Saudi Arabia's response to Iran, oil wealth: more conservatism

Prince Khalid al-Faisal ibn Abdel al-Aziz thinks he has had an easy day when he spends two hours in the morning talking to his subjects and has only 30 of them to dinner.

Prince Khalid, the governor of Saudi Arabia's southwest Asir Province, listened carefully as he sat in a large leather swivel chair. One man explained his trouble with the local authorities over his plan to open a restaurant. Another man, a foreigner who looked out of place in his Western dress, requested a visa extension.

''I tell them when I can help and when I can't,'' the American- and British-educated governor explained.

The prince ordered a guard wearing a bandoleer and sword to accompany the would-be restaurateur to discuss the problem with the authorities and report back to him. Then he granted the foreigner permission to stay another month.

''I know exactly what is on their minds and I know exactly what they want,'' Prince Khalid said. ''The best thing about it is that it is very direct. There are no people between the people and the man in charge.''

Khalid governs the same way his father, the late King Faisal, and his grandfather, King Aziz, did. He believes this old-fashioned style of rule works well in modern Saudi Arabia.

But not all Saudis agree. Some Western-educated technocrats and bureaucrats, who make up an elite intelligentsia, think the Saudi ruling family is so cautious that the society is actually moving backward. Saudi government officials, Western diplomats, and Westerners living in the kingdom privately agree that Saudi society has become far more conservative in the last five years.

Some of the Saudi intelligentsia, as well as Europeans and Americans here, complain bitterly that restrictions on women and foreigners, especially in dress and social behavior, are unjustifiably more severe now.

For example, religious authorities are now more apt than before to demand proof that a Western woman is married or related to the man with whom she is dining publicly or playing tennis, say Western businessmen and their wives.

Three major factors led to Saudi Arabia's growing conservatism, the intelligentsia and Western expatriates say. The first two are the Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Muslim fanatics, both in 1979. The mosque crisis shocked and unnerved Saudis, including the royal family. The third factor is the oil boom of the 1970s, which led to rapid modernization.

The fanatics held the sacred shrine for two weeks, decrying alleged corruption in the royal family and what they saw as the putrification of Islam by Western influences.

''Since then, things have changed,'' says a Saudi professor who spent 17 years in the United States. ''Everyone was scared; we were scared. The vast majority of people here are religious, some more so than others. But just a tiny number are fanatics. Nonetheless, it scared people and nobody is taking any chances.''

The government has not given in to all the demands of the very religious, but it has allowed them to make a greater imprint on society. For instance, Saudi Arabia's chief religious scholar, or ulema, Sheikh Abdel Aziz Bin Abdullah Bin Baz, spoke out last spring against the saturation of Western influence in Saudi life. He said it is bad for Saudis to go abroad where they are exposed to so much that is considered un-Islamic.

King Fahd subtly countered the ulema in an address to a soccer team that was about to go abroad. He told the players they would be tempted by many things, but stressed it was good for them to show foreigners how devout Muslims behave.

The lightning metamorphosis of the 1970s - which made television, paved streets, electricity, and telephones a common sight - left many Saudis bewildered.

''I think 90 percent of this country is still adjusting,'' says a Muslim Asian business executive living in Riyadh. ''The government has to keep them happy and help them understand the changes.''

The government has been very careful to distribute the oil wealth, to ensure no one is left behind in the leap into modernity.

Minister of Planning Hisham Nazir notes that roving schools and clinics had been set up to serve the nomads still roaming the desert. Now that the oil boom is over, new projects are being limited to those concerned with ''people care.''

The sharing of the wealth has been critical to calming tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the eastern provinces since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Shia regime took over in Iran and tried to incite revolt among Saudi Shiites.

Religion has been a source of stability for many during this period of change. At first some said modernization would make people, especially the young , less devout, says Prince Khalid. But, he says, ''the new generation is more religious than the old one.''

For members of the intelligentsia, this trend is frustrating - particularly for the women.

At a recent dinner party in Riyadh, the subject came up frequently. The women could not talk for long about the curbs on them without their voices taking on an angry edge. They often got into shouting matches with their husbands, who counseled patience.

A very few women have refused the veil and taken jobs considered unacceptable for females - that is, any job that involves interaction with men. When women do take ''unacceptable'' jobs, many of them find themselves shunned even by their own families or peers.

The Saudi hostess, who owns her own boutique and does not wear a veil, says her family's reaction was typical: ''Even my sister has become very, very religious. We can't talk any more and that hurts me very much.''

After a great deal of thought and discussion, the Saudi professor conceded that the government was wise to permit the conservatives to dominate.

''The government realizes that people like us who want to liberalize the society are a small minority,'' he said at the end of dinner.

''They know that we are not going to start a revolution, or cause trouble, so it is not important to keep us happy.''

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