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Palaces and Poverty

IN 1985, THE Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman was a member of the crew on the Space Shuttle Discovery, and thus became the first Saudi, the first Arab, and the first Muslim to travel into space. The trip took place during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. The Prince, unsure how to fulfill this obligation while in orbit, decided to ask Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, for advice. But Sheikh bin Baz had previously issued a fatwa claiming that because the Earth was flat orbiting it was impossible. Contemporary Saudi Arabia butted against the country’s age-old ways. This is just one of the many contradictions that define modern Saudi Arabia, and which Karen Elliot House skillfully examines in her new book.

House is an astute, veteran foreign correspondent who has spent considerable time in the country and has conducted an abundance of interviews—from the super-elite billionaire princes to the growing and often downtrodden masses. The vignettes she assembles are not only entertaining and lucidly drawn, but also offer a rare glimpse into a world that is normally closed to Western reporters. On Saudi Arabia is additionally unique in that it mostly avoids the shallow analysis of instant experts, while also forgoing the jargon and sometimes incomprehensible theorizing of academic texts. House has provided a welcome rendition of the problems and especially the contradictions of a state, which as the world’s largest exporter of oil, is critically important to just about everyone.

Today’s Saudi Arabia is actually the third incarnation of the Saudi State, which resulted from an alliance between the House of Saud—the political family that has ruled much of the Arabian Peninsula on and off for the past two and a half centuries—and the Wahhabi religious establishment—representing an austere form of Sunni Islam that arose in central Arabia with the Saudi dynasty. The First Saudi State was founded in the mid-eighteenth century in central Arabia and was then crushed by the Ottomans sixty years later. The Second Saudi State appeared later in the nineteenth century, but was torn apart by internal feuding and subsequently defeated by local rivals. Finally, in 1932, Abdul Aziz bin Al Saud—the head of Saudi family in his day—established the third and current Saudi state. Like its two predecessors, the early twentieth-century state was built upon the twin pillars of the Saudi political dynasty and the austere theology of Wahhabism. In the mid-twentieth century, a third pillar was added: oil.        

The massive influx of petrodollars rapidly transformed Saudi Society and politics—and, predictably, affected the ruling family. Abdul Aziz’s eldest son and immediate successor, Saud, spent lavishly on everything. He built “a garish pink and gold palace,” writes House, which consumed more electricity and water than the rest of Riyadh combined. The new king destroyed the state’s finances, sometimes literally throwing money away. He would drive through the streets tossing gold and silver coins out of his car windows. By the time his brothers intervened in 1958, they found 317 riyals (about $100) in the kingdom’s coffers. Since Saud’s removal, the royal family has learned to better manage its finances, though the country’s riches have not been evenly distributed. Saudi Arabia is known for its vast wealth. But while its princes gallivant in private jets and build massive air-conditioned palaces in the desert, 40 percent of Saudis live on less than $850 per month and almost 20 percent live on less than $480 per month.          

Having reported on Saudi Arabia for many years, House capably elaborates on these details, while also uncovering stories that do not often make headlines. As a woman, she is particularly well suited to shed light on the female half of the Saudi population. House’s conversations with women—who range from the small minority of modernizing crusaders to ordinary women who see obedience to God and their husbands as one and the same—are particularly valuable, as they would have been impossible for a male reporter to conduct. House’s intrepidness here is characteristic of her attitude overall. In one instance, she is the first Westerner that remote villagers encounter. In another, she visits a city of 600,000 residents where the homes are dilapidated wooden shacks. There are no roads or cars, and often no electricity.           

Saudi Arabia’s problems are not only economic—and House illustrates this masterfully. Political nepotism combined with a puritanical version of Islam and a total absence of human rights have produced one of the world’s most fertile breeding grounds for terrorists, several of whom House interviews. Their violent vocation takes them from a mundane existence in Arabia to Pakistan, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and, frequently, Guantanamo Bay, before they are repatriated and supposedly rehabilitated by the Saudi regime. This rehabilitation has had its successes, but it is imperfect. In one instance, which House describes in graphic detail, a supposed ex-terrorist hides explosives in his rectum and blows himself into what “investigators later counted as seventy-three pieces” during a meeting with the prince who had supposedly reformed him.           

What House refers to as the most “prickly” political problem, however, is royal succession. The Saudi system, unlike European monarchies, passes royal succession not from father to son, but from brother to brother. Because the first king, Abdul Aziz, produced dozens of sons through multiple wives, this system has worked. But the last of Abdul Aziz’s sons are elderly, limiting the pool of potential heirs. (Two crown princes have died in the past year.) Eventually, succession must pass to the next generation, but like their father, the sons of Abdul Aziz have produced dozens of their own sons, creating thousands of Saudi princes. It is unclear who will be the first grandson of Abdul Aziz to become king and whether he will then try to keep the line of succession within his immediate family or share it with his cousins. This question has the potential to rip the royal family—and the kingdom, for that matter—apart, although most princes seem to believe that the family will come together, as it always has, to preserve its rule.

House’s reporting from Saudi Arabia paints a vivid and rarely seen picture of this closed state. But if her background as a journalist generally serves her well, it also comes with some of the profession’s shortcomings. In certain instances, the book would have benefited from more academic rigor. Official Saudi interpretations of Islam are iterated without acknowledging long-standing disputes. The Koranic verse “Oh you who have believed, obey Allah, and obey the Messenger [Muhammad] and those in authority among you,” is an instruction for “Muslims to be obedient and submissive to their rulers,” she states. But this is just one interpretation of this verse; debates over who exactly “those in authority among you” are have raged since the death of the Prophet Muhammad. In this and similar cases, House parrots the official Saudi interpretation of Islam. If she had questioned it, she might have gotten at the intriguing state enforcement of a form of Islam designed to encourage political apathy.            

House could have also been more careful with her use of political language. Western political terms are the easiest for Western writers to employ, but they can be misleading. House nonchalantly states that foreign workers from Pakistan, India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, who compose the majority of the Saudi labor force, are “treated like second-class citizens.” In fact, they are not citizens at all. One could even debate whether the concept of citizenship applies to anyone in an absolute monarchy such as Saudi Arabia.  

Nevertheless, House’s depiction of Saudi Arabia—its people, its politics, and most of all its contradictions—is eloquent and timely. The dilemmas that Saudi Arabia is facing will not soon be resolved. And as its vast supply of oil makes it one of the most strategic states in the world, these problems are not likely to remain confined within Saudi boarders. Presenting these issues in a readable yet serious book is a rare feat indeed, and she should be commended for it.

Samuel Helfont is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.