Karen House, On Saudi Arabia:
Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future
Karen House is one of the most knowledgeable Western observers of Saudi Arabia. In “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future,” she uses her experience and insight to provide a perceptive description of the country, peeling back the “bindings of tradition and religion that wrap the Saudi mummy to explain how the society works, how Saudis think and live, and how events in the desert kingdom may unfold” (p.x). What emerges is a generally frightening picture of a close American ally that seems in almost every way to be the “antithesis of open, individualistic, Western societies,’ (p.iii), a closed, rigid, tribal society with glaring economic inequalities, where oppressive Salafi religious clerics play an outsized role, women probably face more obstacles to fulfillment of their potential than anywhere else on the planet, and Saudi youth foresee few realistic possibilities for a prosperous future.
Whether Saudi Arabia can meet the diverse challenges which threaten to unravel it depends in large measure upon its ruling Al Saud family. House describes Saudi Arabia as “fundamentally . . . a family corporation” (p.10) and the “last significant absolute monarchy on earth” (p.12). Because of multiple wives and large families, Saudi Arabia’s royal family is said to include about 30,000 people, a scale unrivaled elsewhere. The family has stayed in power through a divide and conquer strategy, cleverly using money to “buy loyalty or to at least submission” (p.11), and cunningly exploiting division within a “deeply divided, distrustful and increasingly dispirited populace” (p.3). The ruling family “never promised democracy – and still doesn’t. Nor does it bother with sham elections to present the appearance of legitimacy, as do so many other Arab regimes” (p.3). House questions whether the Al Saud regime can reform itself in time to save itself. The “confluence of so many challenges coupled with the rigidity of the regime, the sullenness of the society, the escalating demands of youth, and most important, the instability inherent in generational succession” could, she argues, “prove fatal to Al Saud rule” (p.250).
There are, to be sure, Saudi princes who seek change, but they are frustrated by their inability to bring it about. Up to now, the Saudi regime has been lucky never to have needed to resort to mass repression to maintain the status quo – conformity is too strong a strain in Saudi society to make a large-scale uprising likely. The Saudi people’s passivity and their willingness to live within their lot constitute the “ultimate gift to the Al Saud” (p.31). House compares the Saudi Arabia constructed by the Al Saud regime to an “earthquake building” whose rulers have “long had the wisdom to bend ever so slightly at the moment of greatest pressure and then later reclaim, over time, most of what they yielded” (p.30).
Although Saudi Arabia is only a small part of the Arab world, and a tiny part of the Islamic world, it is the “spiritual center of the Islamic faith” (p.208), with its two most sacred sites, Mecca and Medina, located within Saudi borders. The ultra-conservative Wahhabi manifestation of Islam “hangs over Saudi Arabia like a heavy fog” (p.35) and remains a formidable obstacle to any sort of modernization within the country. Wahhabi Islam instructs Muslims to be “obedient and passive to their rulers, however imperfect, in pursuit of a perfect life in paradise” (p.27), an instruction that serves well the ruling Al Saud family.
House nonetheless faults Saudi leadership for, again and again, seeming to make a strong stand against the Wahhabi clerics, only to back down. In 2011, for example, the government encouraged the hiring of women cashiers in a large supermarket chain. But religious leaders objected. “It is not permitted for a Muslim woman to work in a mixed environment with men who are not related to them, and women should look for jobs that do not lead to them interacting with men which might cause attraction from both sides” (p.173). The government quickly backed down. That the religious police were able to threaten female workers whose employment the government promoted constitutes, House argues, “clear evidence of the absence of rule of law and of a a country at war with itself, in which the Al Saud rulers are too insecure to enforce their own decisions” (p.174).
House characterizes education in today’s Saudi Arabia as a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the Saudi religious establishment (p.143), for whom “controlling education is at least as important as controlling women because education is a key instrument for perpetuating a devout, conservative Islamic society” (p.142). Consequently, over most of the last three decades, Saudi education has been dominated by “fundamentalist, xenophobic religious indoctrination that encouraged young Saudis to see the West as decadent and Christians and Jews as infidel enemies of Islam” (p.129). Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the government has been “under pressure to revise its education curriculum to eliminate condemnation of Christians and Jews and also to downplay religious education in favor of knowledge that helps the flood of young Saudis emerging from high schools adapt to a global economy and secure jobs in Saudi Arabia” (p.131).
Yet, in Saudi education today, there is almost no stretching of young minds. Wahhabi Islam formally forbids questioning or asking “how” and “why.” The study of philosophy is banned. As a result, “most Saudi students, even university graduates, choose education in soft subjects like religion, sociology, and Islamic history rather than the academic disciplines and practical skills that would equip them to compete in the private sector, where real jobs are available . . . Worse yet, most Saudi students emerge even from college or university having learned how to memorize rather than how to think” (p.142-43). Saudi Arabia spends more per capita on education that the United States, but the results are “catastrophic” (p.140).
House delivers a heartfelt account of the challenges facing contemporary Saudi women, showing how their second class status, “sheltered, subjugated, and frustrated” (p.5), deprives Saudi society of a large portion of the human resources which the country needs to meet its many challenges ahead. Paradoxically, Saudi Arabia is also a very maternal society, where women far more than men influence the upbringing of children. Although Saudi women remain dependent on men, “what is new is that increasing numbers of Saudi women so clearly resent it” (p.101). Jeddah in particular has a “considerable number” of activist women who have “led the fight for change in their city and, by extension, across the kingdom” (p.98). House describes the clash over women’s roles as a “proxy war” between modernizers and conservatives over “what sort of Saudi Arabia both sexes will inhabit and over the role and relevance of the omni-present religious establishment in Saudi society” (p.72).
Saudi youth – and Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations on earth – is almost uniformly “alienated, undereducated and underemployed” (p.114), a huge challenge to Saudi stability. While young people in every society resent authority and seek to exert their independence, youthful alienation in Saudi Arabia poses distinct challenges. As a quintessentially authoritarian society, “there are many more restrictions and conventions against which you can rebel” and “any form of youthful rebellion stands in stark contrast to the unquestioning acceptance and unruffled conformity of previous generations of Saudis” (p.105). Unlike rebellious Western youth, young Saudis must struggle against the “thick walls of religion and tradition constructed brick by brick from birth by family, school, mosque and government” (p.113). Youthful rebellion in Saudi ranges from the most benign, wearing casual western fashions, to lawlessness and gang violence, to fundamentalist Islam as the “only acceptable means to confront authority both parental and governmental” (p.105). A minority of these young Islamists follow their faith to terrorism.
Saudi Arabia was the birthplace of a high percentage of the September 11 hijackers and their boss, Osama bin Laden. As Islamic fundamentalism swept the region in the wake of the 1979 religious evolution in Iran, the Saudi regime, eager to burnish its religious credentials, supported the jihadists and imposed rigid religiosity in the kingdom. “Beyond subjugating women, young Saudis were pressured to attend after-school training in religious fundamentalism, and over the next decade, the government gave billions of dollars to aid jihadists fighting in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia, spawning the global jihadists who two decades later brought down the World Trade Center” on September 11, 2001 (p.29). Then, in 2003, the regime ruthlessly suppressed religious extremists when they began terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia itself, the worst of which a was a bombing killing 26 people at the Riyadh housing complex, where many Westerners live. While their background and motivations might differ, almost all young terrorists, House contends, share “contempt for the society they see around them in Saudi Arabia and a yearning for more meaning in the lives (p.192).
Saudi Arabia remains one of the principal suppliers of oil to the world, including the voracious markets in Europe and North America, and enjoys an expanding share of Asian markets. Ironically, oil wealth has “actually inhibited economic development. Given its plentiful oil revenues, the kingdom has not, at least until very recently, seriously focused on becoming competitive in any other economic sphere” (p.162). House discusses the intriguing possibility that Saudi oil production may be declining, perhaps precipitously. This is a closely guarded state secret. Only the ruling Al Saud family knows for sure, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it might be the case.
Iran poses a far greater threat to Saudi Arabia “than any other power in recent decades” (p.253). Many Saudis are convinced that Iran’s goal is to “occupy Islam’s two holiest sites and to declare a Shiite state in Saud Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province . . . where Shiites are a majority. For the Al Saud, the loss of either its oil or its religious legitimacy would spell the catastrophic end of the dynasty” (p.239).
At several points, House compares today’s Saudi Arabian governmental institutions to those of the Soviet Union in its last stages, hopelessly sclerotic, and incapable of responding to anything resembling the people’s needs. As in the old Soviet Union, where leaders could pull the levers of power, but nothing much happens, the “new bureaucratic structures superimposed [in Saudi Arabia] upon the old networks are blocking rather than facilitating progress” (p.177). Like the Soviet Union in its dying days, Saudi Arabia has ossified leadership, with the line of succession leading to “more old men in their eighties” (p.178).
House is clear that Western style democracy is not in the cards for Saudi Arabia any time soon. The Saudis, she declares flatly, “do not crave democracy” (p.9 ). Rather than seeking democracy, most Saudis seek some sort of more clearly defined constitutional monarchy. Increasingly educated Saudis want to modernize but they most surely do not want to Westernize, and they “resent the Western view that modernization means Westernization” (p.224). What most Saudis want, House argues, is a:
government that is more efficient in providing basic services and that is accountable for its decisions. They want transparency with the uses of the nation’s wealth and less corruption. They want rule of law, not of royal whim. They want to know that they are being treated equitably with others in society and that punishments and penalties meted out don’t change at the whim of authorities or with the status of the offender (p.224).
House neither favors nor predicts the regime’s collapse, warning that the alternative is likely to be significantly worse – either some form of military or Wahhabi Islamic rule. The least worst option available for the country seems to be encouraging the evolution of a more egalitarian, secular and pluralist state, undertaken by some of the more forward-looking Al Saud princes. But this path can also be hazardous. House points to Alexis de Tocqueville’s admonition that a monarchy is at greatest risk when it acknowledges the need to reform and begins to offer small changes. “Only a great genius can save a ruler who is setting out to relieve his subjects’ suffering after a long period of oppression,” the forward-looking French aristocrat wrote in the mid-19th century. “The evils, patiently endured as inevitable, seem unbearable as soon as the idea of escaping them is conceived” (p.252).
Whatever direction Saudi Arabia takes, the country appears likely to be a critical oil source for the foreseeable future, as well as a potential breeding ground for terrorism. Add to that Saudi Arabia’s role as probably the principal counterweight to Iranian ascendancy in the volatile region and Saudi Arabia becomes a country which the United States and the West ignore at their peril. For readers seeking to become more familiar with today’s Saudi Arabia, Karen House’s concise, comprehensive and well-written book sheds much light on the forces tugging from different directions on this retrograde kingdom.
Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
September 16, 2014