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The patient, Abed Saeedi, is a man who suffers from dementia and diabetes. The doctor, Soad Hassabo Ahmed, is a female physician who makes house calls. The scene reflects how gender roles are slowly changing in the medical profession—women not only work elbow-to-elbow with men, but treat them too. Yet other norms haven't changed at all. Saudi women can't travel abroad without permission, and they still are forbidden to drive a car.

But Texas-style gigantism doesn't end there. A modest house in the Riyadh scheme of things—"where normal people live," as an Urban Development official put it—measures 5,000 square feet (460 square meters), roughly five times the size of a middle-class home in Western Europe and palatial even by Texas standards. Far larger residences are by no means unusual. "I'd like to show you my new house," a mid-level government bureaucrat told me one day in Riyadh. "The construction is almost finished." When we arrived, I mistook it for an apartment complex; it covered more than 25,000 square feet (2,300 square meters), spread across half a dozen buildings lined from ceiling to floor in imported rose marble.

The Saudis claim that they need the space—in part because up to four generations customarily inhabit the same home, and because of the sky-high fertility rate. The kingdom's estimated population has ballooned from 6.2 million in 1970 to 24 million in 2003, one of the steepest increases on Earth. The average Saudi woman bears more than six children.

They are born to a society forged in the austere universe of the desert, governed by a single family and grown overnight into a network of awkward 21st-century cities. It's a society that can seem mute from a distance—across the gulf of ignorance and caricature that envelops Western views of the kingdom—or at best speaks only in the official voice of an autocratic state.

Closer up, I found, Saudi Arabia is a babel of contentious opinion, even in its most remote desert encampments.

The wilderness reserve of Uruq Bani Maarid lies 320 miles (510 kilometers) south of Riyadh, in the shelter of towering dunes that mark the western perimeter of the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter, the enormous desert the Bedouin know simply as the Sands. But it's not empty for the Yam tribesmen who live there. Since time immemorial they have crossed the Sands' 225,000-square-mile (583,000-square-kilometer) desert in search of water and forage for their camels and sheep.

Zafer al-Fahd was raised in one of the black Yam tents that was pitched near a ranger post the week I traveled to the Empty Quarter. At 27 he had never experienced the contradictions of Ramadan in urban Saudi Arabia and said that he had no desire to. "The Sands are enough for any man," he told me.

It was just past dawn. As Zafer built a fire in the entrance to the tent to stave off the morning chill and make breakfast, teenage boys hammered out a drum rhythm in brass mortars, grinding down coffee beans.

"My heart is at rest in the Sands," he continued. "I know how to read the desert winds when I graze my animals. I know how to find my way through the dunes at night by keeping al-Jedi before me: That one, the 'goat star,'" he said, pointing into the northern sky.

There are no reliable statistics on how many Bedouin are fully nomadic today. (Saudis acknowledge that their country's mirage-like census is a demographer's Empty Quarter.) A half-century ago, the best guess was that 30 percent of the population, about two million people, lived the desert wanderer's life. In the estimate of Saudi ethnologist Ali al-Ambar, the figure has dropped to roughly 600,000.

A far greater number have become what al-Ambar refers to as "semi-nomads" herding their flocks on the outer economic orbit of mushrooming cities, or "urbanized" Bedouin who work city jobs but retain ancestral tribal customs. Taken together, these three communities still make up more than half Saudi Arabia's total population and a large share of its self-image. Despite the kingdom's precipitous urbanization, the free-ranging spirit of Bedouin culture remains at the core of traditional Saudi identity.

Slowly, other men drifted into the tent where I sat with Zafer. They gathered in halaqah, small conversational groups, relaxing on pillows around the tent's margins. The talk was of hunting and camel-raising, and, when I brought the subject up, the essential values of the Bedouin.

"What matters most to us are your ancestors, who they were," one man said. "Without a tribe, a person is suspect."

The elder seated next to him took immediate issue. "No, I don't agree. The important thing is what you yourself do in this world, not who your grandparents were. It is you who must choose between good and evil."

I heard echoes of that conversation everywhere I went in the kingdom, traveling through 11 of its 13 provinces over a four-month period from Ramadan to the hajj. The echoes spoke of a peculiarly Saudi version of democracy with its roots in the desert, an incessant and open-ended debate that resounds throughout the larger society.

"The first thing any Saudi does when he builds a new home, even in a big city," al-Ambar had said to me, "is to put a tent in the garden, or a figurative version of it in the house."

Those figurative tents were of a piece architecturally: large rooms lined with chairs and sofas; the institution they serve is the majlis, a social gathering for the purpose of conversation and counsel. A majlis may also amount to an official audience, especially if its host is powerful.

His Royal Highness Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, Crown Prince, Regent, First Deputy Prime Minister and Commander of Saudi Arabia's National Guard, is distinctly powerful. He is effectively the acting monarch, in place of his ailing half brother King Fahd, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995. One morning I attended his weekly majlis with Majed al-Jarralah, 30, and Riyadh bin Salmah, 25, Saudi friends who were my companions on the journey across their kingdom.

With al Qaeda thought to be preparing new attacks, security was heavy at the entrance to the crown prince's wing at National Guard headquarters. Yet inside, notwithstanding the splendor of a majlis hall that measured well over a thousand square feet (90 square meters) and was furnished in the style of a Louis XIV salon, the casual pattern borrowed from the desert was unmistakable.

We watched an elderly man, with the leathery weathered skin of a desert herdsman, as he approached Abdullah. They shook hands, and the herdsman sat down next to his nation's ruler to discuss a problem man-to-man, patting the crown prince on the arm from time to time to emphasize key points.

"He may be asking permission to graze his sheep on royal land," one bystander whispered in my ear as we discreetly tried to eavesdrop. "Some people just drop in to say hello," Riyadh added. "Or even to ask his opinion on their marriage problems."

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