How to accept the high cost of driving: Saudis OK rise in gas price. What's good for the country is fine by me, they say of possible hike

The days of cheap gasoline for drivers in this oil-rich kingdom may soon be coming to an end. Rumors of price hikes at gas pumps are circulating widely from the offices of government bureaucrats, bankers, and oilmen, to the ultra-modern gas stations that dot the Saudi capital.

``Many Saudis tell me the price is going up,'' says Liyakaphali Abdul-Hadi, manager of Petrol Al-Salem, where computer-controlled hoses drop from an overhanging canopy to cars below.

``The customers are asking a lot of questions about this. They ask when the price will go up,'' says Danny Golah who pumps gas at Halla, a sprawling Riyadh gas station with 18 pumps.

The reports suggest a significant increase in government controlled gasoline prices is imminent. It is seen as one of several possible revenue raising measures aimed at helping reduce an anticipated budget deficit in 1989. Saudi income from crude oil sales dropped from more than $100 billion in 1981 to an estimated $14 billion in 1987.

The trouble is, only a handful of people in the Kingdom know if such reports are accurate. And they aren't saying.

The most prominent is the Saudi monarch himself, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, who by the end of this month is expected either to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to a proposal to raise gasoline prices 30 to 80 percent. Premium gasoline currently sells at the equivalent of 66 cents per gallon, probably the cheapest widely marketed gasoline in the world.

Prices were last increased by 50 percent in 1987.

The low prices have helped maintain Saudi Arabia's status as the last bastion not only of cheap gasoline but also of huge American-made gas-guzzler cars. Compared to more economically-minded drivers in the US and Europe, Riyadh's modern eight and 10-lane highways at times resemble a high-speed museum of 8-cylinder automotive antiquity. Cadillacs, Buicks, and wide-bodied Chevrolets jockey, zoom, and weave faster and faster while getting three to seven miles per gallon.

In sharp contrast to the reaction of American drivers to the oil shock of the 1970s - which sent gasoline prices in the United States rocketing over $1 a gallon - many Saudis view gasoline price hikes as inevitable and appear prepared to take the higher cost of driving in stride. Some even see it as a national duty.

``Twenty riyals, 40 riyals? No problem,'' says Khaled Ibrahim, calculating the potential new cost in Saudi currency of filling up his white Nissan pickup truck. ``No problem,'' he repeats, paying a gas station attendant. ``It will help the government.''

Many Saudis interviewed offered the same explanation when asked whether they would object to an increase in gasoline prices.

``They paid for my education, they paid for my housing, for health care, and many other things. And now when they need me I will back them. I will do what I can to help,'' says Badr, from behind the wheel of his sparkling 1984 Chevrolet Caprice.

``We are in a role of everyone feeling a responsibility for the government and the nation,'' he says. ``Now we are paying the government back. It is our duty to do that.''

Others are concerned that lower-income or unemployed Saudis may find it hard to adjust to higher gasoline prices. Government officials are worried that the higher prices might spark an unwanted political backlash, forcing the government to rethink the new revenue plan.

``The people who have a high life, they don't mind it [the price increase], but the people who live in the middle, it will hurt much,'' says Abdullah Sallamah, sitting in the front seat of a tiny Isuzu pickup truck.

``I have a car and if they increase the price [of gasoline] too much I am going to sell it and buy a bicycle,'' he says with a grin.

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