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Next Step : War-Stung Saudis Reach for Future, Cling to Past : The age-old struggle between tradition and modernization has been revived. Questions are being asked about the nation's society and its monarchy.

March 19, 1991|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Their black cloaks and veils hanging neatly in the marble foyer, Omaima Khamis, her sisters and girlfriends gathered in the parlor to eat dates, drink spiced coffee and discuss fashion, family and astrological signs.

No men would enter this world, a world segregated and regulated, like much of Saudi Arabia, by the dictates of 7th-Century Islamic beliefs. Finely dressed and bejeweled, the women sat on plushly upholstered sofas while their children scurried under the feet of attentive Philippine servants who brought silver trays laden with fruits and pastries.

It is a sign of the times in Saudi Arabia that even here, in this sheltered inner sanctum, talk timidly turned to politics, to the prospects of change and, most daringly, to women's rights.

For this is a Saudi Arabia emerging from the brutal jolt of war, a shock that has unleashed unprecedented questioning and searching in a country steeped in religion and tradition. From glistening mosques to sprawling shopping centers to family homes in the desert, Saudis have been forced by the war to examine their nation, their way of life and the Islamic-inspired absolute monarchy that controls both.

"People will rethink a lot of things," predicted Khamis, a 25-year-old literature professor.

Restless progressive Saudis hope the war and its aftermath will become a catalyst for social and political liberalization, for changes that would allow greater public participation in the way the country is run. Powerful religious fundamentalists, on the other hand, jealously struggle to protect the conservative Saudi culture from the Western evils brought by American troops and international attention.

And despite a wartime pledge from King Fahd to permit more democracy, most Saudis and foreign observers say that the ongoing tug of war will continue to dictate the pace of change. "We'll see them take two steps forward," said a Western diplomat, "and one and three-quarters steps backwards."

In fact, the Gulf War with Iraq has only revived a struggle between the forces of tradition and the forces of modernization that is almost as old as Saudi Arabia itself.

Especially in the last two decades, as oil wealth purchased progress, conservative Islam has clashed frequently with moves toward the 21st Century, and the signs of a society in conflict are everywhere.

U.S.-trained women surgeons wear customary black veils with their green scrubs at King Faisal Hospital; the most sophisticated computer stores, boutiques and Mercedes-Benz dealerships in downtown Riyadh close several times a day for Muslim prayers; classrooms at the leading universities are still segregated by sex, as Islam requires.

Many Saudis say the government is on the right track, moving carefully toward development and reform that does not threaten the kingdom's fundamentalist foundation.

But others, especially those among a new generation of technocrats and young liberals schooled in the West, are less optimistic. They have heard promises of greater democracy before, and they fear that a postwar xenophobic backlash from the religious right could stall any change.

One thing seems clear. The United States, concerned primarily with the stability of the friendly kingdom, is unlikely to put pressure on the ruling House of Saud for any sort of domestic reform.

"I don't think (United States officials) care who runs Saudi Arabia," said a diplomat, "as long as they produce 8 million barrels of oil a day and sell it at a reasonable price."

While oil has meant a significant presence of Westerners in Saudi Arabia for two generations, there had never been anything like the deluge of foreigners that arrived after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2.

American women soldiers were soon driving vehicles in Saudi Arabia, where it is illegal for women to drive, and more than 1,000 journalists were soon demanding answers to questions in a country where a largely self-censored press is controlled by the government.

The new Western presence outraged some Saudis and inspired others.

Many started to ask why a country that had spent billions of dollars on advanced military weaponry could not protect itself. The fiercely religious warned that Saudis would be corrupted by the infidel invaders. And scores of Saudis surreptitiously purchased microwave antenna so they could capture the heretofore-banned CNN on their home television sets.

The questioning expanded. Only a small minority actually criticized the royal family or urged that the system be overturned, but many started to demand a more efficient administration of the nation's business and political affairs.

"You could even see children talking politics," said Othman Y. Rawaf, director of the Center of Arabian Gulf Studies at King Saud University. "Older women, too. We had not seen this before."

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