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Western Influence Creates Division in Rigid Saudi Society

October 07, 1995|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — King Fahd has good reason to worry these days as Saudi Arabia's era of easy money wanes and the voices of opposition grow.

The kingdom is under fire from human rights organizations for carrying out a record 180 beheadings this year. The religious right is growing feistier, and the left is questioning the notion that development is an acceptable alternative to democracy. Shiite riots in nearby Bahrain and a palace coup in Qatar serve as reminders of the vulnerability of monarchies.

Additionally, spending cutbacks have led to grumbling by Saudis who have come to expect a free ride through life. And while the prices of electricity and water go up and Saudis start paying for local phone calls for the first time, Fahd's American friends encourage him to spend billions on U.S. armaments to defend a region whose ultimate security now depends on the United States.

Many of the new challenges the 74-year-old king faces are the result of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which cost Saudi Arabia $55 billion and brought 700,000 foreign troops and 7,000 journalists into a land fearful of alien corrupting influences.

Just the memory of their presence still jars the sensibilities of many people in this orderly, straight-arrow and largely crime-free kingdom, where genders do not mingle, alcohol is banned--strawberry smoothies are the local equivalent of martinis--movie theaters do not exist and women are not allowed to drive.

"I was so stunned to see an American soldier--a woman soldier!--driving a truck one day in downtown Riyadh that I couldn't take my eyes off what I was seeing," said Elias Saleh, an engineer. "Frankly, I felt insulted. I very nearly crashed into another car."

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In the aftermath of the war, Fahd has been forced to tinker with untried remedies. The wild prewar spending has been cut by 26% over the past two years. The military relationship with the United States has come out of the closet (several thousand U.S. advisers and more than 100 U.S. planes are based here), and timid economic and political reforms have been launched.

They include the creation of a consultative council and the formation of the first new Cabinet in 13 years, both of which tend to reflect a younger, more technocratic look and are heavy with Western-educated, doctoral degree-holders apparently chosen on merit as much as political loyalty. Although decisions are still made in secret by the ruling royals, the change seems to indicate Fahd's intention to move cautiously toward opening up the governmental process, Western analysts say.

Perhaps the most daunting effect of the war Fahd must deal with is a split in the ulama-- the religious Establishment: One group accepts Fahd's decision to call on Western Christians to rescue the Gulf monarchies. Members of the other group believe that the decision led to an unholy alliance in a society that they have been trying to rid of all Western influence, including such things as foreign TV programs and magazines that show unveiled faces of women.

These ultraconservatives, though not revolutionaries, want the ruling elite to be subservient to the ulama . In many ways, they have made the Fahd regime hostage to the very religion it is guardian of and from which it draws its legitimacy. The king, who is not a pious man, must, for instance, approve all death sentences. But even if he were affronted by the frequency of beheadings, he might hesitate to overturn a verdict from the religious courts for fear of being branded un-Islamic.

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In the shopping malls and marketplaces, the bearded religious police known as the mutawein are out in force these days, harassing and berating Saudis and foreigners alike for improper Islamic dress or behavior. On one occasion, they broke into the home of a Saudi businessman to cart away his TV satellite dish. So many foreign women have been hassled for wearing Western-style clothes that most now slip on black cloaks known as abas before going out.

The mutawein-- members of the Committee of Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice--are all on the government payroll, enabling the state to maintain ultimate control over a group that represents potential opposition. Traditionally, when the king believes the mutawein are getting too enthusiastic, he orders them to back off, and they do.

"It's gotten so unpleasant I don't even go out to dinner with my wife anymore," a Saudi businessman said. "Instead, we have two or three couples over Friday night and we'll sit around until 1 or 2 in the morning talking and having a good time. But even that could get me in trouble with the mutawein. "

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