Irony has no impact when it's not recognized as irony.
Hugh Eakin reviews three books recently released on Saudi Arabia:
On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future by Karen Elliott House
Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally by Thomas W. Lippman
Politics and Society in Saudi Arabia: The Crucial Years of Development, 1960–1982 by Sarah Yizraeli
....Contrary to its desert image, Saudi Arabia is a highly urbanized country in which five large metropolitan areas—Riyadh in the center, Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina in the west, and Dammam on the Persian Gulf—account for more than two thirds of the population. Riyadh, the Saudi capital, is a Houstonian sprawl of offices, malls, and SUV-clogged thoroughfares; it is possible to miss the Grand Mosque if you are not looking for it. More affluent districts are filled with American fast food chains, British department stores, and French hypermarkets. Scruffier neighborhoods, like Bathaa in Riyadh’s Old City, feature the usual array of outdoor market stalls, electronics stores, and long-distance call centers, many of them clearly catering to a large immigrant population from South Asia. Seen from a car window, there is little to distinguish it from large cities in many other countries.
And yet at ground level, everything is different. The SUVs are all driven by men, many of them foreigners: since women are forbidden to drive, it is standard for middle-class households to employ a driver; but it is frowned upon for women to be chauffeured by Saudis (or other Arabs) who are not their husbands or fathers. Though women can purchase the latest upscale Western fashions at almost any Saudi mall, they are expected to wear a black abaya at all times and may be harassed by the Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, the country’s religious police, if their hair shows just outside their veils. And in downtown Riyadh, not far from one of the main shopping districts, is a square where public beheadings sometimes take place.
Lippman and House are both sensitive to these disconcerting contrasts. Yet the contradictory insights they draw suggest how hard it can be to get a handle on the Saudi regime. For example, looking at the proliferation of fatwas by different Saudi clerics on issues like gender mixing, Lippman sees a system in which “rules of behavior and appearance are not fully codified,” allowing the ruling family to use religion to tighten or loosen its grip as needed; while House thinks the monarchy has “largely lost control of an increasingly diffuse and divided Islam.”
Regarding Saudi women, however, House finds appalling evidence that some are subjected to “virtual slavery, in which wives and daughters can be physically, psychologically, and sexually abused at the whim of male family members, who are protected by an all-male criminal system and judiciary.”
Both authors lament the Saudi education system, which in the clutches of the religious establishment has produced what Lippman calls “a lost generation” of young Saudis. But Lippman argues that the king has embarked on an “education revolution”—purging school textbooks of “inflammatory material,” spending nearly $4 billion to establish a top-flight coed university north of Jeddah, and sending more than 100,000 young Saudis abroad to study; while House maintains that the government’s vast outlays have produced few results (Saudis still perform near the bottom of international tests) because the “religious-educational bureaucracy remains largely impervious to reform.” The two books concur that the Saudi government has made hardly any progress in weaning itself from oil. For House this shows how “unproductive,” “dysfunctional,” “brittle,” and “ossified” the economy has become. Yet Lippman observes that the steady flow of crude has allowed the regime not only to withstand the Arab Spring but also to “spend hundreds of billions of its revenue” preparing Saudis for a post-oil future..........