Saudi Arabia need not be an enigma. French scholar Menoret demonstrates the wide array of information available about Saudi society—from detailed statistics to frank press accounts—on sensitive subjects as well as on the mundane. The picture emerging from his account is in many ways similar to that of other middle-income developing countries. As in most such societies, many are left out of modernization: 55 percent of young Saudis do not complete middle school, showing that the problem with Saudi education is not only its content but its limited reach. Despite this, government schooling has created a mass-educated middle class: by 1996, as many book titles (3,700) were published each year in Saudi Arabia as in the rest of the Arab world combined, other than Egypt and Lebanon. A similar mixed picture characterizes all aspects of Saudi society. Modernization has even reached into homes: the average number of children borne to a women dropped from 8.26 in 1980 to 4.37 in 2000 and appears to be continuing downwards. Yet massively inappropriate government policies—expenditures on all the wrong things, perverse regulations, inappropriate education, feeding of unrealistic expectations, open doors for immigrants—has created a job crisis so severe that only 19 percent of working-age Saudis hold jobs; even among men, the rate is only 32 percent.
If Saudi Arabia remains poorly understood, much of the explanation is that scholars such as Menoret devote their energies to denying the obvious. In the midst of the rich information he provides, Menoret offers such analytical nonsense as, "the evolution of Saudi society owes very little to Islam." Indeed, his main theme is that it is an "essentialist" error to understand Saudi society as being shaped by radical Islam, Bedouin tribalism, and oil wealth—precisely the three forces that have most shaped Saudi Arabia. Even more nonsensically, Menoret blames Islamist terrorism by Saudis not on Salafi Islam but on "the worst features of the West: a crude will to power, corrupt arrangements, police violence and media lies"—as though such features were not amply present in Arabia long before the West arrived in the region. Menoret's mixture of detailed knowledge and stubborn denial of reality should warn off those who think listening to experts would result in improved U.S. policies.