CRF Blog

Saudi Arabia: Can It Really Change?

by Bill Hayes

In Saudi Arabia: Can It Really Change? for the New York Review of Books, Nicolas Pelham reviews The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism by Toby Matthiesen; Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt by Pascal Menoret; Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril by Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants; and Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond by Simon Ross Valentine.

Then, in 1979, apparently inspired by the Iranian overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of an Islamic republic earlier that year, Islamic militants stormed Mecca’s Grand Mosque, the holiest place in Islam, and declared a new order under a leader who proclaimed himself the Mahdi — the redeemer — and sought to replace the Saudi monarchy. Wahhabi forces loyal to the monarchy counterattacked, saved the al-Sauds, and retook the mosque. But a crucial deal was made: loyalist clerics approved the removal of the militants by force; but in return demanded that Saudi royals cede them power to strictly control personal behavior. The last cinemas and concert halls shut down. Women were obliged to shroud themselves in black.

Thirty-five years later, foreign descriptions of Saudi Arabia remain for the most part remarkably bleak. The writers of all four books under review examine the domination of the al-Saud dynasty with the fascination with which a zoologist might regard a black widow snaring its prey. Pascal Menoret describes young men whose only escape from Riyadh’s Islamist social strictures is the homoerotically charged practice of joyriding down the city’s grim highways. Matthiesen describes the often difficult lives of two million Shias in eastern Saudi Arabia — many of them employees of oil companies — whose right to practice their form of Islam contracts and expands according to royal whim. Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants describe the suppression of Saudi women, who still need a man to study, work, travel, or open bank accounts. Simon Ross Valentine is appalled and fascinated by the power of Wahhabi clerics; he stays behind after a clumsy public decapitation to watch a mosque steward hose down the blood. Yet through all of these recent books comes a nagging question: If Saudi Arabia really is the wellspring of ISIS and if it imposes, as it often does, an orthodox conformity, how, a century after its creation, does the kingdom these authors describe remain, as they also make clear, such a heterogeneous and nuanced place?

Each of the authors acknowledges the gap between the totalitarian ideal and the looser reality. “Wherever I lived in [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia],” writes Valentine in a chapter entitled “Serpents in Paradise,” “I was not only offered drugs and alcohol, but also ‘woman, for good time.’” Aarts is surprised by a portrait gallery violating sharia injunctions against figurative art. There are plenty of censors, but the Internet and satellite TV, he found, have made them obsolete. Menoret records how the joyriders have turned the uniform urban grids into an escape route from state planners and authoritarian governors as they speed down the streets. [more]