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

145 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“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.”

“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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (September 18, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307272168
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307272164
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (145 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #387,147 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Karen Elliott House (1947-) was born in Matador, Texas, population 900. She earned a BJ degree at UT Austin where she discovered the world of news reporting on the student newspaper. She was a reporter, foreign editor and finally publisher of The Wall Street Journal, where she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her reporting on the Middle East. Her first book, "On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines--and Future," published by Knopf in 2012 is a portrait of Saudi society and culture and examines the fragility of the ruling regime. The book repesents three decades of reporting in this shrouded kingdom.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

142 of 155 people found the following review helpful By zashibis on October 11, 2012
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!!
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By jem on December 7, 2012
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.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful By James Mitchell on October 7, 2012
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"
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47 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Wulfstan TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 24, 2012
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.
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