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Here, in the hometown of our new enemy, everything eventually betrays. Even the Red Sea.
Tonight, in staggering 100-degree heat, scores of Saudis have been drawn to the Corniche, the path that cuts along the jagged coast of this old port city. There are the families vacationing from Riyadh, picnicking at midnight on the foam-crusted shore. There are the devout men from Mecca, weaving past the Nigerian women hawking fireworks and pony rides. All have come on the promise of relief. But instead of the longed-for breeze, the sea spews hot steam, salty and stale.
The boy from Jeddah, Mahmoud Sabbagh, reed-thin and tender-faced, lets the steam soak his T-shirt and smiles. The past year has taught him to abide such deceptions.
There he was, a freshman at George Washington University, when his own country betrayed him, sending 15 men on a flight of death. There he was, crying over the carnage, when he was betrayed a second time, by his second country.
"I was emotionally with the Americans, but then I saw the way they reacted, labeling all the Saudi people as terrorists," he says. "The one thing was hard; the other was in some ways worse."
A year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Saudi Arabia is like the Red Sea, defying Western logic. Where we look for remorse, our longtime ally offers indignation. Where we expect introspection, there is a growing defensiveness. Where we thought we sensed a wind of change, there is a hardening around the old ways.
Riyadh, the country's conservative capital, already is closing ranks against the West. Now cosmopolitan, reform-minded Jeddah - Osama bin Laden's hometown - also is slipping away. U.S. support for Israel, war plans against Iraq and a Pentagon advisory report branding Saudi Arabia our enemy have strained the Saudi-U.S. connection, which had once seemed unbreakable.
If 9/11 was intended to fray the cord, it is succeeding.
Sabbagh, 20, still wants to straddle both worlds, the way his father and so many other U.S.-educated Saudis did. But it is harder than he imagined. Each country seems to beseech him to renounce the other.
He is worried about returning to the States this month as the nation wallows in the one-year anniversary of the attacks.
"I hope they don't drag it all out," he says, frowning. "That could stir things up even more."
And then a question his second country cannot abide:
"What good will it serve?"
The Price Of Blindness
There is another side of 9/11, halfway across the world, where our way of assimilating the tragedy has been ambushed.
Nothing holds up here: not our right to demand an explanation from the nation that produced so many of the 19 hijackers; not our insistence on knowing who on the planet is with us or against us; not even our claim on grief.
A year later, as we still reel from the life-altering magnitude of the attacks, the people of Saudi Arabia are ready to write off those 82 minutes of terror as an anomaly of history. They are hurt by seeing their orthodox brand of Islam misunderstood and smeared. They are tired of having their faith scrutinized and their textbooks dissected for anti-Western hatred - especially by a nation that has reared monsters such as Timothy McVeigh without apology.
They have had enough of us barging in, forcing them to fess up.
"Saudi Arabia has been one of the strongest allies to the United States through history. So the [American] reaction has been very traumatic for us," Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud, a nephew of King Fahd who is in charge of attracting foreign investment to the kingdom, said during an interview in Riyadh last month.
"How quickly the politicians, in their continuing service to the Israelis, they go and attack the strongest ally they have ever had," said the prince, who has a stronger allegiance to the West than many members of the ruling family. "And the educated intellectuals - the cultured people, the liberal types - they will look down on you and say, `ugh, my God.'
"They're always telling the world they have a better system, the most open democratic system, and then they react to this in a lynch-mob mentality."
The unprecedented crest of anti-American resentment, stirred in part by a growing perception that Muslims are no longer welcome in the U.S., belies the repeated assurances from leaders of both countries that their 60-year alliance remains intact. U.S. officials have gone out of their way to exempt Saudi Arabia - viewed as one of the most moderate Arab nations - from blame, with the president excluding the kingdom from the so-called "axis of evil."
But the cracks in that facade, which began to show after the Cold War ended, are now bursting open. A Gallup poll earlier this year found that just 16 percent of Saudis had a favorable view of the U.S. More telling, a grass-roots boycott of American products, initiated in the spring to protest U.S. support for Israel, has picked up momentum - a phenomenon that has forced chains such as Burger King and Starbucks to run ads assuring Saudis that the products they sell in the kingdom are made outside the States.
Before Sept. 11, neither country felt the need to analyze the marriage, forged on the mutual interests of oil and security. As long as the oil kept flowing, we ignored the Saudis' slide toward extremism. As long as we helped to protect their borders, the Saudis tolerated our makeshift foreign-policy agenda.
We fought wars together, united against aggressors. In the 1980s, we ran the Soviets out of Afghanistan, with help from bin Laden and other Saudis. In the 1990s, we chased Iraq out of Kuwait.
Underlying the relationship was an unspoken vow of blindness, an agreement not to look too closely at each other's values. It was a compact, as one Saudi scholar noted, that could have been culled from the pages of the Koran: "Ask not about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble."
But since Sept. 11, the marriage has been made plain, and it appears fraught with deception. Americans see a country that took their petrodollars and poured them into radical Islamic schools and terrorist networks. The Saudis see a nation that has used them for its own gain, while scheming against the Muslim world - Palestinians, Aghans and now, Iraqis.
"The U.S. cares only about our economic benefits, nothing else," said Khaled Althidi, a young Saudi father who works for an agricultural company. "You give Israel anything it asks, but you attack any country with Islam ... I am seeing America, and it is not good."
The more each side sees, the wider the divide. There are so few meaningful cultural ties to bind us.
Half the Saudi population is shrouded in black, barred from driving or from working alongside men, except in a few professions. There is no separation of church and state: The Koran, Islam's holy book, is the kingdom's constitution. Alcohol is banned, and there are no nightclubs or movie theaters.
Americans have always viewed Saudi Arabia as an insulated country, closed off from the Western world by geography and choice. But from the other side, it is the U.S. that seems self-absorbed. This summer, as Saudis were glued to the popular Al Jazeera network, bombarded with news about the Palestinian crisis and other international dramas, Americans were fed a steady diet of pedophile priests, abducted children and corrupt CEOs.
And what of U.S. plans to pay tribute to the victims of Sept. 11? Even that points up a cultural difference. The Saudis bury their dead within hours, in unmarked graves, and discourage demonstrative mourning.
"I feel for the families, of course," said Samar Fatani, a Jeddah mother of five who works for state-run Saudi radio. "But people die every day, in earthquakes, in floods, in natural disasters. Did America think it was immune to all the dangers of the world?"
There is another side of 9/11, clear across the globe, but it is difficult to navigate.
To understand it, you have to give up the corner on feeling betrayed.
You have to allow that those 82 minutes of terror, in which nearly 3,000 lives were taken, might have been the price for your country's blindness, for years of disengagement in a critical part of the world.
You have to abide the question, "What good will it serve?" without protest.
A Window Closes
It should be easy to mark a moment in time here. After all, the day is rigidly structured: Five times, shops are closed and offices emptied as loudspeakers summon Saudis to pray in the country's 40,000 mosques.
Still, in many other ways, the structure is a ruse. Saudis scorn the clock: They are always running late. And in the heat of summer, days and nights are reversed, with streets coming to life from late afternoon through early morning.
So it is hard to pinpoint exactly when a window of opportunity opened in Saudi Arabia, and when it closed again.
But there was a short time, after Sept. 11, when Saudi Arabia and the U.S. actually seemed to be drawn closer than ever before - the reverse effect of what bin Laden is believed to have intended when he chose Saudis to carry out the attacks.
For a few months this spring, reformers in the kingdom seemed to be gaining ground on the extremists. They raised all kinds of questions: whether the country's religious curriculum was breeding hatred of the West; whether the monarchy had given radical imams, or preachers, too much free rein; and whether Saudi culture could benefit from exposure to diverse interpretations of Islam.
It was a quiet, tentative introspection, but it was profound for a society that traditionally had shunned internal debate - especially debate about its Wahhabi brand of Islam, which promotes a strict, separatist interpretation of the Koran. The self-criticism reached a peak in March and April, when newspapers across the kingdom reported that the country's religious police had kept male rescuers away from a deadly fire at a girls' school in Mecca because some of the students were not properly clothed in the mandatory head-to-toe black abayas, or cloaks.
Although the government denied the reports, it fired the head of the General Presidency for Girls' Education, overseen by the clergy, and changed the way girls' schooling is supervised. The monarchy also tolerated a level of criticism in the media, which it subsidizes and censors, that would have been unheard of five years ago.
"You have to understand, self-criticism is very hard for us," said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, a Saudi writer and political consultant who has written critically of the monarchy's tolerance of extremist ideology. Like other Saudi intellectuals, he noted that the ruling al-Saud family was able to unite warring tribes and establish the kingdom only by using the strict teachings of Wahhabism as the glue.
"The tribal system was united under one chief, who is like the father. You don't criticize the father, because he is what holds the family together," al- Hattlan said.
As the Saudis grappled with huge ideological questions, Americans reacted the opposite way. Initially, the terrorist attacks squelched internal debate. Patriotism meant supporting the government's response, including the bombing of Afghanistan and wide-reaching anti-terrorism laws. The press rallied behind the Bush administration, which needed all hands on deck.
For a few months, we became more like the Saudis, and they became more like us.
It could have been a legacy of Sept. 11 - if only the clock had stopped.
Once the trauma passed, we retreated to our respective corners. Americans had new complaints about the Saudis' support of terrorism; Saudis had new complaints about U.S. support for Israel.
Daily events have stoked the alienation: Bush calling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a "man of peace" in April, as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict raged; the recent report by the Rand Corp. to a Pentagon advisory board, describing Saudi Arabia as a terrorist state; a new lawsuit filed by relatives of Sept. 11 victims, contending that Saudi charities and members of the royal family helped to support bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
While Americans are getting back their voice of dissension, Saudis are losing theirs. The fallout from 9/11 has given the attacks a new legitimacy.
"The events since Sept. 11 have only helped bin Laden succeed in getting what he wanted - to make Saudi Arabia an enemy of the United States," said al-Hattlan, who is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. "The more the Palestinians are oppressed and the more Israel is supported by the U.S., the more of a hero he becomes."
For reformers, the Palestinian conflict and a perception that Saudi Arabia is being unfairly attacked have set back the push for internal change.
"There is a strong feeling that America is making drastic mistakes in foreign policy," said Sami Angawi, a Jeddah architect who has spoken out for reforms. "Moderate people like me, who want a dialogue with America, we're having a very hard time. Everyone says, `Now is the time for unity, not dissent.' The same thing happened during the gulf war - it was, `Stay together, the enemy is at the gate.'"
Reformers also resent that there has been no attempt, on the part of the U.S. government, to press for democratic institutions or other changes in Saudi Arabia. Some say Saudi involvement in the terrorist attacks could have justified U.S. calls for human rights reforms, or for revamping a curriculum that fosters religious intolerance.
Witness a passage in a high school textbook used in Jeddah: "The last hour won't come before the Muslims would fight the Jews, and the Muslims will kill them, so Jews would hide between rocks and trees. Then the rocks and tree would call: `oh Muslim, oh servant of God! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.'"
U.S. diplomats say that Saudi Arabia has never responded well to external pressure and that they are working behind the scenes to encourage reforms. In Riyadh last month, the U.S. Embassy was busy trying to arrange for 10 Saudi secondary-school teachers to visit the States, to see how religion is taught.
Even that small step ran into problems. Because of new anti-terrorism restrictions, the embassy was having trouble securing visas for the group.
`It Doesn't Have To Be War'
The road to the Red Sea is cluttered with U.S. icons: Bridgestone tires, ACDelco, Pizza Hut and Chili's are all represented along Palestine Street, nestled among Jeddah's low-slung landscape of yellow pastels and gleaming steel.
A few blocks from the sea, Khaled al-Maeena, editor of the Arab News, the largest English-language daily in the Mideast, smokes fruit-flavored tobacco on a shisha pipe in his dining room and studies the face of his 23-year-old son, Hassan. The beard has been growing for months, a worry for al-Maeena and his wife, the radio journalist Fatani, who have tried to instill in their children an appreciation for diversity.
In Saudi Arabia, a beard is not a sign of rebellion against authority.
It is a sign of resignation.
Now, as the conversation turns to Saudi-U.S. relations, Hassan, a graduate of American University in Washington, puts words to his conservative leanings.
"Your generation grew up with a different relationship to America," he tells his father. "You didn't have to watch the Americans bombing unarmed Muslims every day. ...
"You say, `Dialogue. We need dialogue,'" he continues. "It's been dialogue for 50 years, and where did it get us? Carter and Camp David and Oslo - where did it get us?"
Khaled, who was educated in the U.S. and England, shakes his head. He is usually a feisty debater, but his son's words seem to subdue him. This has been a trying, emotional year for Saudis sympathetic to the States.
"What's your alternative?" Khaled asks.
"Instead of waiting for the West to step in and solve things, maybe the Arab world needs to take it into their own hands," Hassan jumps in, his dark eyes shiny and piercing. "Instead of wasting time telling the world we're good people, we just take care of our own problems. "
"Then you give up hope," Khaled interrupts. "Then 11 September succeeds."
"It would have happened anyway. That just speeded things up," Hassan says. "The way they support Israel, the way they let the media attack us - the U.S. doesn't care about us."
"We can still try," Khaled says.
"How - by talking? That won't work anymore," Hassan says. "I'm not saying, let's crash into buildings. ... It doesn't have to be war. It just ends."
There is no news here for Khaled; he has heard the argument for breaking with America a hundred times now, in letters from readers and face-to-face debates. Even his wife is conflicted: This summer, she chastised Saudi friends who planned to vacation in the U.S., questioning why they would want to visit a country that was building walls to keep Muslims out.
Still, Khaled is not ready to turn away. His is a generation that had a deep, personal connection to America, one that is not easily ended.
In the 1970s and '80s, the Saudis' oil wealth allowed them to send tens of thousands of their children to schools in the U.S., many on full government scholarships. Many of the monarchy's princes and princesses, who number about 5,000, have diplomas from U.S. colleges. Saudi families packed flights from Jeddah and Riyadh to Orlando and Santa Barbara in the summer. More than 30,000 Americans settled in the kingdom to work for U.S. companies with Saudi interests.
"There were very strong ties centered around education and commerce," said Wyche Fowler Jr., U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1996 to 2001. "It wasn't just business - they were ties of friendship."
Inside Saudi society, the influence of the U.S. is everywhere. A true "boycott" of American products would mean dismantling the culture.
The religious police, who lately have been known to hassle Saudi citizens for smoking Marlboros or drinking Dunkin' Donuts coffee, drive American-made GMC trucks. Saks Fifth Avenue has a store in Riyadh's new Kingdom Center mall. Rising out of Mecca, home to the holiest mosque in the Muslim world, are McDonald's golden arches.
But the relationship has turned more symbolic than substantive over the past decade. As Saudis have built up their own university system, and as the government's oil revenues have declined, fewer students have been attending U.S. schools - an estimated 4,000 a year, down from as many as 30,000 in the 1980s. Corporate downsizing was shrinking the number of Americans living in the kingdom even before the terrorist attacks. The Saudis have never issued visas to tourists, and applying for a visit visa is cumbersome.
The estrangement is most noticeable at the kingdom's many playgrounds and amusement parks: Saudi toddlers gape wide-eyed at light-haired, light-eyed American visitors, as if seeing those features for the first time.
Because younger Saudis have limited exposure to the U.S., they have none of the separation anxiety that their parents feel. But for many older Saudis, even those who bad-mouth the U.S., there is anguish.
Chief among their worries is that America will attack Baghdad and install a friendly regime in Iraq - to replace Saudi Arabia.
"We may hate U.S. policy," said a Riyadh lawyer who attended U.S. schools, "but we don't want to be dumped."
Khaled al-Maeena does not know how the generation gap will play out in his country. Or even in his own home.
Asked for a prediction, he pressed his palms to his forehead.
"Tell people," he said, "that Saudi Arabia is struggling to find its soul."
A Dying Breed
Steve and Debbie Hill are searching for their country. Have you seen it lately?
When they left, it was the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Now, it views them with suspicion.
They are a dying breed - Americans who remain in Saudi Arabia, who feel safe in Saudi Arabia, despite the swing toward fundamentalism and a string of car bombings against Westerners in the past two years.
When they first moved to the kingdom, Steve told Debbie, "If we ever feel threatened, we're leaving right away."
That was 19 years ago.
Their American friends don't understand why they've stayed. After Sept. 11, dozens of American and British families bailed out of the kingdom's expatriate compounds - self-contained mini-cities of airy apartments and Olympic-sized pools. Three years ago, there were about 200 American families in the Arabian Homes compound in Jeddah, where the Hills live; now, there are about two dozen.
They know that some of their friends think they've been brainwashed, and that others think they are blind. How can they walk their dog along the Corniche on Friday evenings, after imams have pumped up the Saudis with sermons of hate? Didn't they notice anything strange in their eight years in Khamis Mushayt, a town in the remote, conservative Asir region, home to at least five of the Saudi hijackers?
"We've always been treated well," says Steve, an aircraft field technician for East Hartford-based Pratt & Whitney. "We've never felt unwelcome."
It wasn't until November, when they returned to the States for a visit, that the Hills learned that some of the hijackers were Saudi citizens. The Saudi government had done a good job disputing that fact: not until February did a member of the monarchy, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, acknowledge it.
Debbie, who works for the U.S. government, has resisted a sense of betrayal.
"You feel anger on the one hand, but on the other, you feel, these are Saudis. I know these people," she says. "We never imagined - they are such peaceful people. They can't even hold a public demonstration in this country. ... I still can't relate to it."
Now, the Hills, who have two grown sons, watch as traffic between the two countries slows to a trickle. Saudi travel to the States fell off by as much as 80 percent this summer, according to some travel agents, as families chose not to venture where they did not feel welcome.
Hundreds of Saudi students have dropped out of U.S. schools, opting instead for colleges in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, which have swooped in to attract them.
There are few American faces along the Corniche on a Friday night.
The Hills still want to straddle both countries, as so many families did before. But it is harder than they imagined. Each country seems to beseech them to renounce the other.
Recently, when Debbie was shopping downtown, a Saudi asked her where she was from - a common question for an American woman who does not cover her face the way most Saudi women do.
Without thinking, she answered: "Jeddah."
There is a moment, in nearly every conversation between an American and a Saudi, when someone blunders, and silence falls.
Sometimes, the moment is preceded by a Saudi's assertion that the Sept. 11 attacks were actually the work of the CIA and Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency - an idea still prevalent in the kingdom.
Sometimes it is brought on by an American's confession that not all people actually believe in God - an idea that leaves many Saudis speechless.
But almost always, it happens at the mention of Osama bin Laden.
The Saudis just don't seem to give it the right gravity.
Abdullah Almohanna grinned as he disclosed that the sleek new retail-and-office building he manages in Riyadh - one of the city's own "twin towers" - was built by the bin Laden family's Jeddah-based construction company.
"And you think he only destroys things," he quipped.
The Saudis are equally proud of Riyadh's other tower, the Kingdom Center, which happens to be the subject of a wildly popular joke. A bolt of silver rising from the desert, it is capped by steel columns that form an open triangle in the sky.
"The hole is there so the hijackers can fly through," Saudis will tell you, laughing.
Al-Maeena offered this light-hearted analogy for the Sept. 11 attacks: "I compare it to Mike Tyson sitting in the slammer when Woody Allen hits him. America is still shocked that someone - a runt - had the audacity to attack them."
And then there is the joke about the genie who gives President Bush and bin Laden one wish each. Bush wants an enormous wall erected around his country, high enough to keep out any aggressors. Poof, the wall goes up. Then comes bin Laden's request:
"Fill it with water."
In the year that American troops have been scouring caves in Afghanistan, bin Laden has been achieving folk hero status back home. Even before Sept. 11, the makings of a Robin Hood myth were there.
His father was a Yemeni who came to Jeddah empty-handed, to work on the docks of the busy port. By the time Osama entered school, his father had established ties to the royal family and was on his way to becoming one of the richest construction magnates in the kingdom.
The Saudi Binladin Group, still operating out of a compound on Jeddah's north side, built palaces, mosques and roads, thanks to patronage from the House of Saud. Among the firm's projects was Route 15, a narrow highway that begins near Mecca and rides the ridge of the Asir Mountains.
It is the road that many of the hijackers took to obtain their U.S. visas in Jeddah.
In 1979, bin Laden renounced the life of privilege and went to Afghanistan to join fellow Muslims in the "jihad" against Soviet invaders, a battle that the U.S. aided. Saudis say he had already achieved celebrity status among Muslim militants when he returned to Jeddah a decade later.
The Persian Gulf War would cement his militancy: He railed against the monarchy's decision to allow the U.S. to use Saudi Arabia, steward of Islam's birthplace, to amass forces for the war against Iraq. Worse still was the royal family's decision to let 5,000 U.S. troops remain indefinitely on Saudi soil, at the Prince Sultan Air Base, southeast of Riyadh.
After his expulsion from the kingdom in 1991, bin Laden called on young Muslims to kill the American "infidels" who had desecrated "the land of the Two Holy Mosques," in Mecca and Medina, and to overthrow the monarchy. His family disowned him.
Today, while many Saudis disapprove of his violent methods, they sympathize with his cause. Resentment of the U.S. presence in the kingdom has been building among young people, who see few reasons why the Saudis should rely on Americans for protection.
Hundreds of young Saudis fought against the U.S. in Afghanistan last year, on the side of the Taliban. In June, Saudi intelligence officials arrested 11 Saudi members of an al Qaeda cell for plotting to shoot down U.S. jets that use Prince Sultan Air Base.
With the oil boom over, and the Saudi economy teetering, younger people are getting none of the perks of the East-West alliance - the government scholarships, the jobs, the business loans. Radicalized by events in Israel and disillusioned by the monarchy, they find a cause in Arab unity against the West. Some feel betrayed by an older generation of opportunists who sold out to the U.S.
"Our generation expected things would be as good for us as they were for our parents," said al-Hattlan, 35, who was raised in the Asir region, where some teenagers speak with pride about the 15 Saudi "martyrs." "There is a lot of anger here."
Jamal Khashoggi, deputy editor of the Arab News, said that although many young people might admire bin Laden's defiance, that's not necessarily dangerous. "Do they want to go to a training camp in Afghanistan? They would say no."
Even among many older Saudis, bin Laden stirs grudging admiration. Speculation about his health and whereabouts is light, after-dinner fare.
"He looked so skinny on that last video," one Saudi will say, and the conversation will turn to how serious bin Laden's kidney disease might be.
The Saudi media write about his activities in matter-of-fact shorthand.
"Al Qaeda plans a major anti-U.S. attack, possibly in August," said a one-paragraph story on the front page of the July 31 Riyadh Daily newspaper.
Some Saudis roll their eyes at the U.S. media's obsession with whether bin Laden is alive or dead.
"Even if he's dead, he's alive, because his cause is alive," said one Jeddah woman.
The Good Oil Days
How bad has it gotten since the boom ended?
In the Al-Owed section of Riyadh, Saudi women in dingy abayas squat on the front stoops of ramshackle homes that consist of a dirt floor, a curtain and a prayer rug.
In Jeddah, scruffy Afghan boys snake through downtown traffic, hawking bottled water. African women paw through dumpsters and trash heaps for cardboard and cans. As the gateway to Mecca, the city welcomes nearly 2 million Muslims each year for the hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy shrine, then must absorb the thousands who stay.
Saudi Arabia cannot continue its legendary generosity to foreigners, because it can barely take care of its own. With one of the highest birth rates in the world, its young population is exploding: 42 percent of Saudis are under 15 and 65 percent are under 25.
Because of global changes in supply and demand, Saudi oil revenue has plunged from a peak of more than $200 billion a year in 1981 to less than $50 billion today. Per capita income has also plummeted in 20 years - from $28,600 in current dollars to less than $8,000. As many as 30 percent of the country's 22.7 million people are unemployed, but the kingdom imports 6 million foreign workers, many of them from India, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines, to fill low-wage jobs that Saudis don't want.
Saudi colleges are graduating record numbers of male and female students - about 200,000 a year - and there are still not enough university seats to go around. More than a third of graduates can't find jobs.
Government officials say they are taking steps to improve the labor situation, in part by increasing the number of Saudi citizens in private-sector jobs by 5 percent a year. Part of the problem is that Saudis traditionally have resisted what they consider menial jobs - plumbers, carpenters, cab drivers. Changing that could take another generation.
"The issue is not the university seats available - it's that the job market is not absorbing the graduates," said Mohammad al-Qunaibet, chairman of the economic affairs committee of the 120-member Shura Council, an advisory panel to the monarchy.
The social frustrations are starting to eat through the tranquil veneer of Saudi society. The country's religious police, known as the muttawa, patrol shopping malls for groups of idle boys out to make trouble. At 2 a.m. on a Wednesday in August, clusters of Saudi youths in baseball caps and jeans hung out in parking lots along King Fahd Street, a main drag in Jeddah. On nearby Tahleyah Street, rich kids cruised aimlessly in new Lexuses and Mercedes.
The restlessness meter in Saudi Arabia is off the charts. Boys who can watch "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on satellite TV are banned from socializing with girls in public. To defy a muttawa ban on music in public, kids program their cellphones to blare funky Arabic tunes. Girls keep up with the latest fashion and makeup, but cannot leave the house without cloaking themselves in their abayas.
Boredom, in most places in the world, goes untapped. But for the hard-line clerics in Saudi Arabia, boredom breeds a constituency for a rhetoric of intolerance.
Members of the royal family - even progressives such as Prince Abdullah - don't like to see the kingdom's social problems overblown. They pride themselves on having turned Saudi Arabia into a modern society, in record time, with an infrastructure unparalleled in the Gulf region.
"Sometimes when people talk about the Saudis, they expect them to be almost different from humans. They expect us to be perfect," Prince Abdullah said. "I don't know why they expect us to be perfect. It's mainly because we had a lot of money for a period of time.
"We're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't, it seems. It's always an issue where everybody judges."
Judgment from the U.S., which is grappling with its own economic and social woes, is especially irritating.
"Some people say you [Americans] have, what, 40 million people under the poverty line? And yet you go to Mars," Prince Abdullah said. "You spend $20 million to send a vehicle to send signals back - for 20 years, you do this. Now, you can send a small missile up my nose, back from the Pacific, if you want.
"I don't know - what about those 40 million people?"
An Extreme Problem
It is easy to see how a puritanical, monotheistic religion could take hold here.
On the outskirts of the sprawling cities, or in the undeveloped southeastern quarter of the country, there's only sloping desert and white-hot sky. Save for the errant camel, there's nothing to pray to, natural or man-made.
All religions have dark corners. But Islam, left alone, is one of the most tolerant religions in the world. It accepts Christians and Jews as "people of the book." Its prayers, lilting and guttural, have the ring of Hebrew.
"As-salaam alaikum." "Shalom aleichem." In Arabic or Hebrew: May peace be upon you.
To turn Islam violent, someone needs to twist it. And that's what some of the country's religious leaders have done, freely, over the years. Because the world's 1.2 billion Muslims turn each day to face Mecca, Saudi Arabia's version of Islam carries enormous weight.
After Sept. 11, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the country's de-facto ruler, had called on clerics to condemn extremism and terrorism, cautioning them "not to get emotional or provoked." But the monarchy has taken few steps to police the clerics' rhetoric or to curb their control of the education system and the muttawa, the field troops of the kingdom's Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Many Saudis concede that the rhetoric of intolerance has become even more prevalent in the past year, fueled largely by Israel's suppression of the Palestinian intifada and a belief that a Jewish-controlled U.S. government and media is out to destroy Islam.
In an April sermon at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheik Abdul Rahman al-Sudais reportedly called on God to "terminate" the Jews, whom he described as "the scum of humanity" and "pigs and monkeys."
In July, a lesser-known religious leader, Muhammad al-Khasif, told viewers of Al Jazeera TV: "I hate America and its policy. I see it interfering in the sovereignty of my country. ... I see it killing children in Afghanistan and Palestine with the support of the Jews, and killing children in Iraq with the oppressive siege."
In August, one of Jeddah's more open-minded clerics, Lutfallh Hatem, looked hard into an American journalist's eyes and explained what it was like to try to preach tolerance in a climate of anger:
"It's harder," he said through a translator, "than an actual war."
Reformers, who thought they saw an opening for change, now worry that the country's aging rulers will continue to allow the extremists free rein, in order to shield themselves from a fundamentalist overthrow. The House of Saud has managed to remain in power - and to modernize the country - by walking a tightrope between allies in the West and traditionalists at home, making concessions to both sides, whenever it felt threatened.
When Islamic fundamentalists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the shaken monarchy crushed the revolt - then turned over more authority to fundamentalist clerics. After the gulf war, it gave the religious establishment even broader authority, as if to counter the perception that the kingdom was cozying up to the West.
At the same time, more women have slipped into the workplace, and the school curriculum, heavy on religion, is being made more diverse. In the last two years, Saudi newspapers have been allowed to carry more criticism of government practices.
But the pace of change has a one-step-forward, two-steps-back quality. In just the past year, for example, the government has demanded the firing of 10 writers and editors from Al Watan, a popular newspaper known for its aggressive reporting, staff members say.
"They open the spigot, then they close it again," said Hatoon al-Fassi, a history professor and writer who lives in Riyadh. After she spoke out in favor of reforms, the government recently suspended her from teaching at King Saud University.
Now, she worries that the House of Saud will react to Sept. 11 by pushing the country even further toward extremism. As it is, when she goes out in public with her face exposed, other Saudi women chastise her. That didn't happen 15 years ago.
She notes that after the fire at the school in Mecca, in which 15 girls were killed, the government was careful to lay blame on the girls' education ministry, but to exonerate the religious police.
"That was the trade-off. You see who they are protecting," she said.
Most Saudis weren't surprised at their government's recent refusal to assist the U.S. in its threatened attack on Iraq. That kind of complicity with America, targeted against a Muslim country, could push fundamentalists to the brink of revolution.
Reformers say they don't want to abolish Wahhabism, or even to change it. Instead, they merely want to see other versions of Islam taught and debated - a move away from the one-size-fits-all approach upon which the kingdom was founded.
"Wherever Islam went through the ages, it always took on what was there and moved with it," said Angawi, the Jeddah architect. "But a limited way of thinking has developed over the last 70 years. It's taking a way of thinking that came from a village in the desert and trying to apply it to all civilization. That's dangerous. With only one version, you either speak that language or you become a guy who's racing fast cars and shouting at girls.
"When we were running and fighting battles, we needed one opinion to unify the country," he went on. "But we're not running anymore. We're sitting. You can't bring everybody back to that village in the desert."
While Wahhabism remains the most powerful force blurring tribal lines, there is one consequence of Sept. 11 that is working against that. Saudis who apply for visas to the U.S. are now being asked to identify their tribal affiliation.
Al-Hattlan, like hundreds of Saudi students, has been waiting weeks for a visa to return to the U.S. Besides the long wait, he considers the tribal inquiry an insult. He is a native of Abha, in the Asir region, where some of the hijackers came from.
"We have spent 70 years trying to break the tribal system," he said, "and now it suddenly matters again."
Keeping The Promise
You've got to give the U.S. credit: It has remained true to its vow of blindness.
If anything, America actually helped encourage a fundamentalist curriculum in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, when the kingdom was using its oil riches to build its education system. During the Cold War, U.S. diplomats considered hard-line Muslim doctrine a fine alternative to Communism.
In the same way, the U.S. has looked away as the Saudis have funneled millions to radical groups, such as Hamas, and to a network of madrassas - militant Islamic schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia that teach young men that a holy war against infidels is the highest form of worship. Some experts blame the U.S. for allowing al Qaeda and the Taliban to flourish, with Saudi help, by abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven out.
Americans also have paid little heed to the situation of Saudi women, who have limited legal and civil rights. To gain support for the bombing of Afghanistan last year, the Bush administration built a case that the Taliban was mistreating women by forcing them out of jobs, limiting their right to move about freely, and restricting their access to education.
In Saudi Arabia, women are barred from a number of professions, including law and engineering; need permission from a male relative to travel; and are frequently reproached, and sometimes lashed, by the roving muttawa for failure to observe the dress code.
As for democracy - or the lack of it - the U.S. hasn't mentioned that matter. For now, that's an issue for only some countries, like Iraq.
"Many Americans wave their flag now, but they don't understand what it stands for," said Walid Fitaihi, a young Saudi doctor who recently returned to the kingdom after teaching at Harvard Medical School. "Unless Americans are going to take that flag of freedom and try to help other countries, it means nothing."
But even if America had spoken up, would it have mattered? Probably not, many Saudis say. The kingdom has never taken well to outside advice.
"You must understand, Saudi Arabia has never really been influenced from the outside, politically speaking," explained Prince Abdullah. "The political system, the sociopolitical structure and the social fabric are all things that we've worked on from within. They were not designed for us by the oil companies, by SOCAL [Standard Oil Company of California] ... the Kremlin or Whitehall."
That doesn't mean that the kingdom will take no lessons from 9/11; Prince Abdullah and others insist it will. But there will not be the kind of overhaul of the curriculum or silencing of extremist groups that Westerners might want - namely because Saudis say it's not needed.
"Unfortunately, for Western eyes, you look at appearances, and you assume all of these things are indicators for a much more serious situation," Prince Abdullah said. "It is serious - I'm not denying it is - but it's not something that is very drastic.
"The way the Saudis look at things, if this society that was built against all odds and is known as one of the most successful developing countries could be destabilized by 3,000 or 4,000 extremists, then we're not worth existing," he said.
Working against the need for change is a widespread resistance to the notion that Saudi Arabia actually "produced" the Sept. 11 terrorists. Saudis like to point out that bin Laden and most of the hijackers had left the kingdom well before last year, to train at Afghani or other terrorist camps.
"They were schooled in Afghanistan," said Sabbagh, the Jeddah native who attends George Washington University. "They're more Afghani than Saudi."
While many Saudis acknowledge that a small portion of the Wahhabi teachings - maybe 5 to 10 percent - could be construed as anti-Jewish and anti-Christian, most shrug that off.
"Our curriculum did not change before Sept. 11. Why am I not a terrorist?" said Hamuad al-Badr, the elderly secretary-general of the Shura Council.
U.S. and Saudi scholars say the Saudis' defensive posturing and proud resistance to external pressure could actually delay curriculum and other reforms that might have been implemented, had there been no Sept. 11.
Prince Abdullah doesn't dispute this.
"It makes [reforms] a bit more difficult now, because some people will say, `No, we mustn't do it because people will think it is because of 9/11,'" he said. "Only time will tell."
A Need For Respect
Why do the Saudis care so much about what we think of them? Is it only about oil, or is there something deeper?
On a global level, there's the multimillion-dollar ad campaign they're running, to convince us that the kingdom remains an ally, committed to the war on terrorism.
On a personal level, they will let loose a two-hour diatribe on why they resent America, can barely stomach your country, and then insist - no, please! - that you stay for dinner.
How do you make sense out of a place where an imam will finish a sermon about the decadence of Western culture, and then answer his cellphone? How do you listen to Dr. Afaf Yaslam, an OB/GYN at Jeddah's King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, talk about her plans to study in-vitro fertilization, as she peers at you through a niqab, the black head-covering that shrouds all but the eyes?
How do you reconcile the two faces of downtown Jeddah, where the posh Red Sea Palace Hotel overlooks a parking lot where criminals are publicly beheaded on a regular basis?
The Saudis are conflicted about how much they want to borrow from the West.
They like our stuff, but not our values.
"Our culture, our curriculum, tries to inoculate Saudis from western values," said Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad al-Uwaisheg, a Riyadh resident who works for the Gulf Cooperation Council, an umbrella group of Gulf nations.
But, he went on: "It still seeps in. You can't use the material without adopting at least some of the values. When we demand participation in government, that's a Western value. When we want to use technology to get a message out, that's a Western idea."
Saudi Arabia is not our antithesis in the civilized world, in the way that it has sometimes been portrayed. When it comes to raw materials, at least, we have a certain amount in common.
Saudis love their malls, their laptops, their TV clickers. They're big on SUVs, kitchen gadgets and Tom Cruise. They prefer CNN to government-run Saudi TV, where an entire newscast in late July was devoted to the king's successful cataract surgery. There is plenty of smuggled alcohol around, although it's expensive. Women are fond of throwing dinner parties, where they can shed their abayas and parade around in the latest European fashions.
But when it comes to values, many Saudis seem to pride themselves on how different they are from the West. They delight in the Enron and WorldCom scandals, filling newspaper columns with tirades about Wall Street greed. They get a kick out of the controversy in the Catholic Church. They think we do not take proper care of our elderly, and that we leave our parents as soon as we are old enough.
They also think we are paranoid.
"Every American has a gun in the home - that is right?" asked a straight-faced Hamad al-Shareef, a deputy manager at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.
Still, the Saudis care what we think about them.
For the monarchy, the interest could be largely economic: The kingdom is still the world's dominant oil supplier, and it needs buyers. The country also is looking to western investors to develop its vast natural gas resources, as part of a massive economic restructuring launched by Crown Prince Abdullah four years ago.
But for average Saudis, the concern goes beyond dollars. It is about respect. The Saudi passport used to be gold. Traffic flowed freely between the kingdom and America, without so much as a second glance. Disney World, Harvard, Bloomingdale's: Saudis could take from the U.S. what they wanted and discard the rest.
All that's changed now.
"For many people," Angawi said, "it's like losing part of your identity."
There Is A Veil
It is a challenge, trying to read their eyes.
It's not like the U.S., where you have so much more to go on - the entire face, the clothes, the makeup, the hairstyle.
Here, all you have are hands, feet and eyes.
You can read a lot into hands and feet, if you have to.
The women from Riyadh have expensive jewelry, designer shoes, black gloves or tailored nails. The women from Jeddah are a little less showy - maybe a charm bracelet or a silver ring.
A Riyadh woman will not gesture much, and her walk will be purposeful, poised. A Jeddah woman will use her hands when she talks, and she will stagger her step when her attention is distracted.
But the eyes are a different story. They just don't give much away.
It should be easy to read them. After all, the way the niqab covers the face, the eyes are the only thing that's showing, so they are prominent. The niqab slit is just wide enough so that you can see the entire eye, even the corners and most of the bridge of the nose. The shopping malls are swarming with Ninjas, black ghosts, Catwomen.
Here is how the eyes react to an American: They don't smile, at least not in an obvious way. They don't scowl or condescend, either. Usually, it's a neutral glance - `OK, your presence has been registered.' Sometimes, it is a slightly startled glance - `what-are-you-doing-here' eyes.
Always, the eyes will dart away if you look too long.
Even when you have a chance to search the eyes, they are often opaque. They don't make the connection you are seeking - the kind that spans distance and customs and values.
They will not engage. They will not commit. They will not invest the time or effort.
Are they with you or against you? Good or evil? Angry or kind? There is no way to tell.
There is a veil, even where there is not a veil.
The niqab is perfectly designed to accentuate the eyes - and yet it works in the opposite way.
It is, in some ways, the saddest betrayal of all.