The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Karen Elliott House has been visiting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for more than 30 years, and in her new book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future, she skillfully unveils this inscrutable place for regional specialists and general readers alike. “For millennia,” she writes, “Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.”
Religious edicts are crushingly enforced by state, mosque and society. Movie theatres are banned, as are concerts and just about everything else related to entertainment. Women, even foreign women, must cover themselves in public. Unrelated women and men aren’t allowed to mix anywhere. Even Starbucks coffee shops are segregated by gender.
Men have it rough, but women have it much rougher. According to Wahhabi Islam, men must obey Allah and women must obey men. “Fortunately for men,” Ms House writes, “Allah is distant, but unfortunately for women, men are omnipresent.”
Western women like Ms House, though, have an advantage, despite the fact that they’re forced by the Muttawah, the religious police, to cover themselves. In Saudi Arabia they are treated as “honorary men”, so Ms House was able to interview whomever she liked – men and their wives, women and their husbands – something no foreign man or Saudi citizen of either gender is ever allowed to do.
She describes the society as a maze “in which Saudis endlessly manoeuvre through winding paths between high walls of religious rules, government restrictions and cultural traditions”. The labyrinth is not just a metaphor. Cities are claustrophobic places where people live as shut-ins, socialising strictly with family. Walk down a residential street and in every direction you’ll see not porches and yards but walls “that block people from outside view but, more important, separate them from one another”.
And the country as a whole is riven with virtual walls. The sterile interior highlands of the Nejd are at odds with the relatively cosmopolitan Hejaz on the coast of the Red Sea. In the Eastern Province, where the country’s oil reserves are concentrated, Shia Muslims live under the boot, denounced by Wahhabis as heretics. The Ismailis in the destitute south, with their historic links to Yemen, are not-so-benignly neglected. Hardly any Saudis marry outside their tribe, let alone region.
But the highest wall of all – the information barrier – is crumbling fast. Thanks to the Internet, the young (and 60 per cent of Saudis are 20 or younger) know all about life in less cloistered Arab societies and in the West. “Our minds are in a box,” a middle-aged businessman explains to Ms House. “But the young are being set free by the internet and knowledge. They will not tolerate what we have.”
Even if their elders, the government and the religious establishment ease up and give young people a little additional space, there’s a more serious problem that won’t be so easily solved. What on earth will Saudi Arabia do when the wells run dry, when oil can no longer pay for subsidised goods and free services to the middle class? Millions of new jobs will need to be created. Yet the education system, in the firm grip of Wahhabi fundamentalists, is spectacularly unable to prepare Saudis for them. And since most refuse blue-collar and service work, nine out of ten private sector jobs are held by foreigners.
The entire country, as Ms House so clearly shows, needs a radical overhaul. But where is it going to come from? Not from the cautious and self-interested government, at least not with the current royal cohort in charge. The Saudi state is an absolute monarchy, but it has a quirk of its own. Sons of the state’s founder, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, who fathered 44 boys, have been ruling the kingdom since his death in 1953. The throne keeps passing from brother to brother instead of from father to son. But the number of brothers is running out.
The country’s calcified government, its sullen populace, its youth bulge, its outdated religious requirements and prohibitions, the collapse of the information bubble and the dying off of the current line of geriatric rulers are all bound to coalesce into a perfect storm sooner or later.
But we should not expect liberalism, not now, not in this place. “For all their frustrations,” Ms House writes, “most Saudis do not crave democracy.... What unites conservatives and modernisers, and young and old, is a hunger not for freedom but for justice; for genuine rule of law, not rule by royal whim.” If Ms House is right, then whatever happens, a new or post-Saudi Arabia may end up like post-Soviet Russia.
©2012 The New York Times News Service
ON SAUDI ARABIA
Its People, Past, Religion, Fault
Lines — and Future
Karen Elliott House
Alfred A Knopf; 308 pages; $28.95