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Inside Saudi Arabia
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Inside Look at a Nation

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Can a marriage born of oil continue?
Future rests on next Saudi leader


Mona Al Somali, a nurse in the trauma unit of King Fahad National Guard Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, favors her veil for the respect it affords her. The Kingdom Center, with the V-shaped hole, and the Al Faisaliah Center have changed the face of the Saudi capital.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- A silvery shaft of glass and steel as tall as the Eiffel Tower, the new Kingdom Center soars high into the desert sky.

On the lower floors are offices and apartments, a Four Seasons hotel and a mall anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue. The upper half forks into two slim columns capped by an observation deck with nothing but open air in the middle.

Saudis have a dark joke about the place: The hole is there so a plane can fly through.

The Saudi government was quick to condemn the events of Sept. 11, when 19 hijackers crashed jets into another high-rise landmark, New York's World Trade Center, as well as the Pentagon and a remote Pennsylvania field.

It took far longer, though, for Saudis to admit that 15 of the hijackers were their own countrymen, recruited by a scion -- Osama bin Laden -- of one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent families. Now that they have accepted that, many Saudis see the hijackings as not just an attack against America but also against their country and its hugely profitable, if often problematic, relationship with the United States.

Saudi Arabia is America's biggest source of imported crude oil, supplying 10 percent of U.S. energy needs. And since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the kingdom has been host to thousands of U.S. troops stationed near Riyadh.

"The true victim of Sept. 11 in terms of politics is the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States," said Dr. Fahad Almubarak of the Shura Council, advisory body to Saudi's ruling family.

"There are extremists in Saudi Arabia who would like to see all U.S. bases out of here because they fear U.S. influence is going to jeopardize our independence. And there are organizations and countries that do not like Saudi positions. In this day, one could easily have many enemies."

Like many council members, Almubarak went to school in the United States (he has a doctorate from the University of Houston) and professes great fondness for Americans. Yet even Western-educated Saudis say U.S. support for Israel and its hard line toward the Palestinians has fomented extremism here and throughout the Arab world. At the same time, they accuse the U.S. media of fostering a one-dimensional view of Saudi Arabia, portraying it as little more than a breeding ground of Islamic fanatics.

In reality, Saudis insist, the attacks were the work of a few brainwashed young men whose actions in no way reflect mainstream Saudi thought or the tenets of Islam.

"The fact the hijackers had Saudi nationalities doesn't mean all Saudis are bad," said Prince Abdullah Bin Faisal, head of the country's investment authority. "It's like saying all Americans are bad because somebody goes out and kills school kids."

Still, Sept. 11 and the Saudi connections underscore the tensions in Saudi society -- tensions inevitable and disturbing in a key U.S. ally that is clearly struggling to reconcile Western-style progress with traditional Islamic values.

In many respects, Saudi Arabia has made remarkable strides since oil was discovered in 1938. Billions of dollars have been spent transforming mud-walled villages into modern cities with hospitals, universities, striking office towers and eight-lane highways. Walk through a food court -- McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks are big here -- and you might think you were in a U.S. mall.

But the clash between cultures can produce jarring inconsistencies. Store mannequins display sexy lingerie, yet the mutaween, or religious police, might lash a woman on the wrist for letting a strand of hair escape from under her veil. Satellite dishes bring in risque fare from all over the globe, yet Saudi Internet providers block the Web site of England's Middlesex Cricket Club because it has "sex" in the name.

Even some Saudis concede that efforts to shield society from Western "decadence," as many fundamentalists call it, is like trying to hold back the ocean with a sponge.

"We can't provide too much government protection -- it is up to me to teach my children what to watch and to create firewalls in their minds," said the Shura Council's Almubarak, who has five children age 9 to 18.

"It's not to the point where Saudi society is losing its values but it is a tough battle."

The tensions are exacerbated by a sobering reality: Saudi Arabia's boom days are behind it.

As oil revenues have dropped, Saudis have seen their per capita income plunge from $19,000 -- among the highest in the world -- to less than $8,000 in just 20 years. Saudis who once might have lived in big villas and driven gas-guzzling Lincolns are moving into apartments and buying fuel-efficient Nissans.

In scenes unthinkable two decades ago, dirty Saudi boys hawk bottled water at intersections in Jeddah, the second-largest city, and root through garbage bins in search of food. Yet just a few miles away, the Red Sea waterfront is lined with the enormous palaces of Crown Prince Abdullah, the acting Saudi ruler, and other members of the 30,000-strong Saudi royal family.

While the economic slump has widened the gap between rich and poor, fueling resentment of the royals, it has done little to reduce the high Saudi birth rate. More than 70 percent of Saudis are younger than 19 and millions of young Saudi men are entering the job market as the economy continues to weaken.

The competition for jobs is increasingly joined by Saudi women. They are graduating from college in record numbers, only to run up against the constraints of a conservative Islamic society that keeps men and women from working together anywhere but hospitals.

But in a country that tolerates only limited dissent, what complaints there are tend to focus on government policies rather than on religion. For better or worse, Saudis agree, Islam is what defines their country.

"Without Islam in Saudi Arabia you would not have Saudi Arabia," said Prince Sultan Bin Salman, head of the country's tourism commission. "Islam is the glue that holds Saudi Arabia together."

Eating behind a curtain

Saudi Arabia was the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and is home to the two holiest sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina. The modern kingdom was founded in 1932 by Abdul Aziz al-Saud, whose descendants wield absolute power today within the confines of Islamic law.

Geographically and culturally isolated for much of their history, Saudis cling to an interpretation of Islam -- Wahhabism -- that seems rigid and anachronistic to Westerners yet is tolerated to a surprising degree by even moderate Saudis.

That's why Saudi journalist Nada Al Fayez says she doesn't mind wearing an abaya, a long black robe, even though she often criticizes the country's treatment of women. The abaya meets the Islamic decree that women dress modestly in public.

"I must wear it. This is my religion and my roots," says Al Fayez, a 26-year-old who plays the stock market and writes an investment column. "For another Arab woman it might be easy to take off the abaya but I am a Saudi. It's like I'm carrying history in my heart."

To Saudis, few concepts are more alien than America's separation of church and state. Here, Islam permeates every facet of life:

The big Al-Azizia supermarkets throughout Riyadh are as well-stocked as their U.S. counterparts, with one notable exception. Because of the Muslim ban on pork, the meat counter has "turkey ham" and "beef ham."

Shoppers at Al-Azizia and other stores in the kingdom are careful to watch the clock. When prayer time comes -- as it does five times a day -- the lights are dimmed, the doors locked and the checkout counters closed. Anyone in line must wait 15 minutes before business resumes.

At the recent kickoff of the Jeddah summer tourism festival, an imam began the night's entertainment by reading passages from the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

That was followed by a laser show. Among the special effects: A huge laser version of the Koran, pages flipping open in time to a thumping beat.

And on Saudi Arabian Airlines, which boasts a modern fleet of Airbuses and Boeing 777s, a recorded voice repeats Allahu Akbar -- God is great -- as the plane taxis for takeoff.

The big TV screen in front of each cabin shows a compass pointing to Mecca so Muslim passengers will know which way to face at prayer time. At the back of the 777 is a space where up to nine people can spread their prayer rugs.

"And they can hold on to this bar if it gets turbulent," points out Faisal Al Sabyani, a veteran flight attendant. Saudi women cannot hold such jobs because it would require them to work with Saudi men; all the airline's female flight attendants are from Morocco or other Arab countries.

Indeed, the Saudi interpretation of Islam has produced what often seem to be parallel universes, one occupied by men, the other by women.

The Saudi American Bank, like most other banks in the kingdom, has separate ladies' branches. They are reached by separate entrances and staffed by women.

At Herfy's, a Saudi-owned chain of fast-food restaurants, the booths in the "family section" are curtained. That way women can eat without being seen by male customers.

When parents in Riyadh want to take their kids out for an evening of fun, the men might head to the kingdom's only ice skating rink. No women are allowed. But men can't go to the popular Women's Park, where mothers spread blankets on the grass and chat as the kids ride roller coasters and tilt-a-whirls.

Even marriage ceremonies, typically held in rented wedding halls, are segregated. The groom enjoys dinner with his male friends and relatives in one room, while the bride and her female guests dine and dance in another. The only time bride and groom get together is to pose for wedding pictures with the immediate family.

Saudi women have far fewer rights than men. They can't drive or travel abroad without a husband's permission. Daughters can inherit only half as much as sons, and a woman's testimony is given only half the weight of a man's in court.

Al Fayez, the journalist, is among the Saudi women who are starting to speak out. The Koran, she says, guarantees women equal rights and contains no ban on women working.

"The Prophet Mohammed was working for a woman in her business before he married her -- she was a businesswoman," Al Fayez said. "What we have here are policies and processes that must be changed -- there is nothing in Islam" that keeps women out of the workplace.

Al Fayez has publicly criticized the Ministry of Planning for hiring women only as clerks and translators and not having women in positions to help draft the country's five-year plan.

"We are an Islamic society in which men and women are segregated. How can men plan for women when they don't know what's happening in the women's sector?

"We must open positions and create jobs for women. The woman power in the kingdom is very high but we are not using it."

Saudi newspapers 'are more interesting'

In a culture like Saudi Arabia's, change comes slowly. But there are signs it is coming.

For the first time, women are allowed to have photo ID cards although they must get permission from a male family member.

Women who uncover their hair or faces in public are less likely these days to receive a disciplinary lash from the mutaween, the religious police. And men and women who aren't related have become a bit more relaxed about meeting for coffee, especially outside the "Bible Belt," as Saudis jokingly call their ultraconservative capital, Riyadh.

Saudi women also are moving into more occupations, including some that bring them into direct contact with men. Almubarak of the Shura Council said he was surprised, but not upset, when the female nutritionist he sought for advice shut the door to her office once he was inside.

"I thought maybe she would not want to do that," he said, because they weren't related. Almubarak, a financial consultant, said he also has "Saudi women calling me and trying to sell me investment products."

The 120-member Shura Council remains all male and no one expects that to change anytime soon. Yet it tries to get input from women in drafting legislation. When a Shura committee considered a retirement program for female workers, women were invited to give testimony, albeit from another room via closed circuit TV.

"Some say women are in our hearts and minds -- any time we think of an issue we always think of women," said Almubarak, whose wife is a professor at a women's university. "I think that's not enough. . . . I personally would like to see more participation of women at all levels of government. More participation will bring better balance, and the more they participate the more they will create opportunities for other women."

The experience in Saudi hospitals has shown that men and women can work comfortably together. Khulud Kadi, a 30-year-old woman who runs the Internet department at the King Fahad National Guard Hospital in Riyadh, has eight employees, half of them men.

Working relationships with the men are excellent, she says. "I have never been in a situation where I had a problem dealing with them even though some come from conservative families. I think people are getting used to the concept."

The gradual opening in society is reflected in a freer press. While Saudis in private often joke or grumble about members of the royal family, direct public criticism of Islam or the regime remains taboo. But Saudi papers are becoming bolder in attacking government policies on education, employment, health care and other matters.

"Suddenly Arabs are telling me they are reading Saudi newspapers because they're more interesting," said Reem Mohammed Al Faisal, a photographer and granddaughter of the late King Faisal.

When a fire in a girls' school in Mecca killed 15 students last March, Saudi papers blasted the religious establishment after witnesses claimed the mutaween had kept the girls from fleeing because they were not properly covered. And the disastrous World Cup performance of the Saudi soccer team -- it was shut out in all three matches -- prompted a wave of stories slamming the Youth Welfare Federation, headed by King Fahd's son, for not adequately preparing the team.

Among the most aggressive papers has been the English-language Arab News, which circulates throughout the kingdom. It has exposed a camp in which foreign workers were housed in 110-degree heat with no air conditioning, and revealed that a government hospital in Jeddah was so deeply in debt employees would get only 10 percent of their salaries.

Because it is based in Jeddah, the Arab News routinely reports on the declining quality of life in the city, a once-pleasant place now plagued by drugs, squalor and prostitution. A recent column bemoaned the city's "lost beauty and charm" and said government officials "must publicly admit their failure to do the job."

If criticism is based on accurate reporting, it is generally tolerated by authorities, said Khaled Al-Maeena, the paper's editor-in-chief. But there are limits. Al-Maeena's counterpart at another Saudi newspaper was canned after printing a poem that accused Islamic judges of being corrupt and obeying "tyrants."

Moderate Saudis see even the minor increase in press freedom as evidence society is maturing enough that Saudis can engage in constructive self-criticism. While the papers remain full of anti-Israel venom, there is even the occasional call for Arabs to examine their views and rhetoric.

In a recent column, for example, Reem Al Faisal castigated Muslims who rue that Hitler "didn't finish the job." Islam, she reminded readers, is a religion with a long history of peaceful co-existence with Jews.

The big question is whether Saudi society can continue on its moderating course, however glacial that might be.

"We are at a crossroads," says Al Faisal's brother, Amr, a Jeddah architect. "We either make the right decisions or we have a serious problem. This is why Sept. 11 was so bad -- it came at a crossroads. We are a society that relies on evolution and our evolution has been jarred and shocked by Sept. 11."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at