Karen Elliott House’s On Saudi Arabia

On Saudi Arabia House

I finished reading House’s book On Saudi about two weeks ago and I’ve had quite a few people ask me what I thought about it. I tell them generally what I thought which is that it struck me as a book where it seems that in an overenthusiastic frenzy to be bold, she didn’t have much regard for accuracy. The whole book does not strike me as a book written by a person who has been visiting Saudi for five years, at least not a very observant one. The whole style is not far from what you would get from a book on Saudi published in the 1960s purely for an American audience unlikely to question it or have access to interaction with a Saudi.

When I say this in a conversation, the only examples that come to mind is her equating the Kaaba with the Holy Stone on page 31 and her claiming that a very questionable Hadith is “popular” to bolster her argument that Saudis are submissive to the monarchy as part of their practice of religion. The hadith she claims “quotes the prophet Muhammad urging believers to “stick to obedience even if it is to an Abyssian slave, since the believer is like a submissive camel, wherever he is led, he follows.””  And the source is some obscure webpage.

Yet it’s not only those two samples; the book is riddled with many inaccuracies that niggled at me as I read. Right now, sitting at home with the E-book, I’m better equipped to elaborate with a few more examples:

House wrongly states “Unlike the other schools of law, which employ consensus (ijma), analogy (qiyas), and other rationalist methods to decipher God’s will, the Hanbali tradition relies almost exclusively on a literal interpretation of the Kuran and Sunna for guidance.” Page 37

Needless to say, the Hanbali tradition is strongly based on ijma and qiyas. For example qiyas and ijma is why women can’t drive in Saudi because anyone with the most basic background in Islam knows that there were no cars at the time of the Prophet and women were able to ride horses, camels and donkeys. Thus there is no “literal interpretation” that would lead to the Saudi fatwas banning women from driving. These fatwas and religious arguments were all based on Saudi clergy consensus and analogy.

Another example of House’s inaccuracies is her repeatedly quoting Robert Baer as an expert on Saudi and it’s oil fields. A man who has never visited Saudi and is notorious for his conspiratorial demonization of the Saudi government. His book’s titled Sleeping with the Devil, the devil being us Saudis; not exactly what one would call optimal journalistic objectivity.

And then of course there’s House referring to Hail as a region on the Saudi-Iraqi border, which of course is simply disproven by checking any map. Hail is part of the central region and quite a ways from any border.

And then there’s a sentence I particularly enjoyed on page 208: “Three school gymnasiums host Catholic, Protestant and Mormon services, not only for Saudi ARAMCO employees but also for Christian expatriates in the surrounding area.” I know ARAMCO is relatively open compared to the rest of Saudi, but Saudi employees practicing Christianity openly on premises is beyond ludicrous.

And the list goes on and on from exaggerating the Iranian threat to inaccurate statements on education. Yet the most crucial issue that House got wrong is her understanding of Saudi mindsets and particularly Saudi youth. She almost made it out to seem that we are somehow inherently passive and too arrogant to work.

“Saudi Arabia, in short, is a society in which all too many men do not want to work at jobs for which they are qualified; in which women by and large aren’t allowed to work; and in which, as a result, most of the work is done by foreigners-Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, and others-who compose the majority of the labor force.” p. 147

Nowhere does she mention how difficult it is to compete in a market where foreign labor is cheap and desperate. How is a Saudi supposed to compete with someone who is willing to work twice as long and for a quarter of what a Saudi needs to live and cover basic needs. For example, in nursing, a Filipino or Indian is happy to work insane hours for anywhere in between 2,500-4,000 SAR (670-1000USD) and live in a dorm-like situation nearby. How are Saudis supposed to compete with that?

Then House goes on to assume she understands what Saudis want for their political future:

“So America conceivably could influence the kingdom, but in no way is the United States the role model for Saudi Arabia. Increasingly educated Saudis want to modernize, but they most surely do not want to Westernize, and they resent the American view that modernization means Westernization. Saudis don’t pine for democracy, but they seek a more open civil society where they are free to congregate and express views and where society’s rules are clear and enforced equitably on all. They want Ipads and access to the Internet, but the conservative among them-and most Saudis still are conservative- do not want all the other alien infidel influences emanating from America and the West. Saudis are unique and seek to remain so.” P.236

House’s summation of what Saudis want is so superficial that I literally cringed when I read it. Seriously is this what she got from visiting Saudi for five years? Ipads and infidels! I guess a lot was lost in translation. The only thing she got right is that Saudis are not looking to an American model for their future.  What most agree on, across liberal and Islamist factions, is more like a Norwegian model; a constitutional monarchy with an elected PM and parliament and a welfare system that reflects how rich the country is. Was she not aware of the thousands who signed petitions demanding a constitutional monarchy in 2011? One that got 6100 signatures in a week translates to the following:

  The People want to Reform the Government Campaign

To support the right of the Saudi people and their legitimate aspirations:

1 – a constitutional monarchy between the king and government.

2 – a written constitution approved by the people in which governing powers will be determined.

3 – transparency, accountability in fighting corruption

4 – the Government in the service of the people

5 – legislative elections.

6 – public freedoms and respect for human rights

7 – allowing civil society  institutions

8 – full citizenship and the abolition of all forms of discrimination.

9 – Adoption of the rights of women and non-discrimination against them.

10 – an independent and fair judiciary.

11 – impartial development and equitable distribution of wealth.

12 – to seriously address the problem of unemployment.

Was House not told about the nine reformers currently serving a collectively 228 year sentence? Did she not talk to people like Fouad Al Farhan and Dr. Mohammad Al Qahtani? I guess she was too fixated on Saudis wanting to hold onto their way of life and dress in the face of unavoidable globalization to ask real journalistic questions. Saudis not wanting the American family structure and hamburgers replacing Saudi family structure and kabsa does not translate to an opposition to democracy.

The only saving grace of the whole book is the chapter on Saudi princes. In chapter seven she profiles and interviews four princes, all direct grandsons of the founder of the Kingdom. I found it quite insightful to view them through an outsider’s eyes and her description of how each received her, down to details on what they served and how they dressed was entertaining. It is rare to get that close and personal with the royal family. So that chapter was both fun and informative.


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23 responses to “Karen Elliott House’s On Saudi Arabia

  1. Like Thomas Lippman and other recipient of the Saudi royal treatment, multiple visa entries and access to people most Saudis are not allowed to come close to, Ms. House is not in the business of telling the truth about the plight of the Saudi people. Her book has nothing new in substance, critical thinking or novelty.

    Like many in Western governments, businesses, media, think tanks and universities, House’s personal interest, fame and good standing with Saudi royals overshadow all other considerations. Former Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar, did not gave her 5 year-multiple visa to expose the root causes of the crippling social, political, economic, educational and religious government’s polices and practices.

    Like many politically correct Western reporters, authors, think tanks analysts and lecturers, she writes about Saudi women’s usurped rights, yet she has declined invitations to speak at unabashed forums about the real reasons behind the marginalization of the overwhelming majority of Saudi women.

    However, one should give Ms. House credit for recognizing the obvious, the inevitable and the irreversible: The Saudi people have had it and unless the detached-from-reality ruling men wake up and embark upon a drastic power transition from the hands of a handful autocratic and theocratic men to the people, the country could be plunged into turmoil which will demand global military interventions to protect the lifelines of the world’s economies: OIL

  2. Praises for a Bias we can Criticize openly, without fear of Censorship, or Police reprisal.
    The West will allow one to express his opinions so long as they do not cross the line of Speech into Politics. ( Occupy Wall Street )
    China has achieved the threshold of Progressive Modernization; But will Political Partisanship allow for ” socialism with Chinese characteristics,” ?
    The Revolution in Egypt has brought the very heart of the Globalizationist Class War to the Forefront. All Democracy leads to Capitalism, and all Capitalism leads to Plutocracy. Those who do not learn from History, are doomed forever to repeat it. Again I. assert that a just solution to ” The Crisis in the Middle East ” will require sacrifices on both sides of the Republican argument. No Arabia without Islam, and No Islam without a Progressive Socialist Republic !

  3. Jen

    You wrote:

    And then there’s a sentence I particularly enjoyed on page 208: “Three school gymnasiums host Catholic, Protestant and Mormon services, not only for Saudi ARAMCO employees but also for Christian expatriates in the surrounding area.” I know ARAMCO is relatively open compared to the rest of Saudi, but Saudi employees practicing Christianity openly on premises is beyond ludicrous.

    It’s hard to tell from your writing if you are referring to employees of Saudi Aramco or if you’re referring to Saudi employees of the company.

    It’s been 30 years since I lived in Dhahran, and I’m not sure what time period Ms. House was referring to, but when I lived there, expat employees of the company “Saudi Aramco” (as opposed to employees of “Saudi Aramco” who were Saudi citizens) definitely attended church services in the school gyms on campus.

    • lizzy

      As a current resident of Dhahran, I can tell you that yes there are church sevices at the above mentioned places within the company residential area, because about half of the resident employees are non Saudi. We also have western curriculum co-ed schools that Saudi employees children may not attend past KG-1 and KG-2.

  4. frances

    I enjoy reading SaudiWoman’s Weblog. I live in Texas and have never been to Saudia Arabia, but I have housed 15 different young Saudi students in my house over the last 6 years. Regarding the job opportunities in Saudi Arabia, I have never yet met a student who has voiced any interest of doing any kind of work other than working in “an office” when they return to Saudi.
    I ask them repeatedly about what they would do in “an office,” and they shrug their shoulders. They do have an attitude that all manual work is beneath them. (If they break a glass in my home, they wait for me to come home from work to clean it up.) I worry about these students who through the years I have gotten to know so well. I think the Saudi culture should strive to articulate a “work ethic” for all their young men and women. Without such, opportunities can exist, but they never come into being.

  5. Thank you for such a great book review. I really hope you go and post a review of the book on it’s Amazon page; reviews, especially like yours here, are very powerful there. I love your posts; thanks for taking the time to give an insight into living in Saudi.

  6. Pingback: Saudi-News-2013-01-14 | ArabiaLink

  7. I think you are being harsh on a book that is, after all, designed for foreigners. You dismiss observations too easily. The fact that Saudi youth have good reasons for not taking jobs doesn’t mean that they don’t appear lazy to others (a good friend of mine’s parents took in Arab students and his take was that they were lazy).

    I can understand your dislike of Robert Baer, he seems to prefer Iran over Saudi Arabia (for reasons that made sense when he spoke about this in 2008). That doesn’t mean his information is wrong. He was a CIA employee and probably has far better information than any US resident.

    I don’t think anyone should read popularly written books on subjects they know too well.

  8. I sincerely hope that you are working on your own book about Saudi Arabia. I’d be first in line to buy it!!!

  9. TheBigTizzle

    I can appreciate the sensitivity of the book’s topic. I can’t help, however, ut to sense in your criticisms a desire to go out of your way to prove your loyalty to the kingdom. I notice you never really point out any inaccuracies and often sneak in some of your own indicts against Saudi life, while calling defending reform. I remember your NYT article and can’t help but wonder if those same people are checking to see if you are praying at noon. Perhaps some of your discourse is soud loud so as to prevent them from checking. No one will dout a super Saudi, right? Even if she is from Kansas. Not an admonishment against you, just an observation. You have my full respect.

  10. Lopez

    You want to get to know the Saudi Princes? Go to the clubs, bars and casinos of Paris, New York , London, South of France and Malaga. They love drinking, snorting cocaine , having sex with prostitutes and spending $100000s. Nothing wrong with that, until you consider how the Royal family uses Islam to subjugate the people while most of the royal family don’t even believe in the religion.

  11. nadya suleman

    all saudi women need to kill their abusive husbands its the only way to be free..so i say on feb 1st all Saudi women who are being abused must kill their husbands…its the only way for change to happen

  12. Empowering Saudi women is doable, overdue and will move Saudi Arabia forward. It’s also in the best interest of Muslims and the international community at large.


  13. Malcolm

    I’m puzzled by your comments about how Saudis can’t get jobs because Indians and others are willing to work much harder for much less. But most other countries limit the number of immigrant workers precisely for this reason. You seem to think there’s nothing that can be done about this – like the weather. Recently I read another Saudi blog which mentioned too many Saudis are unwilling even to make their own beds. Let’s keep it real …

  14. McKenna

    I live in a country where so many make inaccurate assumptions about the Middle Eastern People. To many, the word Islam strikes up the words “terrorism”, ” anti-America” and many other vicious inaccurate generalizations about one religion. Although these assumptions are highly inaccurate, as many people have come to realize, they are still made everyday. The way I see it, just as there are terrorist groups within the Islamic religion there are terrorist groups within the Christian religion (the Ku-Klux-Klan) and the Jewish Religion and all other religions. As a Saudi-Arabian citizen are you aware of these unfair portrayals of the Islamic Religion? and also what generalizations are made about the American people and Christianity specifically from the Saudi Arabian perspective?

  15. kleioe

    I guess you could agree Hanbali is more literal than others.

  16. kleioe

    And you, Americans, shut the fuck up about laziness.

  17. Ulrich Eggert

    A highly interesting book review! And it sparks a very interesting “discourse” between Arabs and Westerners about how we see one-another. I enjoy it tremendously. There ought to be more of that. Maybe a book even.

  18. HI, my name is Adam I searched internet sevices , and found your page- Karen Elliott House’s On Saudi Arabia | Saudiwoman’s Weblog,Useful info. Lucky me I found your web site accidentally, and I am stunned why this twist of fate did not took place in advance!

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