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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