's part, reactions that seem to reveal an unconcealable sense of satisfaction on his part that the male-chauvinist position is being upheld: the women are willing to serve as wives and mothers as they forsake driving, actively to select a husband for themselves.

Although there is an attempt at timeliness -- the position of the Saudis in the current Iran-Iraq war crisis situation is considered -- the documentary is much more a serious and sympathetic study of a culture in transition in a nation ruled by the consensus of a family of 4,000 princes. "Just as in their desert, where nature is enough of a burden [to the Bedouins], they make no rules that are unnecessary," explains Mr. Bradley."

However, in Saudi Arabia there seems to be a major effort to see to it that, unlike the situation in some other Middle Eastern states, according to Saudi Minister of Industry Ghazi Al Qusaibi, "the development money is filtering down to every single citizen in the Kingdom, and, I think, in a few years we will not have any poverty in Saudi Arabia." But this CBS Report does not sneer at such rose-tinted optimism, although in some instances it seems to accept the attitudes of a basically feudal government unquestioningly. In other cases it seems to try to investigate for itself -- as far as the Saudis would allow an independent film crew to go, that is. Executive producer Stringer indicated to me that his camera crew was forced by officials to limit its coverage, especially in the instance of the insurrection at the Great Mosque at Mecca last year when CBS was present but was prevented from filming more completely. (However, there is some interesting footage of that fanatic attack still in this documentary.)

According to the CBS script, that date -- Nov. 17, 1979 -- marked the last moment of Saudi innocence. From that day on, the country has had to face the fact of its vulnerability to the same forces which threaten all the Middle East kingdoms. And it has had to face the question of its ability to defend itself.

Just a bit questionable as to balance are the segments in which Saudi women speak their minds. Certainly there must have been women who would have been willing to speak out boldly against the status of women in Muslim societies.

But the sequence most revealing of the split nature of Saudi Arabia's new generations of Western-influenced young people concerns a young Bedouin who resisted the lure of the West and stayed in Saudi Arabia. Faisal al-Bashir got his PhD in econometrics in the United States and returned to become the deputy minister of planning. Born in the northern desert, he typifies the new class of Saudi technocrats, according to Mr. Bradley, "at the top of the heap and a little beweildered at how he got there."

Faisal al-Bashir poignantly reveals on camera his ambivalence about his role in his own society.He misses "the beauty of nomadic life . . . the sense of community in the desert." Yet he is proud that he has left his illiterate father and mother behind to play an important part in the new Saudi Arabia. This constitutes two or three moments of electronic magig, the kind of deep human insights seldom seen on TV.

CBS Repors doesn't hesitate to point out the realities of the Saudi situation , the cynical and opportunistic pragmatism the Saudis feel must dominate their relationship with the oil-hungry world, its rather special relationship with the US.

"Never has any country had so much to protect and so little with which to protect it. . . . We are trying to lessen our dependence upon one another," Mr. Bradley pontificates, "but for now we are tied together in a special relationship that will be sorely tested in the months and years to come."

Try as it may to find a deep-seated political raison d'etre, "The Saudis" main strength as a program lies in its poetic vision of this vestigial desert society. Even as it apologizes for its own cliches, the documentary perpetuates them lovingly: "A land of Bedouin tribesmen . . . women behind veils . . . riches beyond comprehension . . . a language that has ten words for 'thirst.'"

Shade of Lawrence of Arabia!

At the same time that it flashes unforgettable images of turbaned sheikhs sitting on the fenders of their new Mercedes, "The Saudis" juxtaposes evidence of its sensitivity to the feeling sof modern Saudis for their own tradition, as they simultaneously yearn for the Western value system -- and inherently distrust it as well.

"The Saudis" is a thoroughly fascainating adventure into irony and ambivalence which everybody intrigued by "Death of a Princess" and Muslim culture should add to their viewing schedule.The information is there to be acquired in this "travel-doc" -- but, as in much travel these days, getting there is most of the fun.

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