EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Strange: The troops have no epithets for the Arabs, even the Iraqis.

No kraut, nip or wog. You'd think Luke the Gook would have turned into Zeke the Sheik, or Ahab the Arab, the hero of the old doo-wop ballad. But no. It's as if the Arabs don't even exist.

The sole demon and scapegoat is Saddam Hussein.

You hear that when his mother was pregnant with him she knew she carried evil within her and she abandoned him at birth. You hear he has tunnels under Baghdad and he drives around in them in a golf cart -- a lovely detail, that golf cart.

But except for an occasional reference to Bedouin Bob, bouncing slowly through the desert dust in his pickup truck, and the souvenir salesmen outside our PXs, Saddam is the only Arab they seem to think about.

No wonder. There are no laundresses, soft-drink hawkers, pimps, pornography purveyors, curious flyspecked children, native troops or any of the other chorus and audience that usually accompany an American army in a foreign country.

The Saudis talk to the new American strangers with a sort of cool and provisional egalitarianism. You feel you're visiting an enormously prosperous corporation whose sole business is in top-secret government contracts.

You feel utterly alone here, which makes you feel oddly at home, this being the feeling of life in much of America too. There is none of the quaintness that has persuaded traveling Americans for generations that "they really know how to live over here."

No rich, timeless, erotic and exotic culture beckons or even lurks -- it doesn't hide as much as it simply stays behind veils, behind concrete walls around domed concrete houses, behind smoked glass windows on square office buildings, and behind the curtains on the windows of Mercedeses. The exotic here is irrelevant, and the technological is banal. It's as if Asbury Park, N.J., had hit oil about 1927.

There are minarets, of course, the towers from which the faithful are called to prayer -- but the call is not extended to the merely curious. There are gas stations with marquees soaring up and up over the pumps, huge things lit by the endless, oil-fired electricity that keeps strings of lights burning everywhere for no apparent reason, on walls, along beaches, down boulevards, until the cities of eastern Saudi Arabia start to acquire the bleak smugness of shopping mall parking lots in the middle of the night. There is something about this feeling that suggests the American way could triumph no matter how hard the Saudis try to keep it out.

If it triumphs, it will be through engineering. You can't beat American engineering, it's like French art or English manners, a whole way of thinking about life.

In the middle of the desert, past the sandbags and the antiaircraft emplacements of the 101st Airborne, the American civilian engineers have a golf course, for instance.

The engineers have been there for a while, building a huge government complex miles from the closest civilization, which is no more than Bedouin tents with television aerials next to them. Civilization is also the 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles, living in sandbag bunkers in sight of the first tee.

There are easier courses. Saudi Arabia is a country that might be described as one big bad lie.

"They each have a roll of Astroturf," says an Airborne officer who has been watching them for months. They carry it with them, like water.

They unroll the Astroturf, hit, roll it back up and walk across the dunes to their next shot. No golf cart, but being engineers they're probably working on it, something that synchronizes tank treads with a little fringed awning, and maybe a turret for the caddy. After that, they'll get the water hazards. They've already built greens out of slurry, wet limestone and sand, which is the same gray stuff the 101st Airborne used to camouflage the humvee truck some Airborne guys are sitting in now with their M-16s and chemical warfare suits, watching the engineers with their golf bags and sport shirts.

You want to ask where the sand traps are, but irony isn't a strong point of American engineers or the 101st Airborne.

Which group decorated the course with all the 55-gallon drums with 20 feet or so of wire screen sticking out of them? Are they radar antennas? Do the Bedouins put them there as landmarks, and if so, why so many?

It turns out they belong to the engineers. You wonder why you didn't figure it out yourself.

"Trees," the officer says.

To the Saudis, the Americans are just more foreign workers. There are many foreign workers, you say, and the reply is apt to be that there are only foreign workers, that the Saudis do not work, they own.

There's a joke you hear as soon as you get to Saudi Arabia:

An American, a German and a Saudi are talking about sex. The American says, "Sex is ultimate pleasure." The German says, "Sex is not pleasure; it is the work of building a strong nation." The Saudi thinks about this. "Sex must be pleasure," he says at last, "or else we'd have the Filipinos do it for us."

Maybe you have to be here. But if it's such a bad joke, why do people keep telling it?

"What do you have that's made in Saudi Arabia?" someone asks the Pakistani who runs a souvenir store full of brass camels and daggers.

"Nothing is made in Saudi Arabia," he says. "Nothing at all."

In a store that sells ghutras, the head cloths Saudi men wear, the proprietor holds one up and says: "Our very best quality. It is made in England."

Things are not made, except for large amounts of petrodollars, but things must be done, of course.

Bengalis drive cabs, Pakistanis change beds in hotels, Filipinos sweep the streets, Indians are cooks, and so on.

In America, of course, they would all be doing swan dives into the melting pot -- suburban houses, stone-washed jeans, whatever. Not here. They are a separate caste marked even by clothing.

In the name of cultural sensitivity in this "sunny, pleasant country," the U.S. Information Agency has published a booklet that says: "It is offensive to Saudis for foreigners to adopt traditional Saudi costume, be it thobes {the gowns men wear} and ghutras or abayas {the head-to-foot black women's robe with full black mesh veil over the face}."

Foreign women are welcomed far enough into Saudi society that, like their native sisters, they are forbidden to drive cars. In all fairness and cultural sensitivity, however, it should be pointed out that American women in military uniforms are being allowed to drive cars, trucks, whatever it takes to win the fight for freedom.

It is rumored that the Muttawa, who are the Committee for Encouraging Virtue and Discouraging Vice, have been asked to cool it around the American military. They can and do haul people off to jail for violations of Islamic law as interpreted by the Saudis, but there's no sense seeing this rich cultural heritage destroyed over a bag of pork rinds or a Saint Christopher medal.

After all, other foreigners have come here to clean toilets for Saudis, but we have come to fight a war for them.