The CFA Society Chicago Book Club met July 21st for a lively discussion of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future by Karen Elliott House. The book is a fascinating look at the perspectives and interests propelling Saudi society and we were all surprised at how little we knew of this important trading partner and regional power including the following surprising facts:
- 60% of the population is under 20 years old
- 40% unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds
- 90% of private sector jobs are held by foreign workers
- Individual initiative and risk-taking are frowned upon
- Cinemas, music, men and women shaking hands, and books on Saudi Arabia are all forbidden
- Saudis aren’t interest in democracy: seen by some as forbidden under Islam and by others as chaotic
The author conducts probing interviews with princes and religious leaders, stays in the home of a devout Muslim family, discusses the future with teenagers and college kids, and explores criminal behavior with ex-convicts. She shows how the Saudi royal family uses religion and oil wealth as “opium of the people” to buttress their authority and maintain stability, but serious internal challenges are threatening the status quo. Easy access to information tops the list. Saudis are more informed and connected via social media and cable news and as a result are demanding transparency and fairness from government. They also more openly question the royal family’s lavish lifestyle, which is in stark contrast to the conservative Islamic principles they advocate. Meanwhile divisions among Saudis along tribal, religious, gender, reformist/traditionalist lines are increasing social tensions. When the book was published in 2011 the Arab Spring was in full effect, fueled by these same internal dynamics. This is still seen as a serious threat to the monarchy.
Saudi Arabia’s biggest external threat is Iran and its desire to expand influence in the region. The Saudi monarchy has positioned itself as the leader of all Islam because the two holiest Muslim sites, Mecca and Medina, are in Saudi Arabia. To an ambitious Iran these might be tempting to capture. Increased Iranian prosperity following this year’s negotiated nuclear agreement could make them even more viable targets. Add to that the increased competition in global oil production from fracking and alternative energy sources and its clear Saudi Arabia, while still strong, has some crucial challenges to address.
We debated various paths forward but ultimately agreed Saudi Arabia faces an unclear and possibly explosive future. Resolving the poor education system was heavily discussed, since it generally fails to produce graduates with marketable skills and critical thinking ability. But government corruption, dependence on royal favors and hand-outs hinders a productive working class. Saudi men are reluctant to take jobs they see as beneath them. Saudi women are largely sidelined, comprising a mere 12% of the workforce even though they increasingly educated and motivated. Women are restricted to working only with other women, and often seek “acceptable” teaching or medical positions. There’s a growing demand among women to lead more fulfilling lives, but many defend the status quo and feel it’s inseparable from their Islamic beliefs. Women’s rights have become a proxy war between progressives and conservatives. We also compared Saudi Arabia’s economic prospects to Russian and Chinese models, but its social code and wealth structure are just too different to be relatable.
Royal succession may offer a glimpse at Saudi Arabia’s future. After his crowning earlier this year, King Salman made 29-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman deputy crown prince and concentrated unusually large responsibilities with him. The prince now heads the state oil monopoly, the public investment company, ministry of defense, and leads the air war in Yemen. This is shocking for a country that has stayed unified for decades by sharing positions among the royal family. If this is any indication of its future, Saudi Arabia might become increasingly assertive in the region while enforcing religious conservatism internally. We were also surprised that Saudis are generally not interested in gaining democratic freedoms. The country is more a collection of tribes and Islamic factions than a unified state, and Saudis see a need for strong rulers to prevent internal wars. Democracy is also seen by some as forbidden by Islam because elected leaders promise what they don’t have and praise themselves – both are Islamic taboos.
On Saudi Arabia offered a valuable look at the many layers of Saudi society and the challenges it faces. It was fascinating to learn about this country that’s so important in the region and the world.
August 18, 2015: “Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World” by Ian Bremmer
*NOTE: Author Douglas Sisterson is attending the PDDARI meeting which takes place just before the book club meeting on 8/18. He will be discussing his book “How to Change Minds About Our changing climate”.
September 15, 2015: “The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State” by Mark Juergensmeyer
October 20, 2015: “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
November 17, 2015: TBD
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