Saudi Arabia on the Edge

The Uncertain Future of an American Ally

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Of all the countries in the world that are vital to the strategic and economic interests of the United States, Saudi Arabia is the least understood by the American people. Saudi Arabia's unique place in Islam makes it indispensable to a constructive relationship between the non-Muslim West and the Muslim world. For all its wealth, the country faces daunting challenges that it lacks the tools to meet: a restless and young population, a new generation of educated women demanding opportunities in a closed society, political stagnation under an octogenarian leadership, religious extremism and intellectual backwardness, social division, chronic unemployment, shortages of food and water, and troublesome neighbors.

Today's Saudi people, far better informed than all previous generations, are looking for new political institutions that will enable them to be heard, but these aspirations conflict with the kingdom's strict traditions and with the House of Saud's determination to retain all true power. Meanwhile, the country wishes to remain under the protection of American security but still clings to a system that is antithetical to American values.

More on:

Saudi Arabia

Politics and Government

Basing his work on extensive interviews and field research conducted in the kingdom from 2008 through 2011 under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations, Thomas W. Lippman dissects this central Saudi paradox for American readers, including diplomats, policymakers, scholars, and students of foreign policy.

A Council on Foreign Relations Book

More on:

Saudi Arabia

Politics and Government

Reviews and Endorsements

Tom Lippman has done it again. Saudi Arabia on the Edge is a worthy successor to his classic, Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia. Meticulously researched, this fascinating book debunks the myths and stereotypes about Saudi Arabia that pervade Western observations. The author shares with us his wisdom honed by decades of experience in Saudi Arabia. He presents a realistic and occasionally alarming picture of an economic and political giant beset by a gathering storm of challenges in a rapidly changing world. I highly recommend this thoughtful perspective.

Robert W. Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia

The consummate inside guide to Saudi Arabia by Tom Lippman, the insider's insider.

Robert Lacey, author of Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia weathered the Arab Spring of 2011 without the convulsions of many of its neighbors. But Tom Lippman understands that the country has actually undergone social, economic, and even cultural changes over the last four decades as momentous as the political upheavals other Arab countries are now experiencing. His book is a good introduction to the Saudi paradox of social change and political stability and an invaluable guide to the challenges the country faces.

F. Gregory Gause III, chair of the Department of Political Science and former director of the Middle East studies program, University of Vermont

Saudi Arabia on the Edge is an important book by an important writer. It offers a place to start for anyone looking to understand Saudi Arabia and the multiple challenges the country is facing. Lippman shows that Saudi Arabia's leaders are fully aware of them: a demographic youth bubble, increasing energyconsumption at home, an aging leadership, and troubles with Iran, among others. The challenge, of course, is how to manage all of this. One place to start is by reading Lippman's book.

Rachel Bronson, author of Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia and vice president for studies, Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Thomas Lippman's Saudi Arabia on the Edge is an excellent introduction to Saudi Arabian politics as well as the economic and social challenges facing the Kingdom today. He manages to show the complexities of this country without over simplifying and treats these in a balanced way, eschewing the excessive praise or the vilification that often typify books on the Kingdom. He has been a keen observer of the Saudi scene for a number of decades and his deep insights inform this work. This is best book available for an introduction to contemporary Saudi Arabia.

Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies; director, the Transregional Institute, Princeton University

In the News

NYT: Saudi Women Shatter the Lingerie Ceiling

A CFR Book. Potomac Books

Thomas Lippman at the Middle East Institute

A CFR Book. Potomac Books

Thomas Lippman Discusses His Book

A CFR Book. Potomac Books

Washington Post: Cohen Op-Ed on Saudi Arabia

A CFR Book. Potomac Books

Thomas Lippman on al-Monitor

A CFR Book. Potomac Books

Thomas Lippman in the Montreal Review

A CFR Book. Potomac Books

Top Stories on CFR


Russia’s early setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine could have foreclosed on some of President Vladimir Putin’s sweeping war objectives, but he is unlikely to relent given the conflict’s momentum.  


The Federal Reserve’s dual mandate of price stability and maximum employment presents trade-offs as the Fed grapples with the next move of interest rates. 


CFR experts discuss President Joe Biden’s decision to increase tariffs on various Chinese imports and the implications for the U.S. economy and U.S.-China relations.