Published: October 2003
Kingdom on Edge: Saudi Arabia
By Frank Viviano
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.

• Temperature at the Shaybah oil field, above, on a very hot day: 122°F (50ºC).
• Cost to develop Shaybah field, which went on line in 1998: 2.5 billion dollars.
• Percentage of Saudi export earnings from petroleum: 90-95.
• Percentage of the world's known oil reserves located in Saudi Arabia: 26.
• Rank of Saudi Arabia among oil-exporting countries: 1.

Bored young people with too much time on their hands: This is what the Saudis themselves regard as their seminal crisis, sown in the clash between borrowed modernization and threatened traditions—the root crisis from which a forest of others has sprung.

"The hijackers were a direct product of our social failures—a generation with no sense of what work entails, raised in a system that operated as a welfare state," a high-ranking government official told me. "We allowed them to grow up in pampered emptiness, until they turned to the bin Laden extremists in an effort to find themselves."

Saudis claim that al Qaeda deliberately fills its ranks with the kingdom's alienated young. Bin Laden's goal, they believe, is to topple the Saudi royal family, partly by convincing the West that its principal source of oil is fatally infected with extremism.

"We are not a nation of terrorists and fanatics. You cannot blame an entire people for a crime perpetrated by a small number of marginal individuals," contended Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the governor of Riyadh.

"The crazies around my age, the people who say, 'We should go out and kill Americans,' are maybe one or two percent of us," said "Mustafa," a 22-year-old I met during my tour of Jeddah's Ramadan nightlife.

But Mustafa, like so many in his age group, has no job and no discernible ambition. Estimates of unemployment among Saudis top 15 percent, and approach 30 percent among those between ages 20 and 24. Each year about 340,000 Saudi men enter the workforce, vying for just 175,000 jobs. The unsuccessful drift into an ever growing army of the bored, spending their days and nights in the prolonged adolescence of the shopping mall circuit, numbering and street cruising.

The solution would seem obvious: Replace foreign workers with Saudis. Under a policy known as Saudization, the government has been trying to do exactly that since the mid-1980s. The state grants large interest-free loans to any citizen who wants to establish a private business, and offers salaries to students willing to undertake vocational training. The goal is to replace 60 percent of the foreign workers with Saudi nationals, in jobs ranging from taxi driver to administrative manager. But two decades into the policy, foreigners still make up more than 90 percent of all employees in the kingdom's private sector.

Until recently, every young Saudi thought he could go straight from school to an executive suite. "They imagined that it would be a society of all chiefs and no Indians," Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a leading real estate developer and entrepreneur, told the Arab News last year.

Now, say economists, something has to give, starting with an educational system that fails to meet the demands of modern industry. "The companies who come to us are looking for skilled workers, business grads, engineers, and technicians," said Nasser Salih al-Homoud, director of an unemployment office in Buraydah, a quiet farming center of 350,000 in central Saudi Arabia. Few Saudis qualify.

One of his clients is Abdulrahman al-Ali, 25. "I've been trying to find a job for a year," he told me. "When I submit an application, people tell me they'll call, but they never do." The problem is his schooling: Like many young Saudis, al-Ali has a bachelor's degree in Islamic philosophy.

The fulcrum of Saudi history can be pinpointed exactly: the Persian Gulf city of Dammam on March 3, 1938, when American engineers unleashed the kingdom's first commercially viable oil gusher after 15 months of drilling. The joint venture between U.S. petroleum companies and Saudi Arabia's ruler, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, put the fledgling nation on the global economic map.

Ibn Saud had launched his conquest of Arabia three decades earlier. Initially he led just a few dozen men against the ruling Al Rasheed clan, who had driven the rival Sauds into exile in 1891 and seized control of Nadj, the area surrounding the caravan crossroads of Riyadh, and the Al Qasim region to its north. The Al Rasheeds were allied with the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which then governed the Red Sea coast, including Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina, while the Sauds were buoyed by alliances of their own. One was with followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the charismatic 18th-century religious reformer whose fervor helped propel the Sauds to power and defined their view of Islam and the world. The other was with Britain, whose support during and after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I made the Saudi state possible.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, Ibn Saud's forces and territory steadily grew as he combined brilliant military campaigns with adept diplomacy—and strategic marriage pacts with other tribes—to expand his realm to its present borders.

In 1933, a year after Saudi Arabia was founded with Riyadh as its capital, Ibn Saud granted an exclusive oil exploration concession to the Standard Oil Company of California. The partnership evolved into Saudi Aramco, the government-controlled enterprise that now presides over some 260 billion barrels of oil reserves and 225 trillion cubic feet (6.37 cubic meters) of natural gas—and accounts for about three-quarters of the kingdom's revenue. This vast wealth has funded the Arab world's most modern and well-equipped military force, a monumental welfare system, a network of religious missionaries dispersed throughout the Muslim world, and spectacular royal residences in Beverly Hills, London, and the south of France.

From the moment the oil concession was granted, "modern" in Saudi Arabia came to mean American modern—and more precisely, the outsize, mass-consumer version of modern that American oilmen carried with them from the U.S. Southwest, primarily Texas. Even apart from oil, the fit was in some ways natural. Like Texas, Saudi Arabia juxtaposes a long humid sea coast and a huge arid interior scorched by extreme desert temperatures. Between its 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) of Red Sea and Persian Gulf beaches lie 865,000 square miles (2.24 million square kilometers) of flat desert plains and mountains, more than three times the size of Texas itself and two and a half times the combined size of Germany and France.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the shock waves that the discovery of oil sent through this landscape—and the life of its inhabitants. The Arabian Peninsula has seen more change in the past six decades than in the previous 13 centuries. As recently as 1950, Riyadh was a sleepy oasis town of 60,000 inhabitants, most of them still living in mud-brick houses. Then came the 1970s oil boom, and with it a construction binge unlike anything the Middle East had ever seen. In the estimate of its harried Urban Development Authority officials, Riyadh now houses four and a half million people, and is well on the way to becoming an Arabian megalopolis.

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."

Five times a day—in Mecca, above, and around the world—faithful Muslims roll out their prayer rugs to worship God. Islam literally means "submission," and nowhere does that concept resonate more powerfully than in Saudi Arabia. "Islam is totally ingrained in the fabric of contemporary Saudi life and this is perhaps beyond the comprehension of many foreigners," writes businessman Hani A. Z. Yamani in To Be a Saudi. "It is a constitution, a law, an economic path, a social regulator, and God's eternal instructions."

No preliminary interviews are conducted before the royal audiences, which are held by every princely official in the nation. Anyone is free to attend, and it's not unusual for a Bedouin camel herder with grazing complaints to precede a billionaire property baron who needs a construction permit. In both cases, the prince listens attentively and then assigns the matter to one of the aides who stand beside him during the majlis.

Beyond the palace walls, the range of such meetings is endless. Some are neighborhood meetings aimed at sorting out local disputes. At others, intellectuals and writers meet businessmen and engineers, or bureaucrats compare notes on the problems of government with their retired predecessors.

As at the royal majlis, the resonance with the tents of the Bedouin past is inescapable. Men wander in at the end of the day, shake hands all around, then join conversation circles over cups of brain-charging Arabic coffee, sugary dates, and heavily sweetened ginger tea.

At one majlis, I asked a noted Muslim scholar, an imam, how Islam's venerable assertion of religious tolerance could be reconciled with Saudi Arabia's ban on Christian churches in the kingdom.

"It was the command of God, conveyed to us through the Prophet Muhammad, that no other religion be permitted in the land where Islam was born," the imam replied.

To my surprise, another guest picked a point-for-point argument with him. "I've heard that allusion a hundred times, and nobody has ever convinced me that this is what the Prophet's words really meant," he said.

It is in these gatherings that competing visions for the kingdom's future are being imagined and discussed. In their updated Bedouin encampments, the Saudis are negotiating their own way through a perilous landscape, where old assumptions are being challenged along ancient roads in the birthplace of Islam.

From a passenger plane descending into Medina under a full January moon, the Prophet's Mosque was a dazzling rectangle of white light, pulsating several thousand feet below at the city's heart. An hour later I was under its minarets, walking slowly across a vast square of polished marble in sight of the tomb of Muhammad, which is what makes Medina the second holiest site in the Islamic world, after Mecca.

Majed and Riyadh and I had driven into Medina from the airstrip, until we reached an area several blocks from the city center that was flooded with people making their way toward the mosque. We parked the car and joined them.

The first days of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that marks a lifetime's spiritual goal for Muslims and draws more than two million people each year to Mecca and Medina, were upon us.

Many of the pilgrims around me were Saudis and Arabs from the Persian Gulf. But among them were throngs of Indonesians and Malays, Algerians and Moroccans, Senegalese and Nigerians, Somalis, Uzbeks, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, Turks with red crescent-moon flags embroidered on their shirts, Chinese in yellow windbreakers stamped with the logos of Xinjiang travel agencies.

There were as many women as men in that crowd, marching forward to the Prophet's tomb in the great egalitarian pageant that is Muhammad's chief legacy. Islam is a religion without an institutionalized church, without a Vatican, without a formal priesthood; its animating principle is a direct relationship between believers and God, a personal relationship that transcends race, class, and gender.

The faces around me were a study in raptured meditation, and in the immense silence that enveloped the Prophet's Mosque, I fell into a reflective trance of my own. Then Riyadh, whose father is an official of the hajj, gently touched my arm. "Now, my friend," he asked. "Do you understand?"

Riyadh's question was a central theme of my quest in his country: trying to understand the coexistence of Islam's rich worldwide diversity—its private song to God in 1.3 billion voices—and the monotone religious orthodoxy that prevails in the kingdom itself.

Most Saudi interpretations of Islam in 2003 still sound the puritanical chord struck over two centuries ago by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the religious reformer whose alliance with the Saud clan bestowed religious legitimacy on the Sauds and enormous political power on Wahhab's followers.

Today, in mosques all over the country and in Saudi-funded religious schools throughout the Muslim world, clerics advocate Wahhab's stern program, which is based on a return to the "pure" Islam practiced during the Prophet's time. Its spirit is at fierce odds with the consumerism that has erupted in Saudi Arabia since oil was discovered, and—fundamentalists charge—with the lavish lifestyles of the Saudi royal family.

Though public criticism of the monarchy is rare, some clerics do speak out on political topics in voices that can veer toward the fanatical. More common are the virulently anti-Western sermons that bolster Osama bin Laden's portrait of an Islamic holy land surrendered to foreign corruption.

Caught in the crossfire are the vast majority of Saudis, and none more vulnerably than the kingdom's women. Wafa M. is a 26-year-old science teacher so devoted to her profession that she makes a 200-mile (320-kilometer) round-trip five times a week from Jeddah to a rural high school near Medina that would have no biology department without her. That alone puts her on the leading edge of change in a society where half of all women were illiterate as recently as the mid-1990s.

By law, however, she can't drive a car; she's ferried to the school in a chauffeured minivan with four other female teachers. She cannot walk the streets of her city unveiled or unchaperoned without risking confrontation with the mutawaeen. She cannot travel abroad without a mahram, a male guardian from her immediate family.

Like the overwhelming presence of foreign workers in the kingdom's streets, the overwhelming absence of women in public can be jarring to outsiders, no matter how prepared they are to encounter Saudi misogyny. It is as though the traveler enters a half-populated landscape, in which 50 percent of the human race has been relegated to faceless shadows that flit discreetly along the margins of activity, or black-veiled wraiths who toss numbered paper wads to teenage boys in hope of a disembodied flirtation by cell phone.

The chief enforcer of constraints on Saudi women, in the simple caricature of Saudi society, is the domineering husband, a staunch ally of the religious police who stalk the streets in search of "immodest" women.

A young Indian laborer checks his laundry on a rooftop in Jeddah, where hundreds of thousands of guest workers crowd into the city's crumbling historic district. Saudi Arabia hosts more than six million such workers—about 25 percent of the population. They do the menial jobs Saudi men refuse to do or the technical jobs they are untrained to do. With unemployment among young Saudis reaching as high as 30 percent, the government is counting on a "Saudization" program to replace foreign workers with domestic ones. The goal: to reduce the foreign workforce by 60 percent.

But real life is seldom so simple: It was Wafa's husband, Saad, who organized my surreptitious meeting with his wife in a Starbucks café, encouraging her to remove her veil and allow this article's photographer, Reza, to take her photo.

"I just can't do it," Wafa finally said. Reza left, and the veil remained in place throughout our two-hour conversation over caffe latte, as the couple's five-month-old daughter, Lana, gurgled happily in her mother's lap and her two-year-old sister, Dina, squirmed for attention.

Wafa tried to explain.  "It's not only a religious issue for me, and not even a civil liberties issue," she said quietly. "It's about our families, about what they'd say and think if someone saw me in your magazine. Things like that just aren't done."

A day earlier, Saad had briefly talked her into the photo. He's a convincing guy, a 27-year-old public relations and advertising man, partly raised in the United States, who picked me up at my hotel wearing tan chinos and a button-down oxford shirt. But he's not as convincing as Wafa's parents, who had changed her mind the previous evening in a meeting at their home in Mecca.

"The pressure to observe the old ways is exerted most powerfully at the level of the family," notes Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki, a prominent spokesman for modernization. "To criticize those ways is to criticize your own parents and grandparents."

Yet the old ways themselves were considerably looser a quarter century ago, before the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979 pushed the entire Middle East toward more repressive social norms. Many Saudis on the Red Sea coast, where desert custom is tempered by trade and the constant passage of foreign Muslims on the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, also blame the rise of Riyadh, which overtook mercantile Jeddah as the nation's most important city in the 1970s. The capital is a chief stronghold of Wahhabism, the seat of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as the mutawaeen, and of the powerful Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Subversive counterinfluences, however, are as close at hand as satellite television. To the daughters of traditional Arabia who sit glued each afternoon to uninhibited and wildly popular soap operas transmitted from Beirut and Cairo, the message is that women can be good Muslims and serve as government ministers; they can dress as they like, drive their own cars, and run their own businesses. They can dream. Which is one of the main reasons Wafa subjects herself to a 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) commute every week.

"The girls I teach are the daughters of peasant farmers," she said. "I'm their window to a larger world. What I want for them, what I want for my own daughters, is the possibility to act on their dreams."

At a suburban estate north of the capital, I arrived before 8 p.m. for dinner and wound up in a conversation that proceeded, with great intensity, until I finally left for my hotel at 5 a.m.

"We have a village mentality, closed and fearful, even though most of us now live in cities," my host said at one point, trying to account for the walls built around his nation's women.

"We Saudis should have used our oil wealth to create a genuinely modern society, to promote real development," I was told in another sitting room, this time in downtown Riyadh. "Instead, we went on a five-star tourist trip, and now we're seeing the consequences."

Both men are royals in their 50s, and one is near the pinnacle of a very long line of succession emanating from Ibn Saud, who personally led the great Saudi baby boom, unifying his realm by fathering children with the daughters of as many tribal leaders as possible. Seventy years after he founded the kingdom, the House of Saud counts more than 5,000 princes.

Hundreds of the royals attended universities in Europe and North America 30 years ago. When you visit their homes and discussion turns nostalgic, they are likely to dig out a Jefferson Airplane or Beatles album and put it on the stereo. Their mentality is a complex mixture of deep attachment to the traditional Arab values personified by the Saud family, and a thoroughly international outlook imparted by educations abroad during the 1960s and 1970s. Pulled, even more than their subjects, in two directions at once, their sense of crisis is acute.

"What happens here in the next five to fifteen years will be crucial," said Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, who invited me out for an evening's talk during Ramadan. We sat in his garden on the Red Sea shore north of Jeddah, sipping tea and snacking on pistachios and cashew nuts.

Faisal's official role is an administrative post in the National Guard, but his deeper ambition is to establish a network of think tanks for Saudi Arabia, modeled on those he encountered as a student at Stanford. He believes that only professional, scientific governance—in a word, technocracy—can thread a rational course between the dangers of both religious fanaticism and mindless mass consumption.

Many in the rising generation of leaders share this conclusion; in recent years they have energetically promoted the careers of skilled technocrats on their own staffs and throughout the bureaucracy. The flagship of their vision is the Majlis ash-Shura, a consultative assembly created by King Fahd in 1992 and installed in an enormous domed hall on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Riyadh. The Shura is arguably the most educated government assembly ever to exist. Of its 120 members, 77 hold doctorates or medical degrees; 87 are graduates of major Western universities. Remarkably for Saudi Arabia, only 12 hold degrees in religious studies.

Although the Shura's members are now appointed by the King, some observers regard it as the forerunner of an elected legislature that will eventually share power with the monarchy. Not everyone agrees with that premise. But on one matter there is near unanimous agreement across the kingdom. Whoever leads Saudi Arabia, his most pressing task is to create an authentically Saudi definition of progress to replace those simply borrowed or bought from someplace else.

The central square of Sabya, a farming town in the kingdom's rural south, was swarming with worshipers before Friday prayers when Jabbar Abdulghani bin Isa stepped from the rear of a police van. He expected it to be his final hour on Earth.

"Up ahead, just a hundred meters away beyond the mosque, I could see the executioner," he recalled. "I could see his sword glinting in the sun."

From the square's far side, Muhammad Banaygh watched. He had been waiting 17 years for this moment, since the day that his father was killed in a fight with bin Isa.

"All of those years, my family had wanted his blood," he said, as we talked later in a hotel coffee shop. But as the crowd parted and his father's killer was led to the execution block, Banaygh suddenly decided that the shedding of more blood would solve nothing.

"I turned to my brother and my uncle and said, 'Let's stop it.'" They waved frantically to the officials in charge.

Sitting across the table from Banaygh and me in the coffee shop, the condemned man, bin Isa, described the next moments with the vividness of someone who had stared into the abyss of his own death. "The crowd started clapping and one of my guards kissed me on the forehead. 'Praise God,' he said, 'it is His will that they have forgiven you.'"

Under sharia, the Koranic legal code that prevails in Saudi Arabia, the fate of convicted murderers is determined by the families of their victims, whose adult heirs cast votes on the sentence. For 17 years, through the three mandatory appeals required in all murder cases, Saudi magistrates had been working ceaselessly to nudge the Banayghs toward a pardon.

"The judges talked to us many, many times," Muhammad Banaygh said. "'To forgive or not is your right,' they explained. But they wanted us to forgive, because that's what the Koran asks."

This is what Saudis see in their nation, and their religion—and what they would like the world to see as well. Not the hijackers of September 11, who branded the kingdom with the stigma of terrorism, but a heavenly ordered state in which mercy is a paramount virtue. Not the grim spectacle of a public beheading, but the intense faith that can halt it, based directly on the Prophet Muhammad's account of God's word as revealed to him on the Arabian Peninsula nearly 1,400 years ago and recorded in the Koran.

It is difficult today, in the fog of current events, to imagine how breathtakingly open and humane Islamic justice must have seemed at its inception, at a time when much of Europe was still reeling from the arbitrary whims of feudal lords.

Mercy and imagination, in fact, were once Arabian hallmarks, principal elements in the revolution wrought by the Prophet Muhammad in the era that Europe knew as the Dark Ages.

Those same centuries were a golden age for Arabs and Islam, an explosion of creativity marked by an openness to—even an obsession with—knowledge and science. Its principal discoveries were made in the ninth century, when scholars in Baghdad set about translating the chief scientific and philosophical works of foreign cultures and classical antiquity.

In concert with Indian mathematicians, Arab scholars perfected the modern numerical system, wrote the first treatise on algebra, and formalized the discipline of geometry. They made pioneering advances in astronomy and physics, inspired by Greek texts that had been suppressed as "pagan heresy" in the West. Arabs invented the paper mill; its inexpensive substitute for parchment helped to launch the publishing industry.

"The highest achievements in science and technology were once found in the Islamic world," a senior figure in the Saudi bureaucracy said, as he took me on a tour of the King Abdul Aziz National Library in Riyadh, the country's largest library. "But that was a thousand years ago."

He gestured at the shelves around us. The collection, he pointed out, totaled 500,000 books—one-tenth the holdings of the main public library in Cincinnati, Ohio. "More important, you'll find very few key recent works from Europe, America, or East Asia here."

The contrast with Islam's golden age is devastating. According to the UN, a scant 330 foreign books are translated into Arabic in an average year. In Spain alone, 16,750 foreign books were translated in 2001, more than the total for all Arab nations combined in the past 50 years.

"If we are to survive as a nation, we have to be fully part of the world again, fully engaged in it," my guide to the library said. "We have to rid ourselves of the belief that we can protect our culture, protect Islam, with closed minds."

It is a refrain that a visitor hears often in 2003, an idea that is gaining momentum to counter the voices of extremism. A delegation of reform-minded Saudi professionals, intellectuals, government officials, and businessmen held an unprecedented private meeting earlier this year with Crown Prince Abdullah. In effect it was an emergency majlis, and its theme was the need for a new openness, buttressed by proposals for democratic elections, a dramatic reordering of the relations between men and women, and freedom of religion.

"The time has come to reinvigorate the national soul," Abdullah himself declared in a speech a few days later, "[and] prove that Arabs are able to establish themselves as a living nation."

I thought of Wafa, the science teacher, as I read Abdullah's words, and of the proto-democracy I'd found among the Bedouin. A new golden age is being dreamed of in the kingdom, to reconcile the struggle between the past and the future, between the mutawaeen and the cell phone, between the seventh century of the Prophet and the fast-changing world of Muslims today. Its outcome will determine the future of Saudi Arabia, and quite possibly the future of Islam on this Earth.