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.

To get a feel for what message Saudi students are actually getting from their education, we traveled to Asir province to visit King Khalid University, which has a reputation as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. We talked to three students there, who confirmed they had been taught a similar message about the Jews' disruptive role. Two of them agree that history showed this was the case, and that Jews are in general a bad and dishonorable people. But one of them, 23-year-old medical student Mohammed Zayed interjected: "Not all of them! Not all of them!"

The three were unequivocal about U.S. policy in the Mideast conflict, though, saying it is biased in favor of the Israelis and against the Palestinians. "What I know and what I'm sure is one thing: that American policy towards Palestinians and Israeli is completely wrong," said Basim Aal-al-Khalaf, a 23-year-old English major.

Most Saudis we met felt as passionately as the students about the Palestinians. Via their satellite dishes, Saudis get a barrage of graphic pictures of Palestinians suffering in the conflict with Israel — more bloody and brutal than American television would ever tolerate. In newspapers, too, the news is all about Arab bloodshed and Israeli violence.

The anger over Palestine is part of a political and emotional stew that may have encouraged the violent turn by the 15 Saudis among the Sept. 11 hijackers. Some Islamic extremists feel the Saudi royal family has become too liberal, unworthy of its role as the guardians of Islam's holiest shrines, in the cities of Mecca and Medina.

Ambivalence Over Sept. 11

Some Saudis say they're not even sure the 15 Saudis were involved in the attacks. Aal-al-Khalaf told us there was no evidence showing they were involved. Then he brought up a rumor that has been persistent in the Arab world — that 4,000 Jews who worked in the World Trade Center stayed home on Sept. 11 — but he quickly conceded there was no proof of that either.

Zayed said the attacks were a "terrifying" shock for him, but Aal-al-Khalaf said that many young people in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Islamic world were happy. "They think that America did shameful things, especially as I told you in Palestine," he said.

Regarding Osama bin Laden, Aal-al-Khalaf drew a parallel with President Bush, saying his administration was responsible for thousands of innocent lives in Afghanistan. "I'm not saying that Osama bin Laden is not a terrorist, but I'm saying that there are many terrorists around the world," he said.

Aal-al-Khalaf had a message for Americans: "I deal with American people or any other people individually. ... If you respect me, for sure I'll respect you. If you like me, for sure I'll like you. And if you hate me, I'll hate you."

Looking Like Miss Universe

Traveling in Saudi Arabia can be a shock for a Western woman. Saudi women are required to wear the abaya whenever they are out of the house, and to avoid being disrespectful, I always made sure to cover my arms and legs, and often my head.

We talked to four women — ordinary women with families, bills to pay and jobs in the few, "caring" professions that are open to women.

The women said many Westerners had a stereotyped image of Saudi women. They said they were neither princesses who live in luxury and sleep until 2, nor downtrodden slaves oppressed by their husbands and society. "Both of those images are not representative of Saudi women of today," said Moneera Al Nadedh, a widowed professor of sociology.

But there are no misconceptions when it comes to the restrictions against women. Women cannot drive. They need permission from a male relative to travel or even be admitted to a hospital. And they are segregated in schools, streets, restaurants and public transportation.

The women agreed that not being able to drive was one of the biggest restrictions on their lives. Well-off Saudi families hire immigrant drivers to transport their women, but in poorer families the men must take time off work to drive their women around, causing a tremendous drain on the kingdom's economy.

We heard stories that some women dress as men so they can drive around the cities. And one of the women we talked to admitted she takes secret drives out in the desert where no one will see her.

The women were less concerned about restrictions on their clothing. Although they must wear the abaya in public or face arrest by the "matawa" religious police, they said it was not all bad. "It's part of our identity as Saudi women," said Professor Al Nadedh.

Safinaz Murshid, a 24-year-old writer, said it made choosing an outfit easy: "Just slip it on, hit the road." And teacher Munira Al-Ghamdi said even the veil, which covers everything except the eyes, is not too bad: "It is like sunglasses or something."

At home, among other women or their own male relatives, women can wear what they like, and malls sell a wide range of low-cut clothes, spangles and sequins, even sexy underwear. "You should see us at parties," said the teacher, adding they can look, "well — like Miss Universe."

The women said they liked the emphasis Saudi society places on strong, extended families, but not the Islamic practice of allowing men to take four wives. None of the four women's husbands had more than one wife.

While pediatrician Maha AlMuneef said she wanted "equality in all areas" — choosing a husband, choosing education and "freedom out in the street," Murshid said she wouldn't want the responsibility of being the family bread winner.

Although the women were clearly frustrated by some of the restrictions on their lives, they asked that Western women respect the role they play in Saudi society. "What is best for the Western community not necessarily is the best for our community here," said Murshid.