For Riyadh, A Forced March Into The Real World

Flying into the desert expanses of Saudi Arabia from elsewhere in the Mideast used to bring a comforting sense of quiet relief. The world beyond Saudi borders was unsettled and fearsome, from the unspeakable bloodshed of Beirut and the intransigence of the Israelis to the poverty of Egypt and the chaos of Iran. But inside was a country that had never known war, a land of great wealth and vast undertakings. True, there were no public debates, no cinemas, no nightclubs, and no alcohol in this Islamic monarchy. But neither was there violence. Just the way the careful, conservative Saudis liked it.

Now it's all changed. Millions of Saudi men and women are realizing that the dangerous world can no longer be kept at bay. Many Saudis in Riyadh see the failure of U. S.-Iraqi talks in Geneva as the grim turning point. That, say several Saudis, was the moment they knew the clash would ultimately come. As one Saudi official in Riyadh explains it: "Up until the moment James Baker walked out of the meeting with Tariq Aziz in Switzerland, no one believed we'd actually be at war."

SUNDRIES OF FEAR. Walking down Airport Road in the city center, I can see the change for myself. Gleaming fast-food outlets and marble-clad government buildings create the look of a street in an up-to-date U. S. city. Then a convoy of camouflaged armored personnel carriers appears, rumbling down the wide avenue, each with a manned antitank machine gun pointing straight ahead. In that instant, the cityscape ceases to evoke Houston. It seems more like Beirut. Looking closer, I see that key government installations have sandbagged machine gun emplacements and concrete blocks at their entrances.

The nearby SACO hardware store is thronged with a crowd of insistent Saudis shopping for the sundries of fear: batteries, fire extinguishers, Coleman halogen spotlights, and boxes of tape for crisscrossing on windows to prevent shattering glass. One superhot item: U. S.-made plastic weatherstripping, which may offer some protection against chemical attack if the Iraqis hit Riyadh with their upgraded, Soviet-made SCUD missiles. "Weatherstripping is our biggest seller," says Romeo Pagba, a Filipino salesman who would like to flee the country but says he needs the income to send back home.

The sense that the kingdom is no longer inviolate runs deeper still. The arrival of oil wealth--a torrent since the 1970s--made it easy to leave wars and hardship to others. Despite billions spent on sophisticated weapons systems at home, the Saudis did little to expand their own armed forces. Instead, they preferred to attempt to buy the friendship of stronger neighbors. Riyadh was Saddam Hussein's biggest benefactor during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran. Besides, the ruling Al-Saud family figured, a large military would be a threat to their ability to maintain sway over the nation. But now, the peaceable kingdom has no choice but to build itself a large standing army.

Against this background, Saudi society is beginning to polarize in troubling ways. Liberal Saudis, many educated at American universities, find themselves ill at ease with the increasingly strident Islamic fundamentalism permeating all levels of society. And unlike the case in many other cultures, it's the young, now largely educated in new universities at home, who are often the most intolerant and conservative. One young Saudi woman who took part in a peaceful demonstration in Riyadh last November to protest a long-standing ban on women drivers expected to be hailed as a hero by her fellow students at the King Saud University. Instead, she says, she was ostracized.

VITAL SIGNS. Yet as a Westerner, I can't help but see Saudi Arabia's more open conflicts as signs of health. The gulf crisis has enlivened the once docile and heavily censored Saudi press in ways unimaginable not very long ago. Ten years ago, when I first visited, private political debate among Saudis was rare, and in front of foreigners it was altogether unheard of. Now I find myself amid rough-and-tumble arguments among the Saudis about the sort of future they would like to see for their country.

Whatever the outcome of the war, Saudi Arabia's calm has been shattered. In the days before the Jan. 16 outbreak of hostilities, the government began a mass distribution of gas masks. At a somber dinner party in Riyadh, a television in the corner beams a civil-defense demonstration of how to remove mustard gas from one's skin. A dining companion complains that her Yugoslavian-made gas mask has only a Serbo-Croatian instruction manual. "Things are really not going to be the same," says a middle-aged Saudi at the table. For better or worse, the harsh and uncertain realities of the modern Mideast have at last invaded Saudi Arabia.