CONFLUENCE OF RISK
By Vanessa Drucker
In this month’s Salon, Global Finance sat down with Karen Elliott House, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones & Co vet and author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future.
|Photo Credits: KATE FREY
Global Finance: What motivated you to write the book?
Karen House: I was interested in the stability of Saudi Arabian society and in what individuals there think of one another and about the United States. It’s the most fascinating country most people will never visit, and so different from our own secular individualism. But since I come from a small Texas town, with a population of 900 and four churches, I find Saudi Arabia a somewhat less alien place.
GF: What did you discover about the country’s stability?
KH: It basically rests on three pillars: the Al Saud royal family, the religious establishment and oil. Each of these pillars embodies potential fissures. For instance, people begin to see a gap between how religion is preached and is practiced. So they are starting to interpret their religion for themselves. For example, while the Prophet preached humility and equality, Saudis perceive the chasm between rich and poor.
GF: What risks exist around the royal family and the oil industry?
KH: The primary issue for the monarchy is the need for a generational jump, as they work out their succession structure. Since 1953, the crown has been passed among brothers, of whom 35 have lived to adulthood and have their own sons. King Abdullah has promoted different grandsons as potential successors, but ultimately the family must agree.
As for oil, 90% of revenues still come from petrochemicals, despite numerous government plans to diversify. Oil is their key competitive advantage, as they can’t compete on low wages or technological innovation. What might happen if the country consumes too much energy domestically, or higher US production drives down the price? Younger Saudis are wary about their future, and many believe the oil revenues should belong to the public rather than to the royal family.
GF: What type of reforms do people want implemented?
KH: Malaysia has been discussed as a possible model for reforms. Democracy is not the goal of the majority, as they have no past history of that system. But they would like a fairer, more transparent and more accountable regime and a relaxation of certain social expectations and regulations. Because of the risks involved in behaving improperly, Saudis are guarded and mistrust one another. They mingle very little, and do not travel around the country for social visits.
GF: Surely social media must be having some impact.
KH: Certainly. The 20 million Saudis and 8 million foreigners who live there actually watch 90 million YouTube videos a day! Social media let them communicate without exposing themselves. Although society is fragmented, the Internet and the private sector are helping to break down the warren. Meanwhile, although frustration levels may be high, people lack a strong sense of personal responsibility for taking action.
GF: How did the Saudi elite react to the Arab Spring and regional social unrest?
KH: It varied. Concerning Egypt, Saudi Arabia was upset that the United States helped push out Mubarak. Regarding Bahrain, they don’t want the monarchy overthrown, which might set a precedent, but they wouldn’t want a Shia majority either. As for Syria, they would love to give Iran a punch in the nose by knocking off Assad.
GF: Do you perceive any one catalyst for social change?
KH: The danger is a confluence of factors rather than any one element. The society is more diverse than foreigners often realize, so it’s difficult to calibrate and navigate. Improved education, communication and king Abdullah’s [reforms] are creating demand for more [change]. Divisions have become sharper, but most Saudis still are not looking for upheaval.