Journalist recounts 30 years in Saudi Arabia

Contributing Writer
Friday, December 7, 2012


Journalist Karen Elliott House spoke last night about her new book, “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future,” in a lecture sponsored by the Watson Institute for International Studies and the Middle East studies department. 

House, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, has spent 30 years covering Saudi Arabia. She filled her lecture with stories about her experiences in the country, recounting how one Saudi host welcomed her. One of the wives of the host family, knowing that House was from Texas,  showed the writer a YouTube video of a Texan man who had converted to Islam. 

House portrayed Saudi Arabia as an intensely religious nation where “there are rules for everything, from women’s menstruation to waging war,” she said in the lecture. 

House said in the lecture that Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, the Al Saud family, faces an uncertain future. The religious establishment reinforces the monarchy, but can also pose an obstacle for King Abdullah, she said. When  he opened the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, he faced opposition from religious authorities for the University’s policy of admitting women. 

House said there is political and religious discontent among some Saudis, particularly the youth, who make up over 60 percent of the country’s population. “They don’t have a lot of gratitude for the royal family because they see the country as declining,” she said. 

But most Saudis don’t want democracy, she said. 

In the lively Q&A section following the address, Nancy Khalek, professor of religious studies, objected to House’s depiction of Islam in Saudi Arabia, saying that the culture allows for more “debauched behavior” than House had suggested. “The picture is more complicated and nuanced than that,” Khalek said.

Max Easton ’16 said House’s talk heightened his interest in the Middle East. He also praised the way House encouraged the audience to challenge her arguments during the Q&A section. 

“She was very judicious, very fair,” he said. 

Parts of House’s talk “seemed a little one-dimensional,” said Belle Cushing ’13. “Imagining her walking around Saudi Arabia with her thick Texas accent was great,” she added. 

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