A dangerous war of words is spreading throughout Saudi Arabia, indicating growing resentment against both the Saudi royal family and the American military presence. Because mail is censored and phones are not secure, Saudis within the kingdom have difficulties expressing their disagreement with government policies to outsiders. However, Saudis returning to the West from Saudi Arabia describe a growing "cassette-tape war." News reports from the West and from other Arab countries, normally blocked by Saudi censors, are being recorded on audio cassettes and widely circulated, as are anti-regime speeches by prominent Saudi clerics and educators.

The speaker on one widely circulated tape identifies himself as Dr. Safar Al-Hawali (whether it is really he I have no way of knowing), dean of the Islamic College at Umm al-Qura University in Mecca. Formerly a supporter of the Saudi regime, he now says that "the animosity between Islam and the West is a matter of fact and will continue. Therefore, it is wrong that such Westerners be invited to defend us." Before dismissing such remarks, one should recall tapes of the Ayatollah Khomeini's speeches, smuggled into Iran, were part of the force that helped to undermine the shah's authority in that country a decade ago.

And Saudis are listening to these tapes. Said one recently returned Saudi businessman, "Nobody listens to the news on Saudi radio or television anymore. We know these are all lies. Everyone wants the cassettes so they can find out what is really happening."

Although Saudi domestic news coverage has always been censored, enough international news has normally been broadcast to avoid the appearance of censorship. However, recent events have discredited the official Saudi media. Most significantly, the Saudi government media did not publicly announce the deployment of foreign armies until a week and a half after it had begun. Even then armies were described merely as "belonging to friendly states," with no specific mention of Americans until recently.

The deployment was an unpleasant surprise to many Saudis who had previously been tolerant of their government's failings. They were under the impression that while there was some mismanagement, the wealth of their country was being used to build a military capable of defending them from any regional threat. With the oil slump in the mid-'80s, government funding for education and medical care was cut, despite the fact that much of the regime's support has come from its ability to provide its citizens with these basic services. These cuts were justified on the grounds that the money was needed for Saudi Arabia's defense.

"Where did the money go?" one tape asks. "Why don't we have an army?" a Saudi liberal commented. "It was a terrible shock to learn that all that we had been told about our military strength was a false dream. Why do we need America to protect us from Iraq?"

Some Saudi intellectuals doubt that the U.S. presence is intended to protect Saudi Arabia at all. One educator wrote in a letter smuggled out of the country: "They {the Americans} want our land and what is beneath our land, but as for us, they consider us an inferior race that should be extinct." The cassette tapes echo this sentiment or express it even more provocatively: "The crusader-bandits have come to steal our oil."

These tapes can have a powerful effect on Saudi public sentiment. First, Arab culture is profoundly verbal, and any concept eloquently expressed can have an impact that few Westerners can comprehend. In the Arab world, poetry and oratory are closely related arts, and such potentially subversive ones that the works of many prominent Saudi poets are banned within the kingdom. Public oratory comes only from the mosques and the royal palace.

Second, the Saudi government has only itself to blame for the fact that the most virulent anti-American propaganda is likely to be accepted as true. To prevent aspirations toward Western-style democracy, the state-controlled Saudi press and educational system have long depicted American society as violent, decadent and irreligious. I recall listening to a friend's child going through her carefully memorized list of points: "We have family values and take care of one another, but in the West even parents and children hate each other, and old people are thrown out in the street. We follow God's teachings, but they don't even follow their own religion . . . " etc. To underscore these sentiments, Saudi newspapers give extensive coverage to the most shocking American crimes, particularly those involving child abuse.

The ignorance and insensitivity of American journalists have compounded the problem. When CBS news recently filmed a group of American men and women entertaining the American troops, it was immediately picked up by Iraqi TV and beamed back into Saudi Arabia's volatile, predominantly Shi'ite province adjacent to Iraq. Soon videotapes of the offending clip began circulating in Riyadh and Jeddah.

One must remember that in Saudi Arabia "entertainment" means a group of musicians or folk dancers appearing before an audience of the same sex. Many fundamentalist Saudis believe that even this folk-dancing is irreligious. Thus, women wearing short skirts dancing in front of a crowd of cheering, shouting men was not entertainment to fundamentalist Saudis; it was an orgy. The film gave the fundamentalist opposition exactly the ammunition it needed and supported Iranian and Iraqi claims that King Fahd had allowed his country to be taken over by foreign degenerates.

A far more subtle and sinister problem is the effect of taped American newspaper reports on reflective Saudis, who note that all American opposition to an impending war focuses on the value of American lives. Little mention has been made of the value of Saudi lives or of the fact that Saudi civilian casualties could be very high. Further, American media discussion of a possible American first strike fails to mention a more long-range problem. Before the discovery of oil, Saudi Arabia was desperately poor. For at least the past 25 years, the Saudi government has tried to create an industrial and infrastructure base that would allow Saudi Arabia some level of prosperity after the oil runs out. A war could destroy that infrastructure and further deplete the oil supply, condemning Saudi Arabia to that same poverty once again.

Every petrodollar paid to the American military is not being used to build the roads, schools, hospitals and factories Saudi Arabia still needs, and no one has consulted the Saudi population about this. Instead of presenting these problems, American reporters have focused on Saudi shock at American women in T-shirts. These omissions support the feeling that the American response is intrinsically racist.

One indication of how shaky the regime has become is that Crown Prince Abdullah recently appeared on Saudi television, crediting the Saudi people with their country's advancement, an abrupt departure from the usual official view attributing Saudi Arabia's unification to King Abdulaziz ibn Saud and Saudi development to the generosity and farsightedness of the royal family. Abdullah told the Saudis, "You and your fathers and grandfathers built this country and united it. It is the rightful inheritance of you and your children." Obviously the regime needs popular support as never before.

Further, it is significant that Abdullah rather than Fahd spoke, as the two brothers are know to differ sharply about American influence, with Abdullah far more religiously conservative and anti-American. Crown Prince Abdullah is next in line for the throne should King Fahd die, abdicate or be deposed, and Fadh is said to be in poor health.

As more and more Saudis listen to respected religious leaders denouncing the Saudi family for their acceptance of the American military, one wonders whether an Abdullah regime would continue to support U.S. presence or if, indeed, the Saudi family can remain in power.

The writer, who currently teaches English at Southern Illinois University, taught English at King Saud University in Riyahd from 1987 to 1990.