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.

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.”

‘On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future’ by Karen Elliott House (Knopf)

House’s exploration of the inner workings of Saudi society adds considerable weight to her assertions that the problems of succession, the decline of oil reserves, and a population with limited opportunities for employment or self-fulfillment are potential powder kegs. Yet when this entire enterprise might go up in flames is not easy to predict. To maintain citizens’ compliance, the regime’s usual strategy has been to slather on “more money, smothering private initiative and private enterprise, thus further diminishing the living standards of Saudis and increasing their anger, which then necessitates another dose of money. And so the cycle repeats itself.”

Over the past two years, while other countries in the region have experienced tumultuous revolutions, Saudi Arabia has remained largely quiet. During the Arab Spring, for example, a “day of rage” scheduled to take place in March 2011 never materialized, in part because of a heavy Saudi security presence. More recently, the fervor over the low-budget Internet video insulting the prophet Muhammad did not translate into Saudi protests.

This should not be taken to mean that all is well in the kingdom. Judging from House’s accounts, the poorest in Saudi society, whether migrant workers or natives, lack the resources to effectively confront the government over perceived injustices, while those in the middle and upper classes probably stand to lose too much in facing a crushing security apparatus. Thus some Saudis turn to more covert means of action, such as joining terrorist groups, to indirectly challenge their government. A WikiLeaks document released in 2010 quoted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as claiming that Saudis “constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

There are, however, some signs of societal change. Sixty percent of the nation’s population is under the age of 18, and, with access to social media, young people are no doubt better informed of conditions (and revolutions) elsewhere than were previous generations. In addition, the government’s usual strategy of paying off the people may be unsustainable. “On Saudi Arabia” is an important book that offers insights into the kingdom’s fault lines, as well as gentle suggestions for a positive diplomacy that encourages modest reforms. Saudi Arabia ignores the needs of its people at its own peril, and to the potential detriment of the rest of the world as well.

Rachel Newcomb is an associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College and the author of “Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco.”


Its People, Past, Religion,
Fault Lines — and Future

By Karen Elliott House

Knopf. 308 pp. $28.95