Published: October 2003

Kingdom on Edge: Saudi Arabia

By Frank Viviano
Photographs by Reza
In the desert near the border with Iraq, a Bedouin father pauses to play with his children. Throughout Saudi Arabia, Bedouin ways and Islamic traditions are passed down from parent to child. Although clan and creed helped create the nation of Saudi Arabia, they may not be sufficient to sustain it. Far more Saudi students now graduate with degrees in theology than in engineering, which leaves the government with a massive challenge: how to train a labor force for the jobs of tomorrow in a culture that's focused intensely on its past.

At high noon, the streets of central Jeddah are empty, silent, vacant of all but the occasional lonely passerby to remind me that more than two million people live in the apartment towers and neighborhoods that radiate out from the shores of the Red Sea. This is the second largest city in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its commercial engine and busiest port, its most cosmopolitan metropolis. But now, during the holy month of Ramadan, every sensual pleasure—including eating and drinking—is banned from dawn to dusk, and Saudis stay indoors to pray and fast, or to catch a nap in the cool, dark recesses of their homes. For hours each day, there are no signs of life outdoors, no stirring but a breeze, no movement but heat waves shimmering over asphalt in the broiling Arabian sun.

Nights are a different matter.

As soon as the sun drops below the horizon, urban Saudi Arabia emerges with a sleepy yawn, then flings itself into a frenzy of socializing, shopping, and gargantuan feats of dining. During the holy month, it's hard to find an à la carte menu in the restaurants of Jeddah; the all-night, all-you-can-eat Ramadan buffet is the norm, at tables groaning under 24-ounce (680-gram) steaks, mountainous platters of lobster, and roasted 30-pound (14-kilogram) quarters of mutton.

At 3 a.m. miles of freeways and boulevards are locked in a traffic jam of gas-guzzling, mostly American, cars headed for shopping malls that remain open until sunup. Macho sport utility vehicles are the ride of choice among affluent young men, Lincolns and Chevys among their parents. In the malls, store aisles throb with music videos blasting out techno and rap as salesmen hawk subscriptions to satellite television—technically illegal in Saudi Arabia—with a success rate that has made satellite dishes ubiquitous on the rooftops of Saudi cities. If not for the neon signs in Arabic, the streets of Jeddah tonight could pass for downtown Los Angeles or Dallas or Houston.

Up and down chic Tahliyah Street, carloads of teenage boys, with baseball caps worn rakishly backward and their ankle-length robes tossed aside in favor of baggy, low-slung pants, idle alongside cars full of teenage girls driven by chauffeurs.

As I take in the scene with "Hassan" (not his real name), my 18-year-old guide, a green Chevy slowly passes a silver Jeep Cherokee, and a blizzard of paper flies between their vehicles.

"What was that all about?" I ask.

"They're 'numbering,'" Hassan explains. "A girl writes her cell phone number on a piece of paper, rolls it into a ball, and throws it at a boy. Then she waits for a call."

But the flirting, with its paper-wad blizzards and cell phone dates, has a distinctive Saudi twist: The girls are still covered from head-to-foot in the black gown known as the abaya, their faces hidden behind veils.

"Otherwise the mutawaeen might go after them," Hassan says, referring to the state religious police, the agents of a theocratic law-and-order system that dates back more than a thousand years.

Jeddah, in the middle of the night, is the paradox of contemporary Saudi Arabia writ large. "We are being carried in two directions at once, backward and forward," says Suad al-Yamani, a Saudi neurologist who sees, in her patients, the disorienting effects of changes that have rocketed a deeply conservative society from the 7th to the 21st century in the span of a few decades.

The stakes are beyond exaggeration, for Saudi Arabia is not simply another traditional country coping with change. As keeper of the Muslim holy cities, Mecca and Medina, it serves as the chief custodian of Islam and the spiritual home of 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide.

Ruled by a tribal monarchy and governed by sharia, or Islamic law, Saudi Arabia is a major ally of the United States and the source of 25 percent of the world's confirmed oil reserves, which has made its royal family extraordinarily affluent, influential, and resented.

It is also the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the September 11 hijackers—a nation accused of fomenting terrorism, yet itself haunted by the menace of bin Laden's al Qaeda movement and terrorist attacks such as the bombings in the capital, Riyadh, five months ago that killed 34 people, Saudis and foreigners alike.

Today Saudi Arabia is at the center of a cultural and geopolitical maelstrom, where Islam meets the modern world, where tribal custom meets cell phone consumerism, where fabulous wealth meets uncertainty and alienation. What happens to the oil-rich Saudis, as they wrestle with their own dire confusions in the heartland of Islam, sends tremors all over the Earth.

This is what brought me to Arabia, and why, one winter morning, I found myself in a car climbing east with two Saudi companions into the province of Al Bahah, one of the kingdom's most obscure regions, a land of amorphous towns and barren ridges that was home to several of the September 11 hijackers.

The mountain road inland from the Red Sea was a serpentine gauntlet of police checkpoints, three in a single 12-mile (19-kilometer) stretch. As we reached the city of Al Bahah, the provincial capital, the thickest fog I'd ever seen closed in, and we could barely spot the last few roadblocks, manned by Bedouin policemen dancing from foot to foot in an effort to keep warm. The fog never lifted, and, apart from government officials, the cops were among the few Saudis out in public. Al Bahah was a surrealistic cityscape where cafés and restaurants were manned by Afghan cooks, barbers and mechanics were Indians and Turks, and taxis were driven by Pakistanis or Egyptians.

"Saudis don't like it here, sir," a cabbie from Peshawar told me. "Too wet and cold, and there is no work that suits them."

The government puts the number of guest workers in Saudi Arabia at more than six million—nearly half the kingdom's working-age population. Their ranks include an elite class of physicians, engineers, scientific researchers, and corporate managers, who are provided with luxurious housing, stratospheric salaries, and annual two-month paid vacations from their jobs in cities such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dhahran.

Places like Al Bahah, however, are the realm of thousands of Third World guest workers, an inexhaustible pool of truck drivers and factory hands, manual laborers and domestics, shop clerks and secretaries, who welcome the jobs that many young Saudis don't want.

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