Lawrence Wright has just completed a year-long stint as guest editor of the Saudi Gazette, one of the two major English language dailies in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In the January 5 New Yorker, he provides us with a rare glimpse of closed Saudi society, in a disturbing and substantial (20,000 word) article called The Kingdom of Silence. I hope Lawrence chooses to expand the material in this article into a book (he has written several books, and screenplays including The Siege) by adding some analysis, and some lessons for us in the West. Some excerpts:

[I began to see] Saudi society as a collection of opposing forces: liberals against religious conservatives, the royal family versus democratic reformers, the unemployed against the expats, the old against the young, men against women. The question is whether the anger that results from all this conflict will be directed outward, at the West, or inward, at the Saudi regime…What I found [everywhere I went] was quiet despair, an ominous emotional flatness.

Expats hold 70% of all jobs in the kingdom. [Although unemployment among Saudi youth is astronomical] employers don’t want to hire their own people. “Showing up for the job is not a priority for [Saudis, the secretary-general for tourism told me]. Even the culture of working as a team is not there.” Unemployed natives now view expats with resentment rather than gratitude. “We hate it!” a Saudi friend confided when I asked how he felt having to speak English or Urdu to order coffee. But Saudis refuse to accept [entry-level jobs].

[Because of grossly inadequate sewage treatment] real estate prices have dropped 70% in some districts, beaches are polluted, drinking water is contaminated, marine life and 60% of the palm trees are dying, sewage is eating into the city’s limestone bedrock, and a recent study warns of a hepatitis epidemic. “We will see people dying, and buildings will collapse” [predicts a leading building contractor]. “We have new diseases of the eye and skin that didn’t exist here ten years ago. Lung and breast cancer rates are 40% above the national rate. The sewage is dumped in a huge lake above the city. The walls of this lake are made of sand. If there’s even a minor earthquake Jeddah [which sits on a geological fault] will be flooded with sewage water four feet deep.

A middle-aged Saudi told me “I am worried about the next generation. The abaya [black floor-length gown mandatory since 1990 for all Saudi women] and veil obliterates fashion and curtains off women’s bodies. As a result, men don’t see any real women at all. You don’t see [or communicate with] each other’s wives, daughters, sisters, any woman. We don’t grow naturally, to be loved. Two thirds of marriages here are basically loveless. Many men [although allowed up to four wives under Islamic law] cheat.”

In March 2002, a fire broke out, early in the morning, in the 31st Girls’ Middle School in Mecca, a dilapidated four-story building that held 890 students and teachers. The only exit was locked. Fifteen girls were trampled to death, more than fifty others injured. According to eyewitnesses, the fire department and other volunteers rushed to put out the blaze, but were blocked from rescue efforts by the dreaded muttawa’a — the government subsidized religious vigilantes — because the girls were not wearing their abayas. Religious conservatives believe that education is “wasted on girls”. The President of Girls’ Education announced that the fire was “God’s will”. [No charges were laid. The woman Wright assigned to follow up on the story was blocked in her inquiries — women are not allowed in public libraries, cannot drive, and cannot be in a room with a man other than their husband — and was fired from the Gazette as soon as Wright returned home to the US.]

There is a stark difference between the way the Saudi government treats its own citizens and the way it treats foreign workers. “There is a huge population that is not thought of as human at all” UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl told me “There is a well-established practice of ‘disappearances’ [of expats who challenge Saudi authority or object to the sometimes fraudulent ’employment contracts’ they are attracted to Saudi Arabia by].”

With all their talk about martyrdom, there is another dark thought in [young Saudis’] minds. “It might be government policy to send [unemployed young Saudis] to Iraq, instead of having them here, acting up”, one said. The others nodded. They saw a conspiracy between the clergy and the government — a plot to eliminate unemployed Saudis.

[Two professionals at a men’s dinner club told me “Our children] are for Bin Laden. [They] see us as cowards. They don’t want to study in America as we did. Bin Laden changed our life. He proved that mighty America is vulnerable. The youth think America is on the verge of collapsing and it’s time for us to fight it… We are afraid of our children.”

Wright describes a world of non-communication, of silence, of endemic depression and anger, of fierce but arbitrary censorship, political repression, of routine and brutal torture and ‘disappearance’ of political opponents, of highly-educated women prohibited from working, of prohibition of music and art (any portrayal of any human or animal form, even in a museum, is forbidden), the deterioration of once-great educational institutions into extremist religious indoctrination centres, and very broad-based, extreme Anti-Western sentiment.

It is important that we understand the culture and the value systems of the people in other countries. especially when we choose to intervene in the affairs of those countries — politically, economically, commercially or militarily. Saudi Arabia, like many third world countries, is a powder keg, and in our adventures in the Middle East we are playing with fire. If we proceed on our current reckless course, we should not be surprised to find ourselves at war with Saudi Arabia, if not instituted by the current government, then by the popular uprising poised to overthrow it. The same could be said of Pakistan, and many other countries that today we conveniently call allies. We need more stories like Wright’s to remind us of this terrible danger. If only we could get George Bush to read more than the sports pages.

Photo by Kevin Kelly.

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11 Responses to THE SILENT KINGDOM

  1. Raging Bee says:

    This truly fascinating (and frightening) article explicitly proves that the place is a powder-keg, and will go up in flames whether or not the US intervenes. In fact, it looks like US intervention is about the least inflammatory factor in the mix.Clearly the Saudi regime is unwilling to address any or these problems, despite its vast oil-based wealth. And clearly they are encouraging all potential troublemakers to look elsewhere for targets, and have been for some time. As long as this scapegoating and redirection of blame and public attention remains official policy, the whole nation is heading for disaster, and cautionary notes about the perils of US intervention, while valid, are missing the point.

  2. Steve says:

    Thanks Dave, I’ve passed this along. Wealth obtained without work not only destroys the individual, it destroys the society. Work is good.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Steve: I half agree with you. Just saying “work is good”, though, is seeing the world through our Western cultural blinkers, I think. I think a more holistic, more broadly applicable statement would be “purposelessness is bad”. It’s not simply the fact that many young Saudis don’t “have” to work that creates the problem, it’s that they have nothing in their lives that gives their lives value and purpose. If they were able to look after their homes and tend to their families, or were allowed to find a productive outlet for their energy in art or music or writing or volunteering (all of which are either forbidden or frowned upon in that society), their lives would have meaning, whether or not they ‘worked’. And I think demeaning, mind-numbing, wage-slavery work, the work that makes you dread waking up in the morning, is, by spiritual and net-social-benefit yardsticks, worse than unconditional welfare, which is the point I was trying to make in my GAI post.

  4. baaa says:

    dear godness!Who would have thought! doesn’t even do that!

  5. Michael says:

    Thought-provoking post, Dave. Thanks for sharing it on your blog. It was yet another perspective of Saudi life I had not read.

  6. Raging Bee says:

    “…I think demeaning, mind-numbing, wage-slavery work, the work that makes you dread waking up in the morning, is, by spiritual and net-social-benefit yardsticks, worse than unconditional welfare…”I don’t agree. Even menial boring work is better than none at all, provided your friends and relations don’t look down their noses at it. Work – useful work at least – is not demeaning; it is made so by people’s attitudes toward work.Example: there is nothing demeaning about cleaning my own toilet (and benefiting from a better-smelling bathroom), unless I hear others sneering at such “dirty” work and fobbing it off on maids or slaves whose dignity they can then brush aside.Nor, in my opinion, is there anything demeaning in paying someone else to do one’s own dirty work. If that someone needs the money, and is treated respectfully by his/her employer, then that’s one more way to redistribute wealth.Respect is the key – for both the work and the worker. Lack of it is, in my experience, what “makes you dread waking up in the morning.”

  7. Steve says:

    Well said PTW. A good perspective on the value of work can be had by talking to a person no longer physically or mentally able to do it–it is the void in retired lives often filled with booze.

  8. Conor says:

    Although obviously simplistic, I find it very disturbing that we Americans (and other western democracies)are willing and able to do business (purchase cheap oil) with others who don’t share our common values; making us complicit in the oppression of other human beings. I believe it’s not enough to enshrine rights and liberties to our own without al least making some kind of effort to at least try to extend these things to others who aren’t lucky enough to live in our society. Another argument for energy self sufficiency (ideally sustainably, of course).

  9. Raging Bee says:

    Conor: if we stop buying oil from the Mideast, how will the resulting sudden, precipitous loss of income, subsequent exclusion from the world economy, and loss of daily contact with the West, encourage the (former) oil-exporting nations to adopt our values?Exclusion and isolation do not make nations more democratic or enlightened – see Cuba and North Korea.

  10. Indigo Ocean says:

    Having worked as a trainer with people dying of AIDS but wanting to accomplish certain goals before their health completely failed them, I see the role of work as something that is the best option for most people when it comes to feeling a sense of purpose in life and involvement with one’s society (particularly within a very workcentric society like America where every part intro begins with “what do you do?”), but it is not the only option. There have been times in my life in which it was the best option for me because I lacked the self-confidence and creative clarity to figure out what I wanted to do to contribute to life and/or how I would get the resources to do it. At those times tedious jobs I really did dread getting up to do were still better for me than doing nothing. They at least forced me into regular contact with the world rather than leaving me brooding at home, going round and round in my own mind trying to think of a solution to the world’s problems and my disatisfaction. The next steps, movements into creative work that did fire my soul, always came out of chance encounters with others out in the world. Work, whether by necessity or as an expression of vitality and joy, is the primary way in which we have the opportunity to join in the life of our communities. Even the artist works, “work” being a term I use to refer to any compensated effort extended. To expend effort so that one can be compensated with money that keeps one fed and housed is a good thing. But it will not create a life of meaning. It is the short run answer and most be used as a stepping stone. We each have a responsibility to reach beyond subsistence work and strive to find ways of fully expressing our creative potential. The problem disenfranchised people have is that they are denied the stepping stone and so they are really stuck. The problem wage slaves have is that they have never been taught how to creatively apply themselves to the job of making meaning out of their lives, and so they are disheartened and only lifted by the envy in other people’s eyes when they report their job title or salary. If that is missing, because their work is unimpressive to others, they have nothing. They have become the cow living a life in a stall so someone can come milk them each day. The path to a satisfying work life is narrow indeed, but it is there for most of us here in America if we skillfully work our way through it. But for some people that path is barred by the police. I think that is the problem reported in this article.

  11. Conor says:

    PonyTailed Writer: You make a very good point, and I agree with you. It’s just tremendously distressing to me that we first worlders (especially Americans) seem to live is such a vacuume with regards to ‘our’ rights and privaleges. I guess what I’m trying to say, is what is good for the goose is good for gander and the drake too. For heaven’s sake, look how many Americans actually vote – and somebody actually died for our right to do so! Americans have gone to sleep waving the flag while filling up the SUV’s gas tank. Shameful!

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