The following article ran as part of a thirteen-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 23-February 15, 2003.
Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative kingdom that has long balanced a fierce commitment to Islamic tradition with a close embrace of the United States.
Today, the run-up to possible war finds the kingdom in an unaccustomed role on the sidelines -- hesitant to endorse President George W. Bush's campaign against Iraq and facing questions from Americans about whether Saudi Arabia promotes the sort of Islamic extremism that led to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The dramatic turn of events has left many among the country's governing elite feeling bewildered -- even betrayed -- as the country throws itself into the twin tasks of staving off war and repairing its image. "The American people and the American government have known the Saudis for more than 50 years," says Tawfeeq al-Sediry, deputy minister of Islamic affairs. "They know that we are a quiet people, that we have caused no problems. But now, after the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been a drastic change."
Never mind that those 50 years include some very rough spots, not least Saudi Arabia's leadership of the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo and deep disputes over Israel that caused a near rupture of U.S.-Saudi relations in the months just prior to the 9-11 attacks.
The larger point is surely true.
No Arab nation over the past half century has nurtured closer ties with the United States nor worked more in tandem, from exploitation of Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves through joint sponsorship of the anti-Soviet mujahadeen "holy warriors" who fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s. During the 1991 Gulf War, Saudi Arabia was base camp for the half-million U.S. and allied troops that liberated Kuwait and smashed Iraq.
Many of the U.S. officials now pressing the Saudis to be more supportive in the current showdown with Iraq played key roles in shaping American policy during the 1980s and early 1990s. Vice President Dick Cheney was defense secretary during Desert Storm; Secretary of State Colin Powell chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
They and their colleagues well know, many here say, the price Saudi Arabia has paid for the partnership. On the economic side, Saudi Arabia footed some $50 billion of the cost of Desert Storm. In the decade since it hasn't come close to its pre-war growth or prosperity.
Politically, the mujahadeen that Americans and Saudis jointly promoted in the 1980s were enraged by the massive presence of "infidel" American troops on the Arabian peninsula's holy soil. For Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, himself a product of the 1980s Afghan gambit, the radicalized mujahadeen became the nucleus for the al-Qaida terrorist network.
"We have a saying in Arabic, that 'we buried him together,'" said Prince Amr Mohamed al Faisal, a grandson of the late King Faisal and head of an information technology company based in Jeddah.
"I mean, come on, we were in this together," the prince says. "We funded the mujahadeen in Afghanistan -- together -- and we encouraged them in their extremism. (The United States) can't pretend now that all these problems come from us alone."
Balancing tradition and the modern world
Jeddah, the Red Sea port that is gateway to the holy cities of nearby Mecca and Medina, expects to welcome an estimated 2 million Muslims from around the world over the next few weeks. They'll be making the hajj, or pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam and a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for the faithful.
Those who arrive by air are told by flight attendants when the airplane is about to pass over the borders of Mecca or Medina -- a signal for male p ilgrims to change, if they haven't already, into the unembroidered white cloths -- or ihram required for the hajj.
The midflight sartorial transformations on Saudi Arabian Airlines jumbo jets are a reminder of Saudi Arabia's position on the balance beam of tradition and modernity. So too are the sights of Jeddah itself.
Along the seaside road you'll find the totems of modern western life -- franchises of Hardee's, TGI Friday's and Applebee's.
The Starbucks outlet is a cookie-cutter version of the American store, with the exception that a customer arriving at dusk finds it open but empty of business and staff -- a sign that in this country nearly everyone, at work or not, still heeds the call to prayer.
It was just a quarter-century ago that many religious faithful here fiercely opposed the introduction of television and radio, so much so that it was considered the prime motive in the assassination in 1975 of King Faisal.
Television is now accepted -- and, judging from the forest of satellite dishes in residential neighborhoods, so is access to considerably racier fare than what's available on state-run channels.
Other taboos remain absolute, among them the ban on churches, synagogues and other non-Muslim forms of worship. Al-Sediry, the Islamic affairs official, says this is because of Saudi Arabia's unique role, as the geographic location of Mecca and Medina that are considered Islam's holiest places.
"It's like the Vatican," he says, "only it's the entire country."
Women are still barred from many professions and denied common training with men. A Saudi woman who appears in public without a full head-and-body covering invites censure, or worse, from ever-present muttawa'in, the "religious police" whose function is the enforcement of laws on virtue and vice.
Change is coming, however, and sometimes it is surprisingly abrupt.
In March of last year 15 students were killed in a fire at Mecca's Girls' School No. 31. The tragedy turned to scandal amid reports that the muttawa'in had refused to open a locked gate because the fleeing girls trapped inside were not fully covered. Saudi newspapers went after the story aggressively. Within months the previously separate department of girls' education was abolished.
"The whole department was investigated -- and they failed, with flying colors," said Samar Fatamy, a radio journalist in Jeddah. Fatamy is proof of change herself -- a female journalist in a field recently off limits to women.
"We have our black spots, of course we do; so does every country," says Abubakr Bakader, a sociology professor at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. "But we are human, the same as you.
"So why this madness?" he asks. "The United States is supposed to be the superpower yet it is acting very small, thinking like a small power -- one that will destroy a country and its people just because it can."
A senior U.S. diplomat here acknowledges that Saudi Arabia is vulnerable, economically and politically, and that U.S. policy needs to be sensitive, too.
"It's not like the situation in Iraq or Iran; there's still public respect for the leadership," he says. "But there are some cracks in the foundation, some trends that are worrisome -- a terrible economic crisis, the lack of jobs, the lack of appropriate education.
"All that could be projected onto the country's leadership, if there were a charismatic opposition leader. I think the Saudis are savvy enough not to let that happen -- but they're nervous, and with the nervousness out there we've got to be understanding."
Resistence to change
"This talk of remaking this part of the world in Washington's image is wishful thinking," said a leading Riyadh businessman who is also a member of the Shura majlis consultative assembly that advises the royal family.
"Saudi Arabia is a conservative and traditional country," he said. "At the core of that conservatism are the people themselves. To the extent that there is reform, the best way to sabotage that reform is to give that reform an American pedigree."
Just this month the possibility of various democratic reforms, including a gradual move toward limited elections, has been floated by Crown Prince Abdullah, the effective head of the Saudi government given the physical disabilities of King Fahd. Even those who support Abdullah's reforms, however, such as the businessman member of the majlis, say "gradual" is the word to bear in mind.
"If you were to have elections here today," he warns, "the government would not be one you'd like."
Just how socially conservative much of Saudi Arabia remains was apparent this past week in Shaqra, an agricultural community 120 miles northwest of Riyadh. An afternoon visit turned up not one Saudi willing to talk with visiting journalists. One directed the visitors to the local government leader. Another said he cannot talk unless the visitors have official permits from Riyadh. Most simply turned away.
One resident willing to talk was Mohamed Asharaf, the Pakistani manager of a local laundry. Asharaf, standing before rows of floor-length robes and red-and-white checked head cloths, said business is good: 75 cents per robe, 50 cents per head cloth, same-day service guaranteed.
Asharaf moved to Shaqra from his native Lahore, in Pakistan, eight years ago. He came alone, like most of the more than 6 million foreign workers who have come to Saudi Arabia in search of the higher wages that go to benefit family back home. It's a lonely life, he conceded, but he finds comfort in the traditional rhythms of Saudi life, especially going to the mosque for prayers five times a day.
Asharaf shrugged off the prospect of war in Iraq, and the possibility that troubles there could spill over here. "I'd just go back home," he said.
But Pakistan itself is one of the most volatile places on earth, he was reminded. What if trouble strikes there?
"Then I'll just go to heaven," he said, calmly sipping his tea.