Karen Elliott House is one of America's most knowledgeable experts on Saudi Arabia. For the last thirty years, she has studied the Kingdom as a writer for the The Wall Street Journal. Her new book, "On Saudi Arabia" (Knopf, 2012), is a rare look inside one of the most fascinating and mysterious countries in the world.
House studied at the University of Texas at Austin and at Harvard University. She has taught at Harvard University's Institute of Politics and was a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She worked for the The Wall Street Journal for more than three decades, including as Publisher from 2002-2006. She has received numerous awards for her reporting, including the coveted Pulitzer Prize. House is a former director and a current member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of the Trilateral Commission.
In her new book, House aims "to peel back the bindings of tradition and religion that wrap the Saudi mummy to explain how the society works, how Saudis think and live, and how events in the desert kingdom may unfold."
Karen Elliott House discusses On Saudi Arabia with Aslan Media contributor Joseph Preville.
Joseph Preville (JP): You have been studying Saudi Arabia for a long time. What sparked your curiosity about the Kingdom?
Karen Elliott (KE): I visited Saudi Arabia first in 1978 as diplomatic correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and quickly understood the importance of the Kingdom to global prosperity. I found the ministers and their families I met on that trip--Zaki Yamani, Hisham Nazer and Ghazi Al Gosaibi--extremely intelligent, engaging and eager to teach a newcomer about their country. I was hooked on learning. But only many years later was I able to delve deeply into society as I did to write this book.
JP: What challenges did you face in writing your book?
KE: Saudi is not an easy country to understand. Seeing people takes time; winning trust takes more time. But with patience and persistence and the help of many Saudis who spoke to me and set me up to see many more Saudis, I was able to traverse the kingdom talking with princes and paupers, fundamentalists and modernists, Sunni and Shia, men and women, and young and old on what is changing in the kingdom and why and what isn't changing and why. It was an advantage to be a Western woman as I could speak with both men and women. I was treated as a "third sex", or an honorary man.
JP: Did you enjoy living in Saudi Arabia? What impressed you about the country?
KE: I enjoyed exploring Saudi more than anything I've ever done. Learning about Islam and the history of Arabia was fascinating. I lived with a very religiously conservative woman and her family to get insight into that aspect of the society. I was impressed with her genuine devotion. The surprise for me overall was the great diversity of the people and their deep dependence on government.
JP: Do you think Americans understand the importance of Saudi Arabia in the world today?
KE: Most Americans know little about Saudi. A larger number do understand that the world depends on the kingdom for oil at stable prices to maintain global prosperity. Since 9-11 some also are curious about Islam and the Salafi version propagated in Saudi Arabia. Still, there is little understanding of the religion or the society. My goal in writing On Saudi Arabia was to mitigate, however modestly, that lack of knowledge.
JP:What impact will King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) have on Saudi society?
KE: A most intriguing question. Saudi ARAMCO's example of a workplace that mixes sexes and sects in a meritocracy hasn't much affected society over many decades. So I am not confident KAUST will dramatically affect Saudi society especially since so many of the students are not Saudis.
JP: Are you optimistic about the future of Saudi Arabia?
KE: Saudi Arabia has many of the same challenges that exist elsewhere in the Middle East: 60% of the population under 20 years of age, high unemployment among Internet savvy youth, growing divisions within society over how to modernize Islamic society without Westernizing, and, mounting tensions all around Saudi from Iran's nuclear ambitions to democratic uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia. Saudi has met many challenges in the past but these coincide with two new elements: An impending generational succession to the aged Al Saud monarchy, coupled with a frustrated and informed youth. So, today's challenges are that much more difficult to manage.
JP: What advice would you give to young journalists, who wish to specialize in the study of Saudi Arabia?
KE: Learn Arabic and spend as much time in the country and among all sorts of people as possible. Secondly, study the Qur'an and discuss with as many religious experts and ordinary believers as possible. The Qur'an is always a good opener for a conversation on anything in Saudi. I carried my Qur'an marked up and annotated by me on every trip.Submitted by Joseph Richard Preville