on December 13, 2012
Karen Elliott House has all the qualifications - and then some - to write the authoritative book on present day Saudi Arabia. She has reported on the Near East for more than 30 years. She won a Pulitzer Prize for it. She was Foreign Editor of the Wall Street Journal for years and its Publisher for more than ten. After her retirement in 2006 she spent the next five years visiting Saudi Arabia, observing, talking, and analyzing what she saw, what she heard and what she had learned - all in preparation for this book. She has huge demonstrated journalistic talent, years of experience and she writes with all the intelligence, authority, and clarity of someone with all those qualifications; and, the wise guys who have belittled her to the contrary notwithstanding, what she says deserves our attention; and she says it beautifully in this book, which is recommended to you with highest praise.
This is not the place to try to tell you what she saw and what she has concluded. There's too much to tell. You should read it yourself. . There are, however, some things to mention.
First is the Al Saud, the Royal family descended from Abdul Assiz ibn Saud who had conquered Arabia in the early twentieth century, sold essential drilling rights for $250,000 to Standard Oil of California in 1932, then oversaw the rise of the Kingdom to supremacy in the oil markets of the world, and with time fathered 44 sons by several wives and now has left more than 700 male heirs - sons, grandsons, great grandsons, great, great grandsons, all of whom basically "own" the whole country - what's on the surface and what's below - and who keep things under some kind of control through throwing money at problems, pitting elements of opposition against each other and subsidizing and supporting a strict Wahhabi form of Islam which keeps women shrouded and veiled, uneducated and at home, and forbids alcohol, music, representation of the human form in pictures (no movies!), and insists on all men praying five times a day - in the mosque if possible - the first call to prayer being at dawn.
Then there are the workers - those who do the janitorial work, pick up the garbage (whenever), clean the toilets etc. They are foreigners - from other Muslim countries, from Bangladesh, the Philippines, India. One third of all workers in Arabia are from out of country.
Most importantly there is religion, the strict Islamic dogmatism of Wahhabi Islam which virtually forbids women to have any life of their own, which has strict limits on social behavior of every kind and which insists on absolute obedience to its many demands. Obedience, it asserts, opens the way to heaven. Lack of obedience means one is in effect an infidel and worth nothing.
Ms. House illustrates the point by telling the story of Lulu a Saudi woman in her early forties who lives with her eight children on the second floor of a modest two story house with her husband - half time. The first floor is occupied by her husband's other family - and older wife and older seven children - with whom he spends the other half of his time. He's a professor of Hadith, the detailed recounting of the many stories of Mohammed and his works. Lulu does her own work, almost never leaves the house (and then swaddled in black head to toe and with her husband - no other man) and strictly oversees the religious instruction of her children. There's only one TV and that's tuned to the religious channel which broadcasts religious information and bans any appearance of women in its programming. The one computer is used only for religious instruction. She's happy with this life, looking forward to heaven. She would have no other. She is a genuinely devout decent woman who wants only to do the will of Allah, what Allah demands and this is where her happiness is found. She's quite content. Her happiness is in Allah and her transit to heaven. That's all she wants; and - come to think of it - it would really be nice from to time to get away from the computer, the internet, social media, alcohol, TV, the telephone, movies, drugs, take-out, fast food, where-to-go-on-vacation, what-to-wear, and Washington doubletalk. But only from time to time, but she does it on a permanent basis and enjoys it. It's her life in Islam (The story of Lulu is better told in the book than here, but I think you get the point: The dogmatic, detailed, complicated, traditional exercise of the Saudi brand of Islam is first and foremost in the minds of a majority of Saudis. They are happy with it because they are going to Heaven and without it the rest of us are doomed - but as infidels that's our problem.)
Finally there is the problem of the future. The al Saud must agree on a modern leader from with the group of those hundreds of descendants of the old warrior and must confront the tide of modern civilization with all its non Islamic traits, its openness and its independent non-tribal ways which, despite all their efforts, laps ever higher and more insistently at the walls of their family and their civilization.
Friends, this is a thinking persons book, beautifully written, authoritative, current and very very important. Highest marks!