Saudi Arabia


About the last hazard a traveler might reasonably be expected to encounter in Saudi Arabia, fabled land of desert, waste in hidden oil, is a flood.

Yet the other night a flood there was. Three inches of rain poured on Riyadh in about two hours, swamping the airport so badly that it had to be closed. Water sloshed into the boots of workmen cleaning up the rooms and some back streets remained really impossible for days afterward.

Modest flooding in the desert, it turns out, happens often enough - say once every few years - for the Saudis to have built an imposing dam on the outskirts of the city to harness what moisture they can. Water, after all, ranks second only to oil here as the fluid held in highest regard.

This time, however, only a few small puddles gathered at the dam. So, standing amid the sand dunes with small children playing at its base, the dam and its empty basin looked like a concrete testimonial to mankind's eternal optimism.

But then the Saudis have good reason to be optimistic. The world's biggest oil reserves have transformed their sparsely populated, little developed kingdom into one of the world's great economic powers in less than a decade. The Saudi government and some if its citizenry have tens, even hundreds of billions of dollars to spend and a good part of the wealth is being plowed back into the country.

RIYADH IS LIKE a city being built on the moon.

Construction is under way everywhere on the desert's barren flats. A few trees and plants are struggling to take root. Small oases dot the horizon in several places, but the dominant impression is still of a vast empty space onto which a major world capital of the future is being imposed.

In many areas building is going on so fast that there are no addresses. Unless people know how to reach their destination they are practically certain to get loss in the maze of biways and scaffolds. This holds for Saudis and foreigners alike.

The construction boom are predictably sent prices skyrocketing.

A high-ranking Saudi civil servant, for instance, observed that the comfortable but relatively simple villa he is building for his family - three bedrooms, two living rooms (in the Saudi custom) and modern conveniences - has already cost him more than 600,000 rials, the equivalent of almost $200,000. And it is still not finished. Other Saudis said the civil servant was getting off lightly.

The royal government is spreading largesse, however. It provides interest free housing loans up to 300,000 rials (the rial is worth about 30 cents) to be repaid at a thousand rials per month over 25 years with the last 20 percent written off if loan conditions are met. That means a mid-level office worker or civil servant earning 5,000 rials a month is getting government help to the tune of about $100,000.

BECAUSE OF THE structures of Moslem law that the Saudis follow more closely than any of their Arab brethren, Riyadh has few of the amenities that Westerners associate with a city of its size.

There are some restaurants with prices about the same as New York or Paris, that cater largely to the growing foreign community, but there are no bars because the government forbids alcohol. There are only a couple of small bootleg movie theaters because the Saudi frown on strangers, particularly women, gathering in the dark.

To get around the limits on entertainment, wealthier Saudis, of whom there are many, have bought television cassette players and rent feature movies on tape for up to 500 reels a night. "Our Hollywood," one Saudi called the street where the cassette shops are located. There is also a television network that shows, among other things, old Pink Panther cartoons and readings from the Koran, the Moslem holy book.

SAUDI MEN SEEM to invest a great deal of the social energy that might otherwise be expended elsewhere on the automobile. Perhaps understandably, given the country's wealth in oil, Saudi Arabia is a bonanza for gas guzzlers. Gas costs about 14 cents a gallon. The streets are clogged with big cars. Mostly American and German.

Under Moslem law women are not allowed to drive. So rigid in fact are the restrictions still imposed on the movements of women that full-size publics buses have not been introduced, it is said, in part because of the unwillingness to have the sexes mix on public transportation.

"We are considering double decker buses," a Saudi said, "or maybe a special section in the bus for women."

Driving is evidently considered a highly respectable, even desirable pastime, for males. So exalted a figure as Prince Saud, the foreign minister and son of the the late King Faisal, drives himself around town in a maroon Mercedes because he prefers to.

An anomaly of the driving craze is that Ford Motor Co. cars are banned in the Arab boycott of companies doing business with Israel. One Saudi clearly wanted a Lincoln Continental sedan in the worst way. There it was the other day, parked in the driveway of the Intercontinental Hotel, with all the medallions and Ford markings removed and replaces by a Cadillac shield and hubcaps.

FOR ALL THE SOCIAL conservatism that marks Saudi Arabia today, it is plainly a country undergoing pressures for change.

At the headquarters of the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) in Dharan, a chic young Saudi woman with a master's degree is communications from Boston University works in public relations. Another Saudi woman is a petroleum engineer.

In most countries these women would be hardly worth a mention, but remember that most Saudi females are still cloaked in black veils and hidden from all but their closest relatives. It remains common even for sophisticated young couples to meet only once, briefly in the company of their families, before they get married.

A woman petroleum engineer, therefore, is a phenomenon.

The question is how much the huge amount of outside influence that Saudi Arabia is buying with its new wealth is going to modify the country's ancient ways. Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the Saudi oil minister and one of its best known figures abroad, offered this view in an interview the other day.

"I don't think change will ever be so enormous that you will find a fundamentally different Saudi Arabia, socially speaking," he said.

"We think that our religious roots are so deep, our traditions so strong, that our general features will remain as they are.

"But there is bound to be change. And this change will have a price. We will try to keep it a minimum price. We have an almost daily debate on how far to go. We don't have one opinion, which is natural. On issues such as these, though, you may study carefully, you can't have a definite plan. When you deal with people, human beings, you cannot predict what will happen.

"We are doing our best."