27 December 2012

“On Saudi Arabia: its people, past, religion, fault lines and future” by Karen Elliott House

Karen Elliott House established her career as a journalist by winning the Pulitzer in 1984 for her piece on Middle East Peace initiatives of Ronald Reagan.  She later went on to become the publisher of Wall Street Journal.

Karen’s book on Saudi Arabia strives to provide a portrait of Saudi Arabia.  The latitude of coverage is impressive.  The depth is not impressive.  At times she succumbs to the temptation of simple but misguiding metaphors. 

Karen’s description of Saudi Arabia is comprehensive.  She says:

One, Religion has been the founding principle of Saudi Arabia for a while.  In 1745, founder Mohammed al Saud used the call for Islamic Jihad by Abd al Wahab to conquer all tribes and establish Saudi Arabia.   Since then, Al Sauds have claimed legitimacy as defenders and propagandists of Islam.  

The rulers have struck a fine balance between (a) projecting themselves as supporters of a puritanical version of Islam to win support from the masses and (b) protecting the country and its oil economy against threats from Jihadists from within and without.  

When fundamentalists occupied the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979, the rulers evicted the occupiers but adopted their agenda and went ultraconservative to win support from the religious right.  Saudi Arabia became a country where grand mothers could tell grand daughters what it was to drive a car or walk around without covering themselves head to toe.

Two, Succession in Saudi monarchy is not based on primogeniture.  So far it has passed from brother to brother (with 7,000 princes traced to 36 children of the founder King).  When it moves to the next generation, succession requires skillful management of the aspirations of multiple lines of progeny.

Three, Oil income has created astounding wealth; yet in a contrarian way has inhibited economic growth.  40% of citizens live in poverty; 60% do not have a home.  The number of unemployed keeps growing.  Though the country creates 550,000 jobs a year (against 200,000 required for full employment), 90% of the new jobs go to imported workers (whose substantial remittances home drain the economy).  

Of late there is some disappointment about too much religion, too much dependence on US, too much corruption and too great a gap between the rich and the poor.   

Unemployment and under-education have resulted in a pool of alienated youth ready to be recruited as terrorists – on occasions admired as Jihadists (when they murder infidels) and on other occasions branded as outlaws (when they threaten Saudi regime).

Four, King Abdullah has taken several steps to improve education, and improve the role of women in society and business.  He has also taken several initiatives to diversify Saudi economy away from oil.  He has taken several initiatives to dissuade impressionable young Saudis away from terrorism.

However, Karen’s interpretation of what the future might hold for Saudi Arabia is quite pessimistic.  She predicts three outcomes:
  1. Social explosion if status quo is maintained by risk averse elderly rulers
  2. Revitalization if society and economy are opened up and
  3. Chaos and collapse if there is reversion to religiosity and repression.
Saudi society, like every other society, has its own principles of social cohesion, religious ideals and social contract with the rulers.  Saudi monarchs are smart enough and responsible enough to maintain their part of the social contract:  stability to citizenry for loyalty to rulers.

There could be a fourth outcome of diversifying the economy, replacing foreign workers with citizens, ushering in good education and greater role for women without bringing in instability.   You don’t need to look yonder than Aramco campus in Dhahran to see what Saudi society is capable of.   Karen ignores that fourth outcome of economic and social equilibrium without political upheaval.

The book is an excellent primer about Saudi Arabia.

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