Scott Nelson knows firsthand the character of America's "friends" in the Persian Gulf. Five years ago Nelson was jailed and tortured in Saudi Arabia for blowing the whistle on dangerous conditions at a Saudi hospital where he worked. He went there looking for top wages and instead found himself on the wrong side of the royal family.

Nelson, an electrical engineer, took a job with the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Saudi Arabia. His problems began in March 1984 when he spotted what he thought was a fire hazard in the hospital's oxygen and nitrous oxide lines. He reported it to his superiors, but was ignored.

Whistle-blowers in the United States know the meaning of on-the-job harassment, but Nelson found out it has another meaning in Saudi Arabia. Six months after he first began complaining, Nelson was called into the hospital's security office and arrested for unspecified charges. He was put in foot shackles and beaten on his back, chest and legs.

"They broke my knees," Nelson told us. "They beat my feet with bamboo canes and forced me to do knee bends with a rod between my legs."

It was not until four days later that Nelson got a visit from U.S. Embassy officials. Nelson claims he told them about the beatings, but the response was that if the embassy filed a complaint "it could make matters worse."

Nelson was moved to Al Sijan Prison to await trial, for who knows what. He was kept in a cell made for 50 men, but which held 110. He slept on the floor in the bathroom while rats crawled over him. The lights were left on all night. Mail was destroyed and food was scarce.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) found out about Nelson's case and petitioned King Fahd to release him. Nelson was freed 39 days after his arrest. The Saudis offered him his job back, but all he wanted was to get out of the country.

Back home in Raleigh, N.C., Nelson has undergone surgery for his knees. He says he will be disabled for the rest of his life.

"The worst part of my experience was dealing with our own government," Nelson told our associate Melinda Maas. "The State Department ignores the jailing and torturing of Americans in Saudi Arabia because of the country's influence and valuable export, crude oil."

Jim Smrkovski of Iowa has also tasted Saudi hospitality. He was imprisoned and tortured in Saudi Arabia in 1985 after being accused of spying. Smrkovski's crime was knowing someone who was being investigated by Saudi authorities. They thought Smrkovski knew something he wasn't telling, so they jailed him for 454 days.

Smrkovski said he was beaten and tortured. "The worst part came when they mutilated my toenails," he said. "I passed out."

The State Department won't talk about specific cases of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but told us that it has protested those abuses.

A recent report by Amnesty International says the abuses continue. Saudi Arabia's neighbors, the Yemenis, are favorite targets. Amnesty compiled reports of at least 800 Yemenis who had been arrested without charges, tortured or harassed in Saudi Arabia.