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On Saudi Arabia

Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future

By Karen Elliott House
15-minute read
Audio available
On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future by Karen Elliott House

On Saudi Arabia (2012) gives a fascinating overview of a country rife with contradictions. Despite being immensely wealthy, Saudi Arabia is filled with people who live in abject poverty. And although on its way to being counted among the world’s most powerful countries, it has an education system that’s received execrable rankings. Add to this a liberal dose of religious fanaticism and a complex royal family and you’ll begin to see why Saudi Arabia has struggled to come to terms with itself.

  • Readers wanting to know more about life in Saudi Arabia
  • Economists interested in a rich yet struggling nation
  • Travelers considering a visit to Saudi Arabia

Karen Elliott House is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. After studying journalism at the University of Texas, she became a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She spent much of the past 35 years visiting Saudi Arabia.

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On Saudi Arabia

Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future

By Karen Elliott House
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future by Karen Elliott House
Synopsis

On Saudi Arabia (2012) gives a fascinating overview of a country rife with contradictions. Despite being immensely wealthy, Saudi Arabia is filled with people who live in abject poverty. And although on its way to being counted among the world’s most powerful countries, it has an education system that’s received execrable rankings. Add to this a liberal dose of religious fanaticism and a complex royal family and you’ll begin to see why Saudi Arabia has struggled to come to terms with itself.

Key idea 1 of 9

Saudi Arabia is one of the last nations to have an absolute monarchy – in part because of religious influences.

If asked to think of royalty in a Western nation, you’d probably think of Britain. The British royal family has fascinated people for many generations – but no one has ever considered letting them run the nation’s government. Yet this is exactly how it works in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s king has practically unlimited power: He nominates the top religious leaders, appoints all the judges and chooses who makes up the 150 members of the country’s powerless parliament. Furthermore, throughout the nation, the various regions are ruled by princes with blood ties to the king.

To ensure a pristine public image, the king has put his relatives in charge of Saudi Arabia’s media outlets. And he also pays close attention to social and civic organizations to make sure they are discouraging people from organizing any political protests that might threaten the monarchy.

This power is backed by the royal family’s vast wealth, which derives from the primary driver of the nation’s economy: petrol oil.

However, the king’s power over his people has more to do with religious influence than economic coercion.

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Saudi Arabia settled down to having one absolute ruler. Before then, rival factions of nomadic Bedouin tribes ruled the land – recognizing no single absolute leader.

However, following a thirty-year military campaign, King Ibn Saud defeated the rival Arabian houses in 1932, conquering what would eventually become known as Saudi Arabia.

At the top of the new king’s to-do list was making sure that the Bedouin tribes remained loyal to his leadership. For this to happen, he needed to change the country’s social structure.

He used Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam, to convince the nomadic tribes to form settlements and communities known as umma, where people share one belief and obey the Qur’an without question.

Since the royal family, and Ibn Saud, were considered to be Allah’s representatives on earth, this arrangement would guarantee that the newly formed monarchy would be followed with unquestioning loyalty.

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