Book Review – Black Gold and Black Veils

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States and other Western democracies have had good reason to learn more about the close relationship between the Saudi royal family and the kingdom’s Salafist Muslim sect, the Wahhabis. As Karen Elliott House chronicles in “On Saudi Arabia,” the relationship shapes today’s Saudi state and society in many disturbing ways. Ms. House tells us that the goal of her book is “to peel back the bindings of tradition and religion that wrap the Saudi mummy.” In this she succeeds brilliantly.

To help us understand the modern era, Ms. House, a former foreign-affairs reporter for The Wall Street Journal and its former publisher, concentrates on two crises that occurred in 1979. The first was the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist terrorists and the Saudis’ need to turn to infidel troops (French) to reclaim their holiest site. The episode stunned the royal family, highlighting its vulnerability to Muslim fanatics. Soon the royal family faced another crisis—one that bedevils Saudi Arabia to this day: the coming to power of a theocratic totalitarian regime in Shiite Iran. With Iran seeking to expand its influence, the royal family decided to give the country’s Sunni fundamentalists virtually free rein. The result has been, as Ms. House chronicles throughout “On Saudi Arabia,” a transformation of Saudi society—with religious authorities governing ever larger areas of civic life.

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One Response to “Book Review – Black Gold and Black Veils”

  1. Alex de Vos says:

    Dear Ms. House,

    As a long term expat in the wider GCC region – with an extensive time in Saudi Arabia under my belt – I applaud the quality and foremost the real and honest view expressed in your book on Saudi and its people. Often, so-called experts remain within the usual phrase and thought envelopes that have been expressed by people that – more often than not – write about Saudi favourably in order to attract government contracts for themselves or their companies (not unlike you describe the business mentality of the Saudis, I might add). It is therefore freshening to see that you have put real effort into an image of the kingdom that may be disturbing to some but nevertheless is a true facsimile of its society, customs and habits.
    The only point you raise that I do not agree with is your image of the ‘ideal oasis’ of Saudi Aramco. It is certainly true that this large and extremely wealthy organisation has less limited restrictions imposed on it yet, according to my experience over the years, it nevertheless slowly transforms into just another Saudi organisation, mentality-wise. It is said to see that this once flourishing company, after being nationalised, slowly but surely starts behaving according to its brethren outside its walls. Yet I believe this is hardly surprising since, after all, the same mentality rules within the compound. Albeit less regulated.

    Kind regards,

    Alex de Vos

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