Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future, By Karen Elliott House
The New York Times Book Review, November 18, 2012, Closed Kingdom, By MICHAEL J. TOTTEN
In Peter Berg’s whodunit “The Kingdom,” a young F.B.I. agent boarding a plane to Riyadh asks a seasoned colleague what Saudi Arabia is like. “A bit like Mars,” replies the more experienced man.
It’s not Mars, exactly, but for most Americans Saudi Arabia is probably more like another world than any other inhabited part of this one. It is about as distinct from the freewheeling United States as a country can be — not a modern totalitarian “republic” like Communist North Korea, but another kind of dictatorial regime, a fanatically conservative society self-oppressed by thousand-year-old rules, regulations, prescriptions and prohibitions. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, as Christopher Hitchens once described the occluded realm ruled by the Kim family in Pyongyang, a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Karen Elliott House has been visiting the kingdom for more than 30 years, and in her new book, “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future,” she skillfully unveils this inscrutable place for regional specialists and general readers alike. “For millennia,” she writes, “Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.”
Religious edicts are crushingly enforced by state, mosque and society. Movie theaters are banned, as are concerts and just about everything else related to entertainment. Women, even foreign women, must cover themselves in public. Unrelated women and men aren’t allowed to mix anywhere. Even Starbucks coffee shops are segregated by gender.
Men have it rough, but women have it much rougher. According to Wahhabi Islam, men must obey Allah and women must obey men. “Fortunately for men,” House writes, “Allah is distant, but unfortunately for women, men are omnipresent.”
Western women like House, though, have an advantage, despite the fact that they’re forced by the Muttawah, the religious police, to cover themselves. In Saudi Arabia they are treated as “honorary men,” so House was able to interview whomever she liked — men and their wives, women and their husbands — something no foreign man or Saudi citizen of either gender is ever allowed to do.
She describes the society as a maze “in which Saudis endlessly maneuver through winding paths between high walls of religious rules, government restrictions and cultural traditions.” The labyrinth is not just a metaphor. Cities are claustrophobic places where even men but especially women live as shut-ins, socializing strictly with family. Walk down a residential street and in every direction you’ll see not porches and yards but walls “that block people from outside view but, more important, separate them from one another.”
And the country as a whole is riven with virtual walls. The sterile interior highlands of the Nejd are at odds with the relatively cosmopolitan Hejaz on the coast of the Red Sea. In the Eastern Province, where the country’s oil reserves are concentrated, Shia Muslims live under the boot, denounced by Wahhabis as heretics. The Ismailis in the destitute south, with their historic links to Yemen, are not-so-benignly neglected. Each of these regions in turn is divided by tribe, and each tribe is divided by family. Most Saudis marry one of their cousins. Hardly any of them marry outside their tribe, let alone region.
But the highest wall of all — the information barrier restricting knowledge of the wider world and its ways — is crumbling fast. Thanks to the Internet, the young (and 60 percent of Saudis are 20 or younger) know all about life in less cloistered Arab societies and in the West. And they’re not buying into the Saudi system the way their parents and grandparents did.
“Our minds are in a box,” a middle-aged businessman explains to House. “But the young are being set free by the Internet and knowledge. They will not tolerate what we have.” A single man in his 20s tells her: “Facebook opens the doors of our cages.” And a university official says: “A young man has a car and money in his pocket, but what can he do? Nothing. He looks at TV and sees others doing things he can’t do and wonders why.”
Even if their elders, the government and the religious establishment ease up and give young people a little additional space, there’s a more serious problem that won’t be so easily solved. What on earth will Saudi Arabia do when the wells run dry, when oil can no longer pay for the lavish welfare system that provides subsidized goods and free services to the middle class?
Millions of new jobs will need to be created in the coming years just to keep the economy from collapsing. Yet the education system, in the firm grip of Wahhabi fundamentalists, is spectacularly unable to prepare Saudis for professional jobs. And since most refuse blue-collar and service work, 9 out of 10 private sector jobs are held by foreigners.
The entire country, as House so clearly shows, needs a radical overhaul. But where is it going to come from? Not from the cautious and self-interested government, at least not with the current royal cohort in charge.
The Saudi state is an absolute monarchy, but it has a quirk of its own. Sons of the state’s founder, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, who fathered 44 boys, have been ruling the kingdom since his death in 1953. The throne keeps passing from brother to brother instead of from father to son. But the number of brothers is running out. The current king, Abdullah, is in his late 80s. Until this year, the next in line was Crown Prince Nayef, but he died in June, at the age of 78. The youngest brother is in his 60s. At some point, possibly soon, someone from the next generation will take charge.
House repeatedly — and convincingly — compares the Saudi regime to the Soviet Union in its final days when Ronald Reagan said of the various premiers before Mikhail Gorbachev, “They keep dying on me.” The country’s calcified government, its sullen populace, its youth bulge, its outdated religious requirements and prohibitions, the collapse of the information bubble and the dying off of the current line of geriatric rulers are all bound to coalesce into a perfect storm sooner or later.
But we should not expect liberalism, not now, not in this place. “For all their frustrations,” House writes, “most Saudis do not crave democracy. . . . What unites conservatives and modernizers, and young and old, is a hunger not for freedom but for justice; for genuine rule of law, not rule by royal whim.”
Justice and the rule of law aren’t at all likely to develop in a system that is not democratic. If House is right, then whatever happens, a new or post-Saudi Arabia may end up like post-Soviet Russia, at least in one way. A spring-like revolution for freedom, where human rights, justice, and the rule of law replace toppled labyrinth walls, will be a dream deferred to generations unborn.
Michael J. Totten, a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal, is the author of “The Road to Fatima Gate” and “Where the West Ends.”
The crux of the issue is Islam. The Koran makes it pretty clear that Islam it not to be subordinate to any other system of thought, belief or law. In addition Muslims are never to submit to any non-Muslim. Of course in periods in the past this has been upheld with moderation, such as during the Convenvecia period in Spain and to a degree during the Ottoman period. The firming up of Islamic supremacy began with Wahhabi movement in the mid-18th century, then western penetration of the middle east, Napoleon being the first, and later it began to seriously rise with the end of WWI and the projection of European power into the region. This was further exacerbated with the establishment of Israel, where a people of a “defeated religion” assumed power within Dar es Islam, and in a city that is a Muslim holy site, Jerusalem.
The irony is that because Muslims must not submit to infidels the Palestinian problem persists. A Gandhi style salt march by Palestinians would very quickly bring about political concessions, but that requires a gesture of submission to the Jews. In the same way Muslims in England and other parts of Europe have agitated for having their own legal system based on Shariah, with some measure of success; give us what we want or we will rubbish up Europe’s cities in riots.
The Arab Spring is still not over, but the results have not looked very encouraging. Islamic Parties are working their way up in power in many of these nations. Syria is still in a civil war, but the Islamic extremists have joined the fight. If or when Assad is toppled it is likely the Allowites and other minorities will face a serious bloodbath and there may be in imposition of Islamic rule. In the case of Saudi Arabia a revolution will probably only succeed in removing the House of Saud from power, but in exchange it is very likely there will be some Islamic rule and the justice they claim to want will be a strict application of Shariah.
Maybe all that fracking for gas and oil is not such a bad thing. At least maybe when Saudi Arabia goes nonlinear we can be comparatively free from the chaos. We’ll just pay for it with more global warming. LC