UNTIL A FEW YEARS AGO, few in the West

thought more of Arabia than as a sort of sand lot suitable for a Rudolph Valentino movie or the site visited by Muslim pilgrims. Unlike most of the surrounding countries, Arabia had never been conquered or colonized by Western powers--its poverty was a far better defense than rivers or mountains--and its religious commitment made it impervious to the missionaries so active elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. The population was small and scattered, and few of its children had the means or the interest to go abroad to study.

Even when oil was struk, just before World War II, the initial impact was small. The fields were distant from the major population centers and the pipeline was along a remote frontier. Since little local processing was done, relatively few Saudis even knew that they had oil. And, in those days, oil was not worth very much. For a generation it remained cheap. It was 1950 before Saudi production amounted to much and then oil was only about $2 a barrel. Measured in 1950 dollars, the price had fallen to about $1.79 a barrel 20 years later in 1970. In that year, the total revenue of Saudi Arabia was far less than a middle-sized American city.

Then the changes began. Saudi Arabia embarked upon a major development program and the price of oil soared. Today, the country earns in three days what it earned in 1970. Take some comparisons: 30 years ago, Saudis thought of their central bank as a strong room for the storage of gold coins--the room did not have to be very large --while today its Monetary Agency (SAMA) controls investments of about $100 billion throughout the industrial world and is the biggest purchaser of U.S. Treasury notes. In 1950, the country had almost no roads so that travel to many regions amounted to expeditions; today superhighways criss-cross the country. Then its few telephones were virtually inoperative even across town in the capital; today, one can dial direct from even the most remote sites to any other "modern" center in the world more easily than in most of Europe and much of America. Then, there was virtually no public entertainment and little education other than rudimentary religious schools; today, television reaches into every house and virtually every family has dozens, many have thousands, of video tapes from Japan, Europe and America, while free education up to and including the universities of Europe and America is the citizen's right. In 1950 even minor ailments required treatment abroad but today huge medical complexes tower over all the cities.

In the avalanche of the new, much of the old has simply vanished. The desert today is truly deserted as the Bedouin have sought the cities' bright lights. Walled villages have been submerged beneath concrete, glass and asphalt. It is easier, of course, to document the passing of the old than to discern the pattern of the new. The Saudis have had little time for or interest in nostalgia; for them the past often means pain, privation and weakness. But in the rush toward the new, of course, must also be elements of the traditional way of life. And it is there, in the attempt to find a new synthesis of values, national identity, religion, family and wealth, rather than in the dramatic commercial or economic statistics, that the incomprehensibility of Saudi Arabia arises.

All this would be merely interesting, or at least quaint, however crucial for the Saudis, but for the fact that Saudi Arabia is the major source for the petroleum that fires Western and Japanese industry and provides the raw material for the petrochemical industry upon which, increasingly, we rely for our daily necessities. As Robert Lacey puts it tartly, "If it were not for a freak of geology, few people in the western would would give a fig about King Khalid and his falcons." But they must because not only do the Saudi fields contain about a quarter of the world's oil but they should last long after those of most other countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, are well drained. Even today, with the "loss" of Iran and the hostility of Libya, Saudi Arabian oil has become of prime importance to America and shortly will become attractive to the Soviet Union.

We too have changed over the past generation and no longer can afford to think of the world just as pieces of a strategic puzzle or solely in terms of our own interests. Now we realize that we must try to find out what the world looks like from the other side. That is the issue set for us by these three books. Their approaches are different and each has something to offer the reader.

David Holden and Richard Johns present a detailed history of the ruling family of Arabia which they call The House of Saud. David Holden was, until his mysterious murder in Cairo four years ago, the chief correspondent for the London Sunday Times and widely regarded as one of the best journalists operating in the Middle East. His unfinished task was taken up by Richard Johns of the London Financial Times who, while lacking Holden's long exposure to the Middle East, has made the more modern issues of oil and money his special concern. The division of tasks and styles shows in the book and leaves it, while full of fascinating detail, without a clear focus. Of the three, however, it is the one anyone visiting Arabia would find most useful; of the three it is perhaps the most pessimistic on the future of the regime.

Lacey's book is more interestingly written. Less a history than The House of Saud, it has some of the virtues of a small-town newspaper, full of gossip that makes it characters seem, if not exactly like the folks down the street, at least recognizably human. But more attractive, I suspect, for those who chose it as a Book-of-the-Month Club offering and who have engaged Lacey as a new guru on Arabia is his ability to put into a paragraph or two the essence of fairly complex issues like the source of wealth of the Saudi royal princes, the change of oil prices, the issue of corruption in Arabia and the Palestine issue as the Arabs see it. Even better are his short and pithy portraits of Arabia's leaders. He achieves a surprising balance between sympathy and criticism. While freely discussing the wild youth of Faisal, for example, and showing some of his failures and mistakes, Lacey finds in him elements of greatness. His discussion of Saud, the blacksheep king, is especially humane and insightful in crediting the fallen king for his role in beginning educational and welfare programs while also documenting his incompetence and wastefulness. These portraits, "warts and all" are not in the Arab tradition, and Lacey mentions, almost casually, that his book is banned in Arabia "on the basis of eighty-two objections," but in it, the Saudis emerge more understandable and more likable than they have appeared before even in books they commissioned.

William Quandt, who served as a Middle Eastern specialist on the National Security Council during the Carter Administration, undertakes a very different sort of task. In effect, he tries to think through the issues facing Saudi Arabia today as though he were planning Saudi policy. He has written the sort of work many diplomats wish a Saudi had written; Saudi unwillingness or inability to articulate or analyze major issues in ways similar to those we employ, or try to employ, in foreign policy planning has been one of the most confusing aspects of the Arab-American dialogue. King Faisal, for example, often reduced world problems to the twin--for him even identical--threats of Zionism and Communism. And Quandt, imagining himself a Riyadh perspective, shows how much more complex is the world which the Saudis face. Yet it is the Palestine issue with which Quandt (and the real Saudis) begin: "As long as the Palestinian issue festers, the Saudis fear, the surrounding Arab world will be threatened by instability, the Soviets will be a source of arms and diplomatic support for some Arab regimes, and Saudi Arabia will be asked to use its oil to force the Americans to extract concessions from the Israelis." Religion is also involved deeply. The moral justification for the Saudi regime arises from its origins in and commitment to the preservation of Islam, and failure in this area could cause the overthrow of the regime in the future if the sentiments which caused the November 1979 Mecca incident became better focused. Rivalry with Egypt is also an ingredient as is genuine concern about Israeli occupation of Saudi territory and simulated attacks on a Saudi air base.

Saudi Arabia, riding on its wave of oil-generated riches, faces new realities. It can no longer take refuge in its poverty, but along with greater opportunities must cope with new dangers. Its relationship with the United States is changing, must change. Its newly educated younger people will no longer allow it to do otherwise, and recognition of the American special relationship with Israel, never understood by the Saudis, becomes the occasion for ever more heated and frequent disagreements. Quandt notes that already "Little remains of the confidence and goodwill that characterized the relationship in some earlier periods." And, partly as a consequence of this, there is a discernible shift in the relationship with the Soviet Union.

In what Quandt calls "Operation Charm," beginning in January 1979, the Russians began to make gestures toward the Kingdom. By July 1980, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Faisal could state that if the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, all inhibitions to good relations between the two countries would be removed. As the Soviet need for imported oil grows in the 1980s, this tendency to find a workable relationship will undoubtedly accelerate. Then, sophistocated Soviet use of the stick of pressure from the radical Arab regimes over the Palestine issue and the carrot of massive arms supply will be formidible indeed.

Will Saudi Arabia survive?

As I mentioned, Johns is pessimistic. He ends his book with an observation by an earlier observer of the old Arabia on the ruins of the first Saudi capital outside Riyadh. The words, he says, rang true to him in 1981,

"'Wahhabism was in ruin. The capital, bigger, wealthier and richer in palaces than any town in Central Arabia had ever been before, was witness of a ruin that was greater, immeasurably greater, than that first ruin because this time the ruin was spiritual.'"

"But the Kingdom is still in being," writes Johns.

Quandt is less impressionistic but also less clear. Having noted all the predictable danger points, particularly the growth of the modern armed forces which have given rise to the other Middle Eastern coups, he says that "one should resist the temptation to try to predict how long the Saudi regime will remain in power. Suffice it to say that the regime will be obligated to change, to adapt, and to improvise if it is to continue." That is both to state the obvious and to back away from what every government and business remotely connected with Arabia must undertake. Since the answer to the question could so deeply affect all of our lives, the "temptation" will be felt by us all.

Finally, Lacey gives what might be regarded as a Saudi answer: the world and its wealth is transitory. All comes from and returns to God. And in daily experience, the desert, even with its privation and poverty, offers a solace difficult for those who have not known it to appreciate.

"This is where they have come from. The desert is the source of everything they hold dear--their religion, their code of honor, their ancestry, their black gold--and regularly the inhabitants of the Kingdom flee the modern pyramids their riches are creating to the bleak void that they find so consoling." There, the Saudis like to say, their ancestors returned after having conquered half the known world in the 7th century, and to the desert they could again return if this great oily bubble of theirs explodes.y