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Shifting Sands for Saudi Arabia’s Future: A Peek Inside the Closed Kingdom

October 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
An oasis of calm during the Arab Spring, the sands are shifting in Saudi Arabia. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Karen Elliot House says this Middle Eastern country is fragile, especially as demographics change. Judy Woodruff talks to House about her new book, "On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future."
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, an inside look at the shrouded kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The country seemed an oasis of calm during the turbulent Arab spring, but that stability is shifting.

Within the last decade, there have been a number of terrorist attacks, including one in 2003, when suicide bombers struck a compound housing foreigners, killing nine Americans.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Karen Elliott House has covered Saudi Arabia for 30 years, often getting rare access to a vast spectrum of its society.

Judy Woodruff talked with her recently about her new book, “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen Elliott House, thank you for being with us.

KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE, author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future”: Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the book, “On Saudi Arabia,” why is it important for Americans to understand Saudi Arabia?

KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: Because it’s a country we’re very dependent upon for oil and dependent upon to keep its people from becoming terrorists and trying to kill us. So, for both our life and our livelihood, we should try to understand the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s such a sense of Saudi Arabia being the one stable country in the Middle East. We don’t know very much about it, but it seems to have things under control. But the title of your first chapter is “Fragile.”

How fragile?

KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: I think they do have serious problems. They have the problems that all the other Middle East countries have of high unemployed youth, a very young population; 60 percent of the population is under 20 years of age.

They have a lot more money to deal with it. But it doesn’t diminish the frustration young people feel now that they, through the Internet and satellite TV, have an understanding of what goes on, not only in their country, but in the wider world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How has this regime — you write so much about the history of what you call the House of Saud. How have they managed to keep control the way they have for so long?

KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: They use a combination of divide and conquer. Make everyone fear everyone else.

Religion. They teach — their version of religion teaches that you must obey your rulers, even if they’re bad, because when God wants you to have better ones, he will provide.

So obey the ruler, or otherwise you have chaos.

And the third thing is money. They give a lot of — they have a lot of money, thanks to oil wealth, and they slather it across the country.

But people still see that their level of living is declining, and they know there’s a lot of money in the country. So, they get frustrated by that, too. So, even the money has less and less utility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you — speaking of the frustrations, Karen House, you have spent five years in and out of Saudi Arabia working on this book.

You had extraordinary access for a journalist.

And you were telling me a minute ago, the fact that you were a woman made it even — made it easier for you to get information in a way.

KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: Yes.

Most people think, oh, if you’re a woman, that must be very difficult. And it’s actually a big advantage, because for a Western woman, you’re an honorary man in Saudi Arabia.

I can talk to men, but I can also talk to women. And there are clearly a range of modern and sophisticated women in Saudi Arabia whose husbands allow them to talk to men to whom they’re not related. But that’s not the norm.

So I can really talk to women on the whole female spectrum, from the very conservative — like, I lived with a very religious conservative woman — all the way to women who are running their own businesses, and to men.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A country of contradictions.

I mean, you write about the incredible wealth, the leeway that the government has given religious leaders to set down rules. And you talked about how that has really come back to bite the regime, because they have unleashed terrorists of course who were involved in 9/11.

KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: It’s after the fall of the shah in Iran, and the emergence of a religious theocracy there. The Saudi royal family became very nervous about, we mustn’t be seen as worldly. We must be seen as religious, and basically turned the country over to the fundamentalists.

And then after 2003, when those people began blowing up things in Saudi Arabia, they realized they’d made a pact with the devil, and they — King Abdullah has tried to have a kinder, gentler version of Islam, but it takes a long time to change the course that they bred into people for 20, 25 years, and longer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How nervous is the regime itself, do you think? And what do you see in the near term, the future for the country?

KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: I think the regime is nervous about the conditions inside the country, high unemployment, restless youth, more women wanting work, et cetera. Their biggest, I think, source of nervousness is Iran.

But their biggest issue is their own succession. The crown has gone from one brother to another. They are now nearing the end of that line of brothers, so you’re going to have elderly and infirm leadership for — they have had and they will continue to have, because the youngest brother is 68, 69.

And, somewhere, they’re going to have to pass to the next generation. And that’s not so easy when there are 34 surviving brothers with branches of families, you know, with many sons, and all of whom could be king. So it’s a difficulty for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen Elliott House, the book is “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future.”

Thanks so much for being with us.

KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE: Thank you, Judy.

GWEN IFILL: You can see more of Judy’s conversation with Karen Elliott House about the lives of women in Saudi Arabia on our website.