Cash, Caution Keep Saudi Arabia Stable

In land of faxes, cell phones, and sand, tradition anchors a society in flux

The Saudi airline passengers settle in for their flight across Arabia, men adjusting flowing white robes and expansive traditional headgear, women calming wide-eyed children and shifting black shrouds so they can see better through gaps in their veils.

Before takeoff, cellular phones and notebook computers are turned off. The plane's loudspeaker announces the "traveler's prayer." The congregation of passengers turns silent as a prerecorded voice in Arabic echoes through the cabin: "God is great," rings the usual Islamic prayer, and may He preserve those who travel today.

This scene unreels many times each day and provides a glimpse of the stark contrasts found in a transforming Saudi society.

As they cling fast to traditional ways, Saudis have also charged headlong into a sophisticated modern lifestyle lubricated with a seemingly limitless supply of petrodollars.

The view from inside Saudi Arabia - one of America's strongest allies in the Persian Gulf, with its vast oil reserves and pro-US monarchy - is that the desert kingdom is built on strong foundations, despite virulent opposition from Islamic extremists who accuse the royal family of corruption and immorality.

"This country never had a colonial period and jumped overnight from a tribal society to a modern state," says a Saudi political scientist in the capital, Riyadh, who asked not to be named.

Saudis take pride in their progress. Everything from phone networks to its banks - are indeed carefully planned and built.

But with all this explosive growth, corruption has grown. "Nothing is perfect on this earth," the academic adds. But, he says, "Look at the achievements. In this short time, we have balanced traditional Islam with modern hospitals and surgeons. The role of the government is to not allow one trend to overcome the other. We could have wasted this wealth, but we built an infrastructure."

The progress has spawned a middle class - a near-novelty in the region - and has helped dampen unrest. Despite high earnings and a generous welfare system, there have always been calls for democratic reform.

Secure in its position as the largest oil exporter in the world, and sitting atop more than one-quarter of Earth's known oil reserves, the regime could afford to throw cash at social problems. In exchange, Saudi rulers expected obedience.

During the oil-boom 1970s, Saudi Arabia multiplied military expenditures from 2 billion to 65 billion Saudi riyals ($530 million to $17.3 billion). Cash spent on internal security jumped from $160 million to $3.2 billion.

Still, the royal family is a target for some hard-line Islamists, who prefer revolution to the slow change orchestrated by the regime. Adding to the problems - and to the growing number of dissenters - is the 50 percent erosion in per capita income over the last 12 years - an unwelcome statistic in the kingdom.

Still, Saudi insiders argue that the royal family is more flexible than it appears. They point to the 1960s, when the introduction of TV nearly caused riots, and later to the royal family's role in ensuring education for women.

Today, e-mail, satellite TV, and fax machines allow businesses a sophistication envied by most Arab neighbors, even though foreign newspapers and magazines are censored to delete pictures of scantily clad women or other "degrading" material. "People assume that [no change] is happening because they can't see it, but that is very wrong," says Othman al-Rawaf, a political analyst at King Saud University. "The elite can adjust very quickly."

Two recent truck bombs aimed at the American military presence in Saudi Arabia, however, underline the degree of unrest. Fiery Islamic preachers who say that monarchy is an un-Islamic method of rule have called for the overthrow of the government.

Last November four young Islamic zealots planted a bomb in Riyadh. Investigators say the June 25 blast at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, which killed 19 Americans, may have similar roots.

Analysts say that King Fahd, who appears to be in poor health, must beware the Islamists. Reputed to be a playboy when younger, his official titles now include "Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques" at Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest sites. To convince Muslims of his credentials, he permits the activities of some zealots and the mutawwaeen, or religious police.

"If it weren't for the Mutawwaeen, things would be moving a lot faster," says an American businessman who has lived here for more than 10 years and asks not to be named. "The royal family is in the middle, and they just don't dare on lots of things. They've got to tread this thin line.

"All the repression, all the human rights stuff, it all happens," he adds. "There is waste and fraud. But there is also entropy - a feeling that if they move at a slow pace, there will be little friction; and if they move fast, there will be turmoil."

The common assumption in the West that Saudi Arabia is about to boil over is incorrect, many Saudis say. The harsh physical environment, some observers say, has made Saudis slow to anger. This, coupled with the easy life of social welfare and free education, has yielded a society that is "non-violent and rarely noisy," says one senior Saudi official.

Still, there are inevitable comparisons to Iran, where the US backed a crumbling monarchy in the 1970s and was caught off guard by the depth of fundamentalist anger of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Parallels between Saudi Arabia and Iran exist: The US supplies massive amounts of military aid to Saudi Arabia - a "critical" ally in the region, as Iran once was - and has grown politically closer to the kingdom since the 1991 Gulf war. And US intelligence agencies admit that they know little about the strength of the Islamic opposition here.

But differences are more pronounced:

*Though the Gulf war opened Saudi Arabia to organized Islamic opposition for the first time since the 1920s, the monarchy has lavished money on its people. "These guys have a much bigger pitcher of money to pour in the cracks than Iran ever did," says the American businessman.

*Saudi Arabia has used its oil wealth to close the gaps between haves and have-nots, which Iran did not. The poverty that fuels Islamists from Iran to Egypt to Algeria plays little role in Saudi Arabia, where fundamentalists must rely on ideology to convince followers.

*To create the modern Saudi state, the ruling family cemented its grip on power by agreeing in the 18th century to work with the leader of the powerful Wahhabi sect of Islam; Iranian ruling dynasties were often at odds with such Islamic mullahs.

*There is little comparison between the Shah of Iran's brutal and murderous methods in the '70s, such as torture and political killings of suspected opponents, and the Saudi regime today.

Though the model of Iran's revolution is remote, many Saudis are alarmed about the recent bombs - and that their countrymen could be responsible. Some say they will be relieved if the Khobar blast culprits are found to be outsiders. Until then, prayers of safe travel on Saudi airlines will apply equally to the entire nation, as passengers ascend into the scalding air, their mobile phones temporarily switched off.

"Islamists resent Saudi Arabia moving to modern development," says the Saudi official. "They think they can keep Saudi from the real world, but they can't."

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