In a basement room of the teachers college that opened here last year, the faculty and students have set up a little museum to preserve the crafts and artifacts of local life - curved daggers, camel saddles, ropes of woven leather, bedouin jewelry.
A few years ago these all were still in common use, but now they are vanishing, giving way to computers and transistors and power tools and pickup trucks. The multistoried houses of brown mud that are characteristic of this remote corner of Saudi Arabia are going too, going so quickly that the government has selected one near the center of town to preserve.
Oil money is bringing the 20th century to Asir, a rainy land of rugged mountains and misty valleys in his southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia where automobiles, electricity and public schools were unknown when today's adults were children.
The major cities of Saudi Arabia were substantially modernized in the previous generation. Now it is the turn of the outlying provinces, which are changing at a bewildering pace. The road linking Abha to Jeddah, 300 miles northwest, is not yet fully paved but traffic here is so heavy that city authouities set up a display of wrecked cars on a main square as a warning to careless drivers.
"This place is completely changed," said a Palestinian-born official of the Arabian American Oil Co. returning after 16 years. "The first time I came here it was to show a film about oil, and nobody here had ever seen a film before. They all come in on their donkeys and camels. Nobody had a car and there weren't any real roads."
It was only 43 years ago, shortly after the founding of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that the Asir region and Abha, its capital, became a permanent part of the country. The late King Fiasal, then a prince, seized the area after a brief war with Yemen.
His predecessor, King Saud, built himself an enormous palace on a windswept hill a few miles outside town, but Asia remained an isolated outback until the 1960s. Even then it was generally off-limits to foreigners because of Saudi involvement in the civil war in neighboring Yemen, where it backed the monarchist forces against the republicans supported by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.
Now a hotel is under construction. So is a new airport. Only 16 years after the first electric power come to this town of some 40,000, a Swedish construction crew is finishing work on an air-conditioned school with American-style water coolers and audiovisual equipment.
Television is coming in the fall, and local officials say many people have already bought receivers. An Italian firm built a 360-yard concrete dam to catch the rainwater in the monsoon season and assure a year round water supply.
The Asir is Saudi Arabia's only fertile agricultural region but government officials here say less of the population is still engaged in farming and animal-raising, their traditional occupations. The others have moved into construction or trade.
Two decades ago there was not even an elementary school. Now the government is planning to expand the teachers college, which opened only last fall in temporary quarters, into a full-scale university.
The school's dean, Mazyed al Mazyed, has a doctorate in biology education from the University of Oregon. "I was giving an examination at the university in Riyday," he said. "when I got a phone call from the Minister of Education. I said it should wait until after the exam, but he insisted I come to the phone right away. He told me to come down here and open this teachers college immediately."
Mazyed is the only Saudi on the faculty. The others are Iraqis, Egyptians and Palestinians. But the Saudis are determined to produce their own teachers, Mazyed said. His students get free tuition, free books and free room and board, as well as $120 a month pocket money, on the condition that they commit themselves to teaching for at least two years after they graduate.
The student s and teachers at the college are all male. Saudi girls still are not permitted to go to school with the boys or even to have male instructors. Mazyed said he is trying to recruit teachers for a girls' branch, but in the meantime is planning to do what is done in the University of Jeddah - let the girls watch the lectures on closed-circuit television.
Hani Abu Ghazali, an Italian-educated urban planner, who is overall coordinator of Abha's development, said the people here have adjusted easily to the startling changes in their lives.
"Everyone in our department was surprised because the people accepted these things happily," he said "They are even asking for more."
It is possible, however, that the transformation of life here is having more of a disruptive effect than the Saudis wannt to admit. One of the biggest of the new buildings in town is a prison.