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Karen Elliott House Presents Licata Lecture on Saudi Arabia

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When people ask Karen Elliott House why she traveled to Saudi Arabia year after year for five years, draped in a long black abaya, with a limited- access visa, she replies, “Because it’s interesting.”

For more than 30 years, this “interest” drove the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to investigate Saudi Arabia and all facets of life in the shrouded kingdom. On February 12, on the occasion of the 2013 Charles and Rosemary Licata Lecture hosted by the School of Public Policy, the former publisher of The Wall Street Journal visited Pepperdine’s Drescher Graduate Campus to speak about her experiences in the Middle East and deconstruct her book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines–and Future.

“Saudi Arabia is the strangest country you will never see,” began House, as she took the audience on a journey through her encounters with Saudi royalty, religious officials, and families devoted to Islam. As a Western woman—considered an honorary man by Muslims who would otherwise be forbidden from being in the presence of a female—House was at an advantage and given access to areas of the kingdom without a government minder. After three decades of tireless exploration into the Saudi soul and psyche, she was granted a five-year, multiple-entry visa.

“My goal was not to prescribe what Saudi Arabia ought to be like, but to try to understand and describe what it was like,” she explained, before she delved into her “observations about Saudi society, about what those observations might portend about its stability or vulnerability, and about scenarios that U.S. policymakers might face in the future.”

In the James R. Wilburn Auditorium, House, who also served as the 2013 School of Public Policy commencement speaker, informed a captive audience of the religious, socioeconomic, and geopolitical strife faced by both the nation’s young and old populations. “Even though many say there has to be change, they don’t agree on what that is,” she laments, delineating the four options she foresees for the future of Saudi Arabia: 1) further economic stagnation and stultification, 2) the rise of a younger prince that tries to revive the economy in the face of oppressive conservative, religious backlash, 3) a leader who reverts to the Islamic religiosity of the 80s and 90s, or 4) chaos that leads to collapse.

“Young Saudis increasingly question why they can’t have more and why the royals take more than they deserve,” she explains. “It is a quite constricted society and much more divided than I realized.”

The Licata Lecture Series was established through an endowment for the School of Public Policy by benefactors Charles and Rosemary Licata. The series unites students, alumni, and community leaders with leading academics and practitioners shaping policy matters in the new century.

Watch Karen Elliott House’s Licata Lecture: magazine.pepperdine.edu/house-lecture