Next Step : War-Stung Saudis Reach for Future, Cling to Past : The age-old struggle between tradition and modernization has been revived. Questions are being asked about the nation's society and its monarchy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their black cloaks and veils hanging neatly in the marble foyer, Omaima Khamis, her sisters and girlfriends gathered in the parlor to eat dates, drink spiced coffee and discuss fashion, family and astrological signs.

No men would enter this world, a world segregated and regulated, like much of Saudi Arabia, by the dictates of 7th-Century Islamic beliefs. Finely dressed and bejeweled, the women sat on plushly upholstered sofas while their children scurried under the feet of attentive Philippine servants who brought silver trays laden with fruits and pastries.

It is a sign of the times in Saudi Arabia that even here, in this sheltered inner sanctum, talk timidly turned to politics, to the prospects of change and, most daringly, to women's rights.

For this is a Saudi Arabia emerging from the brutal jolt of war, a shock that has unleashed unprecedented questioning and searching in a country steeped in religion and tradition. From glistening mosques to sprawling shopping centers to family homes in the desert, Saudis have been forced by the war to examine their nation, their way of life and the Islamic-inspired absolute monarchy that controls both.

"People will rethink a lot of things," predicted Khamis, a 25-year-old literature professor.

Restless progressive Saudis hope the war and its aftermath will become a catalyst for social and political liberalization, for changes that would allow greater public participation in the way the country is run. Powerful religious fundamentalists, on the other hand, jealously struggle to protect the conservative Saudi culture from the Western evils brought by American troops and international attention.

And despite a wartime pledge from King Fahd to permit more democracy, most Saudis and foreign observers say that the ongoing tug of war will continue to dictate the pace of change. "We'll see them take two steps forward," said a Western diplomat, "and one and three-quarters steps backwards."

In fact, the Gulf War with Iraq has only revived a struggle between the forces of tradition and the forces of modernization that is almost as old as Saudi Arabia itself.

Especially in the last two decades, as oil wealth purchased progress, conservative Islam has clashed frequently with moves toward the 21st Century, and the signs of a society in conflict are everywhere.

U.S.-trained women surgeons wear customary black veils with their green scrubs at King Faisal Hospital; the most sophisticated computer stores, boutiques and Mercedes-Benz dealerships in downtown Riyadh close several times a day for Muslim prayers; classrooms at the leading universities are still segregated by sex, as Islam requires.

Many Saudis say the government is on the right track, moving carefully toward development and reform that does not threaten the kingdom's fundamentalist foundation.

But others, especially those among a new generation of technocrats and young liberals schooled in the West, are less optimistic. They have heard promises of greater democracy before, and they fear that a postwar xenophobic backlash from the religious right could stall any change.

One thing seems clear. The United States, concerned primarily with the stability of the friendly kingdom, is unlikely to put pressure on the ruling House of Saud for any sort of domestic reform.

"I don't think (United States officials) care who runs Saudi Arabia," said a diplomat, "as long as they produce 8 million barrels of oil a day and sell it at a reasonable price."

While oil has meant a significant presence of Westerners in Saudi Arabia for two generations, there had never been anything like the deluge of foreigners that arrived after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2.

American women soldiers were soon driving vehicles in Saudi Arabia, where it is illegal for women to drive, and more than 1,000 journalists were soon demanding answers to questions in a country where a largely self-censored press is controlled by the government.

The new Western presence outraged some Saudis and inspired others.

Many started to ask why a country that had spent billions of dollars on advanced military weaponry could not protect itself. The fiercely religious warned that Saudis would be corrupted by the infidel invaders. And scores of Saudis surreptitiously purchased microwave antenna so they could capture the heretofore-banned CNN on their home television sets.

The questioning expanded. Only a small minority actually criticized the royal family or urged that the system be overturned, but many started to demand a more efficient administration of the nation's business and political affairs.

"You could even see children talking politics," said Othman Y. Rawaf, director of the Center of Arabian Gulf Studies at King Saud University. "Older women, too. We had not seen this before."

While the discourse seems mild by American standards, it is remarkable in a country as strictly controlled and immersed in ancient mystery and tribal ritual as Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia was formed at the turn of the century when one of the peninsula's oldest tribes, the House of Saud, on camel back and armed with scimitars, captured Riyadh and made it its capital. Against a backdrop of European meddling symbolized by the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, the Saudis spent the next decades uniting dozens of Arabian sheikdoms and Bedouin tribes to eventually dominate the peninsula.

In 1932, the kingdom became a state that the Sauds named for themselves. During the nearly 60 years that followed, Saudi Arabia leapt into modern times, the beneficiary of seemingly endless oil wealth that financed the construction of beautiful buildings, hospitals, highways and affluent lifestyles.

But through it all, the Saudi leadership, guardians of Islam's two holiest shrines at Mecca and Medina, held true to the faith of the 7th-Century Prophet Mohammed. Riyadh became the center of a particularly conservative form of Islam, Wahhabism, in the 18th Century. It has been described as a "back-to-basics" brand of Islam similar to Puritanism in Christianity. And to this day, the Saudi capital is far more conservative than cities such as Dhahran and Jidda which, as ports and oil-boom towns, were earlier exposed to cosmopolitan influences.

Foreign embassies were not even allowed to locate in Riyadh until the mid-1980s, and most of the foreigners that make up the local work force are required to live in compounds behind high walls.

So it was that when a group of 49 Saudi women on Nov. 6 drove in convoy through Riyadh to press their demand for the right to operate cars in the country, it caused an uproar in this most conservative of Gulf societies. The women, who had violated longstanding Islamic tradition, were jailed for 12 hours. They lost their jobs. They were denounced in mosques as whores.

The furor escalated, spread to university campuses and filled Saudi fax machines with political diatribes. The country became increasingly polarized between the liberals, many of whom supported the women, and the religious fundamentalists who vigorously attacked the women and all Western influence.

Through their own vigilante police force, bearded men known as the matawain , religious fundamentalists launched a crackdown against the forces of Western evil. In one particularly famous incident, according to diplomatic sources, the matawain broke into a Frenchman's home where businessmen and others were allegedly drinking alcohol, which is illegal in Saudi Arabia.

King Fahd and his government eventually managed to still the debate, but the incident may point the way to the future.

It showed that while many Saudis want to see their country grow and modernize, few favor rapid, radical change. Few would challenge the monarchy. Khamis, her friends and sisters, for example, consider their status much improved over that of their mothers, and they are content to let events take their course.

"We cannot just chuck the system," she said. "We cannot bring everything suddenly. . . . We make change step by step."

These women, all in their 20s and 30s, obey the Islamic-inspired rule that requires they cover themselves with long black cloaks, known as abayas, when they go into public, but they do not wear as complete a veil as their mothers did. And unlike the older generation, they say, they can obtain advanced academic degrees and work, though only in government-sanctioned professions such as teaching and health care.

Tellingly, however, these women were afraid to discuss the driving incident with a visiting American reporter.

Democracy has not really been part of the Saudi tradition, and even the most vociferous advocates of change say they are not looking for a Western-style system with a Senate and Congress.

"We just want our voices heard," said one Saudi graduate student.

Many are watching what happens in neighboring Kuwait, where pressure is mounting for elections to be held and the Parliament reinstated. Reform-minded Saudis hope that developments in Kuwait will force the House of Saud to be more receptive to change here.

Saudi government officials point to their own brand of democracy, a time-honored forum known as the majlis. In the majlis, the king or a prince sits in a large cushioned room and receives members of the public, who bring forward complaints, petitions or other requests and grievances. It provides certain accountability and access.

Now, King Fahd has proposed resurrecting the Majlis al Shura, a consultative council that existed in the early days of the kingdom in the 1930s. It would be a sitting body of consultants taken from many walks of Saudi life: businessmen, religious leaders, tribal chieftains and the intelligentsia. The members would eventually be elected, officials say, but at first would be appointed by the king.

Many Saudis praise the idea of the Shura, saying it will give more people a voice in decision-making. Some observers, however, contend that the council will have little real power.

"It's a way of demonstrating some social and political change without really conceding any," said a European diplomat.

The government previously announced plans to revive the Shura--around 1980--but changed its mind after the Iranian revolution made the royal family skittish about popular will.

In a land where the Koran is the constitution, the toughest obstacle to the Shura or any postwar liberalization will continue to be religious fundamentalists, say foreign diplomats and Saudi academics.

"For hundreds and hundreds of years, government has always looked to Islam as the authority," said Rawaf, the Arabian Gulf Studies director. "More than simply sociological . . . Islam was able to have a psychological penetration, into man's soul and mind."

King Fahd can ill afford to alienate the religious right. His legitimacy and his rule are inextricably tied to the religion. Even his title is not "His Majesty" but "The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques"--cumbersome, perhaps, but repeated each time his name is mentioned on television or in the newspapers.

The king has also seen in nearby Iran the destabilizing power that religious fundamentalists can wield, and he strives to keep his own country's imams content.

How the government responds to the conflicting forces of tradition and modernization in postwar Saudi Arabia may be influenced significantly by the economy.

Members of the royal family have long enriched themselves by taking cuts on most development and business projects that the government authorizes; at the same time, a thriving patronage system allowed some of the wealth to trickle down.

As long as it did, and most Saudis could enjoy a comfortable standard of living, there was scant breeding ground for discontent. Money, in the words of one diplomat, was the great social lubricant.

But with oil prices on the decline, and the bills for waging war still coming in, the kingdom may face tough economic times. With the government forced to borrow for the first time in decades, the lavish lifestyles of the Saudi princes, including their penchant for building opulent palaces here and abroad, are coming under increasing critical scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the pervasive sense of security that many Saudis felt--a sense born of the good life in what had been a tranquil kingdom--was abruptly snatched away by the war. As Scuds started to fall in the Saudi capital, the kingdom's expensive and well-equipped army suddenly seemed inadequate. Now, in the postwar clamor, an often-repeated demand calls for a stronger, more efficient and better-trained army and air force.

"The war has been a real shock," said Sultan Albazie, managing editor of the pro-government Al Riyadh newspaper. "We have the feeling we are not any more on the safe side of the world, that this is not a peaceful place.

"We have to prepare ourselves," he said, clicking typical Arabic worry beads in one hand as he spoke. "We have to be ready to face any danger that could come to our country."

Some analysts suggest that Saudi officials may see the changed economic picture as an excuse for delaying political reform.

In any event, diplomats and others here say, while the country can never return fully to what it was before the war, it is also one in which the change that comes will be subtle rather than revolutionary.

Pressure will mount to restore the sanctity of the Saudi way of life, and the king will be pressed to maintain the same balancing act between the conflicting forces that he has for years, they say.

"It might sound sadistic," summed up one prominent businessman, "but you would need a much longer, harder war, with more suffering, to accelerate change."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
72°