Saudi contrasts: high-rises and veiled women

On a street corner in Riyadh the other day, an argument between two Sudanese guest workers was about to become a fistfight. But before the first blow could be struck, several young Saudi men - their white robes flying - dashed from a Mercedes to break up the encounter. Within minutes they were straightening their red-checked Arab headdresses and trotting back to their abandoned Mercedes, which by then was blocking traffic.

This small peacemaking effort typifies Saudi Arabia's role in today's Middle East: trying to negotiate restraint and calm in a region that for years has seen precious little of either. And like so much about this sparsely populated country of vast resources and strong tradition - a kingdom where women are veiled and seldom seen - it also illustrated in a subtle way the unique mix of old and new, as well as the pervasiveness of Islam, the religion founded in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century.

First-time visitors - and especially those who return after some time away - find the images of Saudi Arabia a startling study in contrasts. It is almost as if someone had pressed the country's fast-forward switch, and accelerated Saudi Arabia from the 14th to the 20th century with few stops in between.

Along the eight-lane highway to the brand new and highly modernistic $3.2 billion King Khalid airport, herds of camels wander and graze. Before Saudi Arabian Airlines jumbo jets begin their takeoff roll, a recorded passage from the Koran is played for the passengers' benefit. And because men and women may not work together under the Saudi interpretation of Islamic law, the efficient and cheery flight attendants are Jordanian, Egyptian, and Pakistani.

Riyadh is a civil engineer's dream. New construction abounds in a city that not too many years ago was an oasis village. The population has pushed well over 1 million and continues to swell, much of this because of foreign workers, who make up two-thirds of the work force. Yet in some cases, the public-works rush has bumped up against the legacy of the desert.

For example, one huge new apartment complex stands empty. Sources here say it is because the Bedouins who make up much of the Saudi population cannot get used to the idea of crowded high-rises, even if they have all the amenities.

Others suggest that the Western builder did not account for the resistance to having men and women (in a society where the sexes are largely segregated) ride in the same elevator.

The vast industrial complex of Jubayl is being built on the country's Gulf coast. When the $25 billion project is done, a new city of 250,000 or more people will have been created, largely, as is typically the case here, with American management, foreign workers, and Saudi petrodollars.

Yet what may well be the largest construction project in history will also take strict account of Saudi and Islamic considerations. Space (wide open) and fuel prices (24 cents a gallon) are no problem. But because women are not allowed to drive and it is assumed that most will remain at home, mosques, schools, and shops all will be within walking distance of homes.

Jubayl was first inhabited by Phoenician traders 3,000 years ago. Today, there are 32,000 workers from 62 countries working on the project.

''It's not only an economic project, but a tremendous social experiment,'' says Neville Long, deputy program manager and an employee of Bechtel Corporation. ''We probably won't know whether it's a success until 20 years from now and the children born here decide whether or not to stay.''

While the wealth of this kingdom is in oil, its future is really in its children and how the next generation uses that wealth.

Outside Riyadh, the new $2 billion campus of King Saud University (built by a US-French consortium) has 17 colleges. Programs in computer sciences and architectural engineering are soon to be added. All expenses are paid by the government, including travel for the 23 percent of students from other countries.

Female students now make up 22 percent of the total (23,000), with most specializing in education and medicine. University President Mansoor Al Turki says his main problem is recruiting women to teach in the gender-segregated classrooms.

''We don't really have enough lady professors, especially in the colleges we teach in Arabic,'' said Dr. Turki, who holds a PhD in economics from the University of Colorado.

In general, Saudis under 45 years of age speak English and those over 45 do not.

Saudi Arabia is a family monarchy ruled by related princes, but most of those running the country have had Western educations. And education that is modern - without being so Western as to undermine Islamic tradition - is seen as the key to continued Saudi prosperity in a troubled region.

''A part of my people are still isolated,'' said Khalid Mojaddidi, a young Saudi man who perhaps typifies his generation. ''But education is making the difference, and the most important thing is language.''

Mr. Mojaddidi is proud of his position as an administrative manager at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital. On a flight from Riyadh to Cairo, he talked about the emerging trends in the kingdom and of this balance between progress and tradition.

His fiancee is a medical doctor specializing in pediatrics. His sister has a master's degree from the University of Iowa and is teaching English to Saudi women. His two sisters-in-law also have university degrees.

But he stressed that half the relatively small Saudi population - fewer than 9 million - is still being underutilized, and that education programs for women must be expanded.

At the same time, however, Mojaddidi said that most professional Saudi women - at least for the foreseeable future - no doubt will continue to be limited to positions in education, medicine, and social service. And he emphasized with strong emotion the importance of Islam in his country's history and to its future.

''Islam is our spirit,'' he said. ''Without Islam, we are not able to survive among other countries and world challenges.''

He talked of ''the many people who are older and do not speak languages but are very wise.'' He began to speak of the late King Faisal (assassinated in 1975 by a young nephew) and of the progressive changes he had begun here. Then this young Saudi man in Western dress, who a few minutes earlier had been teasing the Egyptian stewardesses, turned away to look at the Red Sea below and wept.

''I'm sorry,'' he said a moment later. ''We loved him. He's the one who built the country. He was the father of our new Saudi Arabia, our 20th-century Saudi Arabia.''

The new Saudi Arabia also includes increasing amounts of economic aid to lesser-developed countries, especially Muslim nations. The kingdom gives a higher portion of gross national product to less-fortunate countries than do most Western nations.

Part of this no doubt is to offset the kingdom's geographical vulnerability and relatively minor military might, both of which are directly related to its small population.

As a Western diplomat here says, ''They have a realistic view of the limits of their power.''

But tradition and religion play a strong part in Saudi foreign aid as well, as they do in most other things here.

''Because we have money, we believe we should be thankful to God that we have it to share,'' says a senior official with the Saudi Fund for Development, which last year dispensed $7.3 billion for 271 projects in 61 countries. ''This is part of our Islamic belief.''

In recent weeks, Saudi officials have been shuttling between Riyadh, Damascus , Beirut, and Western capitals, trying to find the path toward peace in Lebanon. The kingdom's own security is a concern. But the underlying belief in conciliation is also an Islamic thread woven through the fabric of Saudi foreign policy.

Whether these diplomats will be as successful as those who broke up the street scuffle in Riyadh the other day remains to be seen.

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