The old men with straggly beards dyed the henna red of Arabia and brown cloaks draped over their slight frames still patrol the streets of Riyadh. Armed with camel whips and the rigid ideology of the Wahabbis, the matawahm - the Committee for the Enforcement of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice - enforce the standards of Islam's most conservative sect.
In the past, the committee's power was unquestioned. But now the matawahm must compete with a massive explosion of materialism and the onslaught of foreign cultures. Unlike its predecessors, the regime of King Fahd appears willing to allow the enormous changes enveloping Saudi Arabia to flow even into the sanctity of the mosques. It is a risky political move for a monarchy whose major power base has always been the religious fundamentalists.
Abdul Aziz, the founder of the House of Saud, won his kingdom by mobilizing the devotedly religious Bedouins and marching them into battle against the ''infidels,'' who happened to be the assorted rivals of Abdul Aziz. The Sauds have to be classified with the political geniuses of history in that they have been able to hold the squabbling tribes of their kingdom together through a system of gifts, personal favors, attention to personal problems, swift retribution, and strict adherence to the severe discipline of Wahabbism.
As the 20th century progressed, Saudi Arabia, even after oil became the staple of its economy, upheld the veiling of women, the prohibition of alcohol, the exclusion of most forms of entertainment, and the strict enforcement of Islam's five daily prayer times. The heavy hand of religion dominated every detail of life as late as the 1960s, when King Faisal unleashed a storm of protest by introducing television and female education to the kingdom.
In the midst of the physical construction of the new Saudi Arabia, Faisal's successor, Khalid, presided over a court whose atmosphere was not greatly changed from that of Abdul Aziz. Khalid spent long hours in his palace receiving every Saudi male who wanted an audience. He met weekly with the Ulema, the committee of religious elders, in meetings dutifully televised over the now-accepted television screens in most Saudi homes. But with the accession of Fahd to the throne, the tone, if not the substance, of the monarchy has undergone subtle changes.
King Fahd is less tied to the past than any of his predecessors with the possible exception of Saud, whose disastrous rule ended in 1964. Under Fahd, the monarchy is emerging as both more powerful and more imperial. Fahd is definitely king and not a tribal sheikh. He offers protection to religion but is moving away from being held hostage by it.
Change had to come, whether under King Fahd or someone else. In trying to tend the past and the present at the same time, Saudi Arabia has become trapped in a quagmire of transition. The police and the army are only two examples of a governmental system riddled with inconsistencies.
There are two police forces - the matawahm (the religious police) and the civil police. Because Saudi law is based on the Shariah, or Islamic code of laws , the dividing line between what is a religious offense and what is a civil offense is blurred. Currently foreigners, predominantly Westerners, are caught in a raging battle between religious and secular authorities.
Led by a young matawahm calling himself Sheikh Ahmed, a zealous group of students from the University of Riyadh swoop into Western-style supermarkets such as Al-Johar seizing the identity cards of unmarried couples, of men wearing jewelry or women whose hair is not covered or who are not draped in a habiam, the traditional black cloak.
The Ministry of the Interior, which is ultimately responsible for the documents of foreign nationals, upholds in principle an expatriate's right to refuse to surrender his identity card. But the ministry does little to keep the matawahm from incarcerating a foreigner in a mosque for hours to be lectured on the virtues of Islam.
There are two armies. The Ministry of Defense and Aviation runs the regular Army, Navy and Air Force. The elitist National Guard, whose roots go back to the time of Abdul Aziz, is filled with political appointments from the tribes.
Constant power plays are waged between the two over government housing, equipment, and even the relative luxury of the separate hospitals maintained by each. Officers' clubs and sports facilities define status, and who gets what is a major bureaucratic battle.
Rather than nurturing a now-archaic system, Fahd is pressing ahead with remodeling Saudi Arabia to fit his own perceptions. The carefully structured political alliance uniting the crown, the tribes, and the religious elders is undergoing significant shifts to include the Western-educated middle class. Whether it is successful depends largely on Fahd's qualities of leadership.
Much of the credit for the incredible progress Saudi Arabia has made over the last 10 years has to go to Fahd. Yet he does not command the same respect among the people as his predecessor Khalid did. Fahd certainly does not enjoy the reverence accorded Faisal.
King Fahd is more feared than loved, in marked contrast to the father figure that most Saudis have come to expect in their monarch.
For most Saudis he is too Westernized, and this makes his Islamic credentials suspect. Almost in defiance, Fahd has refused to purge his life style to create an image of Muslim piety. He makes no secret of his fondness for Spain's Costa del Sol or his intention to cast Saudi Arabia's monarch into the international arena rather than into a tent sharing desert lore with the Bedouin.
The insular Saudis would probably tolerate their monarch's European travels and his forays into international politics, but it is in the sensitive domestic arena where the most far-reaching and potentially disruptive changes are taking place.
Situations that a few years ago would have been inconceivable now exist with no objection from the government.
Women are being educated on a large scale. There are currently 54,650 females in various levels of education in Riyadh alone, 5,996 in adult literacy programs. Women are being allowed to move into government and business and even operate a multibranch bank.
Bowling alleys, video arcades, public transportation for women, and at-home movies have all escaped the wrath of the religious establishment.
Even Christian expatriates have benefited from the new, relaxed atmosphere. Among the many restrictions placed on Christians is the prohibition against bringing Christmas decorations into the kingdom.
Past policy has been that even within the privacy of their homes, Christians could not display any symbols of Christmas that could be seen through the window from the street. Yet this past Christmas, supermarkets in the urban areas were overflowing with trees, tinsel, and lights, while one merchant ran newspaper ads featuring a Santa Claus figure called ''Uncle Greenie.''
The changes in the orthodox, semi-theocracy of the House of Saud have been coming since the reign of King Faisal, who died in 1975.
It is the relative ease of the present flow from old to new that is remarkable. The old jokes about dragging Saudi Arabia kicking and screaming into the 20th century have not materialized. The transformation of Saudi society is occurring faster and smoother than most observers ever predicted.
For the present even the tensions between the progressive and orthodox wings of the royal family, although still very much there, seem somewhat muted. The long-anticipated showdown between the progressive wing of the family headed by King Fahd, his brother Prince Sultan, who is minister of defense and aviation, and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, and the conservative wing headed by another brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, may already have been resolved. Since Saud family politics are conducted behind closed doors, exactly what anyone's real position is is a closely guarded secret.
Publicly Abdullah remains crown prince with all of the honors due him. But except in ceremonial roles, he appears to have all but disappeared as a power within the top echelon.
Whether by choice or by fiat, the decisionmaking power is in the hands of the progressive triumvirate of Fahd, Sultan, and Saud al-Faisal.
The Islamic revolution in Iran had a profound influence on the thinking of the House of Saud, one of the world's most astute political machines. The fall of the Shah in 1979 sent shudders through the ruling family as it scrambled to strengthen its defenses among its ultrareligious supporters.
Abdullah was in his element, and some believed he was poised to seize control of the ruling family. But as the Iranian revolution unfolded, the Sauds had to realize the overwhelming potential of the fundamentalists to seize total control of government just as they had done in Iran.
The leadership may be sensing that the longtime religious allies of the House of Saud could well become its most dangerous enemy.
Obviously there are dangers inherent in separating the monarchy from the religious elders. There has already been one uprising of religious fanatics who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. There is currently active and open organization by zealots in the university system.
And the rising power of the educated middle class from which most of Fahd's new support comes could erode quickly if oil revenues fall to the point that Saudi Arabia's massive development plans, the source of wealth for most Saudi businessmen, have to be cut back.
Forced budget cutting is a growing threat. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) has already announced that it is moving into short-term investments to make cash more readily available to meet commitments. Dr. Ahmed Abdullah al-Malik of SAMA said recently that after last year's $42.6 billion surplus in the current account balance of payments, Saudi Arabia ''may break even'' this year.
The power of religion in Saudi Arabia always has to be respected as a clear and present danger. The lower classes and the rural population still cling to the mosque. Others might also return to their roots.
Even the most Westernized Saudis constantly complain about the influx of alien cultures and the erosion of traditional values that have been a side effect of development. One of the great unanswered questions of Fahd's young reign is: If the money in the coffers runs low, will the middle class identify itself more closely with its traditional religious roots, rejecting Fahd and moderation?
Ultimately, no one knows whether the Saudis will tolerate a radical revision of the highly developed system of paternalism and religious orthodoxy that has always kept the Sauds in power.
Fahd has gambled that the Saudis, basking in the warmth of affluence, are demanding change in the strict orthodoxy of Saudi Arabia. His decision in this tradition-bound, religiously conservative country may prove extremely hazardous for both the ruler and the ruled.
Other articles in this series appeared Jan. 25 and 26