03/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Which Way the Persian Gulf?

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi Arabia is hosting a major world conference -- the Global Competitiveness Forum  -- and this year the theme is "Sustainability." Sierra Club President Allison Chin is one of the speakers. But what does sustainability mean to the world's largest oil producer, a nation that long ago outran its ability to feed itself and that increasingly depends on desalinized drinking water?

After three days here, I've gathered a bunch of questions but no answers. I have a feeling that, for better or for worse, this country and region will continue to surprise us. People who have been coming here for years say there have already been enormous changes. For one, half of the rapidly growing population is less than twenty years old. For another, huge investment is being made in education (including higher education) for both men and for women. And new cities are consciously being planned as experiments in greater economic and social openness -- within limits.

So here are some data points.

This nation is rich, but its capacities are stretched thin. The infrastructure looks good -- sleek new buildings and roads, a skyline dotted with construction cranes. But in Jeddah, which is Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, the sewer system has failed to keep pace with growth. On November 25, heavy rains hit Jeddah and the sewer system simply collapsed. Hundreds of people drowned. Months later, the scandal about the handling of the floods, discrimination against the immigrant population, and the slow pace of the cleanup is reminiscent of the U.S. debate after Katrina.

Physically, Saudi cities resemble Las Vegas more than any other American metropolis. The same conditions -- searing summers, lack of water, and a relatively large land-to-population ratio, combined with cheap oil -- have produced urban areas where no one walks and where mass transit is invisible. The worst traffic jams in Jeddah occur when school lets out, because children are transported in cars rather than buses. Old Jeddah, which once housed the most elegant buildings and the business elite, is now crumbling, and there seems to be little interest in preserving it. The Saudi past is vanishing from the landscape.

The Saudis have a clear viewpoint on the world economy -- keep it humming. In virtually every session on economics, the Saudi panelists urge the world not to pull back from ensuring a full recovery from the recession. They are Keynesians and advocates of rapid growth -- but whether that's because they're afraid that oil prices will collapse if the recession worsens, or because they want to see huge price spikes if the bubble reinflates, is certainly not clear to me.

The Saudis are cautious. When Lady Judge, the head of the British Atomic Energy Authority, attempted to enlist them in the global nuclear revival, suggesting that training thousands of young Saudis in nuclear technology might be a key to the Kingdom's need for new jobs, Mohammed Salim Al Sabban, the head of the Saudi delegation to the Copenhagen talks, gently but firmly rejected the idea. And young Saudis tell us that memories of the Kingdom's unsuccessful forays into solar power in the 1970s are still putting a damper on green technology, an area that neighboring oil producers like Abu Dhabi are pursuing much more aggressively.

Over and over, the Saudi voices on the conference panels urge consistency, reliability, steadiness. Even with regard to climate policy, the Saudi message seems to be: "Give us time and clear notice, and we shall adjust."

But change is coming -- demographics, education, and technology alone guarantee that. And most of the Saudis I've talked to believe that things moving more progressively now than they have for many years. But can this extraordinary nation manage the slow transition that its leaders would clearly prefer? I think that's going to be one of the big questions of the next decade. What's more, we're paying far too little attention to understanding how the answer might affect our planet's future.