On Saudi Arabia
Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines -- and Future
By Karen Elliott House
Knopf, 308 pages, $32
As the birthplace of Muhammad and the religion of Islam, and as producer of significant amounts of oil, Saudi Arabia wields inordinate clout.
Yet the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by the Al Saud family for eight decades, faces myriad problems and obstacles, many of them direct or indirect results of religious influence and economic prosperity.
Wall Street Journal writer and Dow Jones executive Karen Elliott House attempts to present the confusing contradictions in her first book. While many of the details are effective, the overall picture she paints is confusing.
To be fair, this might be because so much of Saudi culture and history is equivocal. It is apparently a very wealthy basket case.
Appearance, not reality, is paramount. House describes the attempts of the Saudi rulers to maintain order as a tightrope, a tug of war and a delicate dance.
The royal family, House writes, "perpetually performs a deliberate minuet, dancing closer at times to the religious establishment and at other times to modernizers, but always focused on maintaining Al Saud control."
House briefly chronicles the rise to power of Saudi king Abdul Aziz to gain and keep control of the Arabian peninsula in the first half of the 20th century. Using gifts and violence, he consolidated Saudi rule.
Oil wealth allowed his sons to exert family control even more completely after his death in 1953.
When extremists seized Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979, the regime quickly routed the insurgents, but then moved to curb the modernization that they had been protesting.
From then on, Saudi oil money supported the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam, buying some domestic tranquility, and exporting the extremism that would eventually motivate much of the terrorism of the last quarter century.
More history, especially of the oil conglomerate ARAMCO, where some innovations seem to be promising, would be welcome in this account.
Saudi rulers continue to try to buy religious cachet and civic loyalty, but oil, still responsible for more than 80 per cent of the country's wealth, may not last forever.
House presents many particular stories of Saudis at all levels of society.
Islamic influence makes it difficult for women to work, since mixing between women and men is frowned upon or forbidden. Religious education focuses on memorization, not on developing thinking skills crucial to innovation.
While some 7,000 descendents of Abdul Aziz vie for positions and spend lavishly, 40 per cent of the people live on less than $1,000 per month. Government subsidies for health and education may not make up for the envy and frustration that are increasingly obvious to the media-savvy population.
Succession as king is still being passed from one elderly son of Abdul Aziz to another. But suspicion and infighting between the various strands of descendents prevents younger, more energetic leadership that might be able to begin substantial reforms.
House chronicles the problems of unemployment in the kingdom, even though two-thirds of all jobs are performed by foreigners. "Even the minister of labour acknowledges that Saudis aren't qualified for the jobs they want, and refuse the jobs for which they are qualified."
Foreign workers mostly live as indentured servants, live on as little as possible while remitting about $25 billion a year to families in India, the Philippines and elsewhere.
House enumerates several scenarios that could provide positive change but seems to expect the status quo to continue, until catastrophic change becomes inevitable.
Bill Rambo teaches high school at the Laureate Academy in St. Norbert.