Friday, November 16, 2012

Karen Elliott House's "On Saudi Arabia"

Site MeterKaren Elliot House was interested in Saudi Arabia as long ago as 1981, when I was recently back from three-plus years there as Political Officer and, having left the Foreign Service, getting ready to head out to Saudi with Bert van Munster, creator subsequently of Cops & The Amazing Race, to do a TV special called Death of a Princess. I had lunch with her and Bill Quandt, recently a member of the National Security Council, to try to explain the arcane twists and turns of that anachronistic colossus of sand and stone and dust just before her first trip to what we used to call "The Magic Kingdom":
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.
Totten's synopsis is as pithy and compactly informational as can be. And he relays some of Karen's dry East Texas wit---she told me she grew up in a town so small that the census takers were rumored to miss it every ten years. She is charmingly intelligent, even brilliant, as I recall her in person---at the time, she was rumored to be sleeping with the famous swordsman Richard Holbrooke. Her occasional pieces in the Wall Street Journal have been unfailingly insightful as I read them over the years since our lunch.
“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?
As a pertinent aside, my knowledge of Saudi oil as a backup in the Embassy Economic Section convinces me that the Saudis are not going to run out of the Texas Tea in the next several decades, since their proven recoverable reserves are about 250 billion bbls and climbing every year as new methods of exploration and extraction are employed. The US may become self-sufficient with its humongous natural gas supply now being released by fracking, a safe and efficient method of extraction. However, other countries in the world will reject fracking, as France and a couple of other EU countries has short-sightedly done, so though the price may drop slowly, the Saudis will remain in the clover for a long while and not have to tighten their belts TOO closely...!
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.
The huge number of foreigners in Saudi amazes the visitor. When I was there, the Saudis preferred Filipinos and Koreans, until the South Koreans worked through the mid-day heat, which filled the suspicious Saudi overseers with such trepidation that the government ceased hiring Koreans, who wanted to get overtime pay or get back to their own country sooner, the Embassy could never really figure out which. Pakistanis and Palestinians, being Muslim, were FORBIDDEN to be hired, as they were too full of crazed radicalism to be trusted. No Palestinian was ever admitted onto Ras Tannura, the world's largest crude offloading facility---that's how deep the Muslim radicals were suspected.

And I got to visit with, and somewhat understand, Kings Khalid, Fahd & Abdullah during my sojourn and then subsequent travels to the Kingdom. I doubt either Karen or Totten [who has the same name as the Arabist Military Attaché, Major Mike Totten, who served while I was Political-Military Officer for the first year of my tenure] got access to the very highest levels. Still, House's analogy of the last years of the Soviet Union is somewhat appropriate, though the steep decline in oil prices that G.H.W. Bush engineered as Reagan's Vice President had a lot to do with the USSR's steep decline. And Karen is right that liberalism will NEVER see the light of day in the conservative populace in Saudi. It must be remembered that, censorious of the Saudi Royal Family as House is, Kings Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, and now Abdullah are beacons of LIBERALISM in the darkness of Salafist gloom that the Kingdom was beforehand. And it is the Kingdom's good fortune that Salafist Nayef, the recently deceased Crown Prince, croaked before Abdullah.
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.
BTW, after living in the heavily walled suburbs of Lyon, France, Saudi Arabia somewhat resembles the southern climes surrounding the Mediterranean, where age-old suspicions and superstitions still hold sway and are tearing apart the EU at the moment, as an obiter dicta.

What Karen House says in On Saudi Arabia is said in other places. But aside from the very readable Robert Lacey's book on the Kingdom, she says it better and more succinctly than the others. I have to buy it on-line to see how it stacks up with the other 100 books I've read about The Magic Kingdom. [Where no planes crash, nor crime happens, etc., etc.]

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