I always knew Saudi Arabia had its share of problems, but I never fully understood the scope and severity of those problems until last fall when I read John R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crises. Reading Bradley’s book I was shocked by his portrayal of Saudi Arabia as a feudal kingdom under assault from an array of inexorable and centrifugal forces. I walked away from Saudi Arabia Exposed wondering if sometime in the near future, the country will disintegrate into some sort of chaotic mess much like the Soviet Union did in the early 1990s. An alarmist way at looking at things perhaps, but considering Bradley’s insightful portrayal certainly not out of the question.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when during one of my public library visits, what did I stumble across but a copy of Karen Elliott House’s On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future
On Saudi Arabia is one of those books which at first I did not like. Not only did something about her writing style bug me, but I thought she spent too much time editorializing when she could have done a better job making her case by incorporating interviews and other first hand accounts. But the more I read her book, the more I was impressed with the scope and depth of her analysis. Yes, when it’s all said and done the book is her commentary on the desert kingdom. But it’s damn good one and should be taken seriously.
After reading On Saudi Arabia, one wonders how long the country can exist in its present form. Its ruling family, much like the old Soviet Politburo is bloated with an inner circle of aging leaders. Even though it’s the world’s largest oil exporter, the country’s petroleum industry employs relatively few native Saudis. On top of that, while oil exports generate fantastic wealth, that revenue has remained flat, but the nation’s population continues to skyrocket. Residents of the coastal and more cosmopolitan Hejaz resent those from the interior and more religiously conservative Najd and vice versa. And on top of all of this, as forces unleashed by the recent Arab Spring continue to play themselves out throughout the region, those in the Kingdom look nervously at a resurgent Iran and wonder what the future holds.
While I might still have a few misgivings about On Saudi Arabia, I’m willing to wager that Karen Elliott House is certainly on to something. Therefore, I find it difficult to not recommend her book to anyone wanting to understand today’s Saudi Arabia.