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Friday, 8 December, 2000, 14:48 GMT
Saudi Arabia's castle of sand
Saudi oil fields in the Empty Quarter
oil power has given Saudis an undeniable pride
By Frank Gardner in Saudi Arabia

In the dying light of the desert sun, I stared out across a landscape of vast, undulating dunes.

This was the famed Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, an inhospitable land of extreme temperatures. A place where once only scorpions, Bedouin, and eccentric English explorers braved the burning heat.

But 50 years after Sir Wilfred Thesiger crossed these sands on a camel, I arrived in air-conditioned comfort.

A corporate jet from the Saudi state oil company, Aramco, flew me into an airstrip carved out from the desert floor.

Growing out of the sand

In the shelter of a 300m dune, a shimmering palace of steel rose up into the cloudless sky.

The Empty Quarter in Suadi Arabis
The famed Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia
This, I was told, was a gathering station, a collection point for the thousands of barrels of oil sucked up each day, from deep beneath these sands.

It was like a latter-day mirage. Blink and it would be gone. It was easy to imagine this tubular village of pipes and pumps being swallowed up over time by the desert that fed it.

I had come to Saudi Arabia to cover an oil forum in the capital, Riyadh.

Now, you might think that oil forums are not the most exciting of events. But in the world's largest oil producing and exporting country, the slightest official comment can send the oil market reeling.

If Europeans and Americans are to be spared a winter of fuel shortages, it is down to Saudi Arabia to open up the taps.

This incredible power, and the riches it brings, has given Saudis an undeniable pride.

Tradition and progress

This is a country where dirt tracks and mud-walled huts have given way to six-lane highways, in the space of a generation.

Even today, more than 60 years after the first Saudi oil was exported, the pace of progress is breathtaking.

BBC Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner
Saudi desert: A place of scorpions, Bedouin, and eccentric English explorers
Bizarre, futuristic skyscrapers are puncturing the Riyadh skyline. Ultra-modern hospitals rise up in the suburbs, while manual chores like emptying dustbins are taken care of by some of the six million imported guest workers.

But what is so striking about Saudi Arabia, more than any other Gulf country, is that it has clung tightly to its traditions.

The Islamic religion, that burst out of this land in a blaze of conquest 14 centuries ago, is stronger than ever.

The austere interpretation of Islam that prevails here, is accepted by most people.

Saudis are well travelled, they could wear any clothes they choose. Yet in their own country, without exception, they still wear the loose white robe and chequered red head-dress of their national culture.

Mud-walled fort

On the last night of the oil forum I had a chance to see this world of tribal traditions at first-hand.

Delegates and journalists alike were invited to an obscure address on the outskirts of Riyadh.

After more than an hour of driving through darkness, we came across a site I shall never forget.

A huge, mud-walled fort rose up sheer from the desert floor. Massive arc lamps lit its crenulated walls, and date palms lined the avenue to the arched gateway.

By now the rain was lashing across the windscreen, spattering it with mud.

Silver spikes of lightning shot across the night sky, silhouetting this desert fortress.

It was the palace of Prince Abdelaziz Bin Fahd, the King's favourite son, and we were his guests.

Power, wealth and royalty

At the gatepost, guards armed with machineguns peered at our invitations then waved us through.

In an instant we passed from the damp night into a world of rich, warm colours. In a large, partly covered courtyard, a thousand Saudis were gathered for a feast, their chequered head cloths bright above their pure white robes.

Some of the elders wore a 'bisht', a thin black cloak trimmed with gold that can denote respect, wealth, royalty, or all three.

I recognised the Saudi oil minister, a man who could bring the world's economy to its knees, if his royal masters chose.

As plumes of smoke from cooking fires rose up into the night sky, the rhythmic thud of drums began.

One by one, sheikhs and princes converged in a circle, holding aloft great swords that flashed and quivered.

The noise was both deafening and intoxicating.

Surviving change

And there, in the middle of it all, I spotted Britain's Economic Attache from the embassy, gamely trying his hand at a few crowd-pleasing steps.

His Saudi hosts applauded, as Her Majesty's diplomat shuffled into the circle, his grey suit a lone symbol of western intrusion into this timeless scene.

It was then, in a sudden moment of clarity, that I realised the obvious.

If the Saudi culture can survive the recent whirlwind of modernisation largely intact, then it stands to survive almost anything that is still to come.

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