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Book review: On Saudi Arabia by Karen Elliot House

bookIn upheavals that convulsed the Arab world over the past two years, Saudi Arabia seemed immune.

It is the last absolute monarchy in the world, and enormous wealth, profligate spending and political power is in the hands of the Al Saud family. Its princes control every important agency.

Slavery was only abolished there in 1962. It is the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive, and several thousand princes live ostentatiously in palatial villas while the average Saudi cannot afford a simple home.

How the Al Saud family has managed to stay in power is laid out in an insightful look at the kingdom by journalist Karen Elliott House. Her recently released On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) is a colourful, detailed analysis of life in the oil-rich country.

The country is ripe for radical change. The senior Saudi princes have an average age of 81, and about 7,000 monopolize all levels of power in the kingdom. The princes, with their multiple wives and concubines, constitute a mini-kingdom.

Pressure is building up from the bottom, especially among the 60 per cent of the country’s 28 million residents under 20. Saudi youth, House writes, whether Liberal, traditional or fundamentalist, have three common traits: they are alienated, under-educated and under-employed.

Unlike their parents, they are not grateful to the Ibn Saud family for raising their standard of living as a result of the oil boom of the 1970s. Younger Saudis are disillusioned by poor schools, overcrowded universities and declining job opportunities.

“Their rulers’ profligate and often non-Islamic lifestyles are increasingly transparent to Saudis and stand in sharp contrast both to Al Saud religious pretentions and to their own declining living standards,” she writes.

Why, they ask, is it acceptable to watch movies on TV while public cinemas are forbidden?

Why can 100,000 Saudi students study abroad at government expense in mixed Western universities, but these same schools cannot open mixed-gender branches in the kingdom, as they have done in neighbouring Qatar and elsewhere?

It’s no mystery, she notes, that there are twice as many foreigners employed in the country as Saudi citizens: The huge pool of under-educated Saudis are not qualified for the jobs available and, because of gender restrictions, a similarly large pool of better-educated young women are not permitted to take jobs for which they are qualified.

Ever wonder why 15 of the 19 9/11 conspirators were Saudis? House notes that these millions of youth “make up the pool within which the extremists trawl for recruits, with their line and lure that the Al Saud are selling out Islam to the West.”

The royals responded to the challenge by investing billions in higher education and employment projects. Yet the princes seek to mollify religious elements by maintaining restrictions on women.

House quotes a university professor as saying these efforts are a failure because “there is no critical thinking, even in university. Students just memorize and repeat. All they want is a diploma and a job in government. They don’t care about their country or about the Arabs or about freedom.”

While the same could be said for some Western students, House notes that the Saudi students reflect “the intellectual inertia of a conformist society that values neither curiosity nor independent thinking.”

Many books are banned, libraries often are locked, and volumes cannot be taken home, she discovered. Authorities often can’t find land to build schools because “much of the open land is owned by princes or a few wealthy families holding it for future development and profit.”

Meanwhile, the religious establishment is committed to preventing women from working in so-called gender-sensitive fields. No less than 25,000 women applied for 480 places in technical training colleges in four cities, she discovered.

More than 8 million foreign workers serve as maids, nannies, drivers, sales personnel, cooks and waiters—jobs that Saudis refuse to consider.

The book is replete with examples of how the country sitting on one quarter of the world’s known oil supply is a disaster waiting to happen.

But though some analysts predict a power struggle for the succession once King Abdullah dies, House is not expecting an Arab-Spring style revolution.

Instead, the consensus is that the Saudi royals will remain in control as they continue to play one segment of society against another, distribute huge amounts of money to various sectors, shore up relations with the religious elite and pray citizens will remain loyal to a corrupt system.

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