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A bunch of half-truths.

On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines -- and Future By Karen Elliott House, Alfred A Knopf, 320 pages, $28.95

A respected journalist at the Wall Street Journal, Karen Elliott House covered a variety of topics while interviewing global leaders through her distinguished career. In this book, her first ever, she struggles to write objectively on a nearly impossible subject -- best illustrated by the subtitle that reveals how the topic eludes the author. Indeed, its bold prose borders on the hysterical, insisting that the "Al Saud believe they have an asset more powerful that the ballot box: they have Allah" (pages 3-4), which is akin to stating that America has an asset more powerful than freedom: it has the dollar.

In fact, she buys into the Marxist stinker that religion is the opium of the people, which Riyadh apparently practises with a vengeance to dominate the masses -- an inference as mistaken as the one that says American liberties are guaranteed by its financial might.

Beyond the inelegance of such parallels, inaccuracies quickly emerge, although impressionable Anglo-Saxon audiences gobble them up frequently.

House devotes a lot of attention to Islam, quotes the Prophet (PBUH) and Bukhari at will, all of which leaves the impression that her mastery goes beyond Wikipedia searches. For her, Islam is a source of division because (1) "the Al Saud have politicised Saudi Islam [sic]", (2) they interpret texts "literally", (3) religious voices reaching citizens "are anything but harmonious", and (4) "modern [Saudi] society presents a whole range of challenges that the Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] did not have to deal with and could not foresee" (pages 39-41).

To be sure, these are questionable conclusions, and to declare that "tradition and religion have made most Saudis accustomed to dependence, to being reactive not proactive; to accepting, not questioning; to being obedient, not challenging; to being provided for rather than being responsible for their own futures" (page 65) smacks of charming journalism.

Understanding mindsets, especially those of youths, which preoccupy highly trained sociologists and psychologists, is difficult under the best of circumstances. In the case of Saudi Arabia, this is doubly challenging on account of cultural conditions that, for better or worse, shape behaviour. For House, Saudi youths are lazy, inherently passive and too arrogant to work. In her inimical words: "Saudi Arabia, in short, is a society in which all too many men do not want to work at jobs for which they are qualified; in which women by and large aren't allowed to work; and in which, as a result, most of the work is done by foreigners -- Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, and others -- who compose a majority of the labour force" (page 158). This is a facile statement, for the reality is far more complex. Men do work and want to work but not at low salaries. Women do work but under special rules. Expatriates do and want to work, for the vast majority, despite undeniably harsh conditions, earn far more than in their home countries and support entire families.

The author's reading of conditions for women in the kingdom can be summarised by a declaration that "women continue to be seen as sex objects whose intrigues can destroy men and disrupt society unless tightly controlled (page 89) -- which is also a highly subjective assessment. There are numerous similar declarations.

Regrettably, House opts for a style that borders on the insulting, opining that "in the absence of rule of law and of a country at war with itself, in which the Al Saud rulers are too insecure to enforce their own decisions" (page 174), one could not possibly find harmony. She anticipates that the ruling family will "splinter" (page 209) and that the kingdom may be "doomed to sink ever deeper into the mire of unproductive dependency, with all the mounting frustrations that such indignity provokes" (page 218), even if the record shows the opposite.

"Saudi society is cracking in multiple ways," the author concludes, as she identifies five ills: (1) Islam as "a source of division", (2) the youth "challenging authority of all sorts", (3) an oil-based economy "unable to create jobs", (4) anger among women who "remain largely subjugated, frustrated, and sidelined", and (5) oil production that "may well have peaked", which allegedly means Riyadh would no longer be able to buy itself out of whatever concerns the country may confront (page 252).

One truly wonders what actually happens to an author who devotes five years of their life -- the case here -- to write on a subject that they abhor. That is what comes across in this anecdotally informed but analytically negative tome that sets out to prove that the Al Saud mandate is doomed to fail.

Dr Joseph A. KEachichian is the author of the recently published Legal and Political Reforms in SaaACAyudi Arabia (London: Routledge, 2013).

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:7SAUD
Date:Feb 8, 2013
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