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Riddle of the Sands

A view through the two-way mirror of Saudi Arabia.

Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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One especially dismaying lapse is House’s acceptance, on the basis of a telephone interview with the deputy education minister, that Saudi authorities “rewrote” religion textbooks to “curtail teaching of intolerance against Christians, Jews, and Shia Muslims.” According to House and the minister, the new textbooks will be introduced this year. But critics of the Saudi educational system, including international bodies such as Freedom House, have been denied opportunities to examine the new textbooks, and the authentic extent of their reformulation is a matter of unresolved debate. Here, House has failed as a reporter.

Indeed, nearly all the points in On Saudi Arabia have been made before, but now have an apparent Saudi seal of approval. Yet the book suffers ultimately from two problems. First, it was in production just as the late crown prince Nayef, a Wahhabi hardliner, died (in June) and King Abdullah used the opportunity to strengthen reform elements in his cabinet. This leaves some of the book already out of date.   In addition, House’s attempts to link the Saudi situation with the recent series of Arab upheavals, as well as her predictions for the future, are vague and insubstantial. 

House is further questionable in her insistence on equating the Saudi kingdom with the former Soviet Union, and predicting that the kingdom will fall if it does not embrace glasnost (publicity/dialogue) and perestroika (reconstruction). While the Soviet empire and the Saudi kingdom exemplify gerontocracy, there are essential differences between them. Communism was exhausted as an ideology when the Muscovite system collapsed. As this book shows in its better chapters, Wahhabism remains a vigorous and volatile ideology, even as King Abdullah seeks to reduce its power. A Soviet-style crash is unlikely, and more encouragement is needed before the king would remove the Wahhabi clerical class from its present state of religious monopoly over the country. That is the key to Saudi normalization, as the author effectively concedes.

Stephen Schwartz is author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam.

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