As the oil flowed out, prosperity and problems flowed in

The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, by Sandra Mackey. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co. 433 pp. $19.95. In the 1970s and early '80s, there was no greater boom than in Saudi Arabia. The desert kingdom sits atop the biggest underground pools of oil on earth. As everyone knows, oil flowed out of the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf at higher and higher prices.

Money flowed in - money to build expressways, hospitals, universities, airports, mosques, palaces. Money for armies, air forces, navies, spanking new cities in the desert, battalions of foreign laborers. Money for Cadillacs, air-conditioners, televisions, perfumes. Money for corruption and vice, too. Money, money, money - each time an American or European or Asian filled the gas tank or clicked on a light switch.

Yet only 30 years earlier, most of the residents of Saudi Arabia were dirt-poor Bedouin nomads skimming a marginal living out of an unforgiving desert. A few were small-time merchants catering to the needs of the Muslim pilgrims who visit Mecca and Medina during the hajj.

Sandra Mackey, the wife of a doctor assigned to King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, first arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1978. Her husband was one of the army of Westerners recruited by the Saudis to build a modern nation out of sand and money.

Unlike many Western women who resigned themselves to a cloistered role in this intensely male-dominated society, Mackey decided to investigate and record this historic transformation and the oddities and strains that went with it. She secretly filed dispatches under a pseudonym for a number of publications, including this one.

Now Mackey has assembled a book that weaves her account of intrepid touch-and-go journalism into the story of the crazy oil boom and the mad rush to develop the kingdom. By the time she left in 1984, she had witnessed the transformation of the country into a strange hybrid of modernity and Middle Ages.

``Old and new,'' she writes, ``are locked in a curious collage in which everything has changed and nothing has changed. Veiled women wear abaayas over T-shirts and tight-fitting pants. A complete recitation of the Koran in space was an important mission of the first Saudi astronaut. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency has installed automatic teller machines at banks but requires that they close during prayer times.''

Her account of the remarkable transformation is very well done. MacKey concludes that the social tearing apart and rebuilding will take their toll and ``mutiny against the established order will come.'' The ``pristine past'' of the Saudis and their puritanical Islam (Wahhabism) will not forever tolerate the materialism and corruption brought by all that money and all those foreigners.

Perhaps. The strains are certainly there. Other nations have collapsed for fewer good reasons, and there undoubtedly will be change as the oil wealth diminishes and Saudis learn to live with less. It is also true that radical Iran is both an external and an internal threat, especially in the heavily Shiite eastern province where most of the oil infrastructure is.

As Mackey points out, the contest in this part of the world is not between the philosophies of the United States and the Soviet Union but between Islam and the West. Islam is a genuine alternative force in the world today. It is both religious and political system, applauds capitalism but has strong socialist tendencies, is democratic in some ways, authoritarian in others. Islam is not monolithic; it varies with sects and nations and individuals.

And contrary to popular notion, Islam is not anti-progress. It nurtured the arts and sciences when Europe was lost in the Dark Ages. It has been tolerant of minority religions in its midst. Its trappings may be different, but it has evolved as has orthodox Christianity.

Muslims do not necessarily prefer the past, unless by past is meant a more moral and less materalistic climate. Yet the materialism of nations like Saudi Arabia today, while astounding, is really a scaled up version of the materialism of the past. Its conspicuousness is an important factor, but the ``pristine past'' of the desert Bedouin is more T.E. Lawrence's romanticism than reality. Wilfred Thesiger, whose 1959 book ``Arabian Sands'' chronicled Saudi Arabia just before the oil boom, often remarked on the great desire of his nomadic companions for more comfort.

Yes, the lives of these once simple desert folk now have been gilded beyond belief. No, this hasn't been forced on them. Quite the contrary - they bought the gilding and paid good wages to the workmen. Whether they one day become repulsed with what they have done to their country is an open question. It makes sense to expect them to shun the excess. But new schools, housing, water supplies, and creature comforts are as much their right as ours.

This is a valuable book, although the conclusion leaves something to be desired. It is fashionable to predict mutiny and revolution in the Middle East. But that is only one of many possible futures.

John Yemma was the Monitor's Middle East correspondent from 1980 to 1983.

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