Saudi Arabia, Land of Shadowy Contrasts

Saudi Arabia is a study in shadowy contrasts. It has a wide-open desert, but a society that is largely closed to foreigners.

In the spectacular modern cities, robed men and veiled women shop in glittering malls. In the sandy interior, nomadic tribes still depend upon camels and kerosene.

On a 10-day visit to Saudi Arabia this month, 20/20 was given unprecedented access throughout the kingdom, without restrictions or censorship. What we found surprised us and banished some stereotypes.

We met middle-class, working women who are frustrated at not being able to drive but don't mind wearing the black robe and veil known as the abaya. We met university students who are angry at Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and what they see as America's support, but also call for mutual respect and understanding between Islam and the West.

We discovered that the mall, in fact, is the center of recreation for many Saudis: there are no theatres and no nightclubs. Liquor, dancing and even dating are banned, meaning that young Saudi men and women communicate mostly by cellphone and e-mail.

But beneath the glitz of urban Saudi life, we found underlying tensions: a flagging economy, an educational system mired in dogma, and a severe shortage of jobs for an exploding younger population. It is a recipe for rage, and the kind of hatred that might have motivated the 15 young Saudis who came to America to hijack the four planes in the terrorist attacks last September.

A Relationship Under Strain

Everywhere we went in Saudi Arabia, we noted a friendship for the United States and an enormous hunger for American things. The two countries have long had a close relationship, with the United States dependent on Saudi oil. But the relationship has come under strain in recent months, with many Americans suspicious at the high number of Saudis among the Sept. 11 hijackers, and many Saudis angry at U.S. policy toward the Mideast conflict.

Foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told us he believes Osama bin Laden chose Saudis for the attacks in the hope of creating tension between Saudi Arabia and the United States: "He wanted to drive a wedge between the two countries."

The officials we spoke to tried to distance Saudi Arabia from the 15 hijackers. Dr. Abdul-Aziz Al-Twajiri, director of an organization that studies Islamic education, said the 15 Saudis on the list were not a product of Saudi society or Saudi education, but of mosques where mullahs preach "wrong interpretations of the religious texts."

Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, the governor of Asir, a remote southwestern province considered a breeding ground for radical Islam, said: "We don't believe in extremism. I think it's even against our religion." Four of the 15 Saudi hijackers were from Asir.

Textbooks Teaching Mistrust of Jews

We found official textbooks currently in use in Saudi schools that teach distortions of history that could feed religious intolerance. The textbooks blame Jews for much of the unrest in world history — including the French Revolution, the First World War and communism. The officials seemed surprised they were still being used, and Prince Saud said the books would be reformed.

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