JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I’d like to welcome you here to this Public Affairs Program.
Our speaker is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Karen Elliott House. She will be discussing her widely acclaimed and recently released book, entitled On Saudi Arabia. In it, she examines Saudi Arabia’s tribal past, its complicated present, and its precarious future.
Ever since the United States and Saudi Arabia established full diplomatic relations in 1940, the United States has had a very special relationship with this Middle Eastern country—not only because of its unique role in the Arab and Islamic world, its possession of the world’s largest reserves of oil, but also because of its strategic location. These factors make its friendship very important to the United States.
Yet, Saudi Arabia may be one of the least understood countries by the American people. That’s why a reading of this book on Saudi Arabia is so compelling, for once you finish reading it— and I really recommend that you do—you will have a more contemporary view which will allow you to see this country as more than just a propagated tale of oil wells and extreme wealth.
In 1978, as a young diplomatic reporter working for The Wall Street Journal, Karen began traveling to Saudi Arabia, and has continued visiting there regularly over the past 34 years. She knows this country extremely well. This familiarity afforded extraordinary access, enabling Karen to interview Saudis from all walks of life. From small villages to major cities, she crisscrossed the Kingdom to speak to Saudi men and women from every region and socioeconomic background. In doing so, she learned how these Saudis have been shaped, and often suppressed, by religious traditions and by tribal or princely authorities.
While change has swept most of the region, it is difficult not to notice that Saudi Arabia, despite sharing many of the social and economic problems of countries that witnessed political uprisings during the 2011 Arab Spring, was able to maintain stability. Still, there are many indicators for future unrest. Fissures can be found everywhere.
As the United States begins reassessing its role in the Middle East, knowing what is happening within Saudi Arabia will serve us well. To take us behind the headlines and inside the Kingdom, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today, Karen Elliott House.
KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: Thank you very much.
As Joanne said, I have gone to Saudi Arabia off and on for 30 years, in the beginning to talk to officials about Arab-Israeli issues, the Iraq-Iran War, U.S.-Saudi selling weaponry—those kind of issues. But when I retired in 2006 from the Journal, what really interested me is: What is this society like? What do the people think of each other? What do they think of their rulers? What do they think of us?
So I began this search to try to get all over the country and get all kinds of people to talk to me, and pass me from one to another, because Saudi Arabia is not the kind of country where you do “man on the street” interviews. People don’t talk to you unless you’re brought by someone they do trust.
I will start with my conclusions and hopefully, by the end of this you’ll share my conclusions or you’ll have many contradictions or questions to offer.
The first point: To me, Saudi Arabia is the one country with which we have a truly strategic interest, more than Egypt or Libya or Syria. Obviously, Egypt and Syria matter to Israel and, thus, indirectly to us, but Saudi Arabia is a country where we have a strong interest.
Two: I do not think it is in imminent danger of collapse, but I do think if there aren’t some changes made over the next half-dozen years, it will face a serious threat.
Lastly: While the United States has limited influence on who rules Saudi Arabia, I think we should use what limited influence we have.
Why do I say Saudi Arabia matters? It obviously matters because it produces one out of every four barrels of oil available on the world market for countries to import, and because it is the wellspring of the fundamentalist Islam that produces a lot of the jihadists who would like to eliminate people like us. So both for our livelihood and our lives, I would argue it matters.
Why do I say it’s not in imminent danger? Because, as you can hear from any American diplomat, who all seem to be overly convinced about Saudi stability, it does have a lot of wealth with which it buys off its critics. It certainly prefers buying and bribing over brutality, but it does use brutality when necessary.
The idea that all Saudis are rich is definitely not so. At least 40 percent of people in the Kingdom live on less than $1,000 a month. So there are very poor people. It took a long time to get to them in my case, but they do exist.
They have extremely good intelligence, as you may have seen, intelligence of all sorts—electronic, human. And as you may have seen in the news this week, they are now capable of alerting fathers and husbands when their wives leave the country. You get a text message: “Rita just exited Riyadh Airport.” [Laughter] So their intelligence is good.
It is not actually a nation as much as it is a collection of tribes with a flag. People are divided by region, by religious sect, by tribe, and obviously by gender. They are held together by three primary pillars of stability: the Al Saud family, their religious establishment, and oil wealth. All three of those pillars I think are fraying, and that’s mostly what I want to talk about.
Religion in Saudi Arabia is not just religion; it’s a way of life. There are rules for everything, from women’s menstruation to making war. People access or have these rules enforced upon them through the religious police, who monitor the streets and make sure that you behave in ways that they approve of.
When I was doing this book, I wore my long, black abaya [robe-like dress] at all times. In the late 1970s, when I started going there, I would have walked the streets of Saudi Arabia dressed like this, with visible legs and invisible arms [i.e. in a medium-length skirt, but with long sleeves]. But now I wore my abaya and I kept my scarf around my neck because religious police also do say to people like me, “Cover your head, you’re in Saudi Arabia.” So you pull your scarf up and cover your head.
It’s hard for us living in a secular society to imagine the pervasiveness of religion. Every airport, every office building, every school, has rows or prayer rugs with a mark on which direction is Mecca so you can pray in the airport, you can pray in your office building. In a hotel room there’s a little sign on the desk or somewhere in the room that tells you which direction to kneel and pray. And new cars—this is one of the jobs that is being given to poor women, making prayer rugs to put in new cars, complimentary from the auto salesman. Anywhere you are, in other words, you can pray.
The schools are largely controlled by the religious establishment because, unlike here, where we teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, their purpose is to teach Islam and to teach the proper focus on Allah and the way to live and the path to paradise.
I went out one day, one weekend, with a Saudi family. The man and wife were actually educated in the United States. They and their three children at 10 o’clock at night were doing the last prayer of the day in bright moonlight, all bowing and kneeling. I’m sitting on a rug.
When it was over, the little six-year-old boy came over to me and he said, “I need to teach you something.”
I said, “Okay.”
He said, “Do you know what to say when the Angel of Death comes?” He could tell I didn’t. So he said, “He says, ‘Who is your god?’ and you say, ‘Allah’; and he says, ‘Who is your prophet?’ and you say, ‘Mohammed’; ‘What is your religion?’ and you say, ‘Islam’; ‘What are your works?’ and you say, ‘I heard and I believed.’”
Muslims believe that this conversation occurs immediately after you are buried. If you answer properly, you are borne aloft and shown a window on heaven and then put back in your grave to await the judgment day. If you fail this test, you are borne up and told to go back, and you are pulverized and put back together and pulverized and put back together, until the judgment day. So this little boy wanted to save me, an infidel, from this terrible fate.
I’m from, as you can probably tell, Texas, from a fundamentalist family in a tiny town of 900 people, with four churches and one blinking red light. So I went to church every Sunday and every Wednesday. But at age six, I was, to my recollection, not concerned with my salvation, let alone that of some stranger my parents might have had visiting. But I think that’s a result of the school indoctrination.
Also, to try to get closer to this conservative Islam, I lived with a lady who had been a translator for me. She lived upstairs. The first wife lived downstairs. The first wife had eight children. She had seven children. The husband was up one day and down one day and up one day and down one day. When he was up, I had to stay out of sight because he, being a proper Islamic man, would have obviously not mixed with a woman who was not his immediate relative.
This lady had no interest whatsoever in driving. As I say in the book, she was not interested in which son of the founder, King Abdulaziz, will be the next king of Saudi Arabia. She was interested in convincing me that God did not have a son and converting me to Islam.
She says now that she is not in the majority, and I think that is probably right. She was extremely conservative. But the country is still very conservative, though probably not as rigidly as she.
She also told me my abaya was no good because it had decoration on the sleeve, which makes men look at you and that’s bad, and it fits across the shoulders and that’s bad. You do not wear pants because that shows your form and that’s bad. She was very nice about all this, but it was a good education in the proper way of doing things.
I asked her 19-year-old daughter, who is a student at King Saud University, “How do you think your life will be different from your mother’s?”
She said, “My mother is doing everything possible to assure that I have a life exactly like hers.” I assure you my 17-year-old is not saying that to me. [Laughter] She is talking about, “We don’t live in the dark ages anymore,” when I suggest something to her.
So the religious establishment is a major part of what holds the country together. They have 20 senior ulama. These are religious scholars that are selected, hired by the king, and can be fired by the king, and these are the people who make the judgments on what to do. If you masturbated during Ramadan, what do you do? Or, as one of them was asked, “Is it okay to eat penguin?” this guy said, “If you can find one in Saudi Arabia, eat it.” [Laughter] That kind of sense of humor has made this particular sheik very popular with young people.
The religious establishment and the royal family have a very symbiotic relationship. Not only are they appointed and can be fired, but the religious establishment tells Saudis that “You must obey the ruler,” and they quote a hadith that quotes the Prophet as saying, “You must obey the ruler, even if he is a raisin-headed Abyssinian, because the believer, like a camel, goes where he is led.” So that’s obviously a convenient religious guidance, as far as the royal family is concerned, that you must obey the leader.
But these days what is happening is that the lock on religious interpretation, the Wahhabi, the dominant view of what is the proper Islam, is being assaulted by other versions and visions of Islam that young people—and anyone—can access on the Internet or here on satellite TV.
I met with some young guys from Imam University, their premier religious university, and I asked some of them, “Of these important sheiks, who do you follow, who decides, who do you trust?”
He said, “I don’t. I read the Koran and decide for myself”—which is not the right answer in the Saudi context. You’re supposed to be following these people.
Sixty percent of Saudis are under age 20. So it’s an enormous bulge of young people who have grown up without much respect or gratitude for the royal family because they did not grow up in impoverished Saudi Arabia but they grew up in a diminished economic Saudi Arabia. The country had big development in the 1970s and 1980s with oil money, and the population has exploded. So that money is spread over many more people.
The analogy I use in the book is that what used to be a penthouse has become Motel 6. It’s simply not the same level of standard of living. Young people, because they do have access to information that their parents or grandparents did not, are much more frustrated and restless.
Saudis work for the government. They do not work in the private sector. Ninety percent of the employees in the private sector are foreigners—mostly Muslims, a few Westerners, and mostly South Asians—Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis. They are no longer so fond of importing Egyptians and Lebanese and Yemenis to do the low-level work.
So the religious pillar is not as strong as it used to be because young people can see the big gap between the way religion is preached and the way it’s practiced. They see palaces that are blocks long. One young guy was jailed for this, but he went around to poor people’s homes and took photos inside their homes and posted them on YouTube. Social media really is, in a sense, revolutionizing things there.
Another incident: A young woman in a shopping mall wearing red nail polish was stopped by the religious police. She took out her cell phone, filmed the entire encounter, and told them, “You don’t have the right to harass me.” The real police came and separated her and the religious police. She filmed this entire thing and put it on YouTube.
People are tweeting to each other a picture showing a white fence. When you touch that white fence, it falls and the picture of a senior Saudi prince pops up, who is famous for fencing and taking land.
So young people are communicating, in other words, all kinds of things—true or untrue—that they were never able to communicate and share before. This has helped to undermine the credibility of the religious establishment.
And beyond that, the religious establishment, in the eyes of many Saudis, especially conservative ones, has proved itself in their minds more willing to focus on the political needs of King Abdullah than on the wishes of Allah.
So that, for instance, when the King opened a university in 2009 outside of Jeddah that mixes Saudi men and women with foreign men and women, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, one of the senior ulama was asked, “Is this mixing proper?”—because, of course, the Wahhabi view is that mixing is a sin. He said, “No, it isn’t proper.” So the King fired him. Then some of the other senior ulama suddenly discovered that the Prophet had had his hair washed by women and there might have been some mixing here and there. So that level of convenience.
Then one of the heads of the religious police in Mecca said, “My mutawwa [religious police] are not going to enforce the non-mixing rule.” So he was fired by the head of the religious police in Riyadh, who then was called by the King and told to reinstate this man. So you had this vision of the King’s defenders firing the King’s critics, et cetera.
People can see all that. They’re not blind.
Second, the royal family itself has, I think, a serious problem that it hasn’t had in all the years since the founder died in 1953. Ibn Saud had 44 sons by 22 wives. When he died, the crown has gone from brother to brother—not literally by age because they have passed over some that were deemed to not be appropriate for the job.
But the band of brothers is running out. The youngest is now 68 and was recently removed from his job as head of intelligence by King Abdullah and replaced with one of the founder’s grandsons, Prince Bandar, who was ambassador here for many years.
The family has got to make the generational jump at some point. Maintaining consensus in a family of 7,000 princes is clearly one of the major jobs of the king. That consumes more and more time. The Kingdom has not really had a functioning king and crown prince at the same time since 1995, when the late King Fahd had a stroke and was pretty much nonfunctional for 10 years until he died in 2005 and his crown prince Abdullah became king.
Abdullah has already outlived two crown princes and is on his third, who is said to have Alzheimer’s. I do not know. When I met him he seemed perfectly fine, but that was 18 months ago. But he is 76. So it’s a bit like the old Soviet Union in the 1980s, when Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko died in rapid succession, and Ronald Reagan said, “They keep dying on me.” That’s what’s going to happen, I think, to the next U.S. president: The Saudis are going to keep dying on him.
The King set up this Allegiance Council, which will choose the crown prince when he dies. The crown prince of the next king would not be allowed to choose his own crown prince. He would be chosen by this group of 35 people, the surviving sons and grandsons of all of the sons that lived to reproduce.
A lot of people think that the Allegiance Council will die with King Abdullah, that it will not function. The younger people— that was one of my goals, to try to talk to people in that group—the grandsons on it say, “We won’t have anything to say. Our elders will decide and we’ll salute.” I’m not a member of the Royal Family. I think there are probably only half-a-dozen of them that know the conversations. But that generation will change, which is a problem for them.
Then, lastly, oil wealth, which is used to buy, if not loyalty, at least acquiescence in the country. Oil is still 90 percent of the Saudi treasury. They don’t have taxes. They take the opposite view of America, “no taxation without representation.” They have the view of, as one U.S. diplomat said, “no representation without taxation, and we’re not going to tax you, so no representation.”
But the oil wealth, despite numerous five-year plans to try to diversify the economy, is still the bulk of revenue. As the domestic consumption rises, what’s left to export will decline. So there are Saudi financial institutions that predict that by 2014 the budget will exceed the oil revenue because they spend a lot of money on weaponry, on education, on all kinds of things.
After the Arab Spring, King Abdullah returned home in March of 2011 [after months abroad receiving medical treatment] and disbursed $130 billion, increasing stipends to students, creating a minimum wage for Saudis for the first time, money to the religious, money to the national guard, the defense, the interior ministry. Once given, it is very hard to take anything. So most Saudis assume that this spending will continue. That’s the reason that the Saudis say they are going to develop nuclear energy, as a way to save their oil exports for revenue, because the average Saudi worries a lot. They have an understanding that “at some point we’re not going to be able to have the oil handout.”
While they’re upset now by the fact that they think it’s not disbursed evenly enough and equitably enough, and people don’t know where much of it goes, because what the royal family takes or spends or saves is not public, they still know that they are dependent on that money. So they worry about it.
For all those reasons, I think the coming half-dozen years will be very difficult for the royal family. And there continue to be demonstrations by people in Riyadh, in other cities. Women protesting the imprisonment of husbands, sons, brothers, without charges; the Shias in the eastern province continue to protest with some regularity.
The Saudis’ big concern externally is Iran. They have this set of internal problems, but they worry deeply about the Iranians—not so much that the Iranians are going to invade them or anything; I think they look at Iran getting a nuclear weapon as Iran enhancing its stature in the Islamic world, and anything that in their view diminishes their legitimacy as the keepers of the holy places. The king is called “the custodian of the two holy mosques,” not “king”—when he describes himself at least—to reinforce that sense that “We’re the legitimate protectors and propagators of the proper Islam.” If they don’t have that legitimacy, they are simply another tribe.
So they worry very much about preserving that and they see Iran as a threat to that. I don’t think they’re concerned about, obviously, the Israelis bombing them, though Prince Turki, the former American ambassador here, never passes up an opportunity to say, “We need a nuclear-free zone. Israel needs to get rid of its nuclear weapons and the Iranians need to not get them.” But their big concern is less, in my view, the nuclear weapons and the lift they think that gives to the Shia Islamic establishment over their Sunni protectors of the holy places.
On that, I am happy to take questions.
QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.
Karen, there’s a lot of talk in American politics about the desire to become energy independent, no longer dependent upon countries like Saudi Arabia, and there’s a real possibility that could happen. The numbers are there, fracking and offshore oil, that sort of thing. Suppose that does happen. How would that affect our relationship with Saudi Arabia, and is this something the Saudis themselves worry about?
KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: I don’t think they like it when we talk about energy independence. They do take that as a personal insult. I think it would loosen somewhat our sense of dependence. But the global economy is still going to be—not we so much; I mean we’re not a major importer of Saudi oil now—but the global economy is a major importer of Saudi oil and will continue to be.
There are a lot of people, like John Deutch, who is a very smart man and certainly knows energy, who believes that it doesn’t matter who runs Saudi Arabia, they will export oil. And they obviously will export some. But if you assume that if anything happened to take the royal family out of the picture, the only other organized structure—because nothing is allowed to organize, no book clubs, no photography clubs, no soccer leagues other than the one the government runs—is the religious organization. There are 70,000 mosques all over the country. That’s basically one for every 150 men. So that’s the most organized group.
I certainly think the conservative religious people, the Osama bin Laden types, would not believe that it is necessary to export anything like 8 million barrels a day. Their view is a simpler, more austere life is a more godly life.
Deutch disagrees with that, and he very well may be right and I may be wrong. But I’m not sure you can count on, if you had a more fundamentalist regime, oil being produced at the same level.
We are the only people that can actually protect that part of the world. The Chinese aren’t volunteering to. So I think we would still continue to play a big role in our own interest in the global economy.
QUESTION: David Mosher.
We in this country and also in the West seem to have glorified the so-called Arab Spring, thinking that it was a confrontation between democracy and autocracy, when in reality it was probably a confrontation between religious fundamentalism and modernism.
Saudi Arabia never went through this process. Why do you think in this country and in the West we seem to have a blind spot for recognizing the problems of political religious fundamentalism?
KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: I think because we think everyone is like us. They’re not. If there’s any message in my book, it is that we are not all alike. We do look at things differently.
But I think, by and large, the American governments, whether Republican or Democrat—there’s kind of an assumption that everybody wants what we want. Saudis are very frustrated and unhappy, but they don’t want democracy. They want what they call justice. They want clearer laws and more equal application of them. They want more efficiency in what the government provides. And they certainly don’t want to see their women and girls running around in tight pants or shorts, even people who are not as conservative as my friend who I lived with. That’s not intended to be a flip answer. I think we do tend to assume everyone is like us.
I personally don’t grieve for the departure of Mubarak. I think the Arab countries having to take responsibility for what they do to themselves is fundamentally, long term, good for us. I mean they may still find a way to blame America for everything that happens to them, but it’s going to be harder in Egypt than it has been for the last 40, 50 years.
I think we need to continue to identify ourselves with being for more freedom and individual independence and responsibility in that part of the world, less emphasis on the word of democracy than on individual opportunity, freedom, responsibility. We can’t pick the leaders in these countries. I personally think we’re better off to have them have to take responsibility for what they choose to do.
QUESTION: Rita Hauser.
Thanks, Karen. I thought it was just a fabulous book and a great aperçu [perception] of real life inside Saudi Arabia, which we don’t see too often.
I want to ask you a question about foreign policy. For a period, the Saudis were very active putting out a plan for the Arab-Israeli peace and so on. In this last period, other than their incursion into Bahrain to put down the Shia revolt, they have kind of been out of the picture. And the emir of Qatar has taken on a big role. I think Morsi in Egypt will now be taking on a big role. Does this signify a withdrawal back in some way, or are they really so concerned with Iran and the Shia uprisings that they are concentrating all their energies on that?
KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: I think it’s one of the casualties of aged, infirm leadership. The king has had three or four back surgeries in the last two years. The foreign minister is recuperating in Los Angeles. He is 75. The King is nearly 90. I mean there’s just not the energy to fly around, to play a role. I never have understood this idea, whether it’s Queen Elizabeth or King Abdullah, that when you get old—we retire in this country. But you can’t retire if you’re king or queen. I don’t understand why. If you’ve got sons, give it to somebody else. But they don’t do that. So everything just becomes constipated.
In all kinds of ways the country is not functioning. As I said earlier, they haven’t had a live, active king and crown prince in 20 years, and that takes a toll, especially when the foreign minister himself is elderly and has had Parkinson’s for at least 10 years and has now had this serious intestinal surgery. I think it’s more that. And what energy they do have, they focus on Iran.
QUESTION: Matthew Olsen.
Every once in a while the press picks up on the Sunni-Shia divide in the east oil-producing region of Saudi Arabia. Can you comment on that and where it’s going?
KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: If you dare to say that the Shias at least 10 percent of the population, the Shias tell you, “We’re 15 percent of the population.” But any [Sunni] Saudi that you say that to assaults you immediately and says, “They’re not that many.” I obviously haven’t counted Shias. But most of them are in the Eastern Province, whether they’re 10 or 15 percent of the population.
They are the Avis of Arabs—you know, the “we try harder”—because they are discriminated against. They work harder. They’re better educated. The government view is that they’re getting very uppity. I think they are looking at what’s going on in Bahrain and looking at Iran—and they do feel like, “We deserve better.”
They continue to demonstrate. One of the reasons, at least that was given or alleged in the firing of the interior minister and his replacement with a young grandson, was that he wasn’t doing enough to handle the problems in the eastern province. If the Saudis wanted to, they’d have to be willing to murder a lot of people. But I think they have the Shias at this point convinced that they would do that if they had real confrontation.
King Abdullah has tried to reach out to the Shias. His religious establishment constantly undercuts him by saying, “These people are worse than infidels.” But it’s part of the constant dance in Saudi Arabia.
The Fifth Caliph, who led the faithful after Mohammed died and three of the first four had been murdered quite quickly, was asked, “How did you last for 20 years?” He said, “I hold a hair between me and the people. When they pull, I yield. When they yield, I pull.” That’s the way the Al Saud family does: When they feel the pressure they yield, and when they get the chance they take back what they have given. That’s the way they deal with the Shia too, except that the hair has got even less flexibility where the Shia are concerned.
So I don’t think it’s a big, immediate threat. But clearly, those people are not happy, or at least the ones I’ve met. The two things: They’re frustrated and angry, and much more educated and hard-working than the average other Saudis one meets.
QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.
Number one, how do you explain the hypocrisy of the Saudi men and women when they leave Saudi Arabia and hit the shopping malls and the beaches of Europe?
Number two, how do you explain that they’re so dependent on America for their protection, yet they object to our having bases in Saudi Arabia proper?
KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: I can’t explain it. You can be having a conversation with a Saudi and he or she will contradict themselves in the conversation without ever seeming to notice. Now, we all tend to be a little politically correct in certain situations, some of us more than others maybe. But at least if I’m going to contradict myself in a conversation, I’m going to acknowledge I did it because I think you’ll notice.
They don’t. They seem absolutely free. I think, in part, it’s because duplicity is an admired quality in the culture.
One of the Saudis proudly told me this story about Abdulaziz, the old founder, that one of his religious men came in to him one day and said, “Your thobe [ankle-length robe-like garment] is too long. You’re not supposed to wear it too long because that’s extravagant. If you see the religious police around town, they wear them just below the calf.”
The king said to him, “Okay, here’s the scissors. You cut it to the proper length.”
The guy got down and cut the King’s thobe.
Then the king turned to his aide when the man left and said, “Don’t ever let that man in my sight again.” This was a very clever thing that he had done, So I think it’s baked in to the psyche. I do not know where the germ was planted.
A young guy told me, “My wife and I were in Saks department store [in the United States] and we saw this other Saudi couple. We rushed over and chatted.” Then they meet each other in Riyadh and they all act like they had never seen each other there. You would think that at least among the two couples you would be kind of embarrassed by that. But not.
So I’m sorry. I can’t give you a good answer.
QUESTIONER: Regarding the bases?
KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: It’s the same thing. They want the protection without the—I mean the U.S. is seen as being somewhat hazardous to the health of the royal family.
The Saudis I talked to who have been to America love coming here. They love the ability to breathe, to do what they want. But they are very critical of the American government for not supporting the Palestinians, and so on. Yet they want protection if they need it.
Prince Saud, the foreign minister, has a great line he uses, that “America and Saudi Arabia used to have a Catholic marriage and we now have a Muslim marriage. They are able to take other wives. So they have China and Russia and Europe and not just us anymore. But we are still in a sense, if you will, wife number one. We get taken care of, if not loved, because of oil, and the love is not there."
The love hasn’t been there since the fight against Saddam in Kuwait. That was the high-water mark, I think, of U.S.-Saudi relations. Then the royal family got in trouble for inviting troops in and they’ve tried to keep their distance.
QUESTION: I’m David Hunt.
Karen, I think you just uttered probably the most important part of your talk this morning, and that is duplicity is an admired attribute. I think we all need to think about that when we deal with the Middle East.
My question has to do with the young men in these Arab societies. You look at photographs of demonstrations and you see thousands upon thousands of young men. I’m thinking: "Where are the women?" Their personal relations with the opposite sex are governed by Islam—very, very restrictive. I wonder, is this a problem? Is this an additional cause of frustration for young people who don’t have jobs, that their normal relations with the opposite sex are basically denied?
KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: I think it is part of the frustration for men—well, women too—in that fundamentally there is nothing to do in Saudi Arabia—no movies; young men are not supposed to go to shopping malls without their mother because they might prey on young women. You certainly see this in Riyadh outside the big King Faisal Shopping Mall. You can see young girls chasing guys in a taxi. Young people are not all entirely well-behaved. But there is nothing to do.
So to me one of the most intriguing things—I’ve spent time with this terrorist rehabilitation program that they have to rehabilitate their guys who come from Guantánamo. In that program, which has been run by the guy who’s now the new interior minister, an under-60-year-old grandson of the king who speaks good English, he meets these people at the airport and says, “You’re born today. Fresh start.”
Then they put them in this camp. But they provide libraries, they provide exercise, they encourage them to draw, something that’s totally off limits to the rest of society; they encourage them to talk, “Tell us what’s on your mind,” because they want to know what these people are thinking.
With the citizenry as a whole, you are encouraged to shut up, stay, if you’re a girl, in your house, if you’re a boy, with your father, and don’t say what’s on your mind.
Then they get these rehabilitated terrorists—once you’re declared rehabilitated, they give you a car, a home, and a wife, because King Abdullah’s view is if you have a car, a home, and a wife you won’t be a terrorist. So they try to cure the problem at that level rather than cure it at the wider level for everyone.
But young people clearly have many more options, as they will tell you. One guy said to me, “Facebook has let young people out of their cages.” Another one said, “It used to be that if you wanted to exchange phone numbers with a girl, you had to drive by and drop your phone number on the pavement and she was supposed to pick it up, and then if she called, she called the family phone, where the mother probably answered. Now you can pass somebody and you can be in Starbucks talking to her. But you may get in trouble for it.”
More families now do allow mixing. This is more common in Jeddah than Riyadh, but parents will allow their children to have the opposite sex in their homes.
But I think the young men are very frustrated because their education is inferior to that of women. Saudi women get a good education because educated Saudi women teach them. Many of the teachers for Saudi men, because women are not allowed to teach them, are foreigners of various sorts or are Saudi men who are not particularly motivated.
I hear this is true throughout the Middle East, that education is declining for men. But it’s certainly true in Saudi Arabia.
About 60 percent of university graduates are women. They are clearly an increasingly well-educated group, and I think some of them will increasingly push to do a little more, both because they want to use their minds and out of necessity, because people now want their kids to go to a private school because the schools are not good. If you send your kid to a private school, you have to pay for it. How do you get the money? It’s like here: you need two working people.
JOANNE MYERS: On that note of educating, I want to thank you for educating us about Saudi Arabia. It was just a wonderful morning. Thank you so much.