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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tocqueville she is not..., 2 Jan 2011
John P. Jones III (Albuquerque, NM, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom (Paperback)
At the beginning of Chapter 4, Ms. Mackey relates an incident that provides ample insight into the author's attitude towards a country, people and culture she presumes to report upon. Despite more than adequate signage that a non-Muslim is not to enter Mecca, which she clearly sees: "Immediately billboard-size blue and white signs in both Arabic and English appeared along the road, warning non-Moslems to turn back," she coaxes her husband to drive on. Is it any surprise that shortly "We were forced off the road by one of the angry policeman"? and "each yelled and gestured at us with a passion only a Saudi can muster." Only a Saudi can muster!?? Wow. The vast majority of Americans who have traveled into foreign cultures have been there before. One is on an Indian reservation in America's southwest, ample signage and even personal instructions that one is not to photograph certain buildings or objects and yet there is one of our "compatriots" who insists on ignoring the polite requests of the "natives." Ditto the same scenario for the compatriots who refuse to remove their shoes upon entering a Buddhist temple in Thailand. The vast majority of Americans sensitive to the nuances and prohibitions of another culture can only cringe in embarrassment that such a person is one of our group.

Ms. Mackey lived in Saudi Arabia for a period of four years, two at the end of the `70's, and after a two year break, returned for two more in the early `80's. She accompanied her physician husband who worked at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. She used the "cover" of a housewife to file freelance stories with Western publications, some quite respectable, such as the Christian Science Monitor. She is not a journalist by training, but clearly aspires to be one, which all too often results in adopting their negative traits, such as finding a story to fit the "party line" of the editor, accepting much of expatriate folklore as unassailable fact, and even reporting as facts items that strain the far outer envelope of credulity. For example, on page 311, she has the Crown Prince and her husband engaged in a conversation, and the Crown Prince is denying the validity of political rumors to him. In English or Arabic? Any physician addressing the medical needs of the senior leadership did not engage in casual political conversations. On page 362, she says that: "In the Saudi embassies in Cairo, New Delhi, and Bangkok, I pushed through corridors crowded with men squatting, anxiously waiting for a precious Saudi visa." The authenticity of the first person? I've visited two of those three countries, and the very last thing I, or the numerous other expats, including almost certainly Ms. Mackey, would do while on vacation, is go to the Saudi Embassy! Would any book on Saudi Arabia be complete without resorting to the most tired cliché -that the Saudis are all camel jockeys, and so on page 169 she goes deep into the bigotry of urban myths that "the Toyota dealership in Riyadh was forced to build a corral where Saudis could jump off their camels and into their shiny new cars." In a far wiser and factual book, Passing Brave by Polk and Mares, reporting almost a decade earlier, they bemoaned the fact that it was virtually impossible to find Saudis who could ride camels, or the equipment necessary to do same.

Her overall tone is so relentlessly negative. "The Saudis," and all too often it is that broad generalization, are "arrogant," "haughty", "sensitive," "obsessed with saving face, honor" et al; in short the whole panoply of characterizations attached to the West's "Orientalist" view of the East. Like water torture, these same words and phrases are endlessly repeated. The book is filled with sentences like: "Science has failed to penetrate the minds of Saudi males." (p.152). "The need to preserve each Saudi's honor may be the single biggest obstacle to the development of a modern economy." (p 119) and "To begin with, a Saudi employer, loving exaggerated flattery, usually will regard intellectual honesty in the form of criticism as a personal insult" (p 119). Should it be any surprise that Ms. Mackey reports: "I, like all Westerners, found it almost impossible to become a friend, in a Western sense of the term, with a Saudi" (p 110). Perhaps the Saudi's "sensitivities" included detecting "the Ugly American" and avoiding same, since other expatriates were able to establish relationships of friendship. Overall, her book reads like a "reporter" visiting, say, Taos, NM, reading the police blotter, reporting only this, and believing they have captured the essence of this exciting town. Furthermore, there simply is no empathy for a people who endured the ultimate in "future shock" of economic development.

She also engaged in much speculation on the political inner workings of the Royal Family that must cause chuckles among them if they have bothered to read this book. Clearly, unlike Tocqueville, they have not withstood the test of time.

Early in the book, on page 10, after a brief tour of Syria, Jordan and Israel in 1997, she declares that "... I was, by now, inescapably addicted to life in the Middle East." Why, one wonders? After enduring the "hardships" she relishes relating of their first two years, why return? Her second chapter is entitled "The Magic Kingdom," but the "magic" other expats found is never identified. Upon her return, she does relate that there are a vast number of improvements, but never speculates how, with what she had previously identified as the "Saudi mentality," that this is possible.

I did not give the book a 1-star rating because occasionally she did see "arrogance" in Westerners, (though she apparently avoided the mirror); she was able to wisely discuss the Saudi form of "democracy," i.e., their consensus building process p (205); identified, and longed for the beauty of the desert (p 227); and described other positive developments on page 265. Also, the book is not the utter fantasy that some books about the Kingdom are.

"The difference is that when a Saudi fails he never accepts the responsibility but blames it on `bad luck', the unfairness of the teacher, the difficulty of the material, and, in the end, the will of Allah." (p119) America remains bogged down in two endless war, and is now commencing the worst financial crisis since the 1930's, yet we have a President who still believes that he made no mistakes, other than a few inappropriate expressions he once uttered, and we have Wall Street and Detroit lining up for government handouts, yet no leader seems to be willing to accept responsibility for their actions. It is the "differential diagnosis" that this book so painfully lacks.

Others have detected the flaws and negativity in this book, including the posted review from the Library Journal. But it IS a book that should be read, critically, because it is another case which illustrates how faulty our "intelligence" is, and how Western attitudes towards this part of the world are formed. A revision of these attitudes is required, for the United States simply cannot afford to engage in endless conflict.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on November 19, 2008)
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Old book, written in the eighties, 9 Aug 2007
Medic/911 (Washington state) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom (Paperback)
This book was written in the early eighties. Although it was an interesting account of Saudi Arabia in its time. It is now very outdated. The attempt to revise this book failed. It has nothing new to offer over the old version. There are several interesting and up to date books written about Saudi Arabia, that may be more relevant to the reader. Sorry but this book is not it.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Poor judgements, even poorer writing!, 9 Dec 2007
K. Khan (London, England) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom (Paperback)
Sandra is the typical Western woman, 'rushing' as she says in her book to the fat-cat salaries that Westerners command but not making the slightest effort to understand or explain Saudi culture, religion or any other custom with a straight face. Instead, she has resorted to her imperialist tradition of smearing her face with the greed so easily visible of Westerners 'rushing' to Saudi. It's quite simple, if you didn't quite like it that much, there was always the request to 'beg' your Saudi masters for the exit visa now, wasn't there Sandra.
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The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom
The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom by Sandra Mackey (Paperback - 14 Jan 2003)
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