Saudi Arabia, our uneasy ally by virtue of its most significant export, is a country that remains shrouded in mystery for most Americans. Not on most people’s itineraries as a tourist destination, heavily segregated by gender and renowned as the home country of 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, it is not a place that invites favorable impressions. While “On Saudi Arabia” is not likely to change anyone’s mind about the kingdom, it will certainly deepen our understanding.
In this fascinating study, Karen Elliott House, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, has drawn on 30 years of reporting on the oil-rich monarchy. By her account, Saudis are paralyzed by an economy based almost solely on oil and government handouts. The country’s byzantine political structures are grounded in tribal loyalties along with a religious bureaucracy whose draconian laws and punishments are unevenly applied. There is a vast disconnect between the country’s octogenarian rulers and its burgeoning youth, most of whom “are alienated, undereducated, and underemployed.” The educational system emphasizes religion and rote memorization rather than critical thinking, to the detriment of a populace that is ill-equipped to face the challenge of diversifying an economy in the face of a potentially dwindling oil supply.
(Knopf) - ‘On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future’ by Karen Elliott House
House examines contemporary Saudi society by speaking to an intriguing range of its citizens: from clerics and professors to well-heeled housewives, and from discontented youth to forward-minded princes who have little chance of steering the country into a progressive future. The perspective that emerges is one of a painfully unequal society in which most of the human capital is squandered. “Listening to intelligent, creative, concerned Saudis, whatever their gender, age, or birthright, talk about stifled ambitions and straitjacketed lives inevitably makes me feel I am exploring a museum of mummies rather than a living culture,” House writes.
Accustomed to relying on government largesse and trained in a system that spends an inordinate amount of time on religious education, Saudi men in particular are unqualified for high-level management yet unwilling to work in service professions that they consider beneath them. At the same time, the talents of a frustrated and better-educated female population wither in a system that offers them few employment opportunities. While 60 percent of the country’s university graduates are women, they constitute only 12 percent of the country’s employed. Service positions — sales clerks, maids, waiters, etc. — are held by 8 million foreign workers in the country.
“On Saudi Arabia” is at its strongest when House delves into a seldom-discussed aspect of Saudi society: its invisible poor, most of whom live in sprawling urban slums or impoverished rural villages. Forty percent of the population gets by on less than $850 a month, and many of the nation’s poorest are women without men, widowed or divorced, attempting to piece together enough work to support their children. Also fascinating are House’s profiles of former terrorists, “rehabilitated” by the government, which has tried to reintegrate them into Saudi society. While Saudi Arabia largely blames the West and its policies for the rise of terrorism, House argues that the monarchy’s tolerance of extremist clerics is equally to blame. “For most of the past three decades,” she writes, “the Saudi regime allowed religious fanatics to set the rules and thus produced a rigid society offering no political, social, or cultural outlets for youthful energy and frustration other than jihad.”