My favorite story about Karen Elliott House is how she handled the Hashemite king, Hussein of Jordan, when he stopped returning her phone calls. She’d been in Amman working on a series for the Wall Street Journal about how the king made his decision on President Reagan’s Middle East plan. She had gotten the little king, as he was known, to let her ride in the co-pilot’s seat as he himself flew a royal stretch DC-8 to India and back. But then he had fallen silent, and the question was what to do.
Ms. House put in a call from her hotel to the American ambassador in Amman. It was an open phone line and when the envoy came on, Ms. House started denouncing his majesty. Who does he think he is, she demanded, keeping the Wall Street Journal waiting for days. She’d come all the way from New York on his promise of interviews. It was outrageous. She was going home. The ambassador mumbled the occasional soothing words. Ms. House slammed down the phone.
Within but a few seconds, the phone in her hotel room rang. Why, it was the Hashemite king himself, calling to find out how she was doing and inviting her over for lunch. She knew the ambassador’s phone was tapped, and she guessed someone in the king’s camarilla would understand the situation instantly. Her astonishing series was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize in foreign corresponding, a reminder that she is one of the wiliest and most determined newspaperwomen of her generation.
It certainly shows in her latest scoop, this one a book, “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future,” just out from Knopf. In an age when cynics say the era of foreign corresponding has been made moot by the World Wide Web, this is a gem of reporting on one of the hardest stories to crack. Ms. House began traveling to the kingdom in the 1970s, and managed to get into the poorest slums, the richest compounds, and the most elegant tents of the royal family — and, sometimes garbed in a burqa, into the most devout families.
The result is an illuminating report, which Ms. House divides into three sections. The first is about what she calls “the fragility of the kingdom whose traditional sources of stability have been religion and the royal family” and about how “both are losing credibility and control.” This is happening in a society where 60% of the population is under the age of 20 and — with the internet, social media, and satellite television — is “aware of government corruption and incompetence and life in other countries.”
A second section explores what Ms. House calls “the many fault lines” that divide “a sullen society in which Saudis are increasingly discontented with poor education; a stultified economy; widespread youth unemployment; repression of women; poverty; corruption; and a government that is not efficient, transparent, or accountable.” She reports on a “panoply of problems the Al Saud are proving incapable of solving.”
The final chapters of the book explore what Ms. House calls “potential outcomes.” Writes she: “Today’s Saudi Arabia is all too reminiscent of the late stages of the old Soviet Union in which an aged Brezhnev is succeeded by an infirm Andropov, who is followed by a doddering Chernenko before a new-generation leader like Gorachev could try — and fail — to effect genuine reform.” She also asks what the kingdom’s “longtime American protector can do to help shape the Saudi future.”
Along the way Ms. House takes us into the home of Lulu, who is invisible in a black abaya and lives on the upper floor of a two-story home with her seven children and — every other day — her husband. On the alternate days, he lives on the first floor below, with his second wife and their eight children. Ms. House’s ability to empathize no doubt stems from her own upbringing in a religious Christian home in Texas, where her father forbade her to wear shorts and pants. In Lulu she has found a woman who also frets that Ms. House's pants and sweater are not pleasing to God.
If Ms. House’s quest in this book is a personal one, there are only the most fleeting glimpses of it. Rather, this is a masterful reporter’s account of a country that has emerged as part of our current crisis and is going through its own travail. She begins a chapter on outlaws by asking the readers to “[i]magine Saudi Arabia as a stagnant pond.”
“Nothing is transparent in the murky waters. The surface is littered with the detritus of a dysfunctional society — unemployed men, frustrated women, angry youth, forgotten poor, inadequate education, and an immobile economy. All are obstacles for the Saudi leadership. But another sort of social debris floats beneath the surface, more immediately menacing than the rest. These are the Saudi terrorists, once admired and supported by the Al Saud and their countrymen as Islamic jihadists when they murdered infidels, but now, when they threaten the regime, branded as outlaws.”
She tells a story — it may be widely known, but I’d never read it — about the head of the monarchy’s anti-terror strategy, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who often meets with extremists he hopes to convert and agreed to meet with a “reformed” terrorist. The guest, Ms. House relates, “cleverly came to the prince’s home on a weekend, thereby avoiding the intensive security at the kingdom’s fortress-like Ministry of Interior.”
The guest was patted down by the prince’s bodyguards, but they missed the plastic in his rectum. He took a seat beside the prince and was offered tea. The terrorist dialed his friends in Yemen on a cell phone and, Ms. House relates, handed the phone to the prince, in an effort to arrange for the friends’ surrender. “No sooner had the prince greeted the men on the other end of this deadly conversation than his guest exploded.” Body parts fell around the prince, who, unscathed, was still holding the cell phone and could hear the terrorists in Yemen “cheering ‘Allahu Akbar’ at his presumed death.”
Ms. House doubts that any single problem is likely “to be fatal to the regime.” Rather, she writes, “it is likely to be the confluence of so many challenges coupled with the rigidity of the regime, the sullenness of the society, the escalating demands of youth, and most important, the instability inherent in the generational succession.” She likens the kingdom to a Boeing 747 crowded with royals in first class and the rest — and some terrorists — in economy, as the plane, buffeted by a storm, loses altitude while running out of fuel.
It’s not that she’s found a Potemkin kingdom, but her book is a reminder that the Saudis, for all their money and our problems, are in far worse shape than America. Or, for that matter, Israel. The later doesn’t come up for discussion in this report, and Israel’s society, like America’s, has its own problems. But the book is, en passant, a reminder that whatever else the Saudi kingdom is, it’s not a potential long-term partner in peacemaking in the Middle East, an insight Ms. House no doubt glimpsed long ago when she so shrewdly haled the King of Jordan.