On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines--and Future

Front Cover
Vintage Books, 2013 - History - 320 pages
3 Reviews
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.--Publisher's description.
 

What people are saying - Write a review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - wrevans - LibraryThing

I have read a few books on the middle east and studied middle eastern history in college 30 years ago. So, not much of an expert. With that caveat I found the book to be highly enlightening ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - HadriantheBlind - LibraryThing

A solid overview of the Kingdom of the House of Saud, covering topics such as the role of religion, the Wahhabi sect, the role of women, economic inequality, foreign labor importation, and of course ... Read full review

Contents

Fragile
3
Al Saud Survival Skills
12
Islam Dominant and Divided
33
Females and Fault Lines
72
The Young and the Restless
102
Princes
123
Failing Grades
140
Plans Paralysis and Poverty
157
Succession
209
Saudi Scenarios
219
On Pins and Needles
230
Endgame
250
Acknowledgments
258
Notes
259
Bibliography
281
Index
291

Outcasts
179
and Outlaws
191

Other editions - View all

Common terms and phrases

About the author (2013)

CHAPTER 1

Fragile

Observing Saudi Arabia is like watching a gymnast dismount the balance beam in slow motion. As the body twists frame by frame through the air, we instinctively hold our breath to see if the hurtling gymnast will nail the landing or crash to the mat. So it is with the Al Saud monarchy of Saudi Arabia.

As revolutionary fervor sweeps the Middle East, the world watches with trepidation the aged princes at the head of the House of Saud struggle to maintain a precarious balance. Because Saudi Arabia produces fully one of every four barrels of oil sold on the world market, what happens in this most veiled of Arab societies will affect not only the future of 19 million Saudis but also the stability and prosperity of the global economy, and it will touch the lives of every citizen in the world. The stakes for all Americans are far higher here than anywhere else in the volatile Middle East. After all, the United States, which imports two-thirds of its oil, has gone to war twice in a period of thirteen years in no small part to ensure access to Persian Gulf oil.

For nearly eighty years, a succession of Al Saud princes have traversed the balance beam, skillfully maintaining control of a deeply divided, distrustful, and increasingly dispirited populace, by cunningly exploiting those divisions, dispensing dollops of oil money, and above all, bending religion to serve Al Saud political needs. This ruling family never promised democracy--and still doesn''t. Nor does it bother with sham elections to present the appearance of legitimacy, as do so many other Arab regimes. The Al Saud believe they have an asset more powerful than the ballot box: they have Allah.

Nearly three hundred years ago, when Arabia was nothing but harsh desert inhabited by wild and warring tribes, Muhammad al Saud, leader of one such tribe, discovered a magic lamp in the person of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, a fundamentalist Islamic scholar bent on imposing on Arabia his version of the pure Islam of the Prophet Muhammad a millennium earlier. So fanatical was this preacher that by the time the two men met, Abd al Wahhab was fleeing for his life, having destroyed the tomb of one of the Prophet''s companions and stoned to death a woman accused of adultery in a public display of his Islamic fervor. None of this bothered Muhammad al Saud. He saw in the preacher''s call for Islamic jihad the opportunity to use religion to trump his tribal enemies and conquer Arabia. Sure enough, the Al Saud sword, wielded in the name of religion rather than mere tribal conquest, proved triumphant. The first Saudi state was declared in 1745. Arabia has been under the sway of the Al Saud--and their religious partners--off and on ever since, with the most recent Saudi state established in 1932 by the current king''s father, Abdul Aziz bin Al Saud.

Over all those years, religion has been a pillar of strength, steadying the Al Saud atop the kingdom that bears their name. To this day, the monarchy justifies its rule by claiming to personify, protect, and propagate the one true religion. The Saudi monarch styles himself as "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," a unique title intended to convey his spiritual leadership of all Islam. King, after all, is a temporal and rather common title.

These days, however, the old magic of divide and conquer, the majesty of appropriated religion, and even the soothing balm of money, lots of money, are not enough to blind a new generation of Saudis to the decay rotting the very foundations of their society and threatening their future and that of their children. Islam as preached is not practiced. Jobs are promised but not delivered. Corruption is rampant, entrapping almost every Saudi in a web of favors and bribes large and small, leaving even the recipients feeling soiled and resentful. Powerful and powerless alike are seeking to grab whatever they can get, turning a society governed by supposedly strict Sharia law into an increasingly lawless one, where law is whatever the king or one of his judges says it is--or people feel they can get away with.

All of this is widely known to Saudis. For the first time, the Internet allows the young generation--70 percent of Saudis are under thirty years of age, with more than 60 percent age twenty or younger--to know what is taking place at home and abroad. These young people are aware of government inefficiency and princely corruption, and of the fact that 40 percent of Saudis live in poverty and at least 60 percent cannot afford a home. They know that nearly 40 percent of Saudi youth between twenty and twenty-four are unemployed, at the very age when most men would like to marry if only they could afford the bride price. They know that 90 percent of all employees in the private sector of their economy are imported foreign workers, whom business owners, often including Al Saud princes, exploit for low wages. Saudis, undereducated and often indolent, sit idly by rather than work for what they regard as slave wages doing menial jobs. If all too many Saudi men who could work do not, even educated Saudi women who want to work often cannot. The female half of the Saudi population remains sheltered, subjugated, and frustrated.

Saudis hear their minister of labor say the kingdom must create two hundred thousand well-paying jobs every year until 2030 to sop up the currently unemployed Saudi men (leave aside women) and provide work for wave after wave of young men who will enter the labor market over the next two decades. Yet it is no secret to Saudis that in each of the past five years, the government has created only about fifty thousand new jobs, and that the 2.5 million jobs created by private industry over that period have gone overwhelmingly to foreigners.

All this they know, and now share with each other through social media. These young Internet-savvy Saudis are breaching the walls that have been so carefully constructed and maintained over decades by the regime to keep Saudis separated and distrustful of those outside their family or tribe, to ensure their near total dependence on Al Saud protection and largesse. Stability (more recently coupled with the promise of prosperity) in exchange for loyalty was for most of the last three hundred years the social contract binding the people to their Al Saud rulers. But no longer. These days young Saudis compare their lives with those of contemporaries in neighboring Gulf states and elsewhere, and that comparison leaves many of them humiliated and embittered. All too many of these young Saudis know they are living third-world lives in a country that has more than $400 billion in foreign reserves and, in recent years, annual oil revenue in excess of $200 billion. Yet the government fails to provide basic services like quality education, health care, or even proper sewage and drainage to protect from floods.

And things just keep happening to stoke anger and forge bonds among the young. In January 2011, as Cairo was erupting in revolution, the kingdom''s second largest city, Jeddah, flooded for the second time in little more than a year in a deluge of rainwater and sewage. For decades corrupt businessmen and bureaucrats had stolen billions of dollars allocated for construction of a proper sewage and drainage system, leaving the city vulnerable to floods of sewage-polluted rainwater. The first flood, in 2009, killed more than 120 people, displaced another 22,000, and destroyed 8,000 homes. King Abdullah promised "never again," yet in less than fourteens months, once again Jeddah was drowning. Young Saudis using Facebook and Twitter helped stranded citizens find safety and shelter when authorities were scarcely seen. "Hang your head, you are a Saudi," one angry youth posted on the Internet, a cynical reversal of a favorite royal admonition to the young to "Hold your head high. You are a Saudi." Another depicted the Saudi national emblem--two swords crossed over a palm tree--as two mops crossed atop a stack of buckets. Even the generally respected monarch, King Abdullah, was the target of unprecedented criticism for such a visible failure to deliver on his previous promise. His photo was posted on the Internet with a giant red X and the words, "Why do you give them all this power when they all are thieves?"

The Internet, and the power of knowledge that it provides to Saudis, may be the biggest threat to the Al Saud, but it is not the only one. If Saudi citizens increasingly are in touch, their rulers are increasingly out of touch. King Abdullah, eighty-nine, generally popular for his effort to make at least modest reforms, is seen as isolated by his retainers and, at any rate, was slowed by age and serious back surgery in 2010 and again in 2011. Despite his age and infirmities, the king has largely governed without a crown prince since taking the monarchy''s mantle in 2005 because Sultan, eighty-four, was suffering from cancer and Alzheimer''s and finally died in October 2011. The new crown prince, Nayef, is seventy-seven and said to be ailing from diabetes and poor circulation that leave him unable to walk unaided much of the time.

After them? No one knows. What scares many royals and most ordinary Saudis is that the succession, which historically has passed from brother to brother, soon will have to jump to a new generation of princes. That could mean that only one branch of this family of some seven thousand princes will have power, a prescription for potential conflict as thirty-four of the thirty-five surviving lines of the founder''s family could find themselves disenfranchised. Saudis know from history that the second Saudi state was destroyed by fighting among princes. Older Saudis vividly recall how this third and latest Saudi state was shaken by a prolonged power struggle be

Bibliographic information