Karen Elliott House on Saudi Arabia

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.

11 thoughts on “Karen Elliott House on Saudi Arabia

  1. I probably need to read one or both of these books — Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed or House’s On Saudi Arabia. Reading this review reminded me of an excellent book I read 20-some years ago — The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones,1989. The dust jacket says the book “seeks to challenge our fundamental understanding of the Arabs with a more realistic, if startling, appraisal of their society and of the deeply rooted forces that drive the Arabs in peace and war.” The title comes from his idea that “the Arabs are caught in a closed circle, defined by deeply rooted tribal, religious, and cultural traditions.” The countries, shown on end-paper maps, go from Western Sahara and Morocco, across North Africa, through Sudan (now two countries), to Yemen and Oman on the east, up through Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. It looks like it’s been updated in 2003 and 2009. I found it on Amazon.com, which shows the table of contents (“Shame and Honor” and “Power Challenging” were good, along with “Colonialism,” “Arabia and Oil,” and “The Issue of Palestine”).
    Thanks for commenting on my blog. I tried to figure out which two (other) books you meant that look promising, along with the one where you left the comment, and came up with these:

    A New New Testament ~ edited by Hal Taussig, 2013 (posted Tuesday)

    The Complete Gospels ~ edited by Robert J. Miller, 1994 (this book, also posted Tuesday)

    The Idolatry of God ~ by Peter Rollins, 2012 (posted Friday)

    Are these the ones you meant?


    • Absolutely. Those are the two books that I was referring to in my comment.
      I’m glad you recommended The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs because Elliott House actually refers to it in her book.
      Thanks for your in depth comments!


  2. Thank you for this review/tip. I’ve been thinking about what you said about the book since your post showed up in my inbox yesterday. I just finished Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick so I’m ready to start On Saudi Arabia. Thank you again..


  3. Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey however seems to give a more balanced view about the ruling family. The forces that work against the Saud are mentioned but the wisdom and diplomacy of the family of appeasing these opposing parties and keeping the country intact is appreciated. I also have “The rise, corruption and coming fall of the House of Saud” by Said Aburish which I suspect will be on the same vein as the one you mentioned. Thanks for the review.


    • I agree, Lacey’s book is a bit more balanced. I’d recommend that people read both books side by side to get a fuller view of Saudi Arabia. Aburish’s book sounds intriguing. I must investigate it!
      Thanks for the info!!


  4. I’ve been concerned about Saudi Arabia for years — so much wealth that doesn’t seem to get spent in ways that are likely to lead to a long-term stable society. Interesting to learn about these books — thanks!


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