On Saudi Arabia


In Peter Berg’s whodunit “The Kingdom,” a young F.B.I. agent boarding a plane to Riyadh asks a seasoned colleague what Saudi Arabia is like. “A bit like Mars,” replies the more experienced man.

It’s not Mars, exactly, but for most Americans Saudi Arabia is probably more like another world than any other inhabited part of this one. It is about as distinct from the freewheeling United States as a country can be — not a modern totalitarian “republic” like Communist North Korea, but another kind of dictatorial regime, a fanatically conservative society self-oppressed by thousand-year-old rules, regulations, prescriptions and prohibitions. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, as Christopher Hitchens once described the occluded realm ruled by the Kim family in Pyongyang, a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Karen Elliott House has been visiting the kingdom for more than 30 years, and in her new book, “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future,” she skillfully unveils this inscrutable place for regional specialists and general readers alike. “For millennia,” she writes, “Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.”

Religious edicts are crushingly enforced by state, mosque and society. Movie theaters are banned, as are concerts and just about everything else related to entertainment. Women, even foreign women, must cover themselves in public. Unrelated women and men aren’t allowed to mix anywhere. Even Starbucks coffee shops­ are segregated by gender.

Men have it rough, but women have it much rougher. According to Wahhabi Islam, men must obey Allah and women must obey men. “Fortunately for men,” House writes, “Allah is distant, but unfortunately for women, men are ­omnipresent.”

Western women like House, though, have an advantage, despite the fact that they’re forced by the Muttawah, the religious police, to cover themselves. In Saudi Arabia they are treated as “honorary men,” so House was able to interview whomever she liked — men and their wives, women and their husbands — something no foreign man or Saudi citizen of either gender is ever allowed to do.

She describes the society as a maze “in which Saudis endlessly maneuver through winding paths between high walls of religious rules, government restrictions and cultural traditions.” The labyrinth is not just a metaphor. Cities are claustrophobic places where even men but especially women live as shut-ins, socializing strictly with family. Walk down a residential street and in every direction you’ll see not porches and yards but walls “that block people from outside view but, more important, separate them from one another.”

Written By: Michael J. Totten
continue to source article at nytimes.com


  1. How will the most pampered nation on earth adjust to the gradual dwindling of petro-dollar supplies? 

    There may be trouble ahead… but while there’s .. Oh forget it!

  2. One of the ministers commenting on the new arms deals with UK and US came out with this gem:

    We started with camels, now we have jets…… and we will finish with camels.

    Seriously though, it isnt as bad as it is made out. Has anyone been to Azerbaijan recently? That place makes Saudi look like paradise.

  3.  The amount of money and influence Saudi Arabia exerts on every country in which there is a smidgeon of muslims is astonishing.
    Similar to how almost every instance of creationism can be directly traced back to USA, not to mention the new anti-gay laws in Uganda, directly a result of USA evangelicals.
    Now multiply that toxicity on every aspect of society and you begin to understand how Saudi Arabia is in unique position of being the most evil country on the planet.

    Of course, by evil I mean dysfunction borne out of stone-age ignorance, tribalism and superstition.
    The sooner this vile country is brought economically to its knees the better for everyone. Just picture hellholes like Nigeria or North Korea having the same capacity to spread their diseases…

  4. The way some people condemn an entire country and the people that live within it, or summarize the complexities that form any given culture in so many words, never ceases to amaze me.

    It reminds me of those ridiculous sociology, anthropology or history textbooks in junior high (or even high school or college) in which an entire era, epoch, or  civilization is summed up in a sentence or two.

    In such books, you would read something like: “Although the [Jubu-jubu tribe]  ruled the [Jubu Kingdom of Northern Africa] for [100 years], they may, with some confidence, be considered an [inferior] culture, especially compared to the [Huga-huga] – their neighbors to the South of the continent.”

    I often see such sweeping statements on RD (dot) net whenever an article appears about a country in which there exists people, usually government officials, whose policies one does not agree with.

    Rather than attacking that government policy,  or the official’s ideas, or indeed those sections of the society that agree with the policy, some responders on sites such as this one often attack the entire country and traduce its citizens generally.

    While such comments can be expected, understood even, on less “enlightened” websites or comments sections, such as those on the The Sun newspaper, it is sad to see such comments on a site such as this — a site dedicated to reason.

    I hope House’s book isn’t as bad as those old history books I used to read, or, indeed, some of the comments already posted above (and in other RD (dot) net threads). Far be it  for me to defend Saudi Arabia as a whole (however much I disagree with many of the country’s sometimes retrograde policies); or to to attack it as a whole, too.

  5. “The country’s calcified government, its sullen populace, its youth bulge, its outdated religious requirements and prohibitions, the collapse of the information bubble and the dying off of the current line of geriatric rulers are all bound to coalesce into a perfect storm sooner or later.”
    Yes, the desert storm that will be unleashed if all the above mentioned elements coalesce, will be much greater and more powerful than even the cyclone that swept Eastern and Central Europe in the quest for freedom following the birth of Solidarity.  Already I feel sorry for the common people of Saudi Arabia after their monarchial ‘government’ takes flight into the West, taking what’s left of the assets with them, and leaving the country in the grip of Islamic clerics – but wait, that’s the current situation, isn’t it?  

  6. I fail to see where House is attacking anybody or anything.  From what I can see, it seems as though it is a well-researched book.  What’s research  for if you can’t draw generalisations about it?  One can’t very well interview every single person in a country before being able to say something in general about that country.  I also fail to see why you’ve taken the pains to write anything in this blog since it seems you have traduced all of us contributors on the basis of your scant reading, best not to call it “research”, of what is written in RD (dot) net.

  7. RDFan

    While the author may paint a picture with which you disagree, if she spent 30 years visiting there, could you counter her points with your own experiences ?  For myself, I am a remote observer, with a small interest in the topic, but since I have never been within 1,000 miles of the place, my own opinion is of little value. A small thought occurred to me…..I bet the concept of a Block Parent is alien to the general populace.

  8. Justice and the rule of law aren’t at all likely to develop in a system that is not democratic. If House is right, then whatever happens, a new or post-Saudi Arabia may end up like post-Soviet Russia 

    Actually, I think it’s the other way around: a democracy would not function without a strong, independent court. Russia is an example of a “democracy” where the law is subverted to the whim of the ruler.

  9. Ironically it’s the liberal, science and technology based, supposedly rational and enlightened West that has enabled the Chaveses, Ahmadinejads, Saddams, Gaddafis and Sauds of this world because it just can’t seem to be  bothered to launch the Manhattan/Apollo/CERN type project that is required to render oil burning and climate change obsolete.

  10. I think its a mistake to lump Chaves in with Ahmadinejad, Sadam Hussein, and the others. All the others in your list were dictators. Chaves has been democratically elected in elections which were as free and fair as any in South America.  Technically Ahmadinejad was elected but there is little doubt that he actually lost the vote and that the election results were tampered with by the Iranian mullahs. And all the dictators you list are guilty of serious violations of human rights, arresting without due process, torture, etc. Chavez has never commited such crimes. He has done some questionable things with the media in his country and has manipulated things like election rules but nothing comparable to seizing power through force, overthrowing elections, or gross violations of human rights. 

  11. …an entire era, epoch, or  civilization is summed up in a sentence or two

    Earth:  Mostly harmless.

    (Douglas Adams,  The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

  12. a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty

    I wonder what this does over the years and generations.  Is it possible that an entire people can be dysfunctional?  Can it go on indefinitely or will it eventually become diluted?

  13. Jesus, i just read the entire thing. What a load of rubbish!!!

    People socialise everywhere, just as families, groups of men, or groups of women. There’s no mixing of single sexes.

    There was lots if water until aramco stole it.

    No theaters but there is entertainment in the form of outdoor shows, mainly aimed at families though. Jeddah also staged an orchestra recently showing that change is in the air.

    There are art shops all over the place and modern art on every roundabout and in every park.

    They dont separate either, each house has a room dedicated to entertaining guests of each sex. They are actually incredibly social, they have to be as theres nothing else to do.

  14. Mr. Chavez attempted to overthrow the Venezuelan government for which he was imprisoned. He is a devout Roman Catholic who kisses a crucifix praising Jesus and beseeching his god to cure his cancer.  He has been in power since 1999 and aspires to remain in power until 2032. Between elections, which are “as free and fair as any in South America” -if that is not damning with faint praise I don’t know what is- he doctors the Constitution to enable his reelection and squanders the nation’s only substantial source of income – oil- on populist schemes designed to buy off the masses in the short term while bankrupting the country in the long.

    However, regardless of the degree of his unpleasantness and as sufferable as it may be compared to his list mates, the reason he appears on it in the first place is because he’s propped up by oil just as all the others.

  15. “Jesus,i just read the entire thing.What a lot of rubbish!!!.”
    I just read your entire post. what a lot of rubbish!!!
    “they don’t separate either,each house has a room dedicated to entertaining  guest of each sex.
    They are actually incredibly social,they have to be as there’s nothing else to do”
    Well, they can behead some apostasies for example or export their cave man hateful ideologies to the rest of the world,if that’s not enough for them to do they can export and finance terrorism.
    Problem solved.

  16. Elaborate please, what exactly do you think is rubbish?

    My view of what i find to be acceptable entertainment is irrelevant which is why i didnt offer one, so god only knows what youre on about there?

  17. Can everyone keep the interactions civil and constructive, please? Disagreements are welcome, but please try not to let them become aggressive or snide. 

    Thank you.

    The mods

  18.  “Mr. Chavez attempted to overthrow the Venezuelan government for which he was imprisoned.”

    True, but that was well before he was legitimately elected as president which he has been. And while in general I think violence is never a good approach to achieving political goals there are times when you can make a case that its justified. The American Revolution for example. In the case of Chavez’s arrest its complicated.  There were wide spread riots and protests before Chavez and his allies attempted a coup and the government of Venezuala at the time responded with massive civil rights violations and oppression. Chavez claims (and its at least a reasonable claim) that he was trying to stop that violence.

    Whether his attempted coup was supportable or not is a debatable question. He has said he regrets it. I don’t know enough about it to say with any certainty but from what I know now I would say it probably wasn’t. But that has nothing to do with his status now as the legitimately elected leader.  He has demonstrated a very real adherence to democracy since then and that one transgression hardly puts him in the same ranks as people like Hussein or Khaddafi as your original comment did.

    What I suspect is really going on is that you are applying the same metric as the US, when a dictator like the Shah of Iran or Hosni Mubarak torture people that is regrettable but needed in the name of stability. When others like Chavez commit crimes that are trivial in comparison they are dictators who must be removed. What it really comes down to is do they do what the US wants or not.

  19. Your newly edited post still has nothing to do with my original points. I still want to know exactly what you think is a load of rubbish.

  20. After working in Saudi many years ago I came to the conclusion that it is no coincidence that Islam took root in desert people. I can imagine that anything which focusses the mind (like praying 5 times a day for a total of 1.5 hours) is a welcome relief from the directionless monotony and lack of culture/entertainment/food/drink in the desert. It’s also no wonder that many Muslims leave the faith (or at least don’t follow it so closely) once they leave the Skinner box and find more worthwhile and edifying things to do in other countries.

  21. Only a minute % get down on their knees for the full salah, the rest do it for 10 mins max and then sit around talking for the next 20. I swear to god the only reason shops and businesses must close is because the workers want it that way. The people making money dont, but the workers do.

    I disagree on the food point though, leb and syrian food is really good. Granted, kapseh is shite but only the simple minded eat that on a daily basis.

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