An incisive, fascinating series on 'The Oil Kingdoms'

Just about the only thing the world knows about the Persian Gulf countries is that they have oil . . . and the highest per capita income in the world. Well, it's true that most of them, but not all, do have oil, and that the per capita income in Kuwait is $28,000.

But there's a lot more fascinating information about the ''Petrodollar Coast, '' as the Persian Gulf coastline is often called (the countries in the area refer to it as the Arabian Gulf). And multitalented producer-director-writer-narrator Jo Franklin-Trout manages in three hours to squeeze a lot in on The Oil Kingdoms (PBS, Monday, Oct. 10, 17, and 24, 8-9 p.m. , check local listings for repeats). The program, which follows the thorough job Ms. Franklin-Trout did on Saudi Arabia last year, is an incisive study of the area and each of five countries.

Besides unveiling the ''Arabian Nights'' history of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman through wide-ranging interviews and superlative graphics, she manages to delve deeply into contemporary social life as well as the uncertain future of the area.

Sometimes, unfortunately, it is difficult to discern which of the countries she is focusing on because there are so many similarities to the Western eye. But on the whole, Ms. Franklin-Trout is an ideal guide, combining entertaining Fitzgerald-like travelogues with penetrating analysis.

I hope I am not giving anybody the impression that viewing ''The Oil Kingdoms'' is a chore - it is not. Rather, it is a continuing series of Arabian delights. It's not often that TV viewers can learn so much in the midst of solid entertainment based on some spellbinding legends from the region.

The series traces the history of the area from its early days as Captain Kidd's Pirate Coast, when its flourishing trade with the East brought it huge wealth - and conquerers. After the Portuguese came the British. And through it all were the pirates, the tribalism, the slave markets, and the pearls. The Japanese development of the cultured pearl and the development of the steamship and the Suez Canal destroyed the major sources of income for the area, and for many years the Gulf was destitute. Then the discovery of oil almost overnight changed the poorest area in the world into the richest.

What happens when the oil runs out? All of the countries are worried and are making plans for an oilless future. Bahrain, with little oil of its own, seems most worried and has already become the offshore banking capital of the Gulf. It has also become the region's playground, with its boisterous nightclubs a major attraction to Arabs of the area.

Oman, on the other hand, with a great deal of oil, still does not allow tourists to enter the country. Its largest city, Abu Dhabi, is probably the most expensive city in the world.

However, there is very little in the financial future for the Petrodollar Coast to worry about. According to one Wharton School analyst, ''Financially as a group their combined investments around the world of $207 billion make them better off than anybody else in the world.''

Ms. Franklin-Trout points out that the countries of the Gulf are new: the tribal princes are still largely in control, but the political makeup of the countries has a tradition of at most 22 years.

How politically stable is the area? According to Ms. Franklin-Trout, most of the power and the wealth remain in the hands of a small group of tribal chieftains.

But some of the new wealth has been distributed among the masses. Most of the countries have become welfare states, with just about all the necessities of life provided by the government. One recent poll revealed that many people regard a free home as a basic civil right. Cars, stereos, color TV, Cartier watches, and so on are commonplace in lower- and middle-class families.

But the rulers still fear the incursion of fundamentalists from Iran, the communists from the Soviet Union, the expansionists from Israel. They seem to be looking over their shoulders fearfully as they choose their next expensive purchases. To protect themselves, most of the countries in the Gulf seem to have a adopted a policy of nonalignment - hoping that perhaps the world will just leave them alone to enjoy their unexpected affluence.

''The Oil Kingdoms,'' produced by Pacific Productions, Washington, D.C., is the kind of documentary programming that helps make PBS the national treasure it has become. Director of photography Stephen Confer has managed to capture all of the color and romanticism of the area and its down-to-earth realities. And the authentic Gulf music track helps to sustain the El Dorado feel of the film.

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