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

In This Review

On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines -- and Future
by Karen Elliott House
Knopf, 2012
320 pp. $28.95

This book, by a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, is deeply pessimistic about the future of the Saudi kingdom. A coming generational shift in the monarchy—from a son of the dynasty’s founder to one of his grandsons—might lay bare the structural fissures of Saudi society. These consist of a youth bulge (60 percent of Saudis are under the age of 20), a myopic and conservative leadership, the outsourcing of some economic and social policies to religious reactionaries, and the elite’s willful ignorance of the significant sector of Saudi society that lives in poverty. House anticipates an explosion of some sort: she wagers that if one occurs, it will have been young people and women who lit the fuse. But it is hard to reconcile the vision of a polity bursting at its seams with House’s emphasis on the inveterate passivity, somnolence, and conformity of “average” Saudis. In extensive interviews, she does reveal broad-based grievances. But it is not clear that compared with past frustrations, these feelings are any less susceptible to appeasement by the state’s habitual doling out of generous financial rewards to its citizens.