CBS Reports offers at 10 tonight a documentary -- travelogue might be a better word -- on Saudi Arabia. Arabists will find it episodic and superficial. It attempts to cover a lot of ground in a brief time. But most of us aren't Arabists, and as a primer on Saudi Arabia, it is not badly done.
The timeliness of the program is obvious. Western civilization, in its present form, could not survive without oil from the Persian Gulf, most notably from the Saudis. It is a region of turmoil. Iran and Iraq are at war. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is an unlanced boil. There is nervousness over the stability of the Saudi royal family, over Soviet designs in the region and over the American role there.
In "The Saudis," CBS addresses all these issues with a snapshot technique. There are interviews with articulate, Western-educated technocrats in the government who have done much to change the stereotype of Saudi males as Sybaritic fools in Cadillacs. There is a fascinating dialogue between the reporter, Ed Bradley, and young Saudi women on their role in Saudi life and their rejection of the Western concept of women's liberation.
The House of Saud has ruled the country as a monarchy since 1932. It is an anachronistic form of government in 1980, but Bradley concludes that "as long as the leaders are perceived as pious and fair, the House of Saud should survive. Our experience was that the perception does exist now."
The larger question, which is touched upon and cannot be glibly answered, is whether this desert civilization can survive the tidal wave of Western influence and technology that now assails it. All over the world in developing countries, traditions, values and beliefs that have endured for centuries are under assault. "Progress," as we define it in the West, is conquering the world and leaving victims in its wake.
Mujahid Alsawwaf, a religious scholar, spoke of this "cultural contamination" in a conversation with Bradley.
"There's dualism in this society. It's hard for them. They don't know with whom they identify -- with the West or with their own desert people. Some of us are over this."
Faisal al Bashir, one of the bright young men in the Saudi Planning Ministry, is typical of the new class of Saudi technocrat.
"I just loved education. I did it, so to speak, my way and I was really just like a particle in the sea, at the mercy of waves in that sea. And this is what happened to me. I look back at it sometimes, I am very sad . . . When I see some of the tribesmen and I just start remembering those days. I am a romanticist. I think it's a beautiful life when everything is going very well. When spring is good, grass all over the desert. Sheep are running. You feel a sense of community. You can touch each one around you. You don't feel the impersonal life of city life. That was the beauty of desert life. That was the beauty of nomadic life. But when the spring is no good, where there is not enough rain, nomadic life is one of the . . . hardest life and most shifty you can imagine, physically as well as mentally . . .
"I really don't regret leaving it. But I do feel sad sometimes when I remember that sense of community . . . Everyone is your cousin, or a brother, or a relative, despite the fact you have no blood relationship to him . . . You feel together. And that is the sadness sometime."
The camera shows us the desert, and it shows us the congested streets of Riyadh where Bashir's Bedouin brothers are now driving cabs.