As Thomas Lippman explains in his introduction to this timely and multifaceted book, "of the many countries that are vital to the strategic and economic interests of the United States, Saudi Arabia has been the least understood by the American people." In the minds of a great many Americans, the kingdom is a medieval monarchy flush with oil ruling over a benighted tribal population; it adheres to a particularly rigid and intolerant form of Islam that veils and isolates women and is the homeland of anti-American terrorists, notably Osama bin Laden.
Yet, as Lippman reminds us, "The alliance of Saudi Arabia and the U.S., forged initially during World War II, has proved to be as durable as it is unlikely." Even the events of 9/11 failed to produce a rupture in this relationship. Neither country can afford to abandon a relationship in which the United States and its allies rely on access to Saudi Arabian oil and the Saudi rulers seek U.S. arms and technology and support against regional threats, especially Iran. Despite open differences over regional issues (especially the Israel-Palestine problem) and human-rights concerns, "The deep economic and strategic ties between the two countries remain in place. But the U.S.-Saudi relationship will never be what it was at its height in the 1980s because the kingdom and world around it have changed" (p. 254).
Lippman, a former Washington Post correspondent in the Middle East and now an adjunct scholar at Washington's Middle East Institute, has visited Saudi Arabia many times since the 1970s, most recently under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is well-acquainted with the kingdom and an astute observer of how its society has been evolving over the past 40 years. In this book, he seeks to show how the Saudi monarchy tries to balance a system of autocratic rule and deeply conservative religious traditions with its need to modernize and develop political, economic and social reforms that will enable it to survive in the twenty-first century. In the author's view, "Over the past decade the Saudis have recognized their problems, acknowledged them, encouraged public discussion of them, and marshaled resources to confront them" (p. 6). However, he also stresses that Saudi Arabia will need to change even more rapidly if it is to remain internally stable and prosperous while avoiding external threats that could delay or prevent its modernization and development.
In 11 chapters, Lippman describes and analyzes developments in government policy, oil and natural-resource issues, labor and education, the status of women, the role of Islam in society, social issues and foreign policy, including relations with the United States.
In his opening chapter, "King and Country," Lippman considers why the kingdom has so far avoided the upheavals currently being experienced in other Arab countries. The principal reason is that the Al Saud family's rule is still widely accepted by its subjects as legitimate. The foundation of the Saudi state is its claim to defend and promote the Islamic religion (as defined by the strict Wahhabi interpretation of the sharia and sunna of the Prophet), not to protect the rights and privileges of the individual. The kingdom's Basic Law asserts that the people must obey the king "in accordance with the holy Koran," but does not specify any duties or obligations of the king other than to rule in accordance with Islam" (p. 18). Individual freedoms are limited and can be revoked for any reason. The Al Saud have benefited, not only from the generally conservative religious character of the Saudi population, but also from the regime's ability to use its immense oil wealth to provide employment and public services to its people. Moreover, throughout modern Saudi history, the rulers have been the ones who have introduced limited liberalizing and modernizing changes into the kingdom, such as education for women, television and Western technology and expertise, often in the face of conservative opposition.
In "Islam, Society and the State," Lippman examines the influence that religion and the religious leadership exert over government policies and actions. Because the regime permits no secular political activity, "religion and arguments about religion are fundamental determinants of social and intellectual life..." (p. 183). When challenged by religiously motivated opponents such as al-Qaeda, the royal family has turned to Wahhabi religious leaders for confirmation of the family's authority to act to suppress such threats, even if this involves political and military cooperation with non-Muslim entities like the United States. In return, the government has permitted the religious establishment to dictate and impose strict enforcement of ultra-orthodox Islamic practices, at least in public. Lippman discusses King Abdullah's recent efforts to rein in abuses by the so-called religious "police" (mutawaiin) and to reinforce royal control over the religious establishment (ulema), but he notes, "It is not in the king's interest to alienate them with radical social or political moves that are too far outside their comfort zone to be tolerated" (p. 194).
Abdullah has also made some conciliatory gestures to Saudi Arabia's alienated Shia community, but that minority continues to be regarded with suspicion by the regime and the religious establishment as both heretical and as a potential Iranian fifth column. This inhibits government willingness to extend full social and religious rights to the Shia who reside in the oil-rich Eastern Province. As recent violent demonstrations in Qatif have shown, Shia grievances have the potential to ignite sectarian conflict in an economically and strategically important region.
Throughout the book, Lippman examines problems the regime faces from a rapidly growing population with enormous expectations of government-provided goods and services. In "Oil Rich, Energy Short," Lippman states that "preserving the oil revenue stream is literally a life-and-death issue for the kingdom" (p. 37). Over the next several decades, Saudi Arabia does not risk running out of oil. Saudis fear, however, that world over-supply or diminished customer demand will compel drastic cuts in the revenues available for royal-family and security expenses and for the subsidized services that are an important basis for wide public support. Lippman discusses at length Saudi efforts to maintain or increase its share in the world oil market and its search for alternative sources of energy to replace the oil that fuels the kingdom's electric-power and desalination systems. In a subsequent chapter he deals with Saudi concerns about food security. Rapid depletion of nonrenewable groundwater supplies has obliged the government to institute politically sensitive controls over agriculture and to undertake internationally controversial purchases or leases of farm land in poor African and Asian countries.
With its future stream of oil revenue uncertain, the Saudi leadership has begun to look for ways to turn the kingdom into an industrial power based on domestic conversion of petrochemicals and other mineral resources into domestic and exportable products. Lippman comments that these goals are extremely ambitious, as the kingdom seeks to attract private investment, both domestic and foreign, in accordance with a "Long-Term Strategy for 2025." To help make the private sector the engine of growth, existing government enterprises are being privatized and major companies like Saudi Aramco encouraged to buy more from local suppliers. The government has removed some legal and bureaucratic barriers to private investment, in part to qualify for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Saudis have even tried to develop a tourism industry for adventurous non-Muslim visitors, efforts the author describes with some amusement. Lippman quotes the views of skeptics that large-scale industrialization can succeed. There is a dearth of Saudi entrepreneurs, and the population of the kingdom, though growing, may be insufficient to sustain viable large-scale manufacturing industries.
The low productivity of Saudi labor is also a problem. The kingdom suffers from an insufficient number of technologically educated, competent and motivated workers. There are an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 unemployed citizens, with more joining their ranks each year. Few young Saudis are attracted to blue-collar jobs, and few possess the technical or professional skills to replace the thousands of foreign workers employed at lower wages than most Saudis will accept. In his chapter on education, Lippman discusses reasons why the regime's effort to create a knowledge-based economy may be overly ambitious. King Abdullah has made education reform a high priority. In 2009, he opened the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-level research institution with a first-class international faculty and a coed student body that the king has defended against religious critics. But the kingdom has yet to overcome its severe shortage of competent teachers, to replace curriculums overly devoted to religious studies based on textbooks that denigrate other religions and cultures, and to upgrade the entire university system to meet world standards. Lippman warns that Abdullah's successors may have other priorities and be less willing to insulate KAUST from skeptics or outright opponents of its founder's vision.
As for the status of women, Lippman states it is certain that the rules governing female behavior will be relaxed over the next few decades, and women will find new opportunities in the workplace and in civil life. These changes are coming because "the economic and demographic forces behind [these changes] are irresistible" (p. 150). Today more than half the graduates of Saudi universities are women, and many are finding fathers and husbands accepting of their desire to work outside the home. Many women are personally wealthy and have established successful businesses. Nevertheless, Saudi society continues to value child-rearing and family life over careers for women. Progress toward full legal and social equality with men, including the right to drive, will therefore continue to be slow.
In an especially interesting chapter, Lippman delves into social issues that have rarely been treated in other recent works on Saudi Arabia: among them increasing urbanization and the shortage of housing, especially for lower-income families. Only this July a law was passed to permit and enforce mortgage contracts to facilitate home ownership. The need for social-welfare services has grown, and Lippman devotes several pages to the increasing problem of treating and educating the physically and mentally handicapped. Lack of public transportation, demand for movie theaters and other forms of public recreation, and burgeoning rates of traffic accidents, crime, and alcohol and drug addiction are also discussed.
Turning to security and foreign relations, Lippman deals with a subject that has been extensively treated by others, notably Gregory Gause and Anthony Cordesman, as well as by Lippman himself in his Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia (2004). Saudis know that U.S. interests in the Gulf closely parallel their own and that the United States will likely continue to support them in a crisis. However, they believe American domestic politics make it unlikely that they could ever obtain a binding defense commitment from the United States. Moreover, their close association with Washington is a liability in the contest with Iran and with Islamic extremists for influence in the region. American-backed efforts to create an effective defense structure based on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have yet to achieve a unified strategy or an integrated military force. Lippman notes that the Saudis, along with Qatar and the UAE, have worked to deal with crises in Bahrain and Yemen and are actively supporting the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. He believes that Saudi Arabia and Iran are unlikely to confront each other in a conventional war, but their rivalry is being played out in struggles between Sunni and Shia proxies throughout the region. The Saudis recognize they can do little to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but Lippman considers that they are unlikely themselves to consider acquiring a nuclear arsenal, even from China or Pakistan.
In his concluding chapter, Lippman asserts that the relationship with the United States will continue so long as the Al Saud remain in power. A new regime, especially an extreme Islamist one, might believe its legitimacy would be enhanced by distancing itself from the United States. However, the author considers that such a radical upheaval is unlikely and that anyone in charge in Saudi Arabia would still have to sell its oil on the global market to pay for food and other imported products needed to maintain popular support.
This book will be of particular interest to U.S. diplomats, foreign-policy experts and scholars. Lippman's research has included years of field research in authoritative reports and documents, as well as a wide range of personal interviews with Saudis and others in the kingdom. However, as one might expect from a veteran journalist, he writes in a lucid, and even entertaining, style that makes much of this book accessible to non-specialist readers as well. The latter may find statistical material in some portions, especially the chapters on oil, agriculture and proposed industrial development, a bit numbing. This should not detract from his overall observations about the status of these issues and their relevance to his basic picture of a kingdom confronting, if slowly and unevenly, a major transformation.