Nina's Reading Blog

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On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines–and Future

Posted by nliakos on December 1, 2012

by Karen Elliott House (Knopf, 2012)

For those who don’t know me, I teach English as a Second Language at the University of Maryland. For the past few years, I have had many Saudi students, from age seventeen to 43, in my classes in the Intensive English Program–sometimes accounting for 90 percent of the students in a given class (like last spring, when I had nine students, eight of whom were Saudi). So I was really motivated to read this book to better understand what makes Saudis tick. I found it extremely interesting, sometimes surprising, but also rather repetitive (I think 250 pages could have been cut down to 150 if everything was said just one time!).

Karen House spent five years on the research for this book. She interviewed a lot of people and spent a week with a Saudi family. She talked to princes (If she said it once, she probably said it 20 times: there are 7,000 Al Saud princes) and ordinary Saudis, housewives, businessmen, and government officials. I hope she got the country out of her system, because I don’t think they will allow her back into the country after they read the book. She does not sugarcoat Saudi reality as she sees it, and she sees it as dysfunctional. As she writes in the last paragraph:

So the Royal Saudi 747, richly appointed but mechanically flawed, flies on, its cockpit crowded with geriatric Al Saud pilots. Buffeted by mounting gales, the plane is losing altitude and gradually running out of fuel. On board, first class is crowded with princely passengers, while crammed behind in economy sit frustrated Saudi citizens. Among them are Islamic fundamentalists who want to turn the plane around, and also Islamic terrorists who aim to kill the pilots and hijack the plane to a destination unknown. Somewhere on board there may be a competent new flight team that could land the plane safely, but the prospect of a capable pilot getting a chance at the controls seems slim. And so the 747 flies on into the headwinds, perhaps to be hijacked, or ultimately to crash.

The entire book is about as optimistic as that. It doesn’t give the reader a sense that things are going to turn out all right.  I think House likes Saudis and perhaps counts some of them as friends, but she depicts them as lazy and “sullen” (she repeats this word over and over). For most of the population, reality consists of nearly 40 percent unemployment (for 20 to 24-year-olds, in a country where 60 percent of the population is under 20), failing schools and inadequate housing. The unemployment rate reflects not only a dearth of the cushy jobs Saudi citizens feel entitled to have (easy managerial work, lots of money) but a refusal on the part of Saudi citizens to consider either manual labor or service jobs; they see these as beneath them and fit only for foreign workers, who constitute the overworked and underpaid majority of the workforce in Saudi Arabia. (This kind of reminds me of Americans, so many of whom scorn the kinds of hard jobs immigrants are happy to have.) In truth, House says, most of the young male Saudi unemployed are completely unqualified for all of the jobs that they want and even many of those they don’t want.

For me, the most telling chapter is “Failing Grades,” which describes the Saudi education system. When one of my students wrote in an essay this semester that school buildings are in such short supply in his country that the government rents homes to use as schools, I could hardly believe it, yet House writes, “Nearly half of the kingdom’s schools are in run-down rented buildings.” (pp. 140-141) Schooling consists of religious education with a few other subjects mixed in, and the teaching method of choice is memorization. Thinking and questioning are not only not taught; they are forbidden. No wonder our young Saudi students have so little to say in their essays and presentations. No one has ever asked them to express their own ideas before.

Other chapters of particular interest were  Chapter 4, “The Social Labyrinth,” which describes the fragmentation of Saudi society and the convoluted rules the people must follow, making it simpler for them to shun the society of anyone but their own extended family, and Chapter 5, “Females and Fault Lines,” about women and the changes that are gradually coming about in their lives (but think one step forward, two steps back, as the king pushes for reforms but then is forced for one reason or another to hand power back to the zealots).

As described by Karen House, Saudi Arabia seems like some kind of dark fantasy world no one would ever want to live in, yet many if not most of my Saudi students profess to love their country and to miss it while in the United States. I wish they would read the book and tell me what they think about it.

One Response to “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines–and Future”

  1. […] an American woman who married a Saudi student and traveled to Saudi Arabia during the 1950s, and On Saudi Arabia: It’s People, Past, Religion, Faultlines, and Future by Karen Elliott House. Ahmed is a Muslim, but she was not well acquainted with the finer points […]

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