Customer Review

124 of 135 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Saudi Arabia for Beginnners, October 11, 2012
This review is from: On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future (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.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 14 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 24, 2012 5:08:18 PM PDT
J. Reiner says:
Most of us have never been to Saudi Arabia. Perhaps that is why we want to read this book.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 25, 2012 9:56:52 AM PDT
zashibis says:
Which is why--perhaps!--I was at some pains to explain in my review that those who know the country well and those who do not will have entirely different reactions to this book.

Really, the lack of rudimentary reading comprehension skills among those who feel it necessary to register an objection to an Amazon review shouldn't surprise me. It shouldn't...but it always does.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 25, 2012 1:11:14 PM PDT
J. Alexander says:
A very arrogant response!

Posted on Nov 4, 2012 6:39:44 AM PST
I'm in the middle of the book right now and I would consider myself one with just a general knowledge of Saudi Arabia. According to zashibis, I am the targeted audience. I couldn't agree more with zashibis. This is a good introduction to Saudi Arabia and hopefully this will lead to my reading of more in-depth analysis about Saudi Arabia.
Anyway, for my 2 cents, I thought zashibis' review was spot on & very fair.

Posted on Nov 16, 2012 7:12:30 PM PST
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 16, 2012 8:23:55 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 17, 2012 2:19:54 AM PST
zashibis says:
Interesting. Please itemize for me the precise ways in which my review--by any wild stretch of the imagination--could be considered even the least bit condescending to Saudis. (Ms. House's highly critical book, on the other hand, could frequently be so construed, in my opinion: crediting Saudis with neither the agency nor even the will to change the historical trajectory of their country.)

And your speculation about living in a "foreign bubble" is a completely baseless ad hominem, speaking to your own probable experience of the country, not my own. You haven't even the faintest idea how I spend my time in KSA. If you must respond to a review, try doing so by discussing the merits of the book itself rather than launching speculative personal attacks "blaming the messenger." Besides, even if I were living on an expat compound--which, as it happens, I am not--it wouldn't be remotely germane to whether or not I found Ms. House's book to be insightful, useful or informative for those who have any serious degree of expertise in Arabia and the Middle East. If you found that, despite being married to a Saudi, the book contains information that is new and useful to you, that's splendid. But it hardly justifies you lashing out at those of us for whom it is old hat.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2012 5:50:14 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 17, 2012 6:00:45 PM PST
With all due respect, I do not think this was written for those with your level of knowledge of the subject but rather those who are unlikely to achieve your level of expertise. And most Americans who do business there do live in an expat bubble (and not necessarily a compound). If you were offended by my assumption, profuse apologies, but that has been my experience and those of my associates and family. It's very difficult for foreigners to be accepted by, or into, their society. And if you have been, all praise to you. As an American born of Saudi parents, now living and working in the Kingdom, it was easier for me, but not so much for most foreigners. You might be less quick to take umbrage.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2012 8:27:11 PM PST
zashibis says:
Yes, how eccentric of me to take umbrage at being baselessly accused of condescension! And how odd that I should be vexed that the extent to which I do or do not socialize with Saudis is being mooted as somehow relevant to whether or not *Ms. House* has written a worthwhile book!

I believed I had already made it crystal-clear in my review that a) the book would serve as good introduction to Saudi Arabia for those who haven't been to the kingdom (the vast majority of people, of course), and b) I myself am not part of this target audience, and that others similarly situated may find themselves dissatisfied with the book, as I did. I don't know, in fact, that I could have stated this much more plainly. Therefore, your comments have added nothing substantive at all -- merely idle, off-topic speculation about my lifestyle that has (and could have) no possible bearing on the pluses and minuses of Ms. House's book.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 11, 2012 7:11:51 AM PST
mkirby207 says:
Since I am not male, I would be particularly interested in her take as a Western female on Saudi Arabia.

Posted on Dec 18, 2012 2:42:16 PM PST
D. Gonsalves says:

I am trying to decide if I want to buy this book. I lived in Saudi Arabia(Jeddah) and worked for a very large private 100% Saudi Company. I was CFO of the company and was on a two year contract.I was brought in by the Banks as this company was borrowing a huge amount of money and they wanted to make sure things were under control. There were no other Americans in the company.In fact they brought in 5 Americans at senior level and 6 months later they were all gone except me. I saw first hand how they treated workers at all levels . Not very good. I worked 6 days a week and observed Ramadan and worked on Christmas. I had to eat lunch( Called lunch but ate anytime between 3Pm and 5 PM) with the owners every day . In fact they would not eat without me. I saw first hand how they operated and had many meetings at the owners Palace . The question is what I learn anything from this book? If so I will buy it. As a joke they wanted to smuggle me into Mecca at the end of the Haji but I declined.They had good contacts with the royal family.
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