On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future
By Karen Elliott House
The fragility of Saudi society is often attributed solely to its dependency on oil revenues. This is an oversimplification. Today, Saudi Arabia is facing problems that have been built into the very fabric of its society for hundreds of years. Indeed, long before oil was discovered, the Arabian Peninsula was held together by a combination of faith and the ruler’s largess. In exchange for accepting the rule of the monarch, Saudis mostly stayed out of popular politics.
Saudi Arabia’s social contract hinges on the mutual legitimization of religious and secular power. This duality is no coincidence. Muhammad bin Saud, who founded the first Saudi state in 1744, sought to unite a disparate group of tribes spread over the vast Arabian Peninsula into a single entity. This required casting off Ottoman rule, and to do so, he needed a unified force. To overcome the multiplicity of tribal interests that stood between Saud and a loyal, unified force, he looked to religion. At the time, some religious scholars believed that Islam had lost its way, but a reform movement led by Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab sought to purify the religion by returning it to its roots. In exchange for spreading Wahhab’s reformist version of Islam, Saud’s new state was granted religious legitimacy.
While the first Saudi state would not last long into the 19th century, its two subsequent incarnations – the last of which is the current Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – were also founded on the premise of the Saudis’ right to rule. Yet the need to unite through faith reveals a reality of Saudi society the rules would rather avoid: It is extremely divided. For example, Saudi Arabia is a majority Sunni country, but it has a large Shiite population. In addition, people in the country’s central Nejd region – long isolated from the outside world by deserts – often do not see eye to eye with those in Hejaz, which sits on the Red Sea and is thus highly influenced by trade and the ideas that so often accompany it.
Oil wealth alleviated much of Saudi Arabia’s poverty. Yet with greater wealth came higher expectations as a new generation became accustomed to ever greater levels of government subsidies. To meet these expectations, Saudi Arabia’s leaders must somehow diversify the country’s economy away from the oil industry. Yet the deeply ingrained religious elements in Saudi society create massive constraints and dislocations that will be difficult to overcome. Men often see themselves as above the jobs that are available yet are unqualified for the jobs they want. Women are allowed to work but face substantial religious restrictions limiting the types of jobs that can hold. The resultant gap is filled by immigrant laborers, paid wages that would be unacceptable to many Saudis. The workforce (excluding the military) thus has twice as many foreign workers as it has Saudis.
Saudi Arabia must transform its economy to solve these problems. Yet doing so requires reforms that would also fundamentally transform its society, which threatens the religious-political social contract that has since its inception been the linchpin of Saudi unity. To survive, Saudi Arabia must first risk peeling off the glue that has held it together for centuries.
“On Saudi Arabia” is an impressive effort to outline the dysfunction in Saudi society that poses a major threat to the ruling family. Through years of on-the-ground interviews, Karen Elliot House paints a picture of day-to-day life for different types of people in Saudi society. But she does not omit the high-level analysis that’s required to put these experiences into the context necessary to walk away with a fuller understanding of where the country sits at this particular moment in history, and why it faces the challenges it does today.
Xander Snyder, analyst
Human history has no shortage of totalitarian regimes. In fact, Vladimir Nabokov managed to flee two of them in the span of just a couple decades: first, the nascent Soviet government, which drove Nabokov and his aristocratic family to Europe, and then the Nazis, whose ideology threatened not only the writer’s intellectual freedom but, more to the point, his Jewish wife. In 1940, they set sail from Paris for the United States. “Bend Sinister” is the first novel Nabokov wrote there.
The story will be familiar to most readers, on a historical if not a personal level. A populist movement – the party of the Average Man – ascends to power in the fictitious country where Adam Krug, the protagonist, lives with his young son. By his very existence, Krug, a professor and world-renowned philosopher, undermines the ruling party’s doctrine, known as Ekwilism, which holds that leveling the playing field of human intelligence and ability is the only way to cure society’s ills. But that’s not the end of Krug’s troubles. He also has become something of an obsession for the country’s ruler, Paduk, not so much for his current fame as for his past infamy. Krug, it turns out, was a schoolmate of the Ekwilist leader and his chief tormentor. Now that he’s in power, Paduk will not rest until he has secured Krug’s allegiance.
Before the book even begins, Nabokov dismisses as incidental any similarities between Krug’s experiences and his own. “There can be distinguished, no doubt,” he writes in the introduction, “certain reflections in the glass directly caused by the idiotic and despicable regimes that we all know and that have brushed against me in the course of my life.” He insists, though, that the book isn’t really about that but about “the beating of Krug’s loving heart, the torture an intense tenderness is subjected to” in contrast with “dim-brained brutality.” No matter which reading one chooses, the book is a classic.
It’s a label at which Nabokov would doubtless bristle, as he makes clear in the introduction, calling such nomenclature “a euphemism for the hollow profundity and the ever-welcome commonplace.” Nevertheless, if the measure of a great work of literature is its ability to transcend time and space in capturing some enduring truth, then “Bend Sinister” inevitably falls into the category. The book relates the experience of being swept up in someone else’s revolution in a way that resonates more than 70 years later, and it depicts with a humor that’s never too far from despair the bureaucratic tedium and intellectual perversions concomitant with authoritarian rule. (The description of an Ekwilist reinterpretation of “Hamlet” calls to mind any number of internet conspiracy theories.)
It is also a poignant story of human existence. Grappling with the recent death of his wife, for example, Krug tries to make sense of the “transformation of physical discontinuity into the permanent continuity of a nonphysical element” – a struggle common to every mortal. And if that’s not enough to pull at your heartstrings, he must figure out how to explain the situation to his son. These moments may push the book beyond the bounds of satire, as Nabokov suggests they should, but they don’t preclude it. Instead, they sharpen the contours of Krug’s absurd but no less tragic predicament – one so many others, real and imagined, have faced.
Serena Reiser, editor