The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom 
by Sandra Mackey.
Harrap, 433 pp., £12.95, August 1987, 0 245 54592 1
Show More
Behind the Wall: A Journey through China 
by Colin Thubron.
Heinemann, 308 pp., £10.95, September 1987, 0 434 77988 1
Show More
Show More

Foreign news organisations are not invited to operate in Saudi Arabia. The journalists who are permitted into the Kingdom by the Ministry of Information operate under severe constraints. It’s not that the Saudis mind you saying bad things about them: it’s that they mind you saying anything at all.

Internally, the Kingdom has no passion for freedom of information; the idea of open government is meaningless, or perhaps slightly obscene, to the Saudi mind. No newspaper in Jeddah or Riyadh would publish details of the private lives of the five thousand-strong royal family – though, curiously enough, the doings of the Princess of Wales are of great moment to young Saudi women. Even the censors, with their big black felt-tips, have been known to spare the royal decolletage; the Princess shares with the Empress Maria Theresa, whose image graced the old silver coinage, the distinction of being the only bared bosom on view. As a matter of honour, arms, legs and faces must be covered up; so must facts.

Sandra Mackey spent two periods in Saudi Arabia: 1978-80, and 1982-84. Her husband was on the staff of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh – the scene of VIP accouchements, and a discreet refuge for the odd royal alcoholic or drug addict. Riyadh in 1978 was a huge building-site. Life was noisy, comfortless, monotonous. Strangely, Ms Mackey considered herself prepared for the ordeal by a four-month stint in the jungles of Borneo: ‘I experienced outdoor privies, snakes, cockroaches, mosquitoes ... ’ Yes, and after breakfast?

The dangers and privations of Saudi Arabia are of a quite different kind. A creeping, paralysing boredom has always been the disease which threatened the expatriate wife: confined to her compound and to the society of a few equally bored colleagues, unable to get about because women are not allowed to drive. Her main aim has always been to obtain some work, however menial, that would get her out of the house. The legal status of working women is dubious at best, and these were the heroic days, when filing clerks were kept in broom cupboards and rushed through back doors into getaway cars at the approach of the police.

Mrs Mackey was lucky: she got a semilegal job with the US Corps of Engineers, as what her blurb calls ‘a humble typist’. (Having read her book, one suspects she was actually a very haughty typist indeed.) From this she moved on to an editorial post with the Ministry of Planning. Strictly segregated from her male colleagues, she was privileged to have sight of vital documents at the most interesting period of the Kingdom’s development. She put what she learned to good use, assuming two male pseudonyms and feeding back articles to the US press.

In order that the articles should not be traced to her, she thought it necessary to take stringent and highly dramatic precautions. One presumes she did not go about dressed as a war correspondent, which is how she appears in her jacket photograph: but the combat jacket and camera are obviously central to her perception of her work. A network of friends helped her to smuggle her copy out of the country, and took her drafts to the desert to burn them. It is not entirely clear why a bonfire in the backyard wouldn’t have done the job, but perhaps her precautions were justified. If the secret police had connected ‘Michael Collins’ or ‘Justin Coe’ with Ms Mackey, it would have been her husband who suffered the most severe consequences. One of the hardest facts for a Western woman to understand and absorb is that in the Kingdom your husband is held responsible, not just for your actions, but for the contents of your filing cabinet and the thoughts of your heart.

Ms Mackey considers that the fact that she was a woman actually helped her clandestine work. It gave her access to the society and conversation of the Saudi women in the wealthy families that her husband treated. Further, in the course of her work she was able to ask questions with impunity because her questions were not taken seriously: this must raise, of course, a query about the quality of the answers she received. She has digested her conclusions into a large, heavy book, stuffed with information, a little sketchy on the history of the area, but offering a complete and up-to-date analysis of the politics and economics of Saudi Arabia. From it, the texture and quality of life in the Kingdom are curiously absent. A careful cataloguer of the manifold ironies of Saudi life, she remarks that a sense of humour is essential for survival: she makes claims for her own, which we must take in good faith, but hardly demonstrates it. To be fair to her, such a complete and thorough survey is an ambitious project. Pages of exposition must be followed by illustration and example which can often have no more than gossip status. The truth is that, no matter how special one’s position, it is hardly possible to find out what is going on in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is such a strange place that, if you can locate a fact, you might think – Ms Mackey certainly does – that it bears repetition.

Whenever the Saudis lock up some air stewardesses, or deport some businessmen, you will always find someone who has never lived in the Middle East to tell you primly: ‘They know the rules.’ Well, no – it’s not as simple as that. No one knows the rules. The rules are a matter of compromise, accommodation, consensus; of winks, nods and tacit give-and-take, of bargains struck and issues evaded. In less than a generation, the desert kingdom has transformed itself into a modern, urbanised industrial power – against no mean resistance. The House of Saud, never at peace within itself, must keep in check the traditionalist elements in society, constantly placating them with promises that all development will take place within an Islamic framework, that no amount of oil money will corrupt the essential purity of Saudi society. But that is wishful thinking on a grand scale, and everyone knows it is; the Saudis seem to live, at times, in a national frenzy of self-hatred, attracted to Western culture while despising it, and despising themselves for being attracted. When they look in the mirror, a foreigner and a devil looks back.

In the past, other Arabs regarded the desert people as backward and deprived: but the bedouin harboured a conviction of moral and racial superiority. His modern descendant has exchanged the accoutrements of a camel driver for a briefcase, a Mont Blanc pen and a pair of wrap-around sunglasses; he has abrogated none of his traditional pride, and added to it a new sense of superiority which comes from being much much richer than anyone else around. ‘An army of occupation’, as Sandra Mackey calls foreign workers, has built the Kingdom, and she charts the growth of xenophobia in a people whose vaunted traditions of hospitality are perhaps seen to best advantage when called upon at infrequent intervals.

Yet the Kingdom needs its foreign workers. The native population is sparse. No one knows how sparse, because there is no census. A census would be an invasion of privacy. Besides, if the figure were so low as to be unpalatable, why would anyone in government want to know it? Who wants bad news? Bad news is not honourable, and the Saudi sense of honour is a very fine-tuned mechanism.

Getting rid of the contaminating guest workers is a Saudi pipedream: until that day, the alien elements are to be ghettoised and regarded with extreme suspicion. The bulk of the foreign population in Saudi is not made up of highly-paid Western technocrats, but of Korean labourers, Filipino shop-assistants, domestic workers from Sri Lanka, all the people who are known as Third Country Nationals. They are poor people, often deplorably housed and fed, who save the bulk of their wages to send home; they suffer, Sandra Mackey points out, from the methods of masters who are not perfectly sure of the difference between a hired hand and a slave.

Westerners have been much luckier. There is a price on their services, and it’s high. The average expatriate does very well indeed out of his stint in Saudi. For Americans, with whom Sandra Mackey is chiefly concerned, the salary differentials are often not great, and they go to the Kingdom often out of a vague idealism, a wish to see the world, and a desire, sometimes, to do more challenging work than that available at home. The Brits go for cash; they stay, sometimes for more than a decade, securely shackled by ‘the golden handcuffs’. The Kingdom shows the worst that money can do, for native or incomer; it is an alembic of greed. To last the pace as an expat it helps to be something of a philistine and something of a snob; mild anthropologising is chic, but true curiosity is dangerous. It helps not to think too much about the nature of the society in which you find yourself.

It is a society in which the outward practice of any religion besides Islam is forbidden. It is a society which practises mutilation as penal policy, where the ‘religious police’ beat and abuse women on the streets; where a sexual apartheid is enforced more efficiently than anything South Africa has devised – because it has, for the most part, its victims’ consent.

It is heartening to read Sandra Mackey’s robust attack on the Saudi treatment of women. Many Western women become apologists for a system which, one can only imagine, colludes with their unacknowledged desires. Half-frightened and half-flattered by the gross overtures that even ageing and plain Western women receive on the streets, they seem oblivious of the fact that the men involved regard them as prostitutes – or perhaps that’s part of the thrill. What she doesn’t emphasise quite enough is that Saudi women look at their Western sisters with the pity we reserve for Soviet women – sweeping streets and mending roads all day, off to the food queue, and home to cook dinner for a drunken lout. The ‘new man’ is not something the Saudi woman can readily imagine. Preferring her infantile dependence, she regards liberation as a recipe for exploitation; and educated Saudis are always quick to point out that Islam has for centuries guaranteed women certain property rights which in Britain were not enforceable till late in the last century.

Life for Saudi women has improved in many ways. There is no prohibition, as such, against women working; what violates tradition is the notion of a woman doing any job where she might come into contact with a man to whom she is not related. She can study at a women’s university, lectured by male professors on closed-circuit TV. Under carefully controlled conditions, she can teach girls, physic women, or count the cash at a ‘Ladies’ Bank’. Her daily travel arrangements are the source of anxiety: possibly she will be delivered to work by one of the men in her family, or she may wait, veiled, in the Ladies’ section of a bus shelter, and then board the Ladies’ section of the bus. Women are not educated for their own profit or gratification: there is simply a widespread belief that schooling makes one a better mother.

The Saudis manifest a terrible fear of women’s sexuality. Sandra Mackey traces it to sexual practices in the nursery; whatever the value of her speculations, they liven up the book. She is cogent, too, on the mental gulf which divides us from the Saudis; a shame culture cannot understand a guilt culture, a people who prize individualism cannot understand those who sink their lives and purposes into a concept of collective honour. As far as the future is concerned, she says ‘the empire of the al-Sauds is tottering. The House of Saud is sitting on top of a political system on the verge of collapse.’ The fall in oil prices, besides its financial effects, has dealt the Saudis a devastating psychological blow; and she believes that the injured expectations of the middle classes pose as much threat to the status quo as does militant fundamentalism.

Perhaps one should be wary of any such claims. One’s doubts about Ms Mackey’s book relate to the manner of it, as much as the matter. She tells us all she knows: but it is as well to accept that in the Kingdom you will never know the whole truth about anything. As in all closed societies, every piece of information volunteered may be double-edged, and the intent behind the offer may be to deceive you, to propagandise you, or, more kindly, to tell you only what it is good for you to know. Perhaps the Kingdom is simply not a terrain for journalists; their methods do not answer. One can only say, ‘Here are the rumours,’ not ‘Here is the News.’

It is a pity that Sandra Mackey’s book is not more vivid, because at the moment most people can visit Saudi Arabia only vicariously. In China, however, Westerners can now travel more freely than the people themselves. Colin Thubron is a gifted and accomplished travel writer, whose book Among the Russians has been described as one of the best travel books written this century. To him the opening-up of China was ‘like discovering a new room in a house in which you’d lived all your life’. He is a perceptive and honest traveller, aware of the burden of his own expectations, his head prone to fill with ‘savage and condescending notions’: at first it seemed that the Chinese he met were engaged in a conspiracy to fulfil every Western cliché about themselves. At an early stage, he feels intense frustration: ‘At every moment, around every corner, the question Who are they? erupts and nags.’ There is a feeling that real life is being conducted just out of his range of vision; and in the cities of China this is literally true, as the earth beneath is ‘perforated like a rotten cheese’ with a network of nuclear shelters, and in Beijing there are restaurants, libraries, hotels, hospitals, all under the ground.

He travelled, too, in a realm of ghosts, the millions who died in the incomprehensible national madness of the Cultural Revolution, which was also a realm of survivors, working and living alongside their former persecutors. What kind of people are these? ‘In one province alone seventy-five different methods of torture were instituted ... ’ It is the capacity for collective action, collective delusion, that disturbs him so much. In the Fifties, it was decided that the whole population must turn out to destroy the birds, which were eating too much grain. For twenty-four hours the Chinese stood in the fields, beating tin cans and blowing whistles, so that the birds, unable to alight, died of heart failure and dropped from the sky. But the old men keep singing birds in cages, and take them to the public gardens every day. The non-human world is acceptable when tamed and enslaved.

He finds the same phenomenon at the resort of Beidaihe, where the party élite take their summer vacations; the coast is ringed with safety nets, but no one can tell him why the bathers need protection. A landscape or archaeological site becomes real only when the camera comes out, only when a human presence is recorded – preferably one’s own. ‘ “You’re travelling alone?” I was asked. “Then how do you manage to photograph?” ’

Gradually the individuals separate themselves from the mass. Perhaps one of his most telling encounters – with a female student of economics, and a young man who wanted to practise his English – took place on a train. Here he performs the traveller’s task of reflecting back the people he encounters to themselves: here are the impossible questions, the impossible demands. ‘I don’t think I’m beautiful ... am I?’ The girl’s aspirations tumble out of her, savagely contradictory: ‘I hope I will use my life to serve the people and my motherland ... I want to be a millionairess.’ Her face, with its minimal features, could have been sketched by an artist to portray anyone, the average Chinese. Meanwhile the young man interrupts them: ‘Excuse me, Sir, how much do the peasants get to eat in England? Excuse me, Sir, is England a gentleman’s country?’

Instead of the ‘worker ants’ of his imagination, and the iron rice bowl society of the recent past, Colin Thubron finds a desolate workless population, seduced by consumerism, apolitical, believing nothing, trusting no one; but with the same veneration for office, the same ancient smugness of great men; in no way egalitarian, ‘emerging from the nightmare idealism of Mao into a more pragmatic and disillusioned world’. He cannot find the spirits and demons of old China, but he is assured that they survive, staunch reactionaries, in remote villages. The present is as strange as any of the antics of those strangling gods who once lay in wait for travellers, and this is a book of immense interest, beautifully written. Colin Thubron, finely accumulating detail, tolerating and absorbing tensions and contradictions, makes sense of reality for his readers in a way that often only poets can. We remember the grove outside Qufu with the tomb of Confucius – an incense burner without, and cigarette butts within.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences