From the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who has spent the last thirty years writing about Saudi Arabia—as diplomatic correspondent, foreign editor, and then publisher of The Wall Street Journal—an important and timely book that explores all facets of life in this shrouded Kingdom: its tribal past, its complicated present, its precarious future.
Through observation, anecdote, extensive interviews, and analysis Karen Elliot House navigates the maze in which Saudi citizens find themselves trapped and reveals the mysterious nation that is the world’s largest exporter of oil, critical to global stability, and a source of Islamic terrorists.
In her probing and sharp-eyed portrait, we see Saudi Arabia, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world, considered to be the final bulwark against revolution in the region, as threatened by multiple fissures and forces, its levers of power controlled by a handful of elderly Al Saud princes with an average age of 77 years and an extended family of some 7,000 princes. Yet at least 60 percent of the increasingly restive population they rule is under the age of 20.
The author writes that oil-rich Saudi Arabia has become a rundown welfare state. The public pays no taxes; gets free education and health care; and receives subsidized water, electricity, and energy (a gallon of gasoline is cheaper in the Kingdom than a bottle of water), with its petrodollars buying less and less loyalty. House makes clear that the royal family also uses Islam’s requirement of obedience to Allah—and by extension to earthly rulers—to perpetuate Al Saud rule.
Behind the Saudi facade of order and obedience, today’s Saudi youth, frustrated by social conformity, are reaching out to one another and to a wider world beyond their cloistered country. Some 50 percent of Saudi youth is on the Internet; 5.1 million Saudis are on Facebook.
To write this book, the author interviewed most of the key members of the very private royal family. She writes about King Abdullah’s modest efforts to relax some of the kingdom’s most oppressive social restrictions; women are now allowed to acquire photo ID cards, finally giving them an identity independent from their male guardians, and are newly able to register their own businesses but are still forbidden to drive and are barred from most jobs.
With extraordinary access to Saudis—from key religious leaders and dissident imams to women at university and impoverished widows, from government officials and political dissidents to young successful Saudis and those who chose the path of terrorism—House argues that most Saudis do not want democracy but seek change nevertheless; they want a government that provides basic services without subjecting citizens to the indignity of begging princes for handouts; a government less corrupt and more transparent in how it spends hundreds of billions of annual oil revenue; a kingdom ruled by law, not royal whim.
In House’s assessment of Saudi Arabia’s future, she compares the country today to the Soviet Union before Mikhail Gorbachev arrived with reform policies that proved too little too late after decades of stagnation under one aged and infirm Soviet leader after another. She discusses what the next generation of royal princes might bring and the choices the kingdom faces: continued economic and social stultification with growing risk of instability, or an opening of society to individual initiative and enterprise with the risk that this, too, undermines the Al Saud hold on power.
A riveting book—informed, authoritative, illuminating—about a country that could well be on the brink, and an in-depth examination of what all this portends for Saudi Arabia’s future, and for our own.
Famed for their "passivity" and "unquestioning acceptance of rules laid down by elders" as well as their fundamentalist, uncompromising outlook, the Saudis are intensely proud, but by and large, have no say in the functioning of their country. The internal contradictions of a medieval theocracy in thrall to modern-day petrocapitalism give Pulitzer Prize winning journalist House ample material as she interviews princes and terrorists, millionaire playboys and destitute widows, muftis and engineers. Being a foreign woman, she has entr e into both male and female spheres, and the chapter on women is among the most illuminating; though the "overwhelming majority of women are totally subjugated by religion, tradition, and family," "activist women... can be found scattered across Saudi society." Chapters on disenfranchised youth, the sclerotic education system, the opaque succession procedures of the ruling dynasty, and the kingdom's foreign policy each suggest ways in which the country's potential is being stymied by fear of change, and identify points of conflict that could presage wider unrest. While cogently written, this slim volume is also repetitive and superficial. The same details recur throughout, and the reader emerges with only a basic understanding of the all-important relationship between the religious and political authorities, or of the mechanics of an economy in which 90% of private-sector workers are foreigners.
It's clear has done her diligence and performed an extensive research for the contents of this book, which can be challenging especially for my native country, Saudi Arabia. I recommend this book and agree with about 80 percents of the contents.
On Saudia Arabia
Very thoughtful and well researched book which will inform anyone who seeks insights into a part of the world still captivated by outdated repressive thinking. I especially appreciate that a foreign woman could so skillfully negotiate the closed and cloistered passageways of this feudally oriented society. Indeed well done. Hopefully a long awaited and much needed rennaissance of rational thought will free them from their present course towards rebellion and self destruction.