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On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Karen Elliott House
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Sept. 18 2012

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.


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On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future + Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally
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Review

“Revealing and impressively reported . . . House's 30-plus years' experience in one of the least accessible countries makes us see, hear, and experience Saudi Arabia like a local.”
—Tina Brown, The Daily Beast, "Favorite Books of 2012"

“A deeply reported look at an increasingly complicated and fragile society.”
The Kansas City Star

“Very few books about Saudi Arabia will chill the reader as artfully as Karen Elliott House’s smart and eloquent On Saudi Arabia . . . straightforward and utterly trenchant . . . Provocative, rich with insight . . . a must-read.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Drawing on thirty years of research and reporting . . . [House] skillfully unveils this inscrutable place for regional specialists and general readers alike.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A well-written exposé . . . an unblemished and objective assessment of the Saudi worldview . . . provides creative insights into how best to engage the Saudis in a productive dialogue.”
The Huffington Post

“Fascinating . . . House's exploration of the inner workings of Saudi society adds considerable weight to her assertions that the problems of succession, the decline of oil reserves, and a population with limited opportunities for employment or self-fulfillment are potential powder kegs . . . an important book that offers insights into the kingdom's fault lines, as well as gentle suggestions for a positive diplomacy that encourages modest reforms.”
—Rachel Newcomb, The Washington Post
 
“House . . . is one of the wiliest and most determined newspaperwomen of her generation . . . a gem of reporting on one of the hardest stories to crack . . . illuminating . . . masterful.”
—Seth Lipsky, The New York Sun

“Well-researched, informative . . . succeeds in capturing the diversity of Saudi society, painting a more complex picture than the caricature of oil wells and extreme wealth.”
Kirkus

“In her definitive book On Saudi Arabia, Karen House demonstrates an unparalleled understanding of the dynamics of Saudi society. Her extraordinary access to Saudis from all walks of life and her keen insights into the impact of Islam and the governing style of the ruling family on the lives of Saudi citizens greatly enrich the reader’s understanding of this significant Middle Eastern country.” 
—Senator Susan Collins (Maine), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

“Entertaining and lucidly drawn . . . unique in that it mostly avoids the shallow analysis of instant experts, while also forgoing the jargon and sometimes incomprehensible theorizing of academic texts . . . a vivid and rarely seen picture of this closed state . . . eloquent and timely . . . Presenting these issues in a readable yet serious book is a rare feat indeed, and [House] should be commended for it.”
The New Republic

“An engaging and lucid exploration of Saudi politics and culture . . . recommended reading for all those seeking a new perspective on one of the world’s most consequential societies.”
—Henry A. Kissinger

“The internal contradictions of a medieval theocracy in thrall to modern-day petrocapitalism give Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist House ample material . . . Illuminating . . . cogently written.”
Publishers Weekly

“An incisive analysis of divisive dynamics inside the world’s most important supplier of oil. House asks hard questions about the future of Saudi Arabia.”
—Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University

“A new and different view of Saudi Arabia from the ground up that offers a valuable assessment of where the kingdom is and where it might go. A stimulating and worthwhile read.”
—George P Shultz
 
“Karen House's On Saudi Arabia is a book that future Saudi leaders should read carefully. It exposes incisively and dispassionately the social contradictions and the potential political vulnerabilities of contemporary Saudi Arabia. A timely and truly important book.”
—Zbigniew Brzezinski

About the Author

KAREN ELLIOT HOUSE is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She studied and taught at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and was a senior fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

House lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband, Peter R. Kann, and their children.


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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Good progress in questioning the Kingdom Aug. 16 2014
By Brian Griffith TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
House has a helpful set of viewpoints on Saudi Arabia -- her own upbringing in a small fundamentalist Christian Texas town, her long-term familiarity with the Kingdom, and her identity as a woman, by which she gains access to both the male and female worlds of Arabian society. Her account is sympathetic but too honestly critical for royal sensitivities. She paints the Saudi rulers as caught in a paradox. On one hand they have caved in to pressure from extremely fundamentalist religious leaders and funded a huge effort to promote such religion across the world. On the other hand they have been cowed by US pressure, which broke their will to resist Western interests in 1973 and demanded restrictions on the export of fundamentalism after 2001. House clearly wonders how this highly exclusive culture, this dangerously undiversified economy, and this extremely autocratic government can last much longer without imploding. It's helpful for North Americans to question all the implications of alliance with Saudi Arabian interests, and this book makes good progress on that. I suspect, however, that there's more to be revealed about Saudi Arabia's role in movements for religious supremacism and sectarian rivalry across the region.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  120 reviews
127 of 139 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 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 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 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.
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 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
5.0 out of 5 stars 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
5.0 out of 5 stars 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.
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