Karen Elliott House’s “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — And Future”

Ed. Note: This is a guest review from Greg Noth. 

Karen Elliott House’s new book, On Saudi Arabia, is a good introduction to the many contradictions, problems, and issues that confront Saudi Arabia today. It is the result of thirty years of research from living in the oil producing capital of the world. House, a former editor and foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, approaches her subject like one would expect a veteran journalist to—a method which has its strengths and weaknesses.

On the plus side, she uses fact after fact and interview after interview to support her case, and does a good job drawing reasonable conclusions from the information she has. On the slightly negative side, writing a book is not the same as writing a newspaper article: no one reads newspapers for pleasure. That’s not to say On Saudi Arabia reads just like a really long newspaper article, but the writing didn’t especially captivate me, and I think it has to do with the style of writing House built a successful career on. 

Saudi Arabia faces an unbelievable number of social, economic, demographic, political, and religious challenges. These challenges are all connected and compound each other. For example, of the nineteen million people that make up Saudi Arabia, seventy percent are under thirty years old, and forty percent of twenty to twenty-four year olds are unemployed. In order to solve the unemployment problem (just for males, mind you—females face even more daunting statistics), Saudi Arabia would have to create two-hundred thousand well-paying jobs every year until 2030. Over the last five years, though, the government has created only about fifty thousand jobs a year.

Such tough economic conditions contribute to multiple social ills, like petty crime (stealing cars just for a thrill is a popular hobby for many young Saudi men) and drug and alcohol abuse. But perhaps most importantly, young men with nothing to do sometimes turn to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism—not out of radical religious beliefs, but boredom.

I think the strongest section of the book is the last three or four chapters, when House discusses the different paths Saudi Arabia could go down in the coming years. This is where her experience as a journalist is a major benefit. She takes all the statistics and facts gathered earlier in the book and presents multiple scenarios for the future, from the optimistic to the catastrophic: If the government does A, then B. If the government does X, then Y, etc. I found her conclusions and projections reasonable and firmly rooted in her research.

Also, the fact that a woman wrote On Saudi Arabia gives the book something the vast majority of male authors couldn’t provide: a look inside the notoriously private Saudi home. Because of traditional Saudi and Islamic culture, strange men are virtually never allowed in one’s home. House, as a Western woman, has access to both sides of the Saudi world – male and female. She interviews many conservative women that would most likely not be willing to talk with a male author. As a result, she’s able to draw conclusions based on interviews and first-hand accounts rather than educated guesses.

Overall, House’s book adds something positive to the wider discussion about the future of the Middle East. On Saudi Arabia is a good primer and introduction to a very complex society and people, and I would recommend it to people interested in learning more about the Middle East with one disclaimer. Despite its introductory nature, the writing style is somewhat stale and not necessarily palatable to an extremely wide audience – it is not a narrative, it is a study. I think the best audience would probably be students in introductory political science classes.

Be prepared for a lot of numbers and statistics and a more analytical/academic style. House knows her subject, and though I occasionally found her tone towards it somewhat condescending, the book is solid. The reader is bound to learn a lot and gain a better understanding of one of the most important countries in the region at a time when new knowledge of the subject has never been more important.

Greg Noth is a graduate of Knox College in Galesburg, IL, where he graduated cum laude and studied International Relations and Psychology. In early 2011, Greg studied in the Sultanate of Oman and experienced the “Arab Spring” uprisings firsthand. Noth currently lives in Washington, D.C. and works as an intern at the Center for American Progress.

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