Two perspectives on Saudi Arabia: Friday Bookshelf


As the world’s biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabia has long drawn the attention of the world’s biggest oil consumer, the United States. As I found during my own trip to the kingdom a few years ago, Saudi Arabia is undergoing some potentially profound changes, both politically and economically.

Two new books attempt to put these changes in perspective. Both are written by experienced writers who have spent years visiting the kingdom. Saudi Arabia on the Edge, by former Washington Post Middle East bureau chief Thomas Lippman is the more academic of the two. Lippman provides a thorough analysis and political context to recent events, leveraging his deep understanding of the region.

On Saudi Arabia, by Karen Elliott House, a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, provides more a street-level view. House, whose introduction compares Saudi Arabia to her native town of Matador in the Texas Panhandle, interviewed most members of the royal family, as well as many Saudi citizens. She captures the latent unrest, both among women who want more rights and among young men who seem perpetually bored in a society where most of them don’t have to work.

Interestingly, Lippman and House examine many of the same issues and come to different conclusions. Lippman believes the changes brewing in the kingdom are happening at the margins, and that the inherent compliance and conservatism of most Saudis will thwart any meaningful change.

House sees bigger changes coming, and wonders of the House of Saud will be able to maintain its hold on the kingdom.

Taken together, the books provide a thorough perspective, their conflicting conclusions merely another example of the confusing paradox that Saudi Arabia poses for most Westerners.