SAUDI ARABIA: AN ALLY THAT'S VERY FOREIGN View of world quite different from U.S.'s


Jidda, Saudi Arabia

He is a Saudi economist, educated in the United States, where he vacations each year, and he sits at a desk papered with charts and surrounded by computers, telephones and a fax. Judged by appearances, a thoroughly Westernized man in a luxuriously Westernized land.

Appearances can deceive. The economist talked about the kingdom's priorities for national development (education first, military hardware a likely second), its revenues (they are steeply up, since a crisis that doubles the oil price doubles the kingdom's income), and added in passing that he was in the United States when he learned of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

"I thought it was Zionist TV trying to make trouble among Arabs," he said.

Zionist TV?

"I didn't believe the news. Then I called home and found out it is true."

In a desert kingdom, political necessity can act like quirks of landscape and weather to create a mirage. The economist shares a Western outlook only up to a point. Saudi Arabia and the United States share interests up to a point. And no one should mistake the newly intimate alliance between the two countries as a marriage between people of perfectly like minds.

This is a profoundly foreign country. Some of the foreignness is standard travelogue material, the exotic, brightly colored scenes ready-made for National Geographic -- camel herds shuffling their way across expanses of desert, mysteriously veiled women, a palace here and there, a prince carrying a falcon on a gloved hand. Such scenes are real. But the foreignness also derives from unexpected encounters with the familiar, or with familiar fantasies.

Seeing fantasies partially realized, that is the strangeness, and in Saudi Arabia materialistic aspects of the American dream come true. Jeddah, not New York, is the city of cheap gasoline, no taxes, clean streets, big cars and free schools. It looks familiar -- a Wendy's hamburger restaurant stands next to a Baskin Robbins ice cream shop -- but is as different as a horse that moos.

Like every other business, the Wendy's closes four times a day to mark the Moslem prayer times that occur during business hours. It has separate entrances for men and women to ensure no woman has contact with a man from outside her immediate family, sexually segregated counters for placing orders and segregated dining rooms. Nearby is an amusement park with rides reserved solely for unaccompanied men; several blocks away is the park for families.

Thanks to its wealth, Saudi Arabia enjoys the luxury of being able to study a menu and then pick and choose the modern ways it wants. It can reject whatever appears to conflict with the kingdom's puritanical interpretation of Islam. Part of the menu is the United States, and what Saudis like most is America's prowess in technology, the know-how that developed the kingdom's oil fields.

Saudi Arabia's relationship with the United States includes admiration, even envy, but leaves out affection. "You can be sure of one thing -- we don't really like you," a Saudi writer said. "It's in our interest to cooperate and be very friendly with you, but it is bitter medicine."

American troops have not softened those feelings. While the United States is recognized as an ally, Iraq, whatever its transgressions, is warmly embraced as a brother, a country of fellow Moslem Arabs. For Saudis, liberal or conservative, the United States is fatally compromised by its support for Israel, an enemy for far longer than Iraq.

"Iraq is very, very important for the strength of the Arab world," the writer explained. Israel is invariably described as an interloper, and it is hard to overstate the pervasiveness of that belief.

The writer is one of the country's intellectuals. He is the author of several volumes on Arab history and has translated books by others. He is well read in Western literature. But he represents a strain of intellectual conservatism considered mainstream here but nearly extinct in the West.

He earnestly confides that the Western, non-Moslem world has inexorably been heading downhill ever since the Reformation, in the 16th century, when Martin Luther challenged the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and picked up more downhill speed in the 18th century, when philosophers advanced the idea that life was ruled by reason. "We know that kind of thinking is fading away," he said.

Western-educated Saudis counting on the younger generation to embrace more liberal ideas have been disappointed. Young Saudis are proving to be more, not less, conservative than their elders. Unlike their parents, they attend college without leaving the kingdom and graduate without exposure to the Western habits of questioning and debate.

Not that the government encourages questions. Within days of Iraq's invasion, members of the political science department at King Saud University, in Riyadh, were instructed not to allow classroom discussion of the crisis. While no one there admits to knowing the source of the order, no one expresses surprise that it was issued. Or obeyed.

"I feel sorry for them," a professor in another department said. "You can't teach political science without discussing politics." In a monarchy that bases its legitimacy on a somewhat modified version of divine right, rulers and their subjects receive little experience with public give and take. "We're not used to talking. We're afraid of anything less than a perfect consensus."

To the dismay of liberals, young women turn out to be the most conservative students of all, graduating from their segregated schools more religiously observant than when they began. "They frighten you," a Saudi liberal said. "They come out completely covered, wearing black gloves, and saying you shouldn't watch TV. We were hoping girls would be the leaders of social change. They are pulling us backward."

To be a liberal does not mean to reject religion or the monarchy. "We all accept Islam as a system of life," a liberal businessman said. "Even a liberal in Saudi Arabia is a conservative anywhere else in the Arab world."

What many liberals seek is greater recognition that the kingdom's economic interests lie mainly with the West, especially the United States, because the West has the largest appetite for oil.

Ironically, Saddam Hussein has helped the liberal cause. He gave Saudis reasons to care about their society and emboldened them to demand more from it.

For the first time, Saudis ask why the heavily censored press failed to report Iraq's use of chemical weapons, and why the kingdom needed to ask for American help. "Mr. Layman-in-the-Street thought Saudi Arabia could defend itself," another businessman said. "Mr. Layman is more politicized now."

Whether Iraq's occupation of Kuwait leads to war or to a negotiated, peaceful settlement, Saudis are likely to re-examine the menu, including the lists of allies and enemies. They may make several new choices -- in defense, for example -- but no one should expect them to surrender their identity and somehow adopt American minds.

Robert Ruby is The Sun's Mideast correspondent.

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