JIDDA, SAUDI ARABIA — Jidda, Saudi Arabia
He is a Saudi economist, educated in the United States, where he vacations each year, and he sits at a desk papered with charts and surrounded by computers, telephones and a fax. Judged by appearances, a thoroughly Westernized man in a luxuriously Westernized land.
Appearances can deceive. The economist talked about the kingdom's priorities for national development (education first, military hardware a likely second), its revenues (they are steeply up, since a crisis that doubles the oil price doubles the kingdom's income), and added in passing that he was in the United States when he learned of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
"I thought it was Zionist TV trying to make trouble among Arabs," he said.
"I didn't believe the news. Then I called home and found out it is true."
In a desert kingdom, political necessity can act like quirks of landscape and weather to create a mirage. The economist shares a Western outlook only up to a point. Saudi Arabia and the United States share interests up to a point. And no one should mistake the newly intimate alliance between the two countries as a marriage between people of perfectly like minds.
This is a profoundly foreign country. Some of the foreignness is standard travelogue material, the exotic, brightly colored scenes ready-made for National Geographic -- camel herds shuffling their way across expanses of desert, mysteriously veiled women, a palace here and there, a prince carrying a falcon on a gloved hand. Such scenes are real. But the foreignness also derives from unexpected encounters with the familiar, or with familiar fantasies.
Seeing fantasies partially realized, that is the strangeness, and in Saudi Arabia materialistic aspects of the American dream come true. Jeddah, not New York, is the city of cheap gasoline, no taxes, clean streets, big cars and free schools. It looks familiar -- a Wendy's hamburger restaurant stands next to a Baskin Robbins ice cream shop -- but is as different as a horse that moos.
Like every other business, the Wendy's closes four times a day to mark the Moslem prayer times that occur during business hours. It has separate entrances for men and women to ensure no woman has contact with a man from outside her immediate family, sexually segregated counters for placing orders and segregated dining rooms. Nearby is an amusement park with rides reserved solely for unaccompanied men; several blocks away is the park for families.
Thanks to its wealth, Saudi Arabia enjoys the luxury of being able to study a menu and then pick and choose the modern ways it wants. It can reject whatever appears to conflict with the kingdom's puritanical interpretation of Islam. Part of the menu is the United States, and what Saudis like most is America's prowess in technology, the know-how that developed the kingdom's oil fields.
Saudi Arabia's relationship with the United States includes admiration, even envy, but leaves out affection. "You can be sure of one thing -- we don't really like you," a Saudi writer said. "It's in our interest to cooperate and be very friendly with you, but it is bitter medicine."
American troops have not softened those feelings. While the United States is recognized as an ally, Iraq, whatever its transgressions, is warmly embraced as a brother, a country of fellow Moslem Arabs. For Saudis, liberal or conservative, the United States is fatally compromised by its support for Israel, an enemy for far longer than Iraq.
"Iraq is very, very important for the strength of the Arab world," the writer explained. Israel is invariably described as an interloper, and it is hard to overstate the pervasiveness of that belief.
The writer is one of the country's intellectuals. He is the author of several volumes on Arab history and has translated books by others. He is well read in Western literature. But he represents a strain of intellectual conservatism considered mainstream here but nearly extinct in the West.
He earnestly confides that the Western, non-Moslem world has inexorably been heading downhill ever since the Reformation, in the 16th century, when Martin Luther challenged the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and picked up more downhill speed in the 18th century, when philosophers advanced the idea that life was ruled by reason. "We know that kind of thinking is fading away," he said.
Western-educated Saudis counting on the younger generation to embrace more liberal ideas have been disappointed. Young Saudis are proving to be more, not less, conservative than their elders. Unlike their parents, they attend college without leaving the kingdom and graduate without exposure to the Western habits of questioning and debate.