In some ways, the early life of Karen House paralleled that of a woman growing up in Saudi Arabia. House’s hometown of Matador, Texas, population 900, was, like Saudi Arabia, hot, dry, deeply religious, conservative, and patriarchal. House was at one time an aspiring teacher but chose her career based on her father’s words.
“I would hate to be a teacher in one of these communist schools,” he told her one day.
However, any parallels between life in the two arid communities ended when she was 18, on the day her father dropped her off at the University of Texas to study journalism and and said: “If you don’t like it, you can always come home.”
“After that, he never attempted to control anything I did,” House recalls.
As House would later learn, such a thing would be very difficult for a Saudi woman to pull off without becoming something of a rebel against her own family. House, however, took advantage of the hard-working ethics her welder father had instilled in her along with her newfound freedom to launch a globetrotting career as a journalist that took her to the top of the profession. She retired in 2006 as publisher of the Wall Street Journal and senior vice president of Dow Jones & Company. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her coverage of the Middle East, among numerous other awards, and interviewed almost every major world leader of the late 20th century, including Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and Saddam Hussein.
House’s reporting often took her to Saudi Arabia, at first in 1978 as a diplomatic correspondent. As an occasional visitor, she watched the country change dramatically over the years. She interviewed many of its leaders, covering the wars and crises that shaped the country and its all-important alliance with the United States.
However, despite her experience and contacts in the country, Saudi society was still something of a mystery to her.
“I always found it fascinating because you are fundamentally looking through a dark glass,” she says. “You don’t see or know much. You just go see an official you have to interview, then you go back to your hotel because you can’t rent a car and drive around, and you sit and you wait for your next interview.” A driving ban is one of many restrictions that Saudi’s religious authorities impose on the country’s women.
House was not content to allow the country to remain so opaque to her. In 2006 she began five years of research Saudi Arabia, during which she conducted hundreds of interviews with princes, beggars, former terrorists, and Internet-addicted teens. The result of her reporting is her new book, “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future,” published by Knopf in September, 2012.
House will discuss her book Thursday, June 6, at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott Hotel & Conference Center at 100 College Road East in Plainsboro. Call 609-924-1776 or visit www.princetonchamber.org. Tickets are $50 for chamber members, $70 for non-members.
The book is intended as an introduction to Saudi Arabia as well as an analysis of its likely future. House believes the Kingdom of Saud could be headed for a major crisis in the near future despite having seemingly avoided the turmoil of the 2011 Arab Spring.
The book is the latest milestone in House’s career as a journalist and businesswoman. House got her start in journalism at her high school newspaper. Discouraged from teaching by her father and envious that the editor of the local weekly paper had traveled to California, House got a part-time job writing for the paper while still in high school. After college, in 1970, House applied for a job at the Wall Street Journal’s Dallas bureau only to be told that they were not hiring women. She says when the Journal began to seek female reporters in earnest, she applied again and was hired in 1974.
House says she was given the lowest job in the Washington bureau and that she told her bosses her goal was to become a political reporter rather than languish covering bureaucratic backwaters.
The bureau chief told her if she proved herself, she could have a lot of opportunity, and he was right. House soon moved on to cover agriculture and the environment and by 1978 she was an international reporter.
In 1984, House was offered the job of foreign editor. That post gave her the management skills she used four years later when she was offered a VP job at Dow Jones managing its international overseas publications such as the Asian Wall Street Journal. She became president of international operations in 1995 then publisher of the worldwide WSJ company in 2002. Retiring from that job allowed her to focus on her book about Saudi Arabia.
House believes the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States will remain an important one for years to come, with or without the resurgence of American energy production in the form of natural gas. In the book, House notes that Saudi Arabia controls 25 percent of the world’s known oil reserves, so access to them is critical in order to keep the oil-dependent American economy running. Any disruption in the Saudi oil supply would mean a rise in oil prices that could devastate the American economy whether or not there is a rise in domestic production.
“Even with the increased shale oil and the higher U.S. production, we’re still going to pay $100 a barrel because the price is set by global demand,” she says.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is perhaps even more dependent on the United States than the other way around. House describes how the Saudi’s oil wealth is extracted by ARAMCO, a company that was founded by Americans and purchased by the Saudis in 1981. Despite its Saudi ownership, ARAMCO retains its American corporate culture and its campus is a “Little America” where men and women mix freely and the normal rules of Saudi society do not apply. Its staff includes many foreigners as well as the best and brightest Saudis.
Further, Saudi Arabia relies on America for defense. House writes that its borders are protected by a military that, while of questionable competence, is armed with high-tech American weapons. Moreover, the United States has demonstrated a willingness to go to war to defend Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, and the threat of American intervention helps keep the house of Saud in power in a very dangerous neighborhood.
This close relationship means that many Americans must do business in the kingdom. House said there are a lot of things that American should know going into Saudi Arabia, the foremost of which is to understand that a Saudi’s goal in a conversation may be different from yours.
“When you talk to Arabs, they tell you what they think you want to hear,” she says. “So it’s important not to let them know what you want to hear. One has to develop one’s listening skills and diminish one’s tendency to talk, so that you can actually find out what’s on the mind of whomever you’re dealing with.”
That is a rule that House says she learned long ago, and has served her well over the years. She put it into practice in an intense way on her recent reporting trip. To get a glimpse of domestic life, she arranged to stay with a woman, the wife of a professor who also had another wife in another house. House lived and worked with her for several days, going so far as to don a full-body burqa when leaving the home, just like her host had to do. The stay was a lesson in how central religion is in the lives of many Saudis. Her host spent much of the visit trying to convert House, a Christian, to Islam.
“She was a deeply and genuinely religious woman, whose goal was, ‘I want to get my family to Paradise,’” House says. “She spent all her waking hours trying to keep them on the right path. I liked and admired her. She was an educated woman. Most Americans think if you are educated, you wouldn’t be deeply religious, because the average American thinks of religion as a silly thing, and if you’re educated you understand that.”
House found that her sincerely devout host was something of an exception to the rule, however. House believes religion is an empty ritual for most Saudis despite the outward appearance of piety,
Spirituality is important to House, who attends services at the Princeton Church of Christ. She lives in Princeton and is married to former Dow Jones CEO Peter Kann. The couple has four children, ages 17 to 29. House says religion plays a key role in her life outside of church.
“My father said, ‘Nobody is better than you unless they are morally better,’ meaning, don’t measure yourself by money and cars,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I doing good? Am I being good?’” House says she tries to live by this rule every day.
Religion is at the heart of Saudi life and politics as well. A chapter of the book is devoted to exploring the complex back-and-forth struggle between the Saud family rulers, who derive their claim to rule Saudi Arabia from being the “custodians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina,” and the country’s religious authorities. When the Saud rulers feel strong, they feel more confident in introducing reforms and new ideas against the wishes of the Imams. When they feel weak, they allow religious authorities to impose new restrictions, as happened in the 1980s following the Iranian revolution.
House recalls visiting Saudi Arabia in the 1970s wearing a short skirt. The attire was frowned upon, but nothing more. Today, hitting the streets in such an outfit would get a woman beaten with a stick by the bearded religious police officers who patrol the streets looking for violations of their strict moral code.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that some of the newer generation of clerics are moderate reformers, while others are militant jihadists. The latter group has caused no end of trouble for the kingdom and the United States, as their preaching is blamed for inspiring international terrorism. Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian rulers crack down on these militant clerics at the risk of undermining their own claim to legitimacy as Muslim monarchs, House writes.
House took advantage of her many contacts in the kingdom and the American state department to delve deeper into Saudi society than she had ever gone before. Along the way, she profiled four Saudi princes who had very different outlooks from one another. One was a religious scholar and another had flown on the space shuttle.
Another one still was obsessed with American sports and played fantasy football. This last prince, in his comments to House, echoed one of the most surprising things that she discovered in her reporting: that most Saudis have a more passive attitude than she had previously thought. The prince told House that he was planning to write a book about American sports versus Saudi sports, and how the athletic cultures revealed flaws in Saudi society: American athletes, he said, value hard work and if they lose, they will blame it on their own shortcomings and train harder so they can win. On the other hand, Saudi athletes tend to blame losses on external factors like the referee or the weather.
House says this observation is emblematic of a feature of Saudi culture that shapes its economy. Saudi men hate manual labor, she says, and prefer cushy jobs where they only have to work six hours a day. They prefer unemployment and handouts to working hard or showing initiative or enterprise.
“Most Saudis do not pay taxes and they do not work except in government jobs,” she says. “Ninety percent of the people who work in the private sector are foreigners, so Saudis are very dependent on their government and thus controlled by it.”
This passivity has stood in the way of progress, as the kingdom struggles to create an economy that exports something other than oil and terrorists. “Everybody is full of big plans. The country has endless five-year plans, but they’ve never gotten off an oil economy, and everybody talks a big game but never produces anything.” She notes the prince has yet to write his book about sports.
House also found some things to admire about Saudi culture. She says the thing the Saudis like best about their country is its emphasis on family. “Saudi Arabia is much more like the United States in the 1950s,” she says. “Family units are together. Although divorce in Saudi Arabia is about 50 percent, people stay in touch with their families. There is a big devotion by most Saudis to family, and not just immediate family, but extended family and that’s clearly an admirable thing.”
House’s book explores the diversity of the Saudi people. There are young lovers who use Facebook to arrange clandestine cafe meetings, authoritarian religious figures, stoic poor people, reform-minded monarchs and talented young students, all of whom represent forces pulling the kingdom in different directions. House says the divisions in Saudi Arabia mean that America’s way of dealing with the country will have to change. Historically, America has supported the ruling family, but that support must take greater account of the feelings of the Saudi people, whom she says are frustrated with their government and want change.
“As people’s frustration in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rises, and as information becomes far more available and everything far more transparent, and as Saudis know more about what’s going on in their country, it will be harder for the royal family and harder for American government officials to cooperate with them in ways that Saudis do not feel enhance their own lives. As people, they want more say, a bit more freedom, and a lot more accountability from their government. I think it’s going to become hard for us to support the lack of transparency and the lack of human rights that does exist in Saudi Arabia.”