Saturday, February 23, 2013

On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines--And Future

 by Karen Elliott House
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
308 pages     Nonfiction

Over the past thirty years, Karen Elliott House has reported about Saudi Arabia through her work with the Wall Street Journal. Her book, On Saudi Arabia, was published last fall, and my husband and I read it aloud as part of our breakfast reading.

The story of Saudi Arabia for the last half century has really been the story of one family, the Al Saud. The first Al Saud king, Abdul Aziz unified a bunch of disparate tribes to form the present country of Saudi Arabia. The family currently is huge--there are more than 2000 princes. One of the main problem is that the crown has been passed from son to son of Abdul Aziz; the current king is in his late 80s and the youngest son is in his 60s. At some point, if tradition is to be updated for the Al Saud family, the crown is going to have to be passed to the next generation. Who? And which line of succession will continue the rule? The princes are everywhere in the country, and they have their hands in every pie.

The country is so conservative and so traditional because the Al Saud family has control of everything. In the 1980s they chose to impose Wahabi Islam on the people, and religion controls everything. House compares Saudi Arabia to the last days of the Soviet Union only with more money. And the money is spread everywhere. But she also emphasizes that the money is finite. The oil revenue from Saudi wells may be at their peak and on the way down. Sixty percent of Saudis are under the age of 20, and there is great fear that the money will run out and the government largess will have to be controlled.

The high walls that have contained Saudis in their homes with their restrictive religion are crumbling fast primarily because the Internet has opened up so much to young people. There is no cinema in Saudi Arabia; women cannot drive or leave their homes without male escort; there are no nightclubs, but there are thousands of restless youth. In one chapter, House talks about how some young men turn to jihad as a way to find meaning in their lives, and how the government is trying to rehabilitate them with jobs, wives, and money. Yet, there are many, many young men without jobs, and most young Saudi men will not take the kinds of jobs that may be available--those are outsourced to willing workers from Egypt, India, and the Philippines. 

The aspect of Saudi society that I have pondered  again and again is the government policy of exporting students throughout the world to study. Does the king want to totally reform the country and thinks that this is the way? We have had three Saudi students in the small apartment in our home over the past two years. They have been part of the English language program at Western Michigan University where currently there are 500 Saudi students. I have also tutored about 15 of them, men and women, because word has spread that I tutor and edit papers. Each has their own story to tell about why they came to Kalamazoo, about what they are studying, and what they plan to do with their lives. As we have read On Saudi Arabia, I have probed a bit more about their lives, their wives, their children, and their futures.

The first thing I have noticed is that few of them are creative thinkers. Their education system is so force-fed that they have never had to do any intuitive work nor have they had to do any teamwork. So, when asked to form an opinion about something they have read, they have no resources. I have tutored several students who are getting Master's Degrees in education. One young woman is getting a PhD in Special Education, and I asked her about Special Education in Saudi Arabia. She said that she will be one of the first trained PhDs, and that is why she is hurrying so fast to get her PhD. Another man is so taken with the concepts of educational leadership, he can't wait to get home to reform the science education--for which he is a national consultant. What will they find when they return? Will the government let them put into effect the reforms that they are now trained to do?

My favorite story about creative thinking is about Dhafer, who is getting his Masters in Computer Engineering. He had to take a creative writing course in this first semester of his degree. He has found that he has a knack for poetry and fiction writing. He had to write a short story--never having read one in his life. So, we chose an incident that happened when he first arrived in the US and he turned it into a short story about a fictional him. Now, the teacher wants to publish it in a national journal for ESL teachers. He never knew he had it in him.

I have met few wives. I invited one family for Thanksgiving so their two-year-old could play with my granddaughter, but they declined to come; Anood, the wife, would be too uncomfortable because she would have to be covered. Several of the wives, however, just wear hijab, and some even drive the family car and take the children back and forth to school. Most of them want to have a baby while they are in the US so that they will have a US citizen in their family.

On Saudi Arabia gave my husband and me more ways to identify with our Saudi friends. When we have asked them something about what we learned from the book, they questioned where we got the information, but then mostly they begrudgingly agreed. One young man who is studying human resources said that his father is trying to buy a trucking company. (There are not many independent businesses in the country, according to House.) When I asked him about how that was going, he told me that the Prince who has control of the region is willing to help finance the purchase, but then he wants such a big cut of the business that the family doesn't think they will make enough money to support themselves after they pay the Prince.

Well--the stories I could tell. I am grateful that On Saudi Arabia came out while we were in the midst of this experience so that we can understand the country better. We have found our Saudis to be charming, responsible, caring, delightful young men. We are honored to have them in our home. We worry about them when they get home. Will they get jobs? What will happen to their country when the King dies? One man told me that he thinks they are only two years away from revolution. Another told me that he hopes a parliamentary system with a figurehead king (like Great Britain) will be the result. He is afraid for his country.

On Saudi Arabia has been very well received and very well reviewed. Karen House knows what she is talking about. There are extensive notes and references as well as her own observations. Journalism at its best. Here are two excellent reviews.
The review in the New York Times:

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