For years I’ve been fascinated with the Middle East. Even as a teenager I read books about the region, in addition to following the area’s latest developments courtesy of my local newspaper. So I guess it’s no surprise that not long after I made the move from Vox to WordPress back in 2010 I signed up for Helen’s Middle East Reading Challenge. Since I figured I’m going to read those kind of books ANYWAY why not have a little fun along the way. Over the last several years I have had fun and on top of it Helen has been a great host. I’m hoping that the fine tradition continues and she once again hosts the reading challenge in 2013.
But, as much as I’ve enjoyed taking part in her challenge, I feel like I’ve neglected it as of late. Therefore, when I came across John R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crises during my last library visit I felt the urge to grab it. And while the books I’ve featured as part of the challenge have dealt with nations like Iran, Israel and Iraq unfortunately I have not reviewed any books about Saudi Arabia. Fortunately for me I selected a pretty good one. Even though Bradley’s expose was published in 2005-and reflects the time he spent there from 2001 to 2003 as a journalist – it provides an intelligent, uncompromising and at times intimate look at the Saudi Kingdom and the powerful forces that could ultimately rip it apart.
Spread across a vast expanse roughly the size of Western Europe and forcibly cobbled together from a number of disparate communities, Bradley likens Saudi Arabia to the Soviet Union. Simply swap the Politburo with the House of Saud and replace Communism with Wahhabism. From the Shia East to the more cosmopolitan Hijaz West to the tribal regions along the Yemeni border, for now anyway the relatively young nation is held together by the carrot of oil money and the twin sticks of monarchical and religious authoritarianism.
But just as the Soviet Union was undone by its own internal contradictions, will Saudi Arabia follow suit? Can the ruling family create a vibrant economy with ample employment opportunities for the country’s rapidly growing population? Can democratic institutions and representative forms of government be created or will those seeking change feel they have no choice but to embrace Islamic-oriented terrorism? Will there ever be moves towards gender equality or will the Kingdom’s women be forever marginalized and largely confined to their homes? While the monarchy needs the West’s petrodollars and technology, its culture and values seems incompatible with that of the Saudi family and its allies’ puritanical interpretation of Islam.
Much to my surprise, Bradley in his book also discusses the rising Saudi crime rate not to mention the large population of developing world expats currently living in the country. While I’d heard there were a number of Western engineers and technocrats working in Saudi Arabia, I had no idea there are far more Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Filipinos employed in the Kingdom in low-paid positions as laborers, domestics, cab drivers, garbage collectors and the like. Many, especially the domestics, are subject to terrible abuse and exploitation by their employers.
While it’s not a flashy page-turner, Bradley’s book, even though it’s over seven years old still makes for interesting reading. It also serves as pretty good companion to other books about Saudi Arabia such as Dore Gold’s subtle but scathing Hatred’s Kingdom and Yaroslav Trofimov superb Siege of Mecca. Personally, after having pretty good luck with Bradley’s book I’m hoping it will inspire me to read other books about Saudi Arabia. I’ve had Barbara Bray and Michael Darlow’s Ibn Saud: The Desert Warrior who Created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sitting by my bed for months now just waiting to be read. Charles Allen’s God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad and Abdelrahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt are also on my list of books to read. With Saudi Arabia fresh on my mind after reading Bradley’s book, maybe I need to knuckle down and get reading.