"Saudi Arabia," a three-part documentary beginning tonight on PBS, is a remarkable achievement.
It combines stunning film, informative interviews and a lucid script into the most extensive and useful look at the kingdom of Saudi Arabia ever presented on American television.
Steering deftly around the stereotypes, the series shows famous Saudis such as oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani and little-known figures such as a 96-year-old sheik who fought at the side of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, founder of the kingdom, explaining with weary good humor a society that is often depicted as bizarre or hostile.
Producer Jo Franklin-Trout has delved into obscure archives to retrieve film of the 13-year-old Faisal, son of Abdul Aziz, representing his father in London and Paris, and of the dissolute King Saud leaving for exile in Europe after he was deposed by the princes and religious leaders in 1964. The overall effect is to reveal the Saudis as witty, proud people well aware of the problems they face in reconciling breakneck development with cherished traditions.
Franklin-Trout, who also wrote the script and narrates two of the three segments, deserves high marks for balance, perception and objectivity. Given the difficulties of reporting and filming in Saudi Arabia, her success at taking cameras into such sanctuaries as a girls' school, a society wedding and a national guard unit must be the product of patience, diplomacy and plain good luck.
The series, which will be shown on successive Tuesdays, has some flaws. It is verbose and occasionally repetitive. By necessity it is sketchy in its treatment of such subjects as the rise of Islam in the 7th century. The first segment, recounting the rise of the House of Saud and the unification of the kingdom, is marred by the portentous style of narrator Carney Gavin. And the series tries to cover too much ground, so that by the end the discussion of Saudi oil politics and foreign relations becomes difficult to absorb.
In her effort to deal with political issues and regional politics as well as with the social and economic changes that have transformed the country, Franklin-Trout is obliged to use too many "talking head" interviews, at the expense of film from the locations to which she had unique access. It might have been preferable to cut the segments with such familiar faces as former National Security Council staff member William Quandt and former ambassador James Akins, and use more film from the sands of the Empty Quarter or the verdant hills of Saudi Arabia's southwest.
But those quibbles do not diminish the value of the series. Franklin-Trout, former producer of "The MacNeil-Lehrer Report," has managed to interweave history, politics, religion and geography into a balanced and informative portrait of a vital country in the midst of breathtaking change.
In one of the best moments, Ghazi al Gosaibi, the minister of Industry, dismisses as "romantic" the nostalgia of some Westerners for Saudi Arabia's simpler past. Today's Saudis, he says, "don't want their son to be a 'noble savage,' they want him to go to Stanford."
The most effective segment is the second, "The Race With Time," which deals with the social and cultural upheaval thrust upon a conservative society by the sudden influx of unimaginable wealth. Franklin-Trout even manages an intelligible discussion of the role of sharia, or Koranic law, in Saudi society, using Yamani, whose background is in comparative law, as one of her resources.
She tries to give a balanced presentation of such issues as the role of Saudi women, who have only been going to school since the 1960s. One woman, Nada Inhabi, complains that Saudi women "waste their time" because of restrictions on them, but girls at a high school in Riyadh say they value their protected status in traditional society.
"Saudi Arabia" provides little in the way of new information for those few Americans familiar with the country, but it is an effective antidote to the stereotype described by one of the Saudis interviewed: "black tents, two Cadillacs, four oil wells, five camels and six wives."