Some places have books that forever define and explain them to the rest of the world. In the late 1990s, every exchange student and Western businessman in China carried a copy of Kristof and WuDunn’s “China Wakes.” Visitors to Savannah, Ga., always want to see the sites mentioned in “the book” — “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Rick Bragg fans everywhere are more than happy to tell you all about Jacksonville, Ala., even if you grew up there.
“On Saudi Arabia,” by veteran Wall Street Journal reporter Karen Elliott House, promises to be just that sort of defining book for the Saudi state. Built on decades of reporting and heavy on profiles of regular Saudis, the book tries to breathe some life into Western writing about the kingdom, and it succeeds admirably. “On Saudi Arabia” is the book I would have loved to have carried on my three trips to the kingdom — assuming, of course, that the mutawwah would have let me keep it.
Americans who know nothing else about the kingdom know about the mutawwah, Saudi Arabia’s religious police, and the harsh rules they enforce. Those rules are an unavoidable part of Saudi life, but when the conversation starts there, it’s easy to descend into exoticism, with Westerners gawking and pointing at Saudi society instead of trying to understand it.
House opens her book with a description of her own childhood in a deeply evangelical rural Texas household. It’s a good way to put similar readers in the shoes of Saudis, whose political dilemma bears a passing resemblance to that of Alabamians. House’s Saudi sources see a need to modernize, they crave the transparency and efficiency they see in other places and they chafe against the strictures of a society obsessed with faith. Yet they’re also believers, unable to bring themselves to defy the authorities without a mound of religious text to support them.
House’s description of Saudi life will strike a familiar chord with anyone who’s been there: the eerie lack of public spaces, in a world where every house has high walls; the multi-lane highways where white Toyotas and Mercedes careen like deadly pinballs; the pervasive dress code in which all women wear black and all men wear white, like some uniform-clad civilization from “Star Trek.”
But she also shows what’s behind Saudis’ privacy walls. Visitors from outside see the kingdom as a stifling but prosperous place where people are cared for by a paternalistic, oil-rich monarch. House interviews Saudis who remain poor even by global standards, and gives witness to the boredom that affects the 40 percent of Saudis under 25 who are unemployed. Even the country’s famously free K-20 education system, she finds, isn’t geared to prepare students for any kind of real-world jobs.
She also explains how things got this way. The al-Saud family has clung to power for decades the old-fashioned way — by buying off critics with gifts and demanding total loyalty. They also sit atop a powder keg of potential tribal and religious conflicts, which is the main reason even the king can’t say no to the conservative clerics who support him.
The upshot, for House, is that Saudi Arabia has become a hollow power like the Soviet Union in its last decade. Like Soviet Russia, Saudi is run by old men, with kings passing the crown to aging half-brothers to avoid having to choose a younger successor. Employment through largesse for privileged Saudis — and unemployment for everybody else — has killed a spirit of innovation in the kingdom. In short, the country isn’t ready to be adaptable in the way that even an oil-rich country should be in the 21st century. And the kingdom won’t be oil-rich forever.
House is cautious about making detailed predictions about Saudi Arabia’s future, but readers will find much to spark their curiosity. House paints a picture of a kingdom facing fundamental economic changes, led by people who haven’t really figured out how to rule their country as it stands today. It’s clear the book was written while popular uprisings were still changing governments across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s leaders did little to change in response to the Arab Spring. If House is right, they’ll soon wish they’d done more.