Karen Elliott House on Journalism and Saudi Arabia
Date: July 20th, 2014

What is it like to be a Western female reporter with an assignment reporting on the Middle East?  And what unique observations can a 32 year journalistic history in the area bring to our understanding of one of the region’s major powers, Saudi Arabia.  Karen Elliott House, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal and senior vice president of Dow Jones & Company, discusses her career as a diplomatic reporter and her latest book On Saudi Arabia.  Like several of the conversations we have on Research on Religion, this interview examines the life history of the guest as it helps us further understand the perspective they bring to the table.  (Note: About two minutes of audio were cut from the beginning of the interview because of distortion.  This edited portion contained some idle chat about dogs and a brief story about Ms. House’s Pulitzer Prize, wherein she mentioned that another editor told her that when all is said and done, Pulitzer will be mentioned in her obituary.  Tony wished Karen a long and healthy life.)

We begin with Ms. House’s career as a journalist and she details how she was able to go from the small town of Matador, Texas to the hallowed halls of the Wall Street Journal, particularly at a time when the newspaper business was still male dominated.  Karen talks about her strict religious upbringing in a Church of Christ denomination and how this gave her an advantage when she eventually came to report on Saudi Arabia.  This background becomes helpful when she eventually lived with a very conservative Muslim family while in Saudi Arabia.  We then learn how she moved from the University of Texas to the Dallas Morning News and then, taking advantage of every opportunity presented to her, was assigned to the diplomatic desk of the Wall Street Journal in 1977 and covered the Camp David Peace Accords as one of her early assignments.  We ask whether or not Karen had a sense of the fundamental change that was about to rock the region with the Iranian Revolution, which spurs and interesting discussion on the predictive power of experts and the collapse of communism.

Tony probes what it was like to be a journalist covering the Middle East at this time, wondering if Karen ever felt endangered while in the region and whether being female in a male-dominated culture had any drawbacks.  Interestingly, Karen said there was really only one time in Damascus that she felt nervous and that her biggest concern is traffic in Saudi Arabia.  At this point, she brings up the unique advantage being a female had in reporting.  Given the religious culture of the country, it would be difficult for a male to ever talk with women one-on-one, let alone at all.  However, Karen was granted admission to this world and she relates several conversations she had with women in the region, most notably the females at a home where she recently stayed.  We move then to a discussion about the veiling of women and what appears, to Western eyes, to be a form of gender oppression.  This is where Karen’s own religious upbringing came in handy and she presents an interesting and enlightening take on various cultural practices that seem at odds to European values and norms.  She relays some interesting stories to highlight these points.

We then turn to a more academic discussion of Saudi Arabia, focusing on a number of lesser-known aspects of the country.  Contrary to the notion that the kingdom is swimming in oil wealth, there is a significant strata of the country that remains remarkably impoverished.  Unemployment among Saudis remains high even as they import labor from abroad.  The citizenry is also remarkably young with 60% of the population under the age of twenty, which portends some serious challenges for an aging leadership.  Via websites that are cropping up on the Internet, these young people are not necessarily asking for political reform in a manner that would eliminate the monarchy, but rather young citizens are asking for transparency, accountability, and equity in terms of how the kingdom’s wealth is used.  We also talk about issues of social mobility in a nation where most of the major political positions are tightly held by the Saud family.  With a remarkably small proportion of Saudi citizens working in the private sector, the political allocation of resources — and a culture of asking for favors — becomes the norm.  Again, all these socio-economic and political observations are peppered with vivid stories only the way that a seasoned journalist can tell.

The conversation moves to a discussion of some of the changes and reforms that are taking place in the country.  With high levels of Saudi unemployment, there is a push to have young Saudis trained abroad and to limit the number of foreigners who are licensed to work in the country.  Karen points out a very important tension between three crucial factors that are shaping the political economy of the nation: 1) the tendency to buy social peace and acquiescence among the population; 2) the decline in oil revenues as other sources of petroleum come online; and 3) a succession crisis that will be a major challenge politically in the next ten years.  The first two tensions run in direct conflict to one another, whereas the third may catalyze these issues.  We talk about this in the regional context of the Arab Spring and the chaos it has unleashed, including the current turmoil in Syria and Iraq that is coming close to Saudi borders.  We also discuss issues over religious leadership and an erosion of trust the population has in the clerics anointed by the regime.  The interview concludes with Karen’s thoughts about the future, at least in the short run, and Tony presses her for any possibilities for optimism to reign.  Karen notes that there seems to be a realization that moderation in religious attitudes and politics are being seen as quite crucial for the coming years, particularly amidst the conflict that is spreading regionally.  Recorded: July 2, 2014.


Karen Elliott House’s personal website.

On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religions, Fault Lines, and Future, by Karen Elliott House.

As the Middle East Burns, the Saudis Ease up at Home,” by Karen Elliott House in the Wall Street Journal.


Ani Sarkissian on Politics and Civil Society in Turkey.

Kevan Harris on Iran’s Revolution and Green Movement.

William Inboden on Religious Liberty, Foreign Policy, and the Arab Spring.

Timur Kuran on Islamic Economics.

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