The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, as Christopher Hitchens once described North Korea, a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden,” writes Michael J. Totten, the author of “The Road to Fatima Gate” and “Where the West Ends.”
Nevertheless, “For all their frustrations, most Saudis do not crave democracy,” writes Karen Elliott House in her new book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future. “What unites conservatives and modernizers, and young and old, is a hunger not for freedom but for justice; for genuine rule of law, not rule by royal whim.”
The roots of oppressive rule appear to be as much geographical as ideological.
“For millennia,” she writes, “Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.”
Religious edicts are crushingly enforced by state, mosque and society. Movie theaters are banned, as are concerts and just about everything else related to entertainment. Women, even foreign women, must cover themselves in public. Unrelated women and men aren’t allowed to mix anywhere. Even Starbucks coffee shops are segregated by gender.
Men have it rough, but women have it much rougher. According to Wahhabi Islam, men must obey Allah and women must obey men. “Fortunately for men,” House writes, “Allah is distant, but unfortunately for women, men are omnipresent.”
But, Totten notes in his New York Times review, democracy and rule of law are not mutually exclusive, and the former may even be a precondition of the latter.
Justice and the rule of law aren’t at all likely to develop in a system that is not democratic. If House is right, then whatever happens, a new or post-Saudi Arabia may end up like post-Soviet Russia, at least in one way. A spring-like revolution for freedom, where human rights, justice, and the rule of law replace toppled labyrinth walls, will be a dream deferred to generations unborn.