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On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Sep 18 2012

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (Sept. 18 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307272168
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307272164
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 16.2 x 2.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 522 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #60,103 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon.com: 114 reviews
125 of 137 people found the following review helpful
Saudi Arabia for Beginnners Oct. 11 2012
By zashibis - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This wasn't what I was hoping for at all.

Striving to be objective, I will say that the book could serve as a good primer for those who have never been to Saudi but are seeking to understand some of the basic issues facing the House of Saud and its subjects in 2012. With chapters devoted to the roles of religion, women, royalty, education, jihadis, and poverty (among other issues) it succeeds in providing a broad and mostly accurate sketch of Saudi society and the challenges it faces. For people thinking of coming to KSA to work, or for foreign policy generalists not terribly familiar with Arabian peninsula, Ms. House's book provides a solid overview of the complexities of Saudi life, written in breezy style clearly aimed at the general reader.

On the other hand, those seeking a deeper level of analysis of the situation in the Kingdom are likely to come away disappointed, as I did. Having spent several years living and working in Saudi Arabia, it didn't take me long before I realized that this book wasn't written for anyone intimately acquainted with the Kingdom or, generally, with Middle Eastern history or politics. Anyone who's spent even a few weeks in Saudi Arabia will have made many of the same observations Ms. House makes, and the level analysis never goes much deeper than the informed generalizations of a long lead article in the Economist or Foreign Affairs. For a book that purports to have been based upon "hundreds" of interviews, this is pretty light-weight stuff.

Worse, some of it is plain silly. When Ms. House latches onto a metaphor, such as Saudi Arabia as an inescapable "labyrinth," you can be sure she'll lash you with it until you want to scream "block that metaphor!!" (The final paragraph of the book, in which Saudi Arabia is compared to out-of-control 747, is a near-perfect example of Bad Writing 101.) And her characterization of Saudi society as "somber...because laughter and visible emotion are discouraged by Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia" is diametrically opposed to my own experience of Saudi male society, where the art of the witticism, the pun, the sardonic retort, the random riff are practiced with a delight and skillfulness seldom seen in Western societies. (At an early point in the book she explicitly puts forward the notion that as a Western woman she enjoyed a unique advantage in Saudi Arabia as a "third sex"--one that could interact with both Saudi men and Saudi women. However, it quickly became apparent to this male reader that her interactions with Saudi males were very informed by her gender, whether she realized it or not.) And to say the book is "repetitious" is putting it mildly--every significant point is hammered home again and again with the relentlessness of a pile driver.

Still, lest I dwell too much on the negative, some of House's observations are very much to the point. I particularly liked her invocation of her own rural Texas upbringing as an analogy useful in understanding the mindset of devout Saudis and their relation to the ever-growing number of more secularized Saudis watching satellite TV and surfing the Internet. And, awkward metaphors aside, her conclusion that Saudi Arabia is approaching an inexorable crisis point is shared by every single Saudi expat, as well as most Saudis, I know.

In sum, for those looking for a quick introduction to a pivotal country that (superficially) appeared to have been bypassed by the "Arab Spring," House's book is a useful starting point. But Saudi veterans or those looking for something "beyond the basics" won't find much of interest here. 2.5 stars.
44 of 53 people found the following review helpful
Timely, surprising and informative Sept. 24 2012
By Wulfstan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Karen House, the Pulitzer Prize winning Wall Street Journal writer, uses her insider and intimate knowledge of Saudi Arabia and it's people to take us on a surprising tour of the mysterious Kingdom.

Karen shows that the people of the Kingdom are heavily dependant on government subsidies, and the government is almost entirely dependent on oil income.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud may rule, but there is also a Byzantine bureaucracy powered by old desert nomad tribes and religious leaders This hampers any movement towards progressivism. The primary educational system, except for the very rich, is heavily dependant on Wahhabi- Islamic studies, which leaves the Kingdom behind in this modern techo world. It also has been accused of propagating hate.

The nation is also hampered by it's rampant sexism. Altho the author manages to get access quite well, men still hold nearly 90% of the jobs that are filled by Citizens. Hopefully, this is changing, women now are the majority of college graduates.

The author does not restrict her investigations to the rich and powerful. She delves into the almost unknown (at least to westerners) world of the poor in this rich nation.

Fascinating, informative, well written.
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Mixed bag Oct. 7 2012
By James Mitchell - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I enjoyed the copious anecdotes... the author has clearly conducted a massive amount of primary research and has an informed opinion about the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the Saudi people. (Which, lo and behold, are not homogenous.) However, I found the tone of the book shifted from factual journalism in the beginning, to opinion-editorial by the end. Ms. House clearly has informed opinions, but I would have preferred if she simply laid out the facts and the data, rather than telling me what to think.

I worked in Saudi Arabia 4 years ago, and I have recently returned, and the nation's progress appears to be on an upward trajectory. Perhaps my assessment is more superficial than her assessment - my contacts with the Saudi people do not have the breadth and depth of her primary research - but I simply don't have the pessimism that I perceived in her book (esp. the latter portions).

Her data and analysis has made me second guess my optimism; however, I think she would have done a better job of making me reconsider my views if she hadn't displayed such strong opinions towards the end of the book, because I wonder if she has some strong biases that cloud her judgement.

I think a more accurate title of her book would be, "On Saudi Arabia's Fault Lines: Its Princes, People, Past, Princes, Religion, Princes, and Future"
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
An important contemporay view of Saudi culture Dec 7 2012
By jem - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I am so grateful to Karen House for writing this book. It is a marvelous book to help Americans understand a country most of us can never visit, let alone explore in the depth House has done. Traveling to Saudi Arabia as a foreign correspondent since the 1970s, she spent four years recently interviewing hundreds of people and researching for this book. She points out her advantage as a foreign woman who could be treated as sexless and interview numerous Al Saud princes, Muslim imans, and even rehabilitated terrorists. As a woman she was also able to talk with widows in poverty on the extreme edges of Saudi society and some of the very few women who enjoy a professional role such as employment by ARAMCO -- the only progressive employer in the country.

Her analysis reveals a depressing picture of an autocratic monarchy governed by successive aged half brothers who actively support the conservative religious education that created not just Osama bin Laden but dozens of terrorists against the west. It is a regime with neither the strength nor will to confront its deep unemployment problems, its economic reliance on its diminishing oil resources, an uneducated and passive population that imports its manual labor, a repressive religion that oppresses women, and its vast gulf between lavish royal lifestyles and extreme poverty for many.

House paints a scenario that cannot survive, but she professes no optimism that the ultimate collapse will be accomplished peacefully. She compares the Al Saud regime to the Soviet Union where the ruler who finally attempted to encourage change unleashed uncontrollable results. When it happens the world will experience shocks to its oil supply and the Middle East will experience incalculable strife between Muslim factions. The US may find the weapons they have sold their wealthy ally turned against them.

This is not a book for Americans who have worked breifly as ARAMCO employees or consultants to a Saudi government agency and formed an limited impression of the country based on this experience. It is definitely a must read, however, for anyone anxious to understand a Middle Eastern country that exerts a unique influence on energy policy worldwide due to its oil resources and as protector of Mecca and Medina the religious education in this region.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Nailed it on the head. Oct. 5 2012
By Riggwelter - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As someone who has lived in Saudi Arabia for many years I can attest that Ms. Elliott House has been able to succinctly capture many of the various forces that are at play in Saudi Arabia in an accurate and compelling way. Her breadth of source material from the halls of power down to the average person on the street reflect a rare ability to get people to trust her and let them share their honest feelings and opinions. The fact that the book takes into accounts the very latest events is also refreshing, as most/many other books on the subject of Saudi Arabia do not take current events into account. All in all an excellent read and one I can recommend without reservation.