This section has my reviews of books pertinent to Saudi Arabia, Saudi culture and religion, and reform within the region.
The following books are reviewed in this section:
Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World by Stephen O’Shea
Arabian Knight by Thomas Lippman
Wolves of the Crescent Moon by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III
If Olaya Street Could Talk — Saudi Arabia: The Heartland of Oil and Islam by John Paul Jones
Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia by Rachel Bronson
Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden by Osama bin Laden, Bruce Lawrence (Editor), James Howarth (Translator)
National Security of Saudi Arabia: Threats, Responses, and Challenges by Anthony H. Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid
Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis by John R. Bradley
The Kingdom: Arabia & the House of Sa’ud by Robert Lacey
Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Relationship with Saudi Arabia by Thomas Lippman
The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones
The Age of Sacred Terror by Daniel Benjamin & Steven Simon
For the general reader as well as the specialist, for Westerners as much as Arabs, Stephen O’Shea’s Sea of Faith is a very good read. O’Shea tells a broad story of Christian and Islamic conflict during the medieval period, organizing it around a handful of battles: Yarmuk (636), Poitiers (732), Manzikert (1071), Hattin (1187), Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Constantinople (1453) and Malta (1565). More important, he makes a great effort to explain and describe periods of convivencia—times when a modus vivendi was found in which Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations found a way of living together peacefully and productively, no matter which power was on top.
The book packs a lot of disparate history within its covers. From the early spread of Islam to the repurposing of mosques and churches, from the architecture of the Krak des Chevaliers or the Zisa in Palermo to the scholarship of Roger II of Sicily, O’Shea shines light on many of the neglected corners of medieval times. Consistent throughout, though, is his depiction of a flow of history based on contingent politics, often using religion as a motivating force to help achieve very political ends, whether the actors were Christians or Muslims. He notes the way in which Christian rulers would ally themselves with Muslim rulers in fights against other Christians and their own Muslim allies. By the time of the various Crusades, it appears that it was every ruler for himself, with Aleppo battling Damascus, only pausing to take aim, variously, at Egypt or the occupying Latin kings. The role of the Nizaris, moving from their holds in the Jebel Ansariya to kill on order inconvenient rulers—Christian or Muslim—is well detailed without hyperbole. Of particular note is how only a distinct atrocity by one leader or another could serve to unify, for a time, the competing factions. Once the atrocity was avenged, things reverted to their messy norm.
The book offers many helpful reminders that, while history may not repeat itself, it certainly does “rhyme,” as Mark Twain is alleged to have noted. The following quote, from Isaac of Étoile, an English Cistercian monk of the twelfth century, is not at all dissimilar — with a word change or two — from what we read today from leaders caviling about those who pervert their own understandings of Islam:
This dreadful new military order that someone has rather pleasantly called the order of the fifth gospel was founded for the purpose of forcing infidels to accept the faith at the point of the sword. Its members consider that they have every right to attack anyone not confessing Christ’s name, leaving him destitute, whereas if they themselves are killed while thus unjustly attacking the pagans, they are called martyrs for the faith…. We do not maintain that all they do is wrong, but we do insist that what they are doing can be an occasion of many future evils.
As much as the conflicts, however, O’Shea also focuses on the long periods in which peace of a sort reigned. He writes that for a variety of reasons—physical or financial exhaustion, inconvenient deaths, decadence—war became unpalatable or impossible. Whether in Cordoba and other centers of Andalusia or in the Christian courts of Spain, Sicily or Outremer, rulers found that they needed to maintain good relations with the majority population. The Latin powers needed the local population to till the fields and build the castles. Muslim rulers faced the same issues in Andalusia. As a result, East became West and West became East, with each side adopting local practices and, in some cases, values. This led to periods of great intellectual and artistic achievement, as both learned of and from the other. Even here, though, politics reared one of its uglier heads. Overzealous Europeans newly arrived in the Holy Land complained bitterly about the “poulains” who they thought had “gone native.” In a situation familiar to many modern diplomats, those with regional expertise had to defend themselves against their own, whose ideological sense of duty conflicted with the limits of the possible. Things weren’t any better on the Muslim side. Rulers from Spain to eastern Turkey and Iraq were accused by the fervid of being too soft or of out-and-out apostasy for their lack of belligerence.
Sea of Faith also provides a corrective for those whose last run-ins with this time period date back a while. O’Shea notes that the Chanson de Roland, which actually refers to Roland’s rear-guard action against the Basques, was revised to meet a later need for anti-Islamic propaganda. The Cid was typical of his era as an opportunistic warrior for hire, not only a brave Christian defender of the faith.
O’Shea’s earlier books—on the western front during World War I (Back to Front), where he sought to find and photograph the locations of various battles, and his look at the crusade against the Albigensians of Languedoc (The Perfect Heresy)—are partial models for this work. Scattered throughout are photographs, maps and prints (uncredited) of the periods on which he focuses. The quality of reproduction is not great, but they are adequate, enriching the text and providing context for the reader. Several seem to be his personal photographs of the locations of the battle grounds, often based on a best-guess as the precise locations are lost to us. Others are of the statuary erected over the centuries to commemorate what is often lost to even local memory. The reader gets the sense that O’Shea is doing what he can to ensure that history is not totally forgotten.
Sea of Faith makes great use of contemporary records—Muslim, Christian and Jewish—to tell how the events were seen contemporaneously as well as by later historians. In his extensive endnotes, he expands his theses, providing further quotation and argument. Also included in the end matter is a “who’s who” of the period, a basic timeline and a very useful, 10-page bibliography of sources.
This book provides a great look at a period that is usually poorly studied in both American and Arab classrooms. It will prove useful at the high school and university levels as an auxiliary text. For the general reader, it shines an exciting, often humorous light.
William Alfred Eddy, born in Sidon in the Ottoman province of Syria to Protestant missionary parents, played a central role in many of the issues that now confront us. His name is known, to some extent, by people involved in those issues, but to the general public he is completely unknown.
Eddy was: a US Marine Corps hero of WWI; the President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges; head of an OSS spy ring that eased the Allied invasion of North Africa; one of the driving forces in the development of US-Saudi relations; the person responsible for the first formal relations between the US and Yemen; up to his eyeballs in the post-war politics of Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria; possibly involved in coups in those countries; the architect of the scuttling of the Onasis oil tanker deal of the 1950s; political analyst for ARAMCO; the founder of the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence & Research (INR); one of the designers of the CIA; one of the first to warn about the rise of militant Islam; and a strident anti-Zionist.
This last, I believe, is why he is so little known today. Eddy believed that it was not in the interest of the US to support the creation of the state of Israel. While the general antipathy of the period toward Jews might have played a role in this, his writings suggest that it was patriotism rather than anti-Semitism that was his motivation. Then as now, though, anti-Zionism could be cast as anti-Semitism and thus devalue whatever critique was being offered. The warnings Eddy gave of the repercussions from the US recognition of Israel were prescient, if a few decades too early.
The book is an excellent one. Lippman, former Washington Post correspondent, adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, and author of several books including Inside the Mirage, knows his subject matter and has done an excellent job of collecting resources for this biography and interpreting them for readers.
The book is also, I believe, Lippman’s reply to critics of Inside the Mirage who claimed, fairly or not, that he focused only on the positive aspects of US-Saudi relations and ARAMCO. In this book, he does address issues such as labor unrest and efforts to squelch nascent unionization of workers in the oil fields.
Where the book fails, if it can be claimed to fail, is that Eddy’s life encompassed so much history and affects so much of current affairs that each of the aspects of his life is deserving of its own book. It’s not fair to criticize an author for not writing the book(s) he did not write, though. What Lippman has given us is a well-researched book that puts Eddy into a perspective available to today’s general reader.
Arabian Knight caught my attention for both professional and personal reasons. Eddy played a critical role in much of what has occupied my career. He was also the godfather of my father-in-law and a major influence on his life. I had heard stories about Eddy, first- and second-hand for a good number of years, so, when this book arrived, I was eager to dig into it. I was not disappointed.
This is a peculiar novel. It doesn’t have a lot of action in it, except through flashbacks, and nothing much actually happens to the main character, Turad, as he sits in a bus station pondering his next move.
What is very interesting is that the stories within the novel give clear descriptions of the lives of three ‘outcasts’ from Saudi society. One, Turad, is a Bedouin who has been thrown out of his tribe due to his history of raiding Haj caravans as well as the disfiguring injury he acquired while a caravan took retribution on him and his partner. The second is ‘Amm Tawfiq’, a Sudanese captured into slavery as a child, brought to Saudi Arabia, castrated, then put to serve in a rich (perhaps royal) household until slavery was outlawed in the 1960s. The third character is largely the creation of Turad’s imagination: he find a folder filled with personal information about an orphan and creates a life for ‘Nasir Abdulilah Hasan Abdullah’, whose name is picked at random by authorities and whose own mutilations forever color his life. We learn, however, that the imagined ‘Nasir’ may have little to do with the real one. That leaves the question about who he might actually be thoroughly in the air, never to be resolved in the novel.
Reading the story, one learns very quickly that it’s not terribly difficult to become an outcast in Saudi Arabia, even if the stories are set in the 1950s or 60s. Without a family, without a tribe, without an ‘Al- in front of your name’, one can have a very difficult time even making ends meet, finding a home, keeping a job.
Turad does not help his case as he intertwines anger and pride, walking out of jobs at which he feels he’s been insulted. He’s happy enough to take work as a ‘tea-boy’ or a gate guard, but won’t stoop to the level of African immigrants who wash windshields at stoplights.
‘Amm Tawfiq’ is a gentler soul, but one who has had to scrape by with whatever he can find. When slavery ended, he was tossed to the street with no marketable skills. He, too, will take what work he can find and he considers any of it honorable enough.
The imaginary Nasir has his own gantlet to run: living in a state institution for most of his childhood, taken in by a Saudi woman who treats him affectionately and generously until she becomes pregnant herself. Then, he is tossed back into the institution.
I can’t recommend Wolves of the Crescent Moon as a novel, but I can recommend it for its view into a part of Saudi life and society that is almost never mentioned in Western media. The cruelty might be known, but the pain of those on the receiving end—even Saudis—is far too little known.
When I learned of The Garden of Last Days, I had to read it. Not only does the novel portray one of the 9/11 highjackers, Bassam Al-Jizani, a Saudi from Khamis Mushayt—a pastiche character, combining reported attributes of several of the terrorists, but laid over a model provided by the Al-Shehri brothers—it is also set in the city in which I live, Sarasota, Florida. The book, then, is apt subject matter for Crossroads Arabia. Because I know both places, I think I have a pretty good perspective on the novel.
In terms of the mise en place, the settings, the novel does a so-so job. The novelist, Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog, gets things sort-of right. He has the main geography of Sarasota down, but moves streets around. Indeed, he moves the Gulf of Mexico quite a bit, making it visible from places several miles inland. He does capture part of the subculture of the region, the lower middle class and rising lower class and those stuck in never-going-to-make-it dead ends.
For the Saudis portrayed, the reality is a bit more tenuous. Dubus seems to take the reactions of Sayyed Qutb, recorded following his travel to the US in the 1940s, as his starting point. He adds some Usama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda talking points, and paint his Arab characters rather cartoonishly. Dubus seems to project an awful lot of maximalist Islamist rhetoric as the givens for his social equation. I suppose reasonable projection of motivation is fine in fiction, but one has to remember that this is, in fact, fiction.
Perhaps the most jarringly off-target portrayal is that of the five-year-old girl around whom much of the novel’s action centers. Her thought processes as written are those of an older child. She shows far too much self-awareness (more than some of the adults, in fact) than any typical five-year-old possibly could.
In actuality, the book is about self-loathing and the way in which mistakes cascade from little errors of judgment to torrents of events, inescapable as gravity.
The Saudi hijacker portrayed is Bassam Al-Jizani, the least-favored son of a businessman who deals with construction at the air base in Khamis Mushayt. Seen as the weakest of the litter, Bassam is compelled to find a way to distinguish himself from his eldest brother, Khalid, his most-favored sibling, even after Khalid’s death in an auto accident. He finds his ‘salvation’ in extremist Islam, buying completely the twisted vision of Usama bin Laden. His every moment is spent judging those around him, condemning them to the fires of Jahannam because they are ignorant of the sins they commit in merely living outside of Islam. He’s not above going to a strip club or sharing the services of a whore with his roommate, but only to ‘experience the degradation’ he seeks to annihilate.
April, who dances at the Puma strip club under the name ‘Spring’, is a single mother who is happy to separate fools from their money. She intends to work as a stripper—and not as a prostitute—while raising the money to start buying real estate in order to retire and live on rental income. Her pride and her distress of growing up in a New England backwater lead her to looking for the easy money. For the purposes of the book, she errs most sharply in bringing her five-year-old daughter to the club one night when her babysitter is unavailable.
The last of the main characters is ‘A.J.’, a Florida ‘cracker’ with anger management issues. After striking his wife, he’s served with a restraining order that keeps him away from her and their young son. The loneliness of the separation provides the push that puts ‘A.J.’ into deeper and deeper trouble, all fueled by anger and alcohol.
April and Bassam intersect in their lives as Bassam drops thousands of dollars on her for dancing for him. April and A.J. collide as he seeks to ‘save’ her daughter from the club from which he was thrown out earlier in the momentous night a few days before 9/11.
The book doesn’t shed any light on the events of 9/11. It only gives us one writer’s speculation on what might have been going through the mind of one hijacker, based on what little documentation is available. For instance, we do know that some of the attackers studied flying in Sarasota, that some spent money in strip clubs and on prostitutes on the eve of the attacks. Exactly what Dubus bases his theological/political speculation upon is unclear and definitely unstated. Dubus has done some research into the biographies of the 9/11 attackers and comes up with a possibility, but it doesn’t ring true. Instead, it reads more like the cullings of Al-Qaeda rhetoric as interpreted by Islamophobic writers. Sometimes, fiction can be ‘truer’ than non-fiction. Not this time around.
Dubus’ examination of the motivation of his other characters is better because they are also more commonplace and available to him. The stripper single mother appears in lots of stories—a distressingly large number of which are set in Florida! The redneck with anger, woman, and alcohol problems provides the basis for the bulk of Country-Western music. There’s nothing new here: it’s just a wallow in the sadness of people’s lives.
The book is okay for summer beach reading, I guess, but don’t look to it for any perceptive view into the mind of a terrorist.
Most people are aware, at least in broad strokes, how Islam spread from Mecca and Medina in the 7th Century, to encompass a territory the size of the Roman Empire, all within about a hundred years. Hugh Kennedy provides the details of the spread, starting with 632CE, the date of the death of the Prophet, to 750CE, the date by which the conquest was essentially finished. (A late chapter deals with the final nudges on the borders in both South and Central Asia and in the Iberian Peninsula.) Perhaps even more interesting, he provides an excellent discussion of the problems of historiography, pointing out the difficulties in assessing sources, often written one or two hundred years after the events they report and clearly operating from a biased point of view, Muslim, Christian, and other.
Kennedy, who teaches in the Department of Medieval History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, takes his history seriously. He believes that too many Western historians in the past have simply dismissed the early Arab histories because they are incredibly contradictory, cannot even seem to settle on dates of when events happened (sometimes with up to an eight-year difference, depending on who’s doing the reporting). He understands that the early Arab histories are very unlike Western histories in their structures and in the things they think worth reporting, but also in what purpose those histories serve. Even here, though, Kennedy thinks that there’s much to be learned by taking those histories for what they are: reflections of social attitudes at the time the histories were written about earlier events.
The Great Arab Conquests is divided into chapters that deal with different phases of the expansion of Islam into the different regions. After his Preface, dealing with the problems of source materials, he provides a geo-political look at the world of the time. The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium, even though they never used that word for themselves) had been greatly weakened by wars with the Persian Sassanid (Kennedy uses ‘Sasanian’) Empire. Both had pounded each other over a period of centuries and now both were spent. On top of the devastation of continuous war, Kennedy point out, was the effect of a plague that had swept the world. Much like the later Black Plague, he argues, this plague reduced populations devastatingly; as much as one-third of the region’s population had died. Arabia, that is, the region south of Syria, had been largely spared because the climate simply was not right for the rats and fleas that thrived in the cities and villages in the more developed world.
In short, by the time the Arabs were ready to expand, there were a lot of empty places for them to expand into and only very small armies prepared to stop them.
Kennedy then takes on each of the regions of the expansion in more-or-less chronological order (he does note when actions are taking place simultaneously in other regions). He addresses Syria and Palestine; Iraq; Egypt; Iran; the Maghreb; ‘Crossing the Oxus’; the battles to consolidate a border in Central Asia; and ‘The War at Sea’. He wraps up with a look at what the peoples conquered had to say about it and then offers his conclusions.
While he does not make a point of it, what Kennedy really shows is the result of discord (fitna) on both the Islamic and non-Islamic world. Within the Christian realm, there was brutal struggle between orthodox (as defined by the rulers in Constantinople) and heterodox churches in Egypt, Syria, and North Africa. Religious repression was so strong that many felt that the rule of Muslimsâ€”even with second class political and social status and the jizya taxesâ€”would be lighter than Roman rule. In Persia, there was nothing but chaos following the death of Chosroes II in 628. Would-be successors were so busy fighting each other for ascendency that they were unable to defend against the Arab armies, though each tried to make alliances with the Arabs for their own benefit.
North Africa, with its predominantly Berber population, and Central Asia, with a mixed population of Persians, Turks, and small indigenous groups, proved the most difficult areas for the Arabs to proceed militarily. Rather than formal battles, these peoples engaged in guerrilla warfareâ€”insurgency, if you willâ€”to keep the Arab presence limited to fixed fortresses.
Kennedy points out that for the most part, the Arab armies did not simply move in and settle down. Instead, they swept through regions, upsetting and replacing the distant prior rulers. Only in cities that put up a fight were there identifiable massacres of populations; most capitulated, agreed to pay tribute, and simply went on with life as before. In cities that had capitulated and then went back on their surrenders, the Arab armies exacted very serious tolls, however, sometimes slaughtering everyone in the city.
Perhaps the most interesting thread of The Arab Conquests is how religion, the banner under which the expansion started in Arabia, would be variable used in other regions. In most places, politics and economics took precedence as demonstrated by treaties that often contained clauses that were seen as non-Islamic, even forbidden by the Quran, by those sitting in Medina or Damascus.
The Arab Conquests has useful maps for the different regions, an assortment of not particularly useful pictures of various places and things mentioned in the text, endnotes almost all focused on sources, a very good bibliography, and index. The book, as Kennedy acknowledges, is not a military historyâ€”the Arab commentators just weren’t interested in the kind of reporting common to that genre. Instead, it’s more a social and political history of the times and places. That is enough to make this a very good book that puts into context something that is clouded in myth by Western, Arab, and Muslim populations today. Highly recommended.
John Paul Jones, who worked as a hospital administrator at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, has written a book about his experiences in the Kingdom between 1978 and 2003. His time there, some 25+ years (with a four-year break in the late-1980s/early 1990s), covered an enormous jump in development in the country, with concomitant changes in attitudes, flexibility, and knowledge about the outside world, not all of it positive.
This book is a personal memoir. As such it has stories about what made Jones who he is, particularly his experiences in Vietnam, which colored his view of Americans, particularly Americans abroad. While there’s no shortage of Americans behaving badly while abroadâ€”including journalistsâ€”they are, in fact, outnumbered by those who live quiet, even admirable lives. The book focuses, perhaps, a bit too much on the negative.
But Jones led an unusual life as an expat in Saudi Arabia. He wasn’t closeted in some expat compound, kept away from the life of the city and the country behind walls. Not only did his work put him in daily contact with a variety of Saudis, from superiors and hospital peers, to patients and government officials. He also made the effort to spend his free time out in the countryside, whether on desert trips to places of scenic beautyâ€”unknown to most Saudisâ€”or diving trips to the Red Sea reefs. He learned to speak Arabic with some facility and how to negotiate the strange curves thrown up by bureaucrats and security officials.
His book details some of the in-house fighting that took place in the King Faisal Specialist Hospital as administrations changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. He talks about how events in the Kingdom and outside it led to major changes in the interpersonal relationships between people who had been working peacefully together for years. The flexibility and quiet discretion shown toward ‘non-Islamic behavior’ by Saudi officials gradually tightened over the years so that whereas his wife was able to get by in public without an abaya at the start of his service, she was more comfortable wearing one toward the end… yet still had to fend off helpful individuals and religious police who thought she would be best off is she wore hijab.
Unlike many expat memoirs, Jones does not fill his book with ‘war stories’ or settling scores, though there is some of both. Instead, he tries to focus on what he loved about his time in Saudi Arabia, and there truly is much to love about the country and its people. The book makes for light, enjoyable reading, offering insights into how Saudi bureaucracy works, doesn’t work, and is made to function when necessary through the application of wasta or influence.
I am sure that John and I crossed paths in Riyadh, perhaps even at the King Faisal Hospital, though I confess I don’t recall him. I share many of his views of Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabs, though not all. I fear I don’t share his perceptions of the US very much at all. I find his to be rather typical of American expats who tend to lose touch with the US, instead forming opinions based on what they see or read in the media. As poor as American media coverage is of Saudi Arabia, Saudi coverage of the US is even worse, generally being written by and for a Eurocentric ‘intelligentsia’ full of received wisdom and a lot of post-colonialist claptrap. But opinions are free and Jones is certainly free to his own. While his expression of them in this book certainly took away some of my pleasure in reading it, his more reportorial sections are also certainly worthwhile.
I do recommend If Olaya Street Could Talk to those readers who are interested in an insider’s view of Saudi Arabia during a period of recent, major changes.
The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda By Yaroslav Trofimov, Doubleday, New York, 2007
There is no doubt that the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was a defining moment for Saudi Arabia—and the world, as it would turn out. The siege pulled Saudi Arabia’s modernization efforts to a complete stop and set them in reverse. It, along with other events happening in the world, provided a basis by which extreme forms of fundamental Islam would receive legitimacy, at least to some.
I feel particularly qualified to discuss this book because the siege, and other events, had a direct effect on my career in the US Foreign Service. I first arrived in Saudi Arabia, in the Eastern Province where some of the story unfolds, barely 18 months after the events portrayed in the book. I’ve known and worked with nearly every American cited in it. The ramifications of the siege colored the next 25 years of my life, continuing ’til today.
In telling the story of the siege, Trofimov, a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, provides an extremely useful service in providing the background of the period, not just of the immediate events. In this background, we find the origins of extremist terrorism in the name of Islam. There is a straight line to be drawn between Mecca, 1979, through 9/11, to the terrorism the world is experiencing in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, London, Madrid, Bali, and elsewhere.
In February of 1979, the regime of the Shah of Iran fell. For the first time in centuries, a militant, political Islam was ascendant. Almost overnight, Muslims, both Shi’a and Sunni, realized that an autocratic government, even one supported by the United States, was not invulnerable. On November 4 (incidentally, four days after I received my commission as a US Foreign Service Officer), militants seized the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American diplomats and staff hostage.
It so happened that November 20 in the Western calendar corresponded not only to the start of a new year in the Islamic calendarâ€”the first day of the month of Muharramâ€”but also the start of a new century, 1400 Hijri. As we know from the antics surrounding Y2K, the turning of a century or millennium tends to draw out strange behaviors from religious fanatics. Islam was no different. A group of extreme fundamentalist came to believe that the date signaled the coming of the Mahdi, a precursor to the Final Days and the end of earthly time. The group, under the leadership of Juhayman bin Mohammed Utaibi, believed that one of their fellows, Mohammed Abdullah Al-Qahtani was this Mahdi. The group, with around 500 members, decided that they would take over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and that Muslims around the world would recognize the righteousness of their deeds, rise up and overthrow repressive Muslim governments, and bring on the final, eschatological war between Islam and the rest of the world.
This book gives a day-by-day account of the takeover of the mosque, the Saudi government’s attempts to regain control, and the final steps taken to finally put down the uprising with the tactical assistance of a three-person unit of specialized French forces. It cuts back and forth between discussions being held in Washington (which utterly missed the significance of the event), the US Embassy in Jeddah, and the Saudi government, in Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca, and Tunis, where senior Saudi officials were attending an Arab League Summit. The book also looks at violent events in Pakistan, India, Turkey, and other Islamic states where rumors held that it was the United States and/or Israel that had taken over the mosque. Taken together, they paint a picture not at all unlike what we see today as terrorists, believing they are acting in the interests of Islam, kill innocents under the theory that if they are good, God will grant them heaven.
Trofimov is very good when he discusses the paradoxical behavior of the Saudi Ulema, the religious leaders who advise and provide legitimacy to the government. Under the leadership of Abdelaziz Bin Baz, the group found itself torn between seeking puritanical behavior from government officials and recognizing that the current government was its own best bet for continuing in power. He’s on the mark, too, in recognizing the high price the Saudi government paid for continued support. Many of the modest reforms that had taken place in Saudi Arabia were rolled back to meet the Ulema’s demands. These retrenchments included the closure of cinemas, the banishing of female announcers from Saudi TV, and the allotment of generous sums to the propagation of the faith.
When dealing with the events in Mecca, Trofimov does an excellent job. The writing is compelling… ‘Couldn’t put it down’ is a comment you hear from many who have read it. When he gets into analysis of the history of Saudi Arabia or the meaning of particular actions, though, he misses the mark sometimes. Early on, for instance, he states that in the 1930s, the Saudi state tried to settle the Ikhwanâ€”the tribal, Bedouin armiesâ€”because their wandering lives kept them away from the water necessary for religious ablutions. That’s nonsense: Islam has had solutions to the problem of the lack of water for ritual purposes since its earliest days. Rather, at least according to the histories of the country by Madawi Al-Rasheed and Alexei Vassiliev, settling the tribes was done intentionally to stop their traditional livelihood: raids on other tribes. Similarly, Trofimov imputes motives and recycles stereotypes without defending or even explaining them. A small annoyance is the use of automatic spell-checking where, speaking of the treads on mechanized vehicles, threads appears universally.
All-in-all, The Siege of Mecca is very much worth reading. If you are not a Middle East specialist, he draws a clear picture, though some of the details remain obscure. If you are a specialist, he reveals details that have been covered in secrecy until now. In either case, he tells an exciting story of a government faced with an unthinkable fact and its scramble to fix problems before they spiral out of control. Highly recommended.
Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia By Rachel Bronson, Oxford University Press, USA, 2006
Rachel Bronsonâ€™s book is currently the â€œbest book on Saudi Arabiaâ€. Her focus is a bit different than Lippmanâ€™s Inside the Mirage (reviewed below) , and she gets into the â€œnuts and boltsâ€ of the US-Saudi relationship more deeply. Her book is also more current, having been written last fall and winter, and includes information about the reign of King Abdullah.
In practically every particular, Bronson reaches the same conclusions I did while living and working in the Kingdom. The current state of the US-Saudi relationship, while not great, is essentially good. It got the way it isâ€”much worse than it was 10 years agoâ€”largely through inattention by both the American and Saudi governments. The relationship had been built on an array of mutually-supporting interests, primarily brought to focus through a shared view of Communism and the Soviet Union as unalloyed evil. When the Cold War ended, the principle reason for the relationship ended, but nobody noticedâ€¦ until too late.
Even the earliest US-Saudi relations were based on more than oilâ€”though that has always been one of the “pillars” of the relationship. Take geography as an instance: At first, it was WWII and the need to keep Nazi Germany out of the Persian Gulf, Iran, and through them, Central Asia. Then it was the Cold War and Soviet designs on the region, whether it was through nationalist movements in Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen, or direct Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was the Iranian revolution that represented threats to both countries, though the specific threats of course differed.
One issue Bronson points to is one that’s often invisible to most critics of the US-Saudi relationship: crucial over-flight permissions. Whether it was in moving men and materiel to South and East Asia during WWII, or to Afghanistan and Iraq, Saudi permissions not only made these movements possible, but without them the course of history would have changed.
Today’s burning issue in the relationship, of course, is religion, or at least particular, extreme interpretations of Islam that threaten both the US and Saudi Arabia. From the Eisenhower Administration at least into the Clinton Administration, Saudi efforts to motivate action through religion were applauded by the US. Only in the mid-90s did this appear to be a problem. Unfortunately, that was exactly the period at which Saudi leadership took a turn toward the static, following King Fahd’s incapacitating stroke. As Bronson puts it, Abdullah, as regent, “ruled, but did not reign.” The difference between the two was incredibly important.
Bronson uses a vast array of sources, including American and Saudi officials, documents, and businessmen. She also has a deep and wide range of materials in her bibliography, including some of the harsher Saudi critics; this isn’t a one-sided story.
I’m pleased to see that Oxford University Press is still employing editors and proofreaders. I found no typos and only one point I consider factually incorrect: the date of the last bin Jiluwi rule in the Eastern Province.
If you want an up-to-date look at where this 70+ year relationship now stands and where it might lead, I can recommend no better book. Absolutely a must read for those interested in Saudi Arabia and US-Saudi relations!
by Osama bin Laden, Bruce Lawrence (Editor), James Howarth (Translator), Verso, London/New York 2005
This is the book Zbigniew Brzezinski didn’t read.
It’s a book many people should read. The only compilation of Bin Laden’s major interviews, letters, and statements, translated into English, Messages to the World makes clear what his agenda is. He is not a political radical with a goal that might be achieved, somehow, on this earth. Rather, he is an Islamic millennialist who will be satisfied only when earth and heaven intersect in a particular, prescribed way.
Messages to the World is good, but not as good as it might be. It’s also bad, but not as bad as it might be either.
What’s good, beyond the mere fact of its comprehensive nature, is that Lawrence adds helpful annotation to Bin Laden’s words, pointing to the various quotations from the Quran and hadith and Islamic traditions that he cites in his messages. This helps interested readers to track down what is being said. The chapter headings and other footnotes also provide context both to the occasions on which the various statements were made and to the historical events Bin Laden alludes to in his statements.
Contextual assistance, however, could be stronger. Rather than simply noting whose collection of hadith is the source of a quotation, Lawrence could have provided more information about the collections. Nowhere is it made clear that some hadith are considered more authentic or less authentic than others, nor where the collections cited stand in that spectrum. A simple list of the collections with a note to their considered authenticity would have been very helpful. More historical context, about “Al-Andalus” (Islamic Iberia)
Footnotes and chapter headings also provide a little too much space for Lawrence’s own politics to enter. He has a tendency to take Bin Laden’s assessment of recent history as fairly accurate, particularly if it concerns a “hegemonic America,” leaving little room for more complete narratives. Nowhere does he seem aware, either, that Bin Laden’s world view is not merely extremist Islamic, but also colored by Soviet active measures put into play throughout South Asiaâ€”including Afghanistanâ€”during the 1980s. Bin Laden’s assertion that the CIA created AIDS, for instance, is quoted, but there is no mention of the fact that this conspiracy theory was strongly promoted by the KGB in this and other regions.
Nevertheless, it is important that English-reading audiences can see exactly what drives Bin Laden, how he sees the world, what he demands before he can put down his weapons.
His “Letter to Americans,” for instance, contains a lengthy list of complaints about American behavior toward the Arab and Islamic world. He sees America, as exemplar of the West, as being at war with Islam, blaming it for grievances from the Sykes-Picot Agreement to Hindu suppression of Muslims in India. He sees the WTO as an arm of American aggression. He considers all Americansâ€”because they vote for their governmentâ€”to be legitimate targets of his acts of perceived self-defense.
But he also tells Americans what they can do to regain peace. “The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam.” Then follows of list of 12 actions that the US (and the West) can undertake, including: “We call you to be a people of manners, principles, honor, and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury.” Also included is finger pointing for the failure to sign the Kyoto treaty, support of the Jews and Israel, permitting women to work in mixed-sex environments, the Algerian civil war, and the bending of the UN to America’s goals.
It is critical to understand the monomaniacal drive behind Bin Laden, and to understand that his goals cannot be met on this earth. There is no way to roll back the entirety of Western history, nor, for that matter, Islamic history.
by Anthony Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid, Praeger Security International, Westport, 2005
Anthony Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid, writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), have produced the current benchmark for all Saudi studies. The book provides a detailed look at the challenges facing Saudi Arabia, particularly focusing on the external threats from Yemen, Iraq, and Iran, as well as direct internal threats and long-term social and economic problems that need urgent attention.
Consolidating data from numerous sources, the book examines the military capabilities of Yemen, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia itself. It notes not only the various types of weapons systems, their ages, and their sustainability, but also the current differences the countries are experiencing. Iran, it turns out, is the most serious external threat facing the country.
The threat is essentially asymmetric warfare, aimed at economically strangling Saudi Arabia. This can be done by guerrilla-type attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure (though that is particularly well-guarded), through the use of Iran’s growing missile arsenal to damage oil loading facilities, or through simply closing the Straits of Hormuz to all traffic. Iran already has the capacity to do so; moving into a nuclear posture only makes the threat more immediate. The Saudis are well aware of this situation and work hard to maintain decent diplomatic relations with Iran, necessarily.
The Saudi military is the best equipped and, in large measure, the best trained force in the Arab Gulf states. It suffers serious problems in manpower, in interoperability with other forces, and particularly in its ability to sustain combat over much more than a few weeks. It is not capable of solving its security problems alone, and will rely on military alliances, again necessarily.
The US and UK are the most useful of these alliances. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s "Peninsula Shield" defensive force is barely more than a paper alliance. There is no interoperability, there have been few joint exercises, and there is not much political agreement on how and when it would work. This is a project that needs to develop, but at present, it is thoroughly inadequate.
Preparation for conventional military threats is one thing. Preparation for asymmetric attacks—terrorism—is quite another. Chapter 2 of the book focuses on exactly that, noting that Saudi security services have worked well since the 1990s, and better since 2003. The efforts have not been faultless, of course. They were singularly ill prepared for the attacks that came that year, but have increasingly been able to contain and diminish threats within the country. The book usefully recapitulates Saudi anti-terror efforts through December 2004. It also provides information that flies in the face of conventional wisdom (i.e., urban legends) about what the Saudis did or didn’t do relative to the 9/11 attacks.
The book correctly focuses on the issue of Saudi energy security. The authors conclude that the Saudis appear to have this well in hand. Attacks on oil wells would not be productive, they say, because it would take very sophisticated attacks, deep within the wells, to put them out of order for any extended period. Similarly, damage to pipelines is reparable within a matter of days. Attacks on refineries and processing plants would be more damaging, but still, for the most part, quickly reparable. The oil off-loading facilities, though, such as the terminals at Ras Tanura and Jubail are more vulnerable. They are also likely targets of Iranian aggression aimed at the kingdom.
The authors look at reform in Saudi Arabia, economic, political, and to a limited extent, social. They provide no new insights to one familiar to the issue, but do emphasize that in a country ruled by consensus, reform cannot be mandated from the top. But because the book is purely security oriented, I believe a major part of the story is going unreported. Saudi society is not just the sum of its social issues. It is a society that has existed, consistently and functionally, for over 1,000 years. The manners and mores that have developed are being strongly challenged by change and modernization, but are not amenable to rapid change. The Saudi government learned a lesson when the Shah of Iran was overthrown for getting too far out in front of the majority of a conservative population. The Saudi leadership has no desire to emulate him.
This book, absolutely the best current look at Saudi national security, is not flawless. The most recent citations in the book are only from April 2005, but some of the information is already dated. There have been significant developments in the meantime: the death of Fahd and the ascension of Abdullah as king; a reorganization of the government, including the institution of a National Security Council; the formation of a quasi-governmental human rights organization in addition to the existing NGO with a similar focus.
The biggest complaint I have with the book is that it seems to have missed its last run past a copy editor. Punctuation errors abound, particularly in the first part of the book. The co-authorship shows in many places where one paragraph will be followed by another, saying mostly the same thing, with only slight variation. There are serious errors where, for instance, " Iran" is used when " Iraq" is meant. Context clarifies this, but only after the reader is jolted by the incongruence into re-reading a sentence or paragraph. It diminishes the reader’s sense of authoritative analysis, particularly in charts. There are also strange errors, as when discussing Iranian unguided ballistic missiles, the books talks of the "CEP," which it describes as the "Command Experience Point." In fact, and as the book correctly notes in an endnote, it means "Circular Error Probable," a measure of the accuracy of a weapon.
The errors, however, do not substantially subtract from the utility of this book. It provides the clearest picture of the real status of Saudi security. That this picture is at variance with what is perceived by many Americans makes it all the more valuable.
This is an interesting book; it’s not necessarily a good book, but it is one that’s worth reading. It combines excellent observation of many aspects of Saudi Arabia with seriously mistaken analysis about what it all means. Much of what John Bradley, formerly Managing Editor of the Saudi English-language daily Arab News, writes has simply never been reported before. He’s blunt enough to ensure that he will never again receive a visa to enter the country. You can also safely assume that censors will not permit the book’s distribution within the KSA.
The book is highly critical of many aspects of Saudi Arabia, but avoids falling into the ignorance trap exhibited by Stephen Schwartz and Gerald Posner. He lived in the country for nearly four years. He speaks Arabic, and so was able to converse with a wide range of Saudis and lived among Saudis, not expatriates, thus exposing himself to a wide range of opinion. He did travel around the country, meeting with many different kinds of Saudis, from tribesmen in the Asir to Shiites of Al-Ahsa. He writes, though, from a Jeddah-centric point of view.
The book is divided into two roughly thematic sections, with one dealing with the Saudis, the other with expatriates working in Saudi Arabia. He has chapters on regional differences, religious differences, and the demographic time bomb lurking in the shadows. He talks of how expatriates cut themselves off from contact with ordinary Saudis (and how Saudis are perfectly happy with this), the explosion of urban crime, sexual mores, and the media. He concludes with a chapter exploring the possible futures of the kingdom.
Bradley writes with authority, of course, about what happens within the journalism industry, noting the extraordinary power wielded by South Asian sub-editors who serve as the gatekeepers for what news get published. He points out instances where these Indians and Pakistanis go much further than their Saudi bosses in censoring what gets into the papers. He describes the role of government in the media—excessive—and how editors and writers can find themselves suddenly out of work, if not in jail, for guessing wrongly about where the "red lines" marking dangerous ground exist. He dwells in ad hominem attacks on particular Saudi journalists, assigning the worst motives to them, but he also catches the absurdities of publishing the writings—as a token of honor—of clueless hacks who were formerly editors. Bradley doesn’t explain his departure from the Arab News, however, which would have been interesting. Nor does he mention the problems he’s had with the paper since his leaving. (Bradley has written in articles for other media that his articles have been removed from the Arab News website.)
He offers great insight into the place of homosexuality in Saudi society, noting accurately that it tends to be a "crime," the laws against which are rarely enforced, even by the religious police. He also writes to dispel the belief in the West that Saudi gays are executed if caught. The only recent incidents of gays’ being executed have been when they were involved in rapes— principally of minors: Rape, homo- or heterosexual, is a capital crime. Homosexuality, he writes, is generally tolerated. It’s seen as a temporary outlet for the raging hormones of young men before they marry. It’s not condoned, but accepted, as long as it doesn’t become a public matter and as long as it doesn’t lead to the breaching of other laws. His information on the extent and practice of lesbianism, not surprisingly, is rather more limited.
Perhaps the best part of the book—and most useful in understanding where at least some young Saudis stand—is the portrait he draws of a "Mohammed," a middle-class 19-year-old, much conflicted by the various pushes and pulls coming both from within and outside his country and culture.
What did Mohammed want from his life? The answer depended entirely on his mood, which had a tendency to swing rather sharply. In one mood, he wanted to join the ranks of Al-Qaeda, to act, to rebel, to lead a life with meaning and worthy of praise, even if the former was short and the later provided over his grave. In another, he only wanted to get out of Saudi Arabia forever, travel to southern Spain and marry a Catholic girl, and forget about politics altogether. And in yet another, he despaired of the consequences of perhaps having to spend the rest of his life inside the kingdom, cursing the outside world for assuming that he was a potential terrorist just because he was a Saudi. Somewhat typical adolescent angst, one might say, the desire to escape and fear of the future combined in daydreams. Except for him, and others, those daydreams included the exploding two towers. One of the tragedies of September 11 is that the deadly proficiency of the terrorists on that day was, in a very real sense, a rare validation of Arab strategic planning, which is better known for the devastating defeat in the war against Israel in 1967 and, as such, an indictment of the Arab status quo. That Al-Qaeda explicitly framed its message and justification both in the grievances of the Muslim world and in the framework of Islam helps explain why it resonates.
Young Saudis are, to all intents and purposes, devout and believing. This is what Saudi society demands of them, at least superficially, from the moment they can walk and talk, and so they do not know how to behave in any other way. Dissent on the issue of religious belief is out of the question and punishable by public beheading. So appearances must be maintained. The result is that they dwell psychologically in a series of logic-tight compartments that touch each other but never overlap, and that often relate only to the snapshots of the various competing cultures they are exposed to through the media and the mosques. To an outsider, the ability to hold manifestly inconsistent views—to cover the picture of a woman but ogle real women sun-bathing; to not listen to music but to seek to make lesbians [on-line] "hot"—may seem like outright hypocrisy. But Saudis’ thinking patterns revolve around a series of rituals, obsessions, and categories that are self-contained. On the one hand, devoutly religious and strictly so; on the other, prone to fold beliefs akin to magic and superstition, including which foot to step first into the bathroom with, or urinating on the wheel of a new car to ward off the evil eye. Their behavior does not reach the self-conscious level of hypocrisy, of believing one thing and going another, for it is a set of dissonant beliefs that they do not even recognize coexist at the same time. [pp 92-93]
The book is flawed, though, by Bradley’s insistence on riding his hobbyhorse: regional separatism. The country, he claims, is dangerously divided by regional longings for independence from the Nejd, the ancestral home of the Al-Saud in central Arabia. This, I think, is wildly overblown. There certainly are issues of regional pride and identity, complete with jokes, put-downs, and cultural sneers aimed at the largely Bedouin Nejd. But Bradley, I believe, gives too much credence to individuals akin to those who proclaim, "The South will rise again!"
Because he was based in Jeddah—cultural, but not religious capital of the Hijaz—he was clearly exposed to a Hijazi population, particularly since Hijazis are most likely to cultivate friendships with foreigners. He certainly heard complaints about the Nejdis. He reports similar complaints from Al-Ahsa in the Eastern Province and from the Asir. Had he gone to Hail, ancestral home of the Al-Rashids, he would have heard the same.
Disappointingly, Bradley makes no mention of the academic backgrounds of his Hijazi interlocutors. He seems to simply agree with them. It would have been worth noting that many of them are graduates of the London School of Economics and the Sorbonne, informed by a post-colonial, vaguely Marxist analysis of the world. Nor does he note the defunct pan-Arabism to which they hold allegiance.
But if he had a time machine, he would have heard similar complaints in late-19th C. Italy, as the former residents of the Duchy of Parma or the Papal States denounced a newly unified Italy.
He would have heard, in what is now Germany, complaints from those who didn’t care for the newly centralized government that severely restricted political autonomy in the various states and provinces such as Holstein, Nassau, Hanover, and particularly Alsace-Lorraine. Ceding power to those brash Prussians didn’t go down easily. Time and assimilation resolved those issues for the most part. That assimilation is well in progress in Saudi Arabia today.
Bradley pertinently highlights how young a country Saudi Arabia is. It really did see progress from camels to the Concorde in one generation. But not all aspects of the society—and clearly, not all Saudis—made that leap simultaneously. Things are seriously out of joint on many fronts. Therein lies danger that could, indeed, lead to crisis.
Bradley also makes too much of divisions within the Al-Saud family. He grants far too much meaning to who is related to whom through which mother. There are factions, to be sure, but the historical precedent has been for them all to pull together when they perceive a common threat. History is no guarantee for the future, but it’s the best we have to go on. He over-emphasizes what he sees as a major split between the descendants of King Faisal—whom he clearly considers a hero—and the full brothers of King Fahd, i.e., "the Sudairi Seven." While many of the Al-Faisal are among the most liberal, there are also liberals among the young princes, the sons and grandsons of the Sudairi Seven. There is also a great deal of agreement on goals and necessary steps with the Crown Prince.
Bradley writes—in a tone verging on carelessness—about the "plight" of Saudi dissident Saad Al-Faqih. He tends to lionize Al-Faqih as a noble voice cast into the wilderness who, with modern communications technology (radio, TV, Internet chat rooms, VoiP), is speaking to a new generation. He does back off a bit by noting that Al-Faqih is an extremist. Embarrassingly for him, this book came out before Al-Faqih was added to the list of terrorist supporters by the US Government. I suspect that Bradley would consider this an example of the Al-Saud pulling the wool over the American government’s eyes, but American documentation is pretty clear on the matter, even if it does accord with what the Saudi government has been saying for over ten years. The fact that Al-Faqih does have a Saudi audience, though, is important to note.
Bradley is terrific on the detail, but astoundingly weak on the big picture. He has succeeded in presenting a sketch of a complex society, interwoven with many different threads. But by taking as gospel the ruminations of an aggrieved minority, he fails to note that most Saudis are actually content with their current government. Saudis recognize that the Al-Saud are not exemplars of perfect government, nor of perfect men. But they also fear the obvious alternative of a post-revolution, Taleban-style government.
This book was written before the death of King Fahd and the ascension of King Abdullah. Bradley was therefore disadvantaged. As a result, the book pays insufficient attention to Abdullah and his reputation among Saudis. He is truly admired as forthright, pious, and intent on reform with a pace determined by what is acceptable to society. Abdullah does push change—and in the right directions—but also knows full well that a leader cannot get too far ahead of those he leads.
Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Secret Saudi-US Connections by Gerald Posner, Random House, New York, 2005
Reading this book leaves one with a serious question: “Just who is Gerald Posner?”
s Posner simply a moron who doesn’t know what he’s writing about, basing his book on a skimming of rumors from the slime-ponds of Saudi-bashing innuendo? Is he, perhaps, just a mendacious liar? Or is he an active participant in that Saudi-bashing effort? The answer has to be, “All of the above.”
To recount the errors of fact, omission, and misrepresentation in this book would take a “Fisking” of a length equal to the book. Instead, let me just point out some of the more egregious problems.
Sources: For the most part, Posner relies on newspaper and magazine reports, and TV programs about Saudi Arabia. While some of the reporting and reporters are knowledgeable, a lot has been written by “instant experts”—who were parachuted into a story before they had time to learn background or context—as well as by those who worked solely from US-based sources of varying quality and credibility. I’ve worked in Saudi Arabia with many of the reporters he cites. Some are very good; some are very poor.
Posner cites a handful of books by known Saudi-bashers (former Israeli UN ambassador Dore Gold; the pseudonymous dissident As Ad Abukhail, the Lebanese Aburish, who never met a Saudi Arab he liked; and Joel Mowbray splits his time bashing both the Saudis and the US State Department. Posner never pauses to consider that, just maybe, these authors might have their own agendas that color—or taint—their writings. Instead, Posner is happy to assume that any salacious story, if relayed by these, must be true.
Even when he uses more reputable authors, as Robert Lacey or Mamoun Fandy, he cites only evidence that supports his theses, never anything that might challenge it.
The big “splash” of this book is Posner’s claim that the Saudi government has set up radiological booby traps across its entire petroleum infrastructure—"Petro Scorched Earth." His source: A single, retired Mossad intelligence officer who claims to have seen an NSA report to that effect. He finds a few others who say, in effect, “could be,” but has absolutely nothing harder than that. He "hopes for later confirmation." What a great basis for a book! Do you think I could find a publisher for a book about how an anonymous source linked Posner with a stolen car ring in Seattle? I could "hope for confirmation," too, but I suspect that Posner would sic the attorneys on me before confirmation came.
Posner will use himself as a source—even when he’s wrong. In an earlier book, Posner tried to stir the pot with a story claiming that three Saudi princes were killed because they’d been identified as links between Al-Qaeda and the Saudi government. That’s a story fit for Robert Ludlum or Clive Custler, but both of them tend to have a lot more factual backing than Posner. (Perhaps he’s still "hoping for confirmation."
Instead, Posner takes a coincidence—but hardly a strange one—and makes it part of a fiendish plot. According to Posner, an Al-Qaeda source in Afghanistan identified three Saudi princes as his "contacts". One, Prince Ahmed, who ran the Saudi Research & Publication group, died during surgery. He was only 43, but that’s a tragedy, not a hocus-pocus mystery. A cousin, racing from the western provinces—stories differ whether he was coming from Mecca or Jeddah—died in a traffic accident. Anyone who’s driving that 10-hour nightmare understands that highway deaths are not at all unusual. A third cousin is found dead of dehydration in his car in the desert. That cousin was notorious for his drug problems. And overdose, simply nodding off for hours in the desert heat… nothing terribly unusual there, either. But the shame of that is unlikely to produce government transparency, either. A lack of transparency is all Posner needs to ratchet up the rhetoric. And he keeps regurgitating it throughout this book.
Facts: From purely factual errors (The Shatt Al-Arab, for instance, is not a piece of land, but a waterway.) to repeating repudiated rumors, Posner is factually challenged. (As is the story he mongers that the Crown Prince had asked for no female flight controllers working his flight to Crawford, TX in 2003. This is, on its face, ludicrous as Prince Abdullah has female flight staff on his planes and is a strong proponent for broadening women’s rights. It’s simply impossible that he’d make such a request.) Posner seems to prefer the “good story” (that is, the one that will try to put Saudis in a bad light) to the honest one.
A notably dishonest ploy he uses is to call Saudi Arabia the “Wahhabi state” whenever he seeks to frighten his readers. He makes a feeble attempt to describe “Wahhabi”, based on definitions provided by the equally fact-challenged Stephen Schwartz, but misses both the context of the origins of Wahhabism and how it is actually practiced. It seems that if one can hang a tag “Wahhabi” on Usama bin Laden, then that’s good enough for Posner to label 16+ million people. By assuming that they all agree on all points, there’s not much room for nuance in Posner’s book, or for accuracy.
The book is actually a collection of slanders and slurs against Saudis of all stripes. Posner tells the story (well, a story) of Prince Waleed bin Talal. If Prince Waleed had been anyone other than a Saudi, this would be a success story writ large. But that’s not good enough for Posner. He has to find rumors that support his anti-Saudi thesis that Prince Waleed must be working as a front for somebody or other. He provides no documented support for this—in fact, he claims that documentation is hard to get—but that doesn’t get in the way of the smear.
Evenhandedness: Don’t look to Posner for anything approaching evenhandedness, particularly when it comes to things Israeli. It’s actually pretty amusing to see how blatantly and blindly he can look at a particular issue—say, the sale of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia—and find that Saudi lobbying for such a sale is nefarious and evil, but Israeli lobbying against it is pure and only for the good of mankind. I find it hard to believe that he is so naive as to believe that countries do not act in their self-interests. Their self-interests may or may not align with American self-interests. I’d much prefer that American self-interests reign, even if it’s at the expense of another country.
Read this book if you want a good example of Saudi bashing. I guess it’s hard not to make money by playing on people’s suspicions and fears. Posner, a muckraker who’d done some good work earlier—see, for example, Cased Closed, his book dismissing the conspiracy theories surrounding JFK’s assassination—has gone over to the dark side with this book.
This book, though somewhat dated, remains an excellent resource into the history and development of Saudi Arabia. While Lacey takes a sympathetic view of the Saudis, his book is far from non-critical.
He begins his book with a look at what Arab society in the Arabian Peninsula really was like during the late 19th and early
20th Centuries, detailing the frictions between the bedouin and settle dwellers. He cites the canonical history of the rise of the House of Al-Saud, but also notes variant stories that add to—or subtract from—that version. He traces how the question of Arabia—as decided by European powers—played out to not always intended consequences.
The book’s strengths lay particularly in its focus on the abilities of the different rulers to comprehend and meet challenges to traditional mores and values presented by its meeting with the outside world. The book, banned by the Saudi censors for at least 80 different violations of the preferred interpretation of facts, is an excellent source of information about the reigns of Kings Abdel Aziz, Saud, and Faisal, with a less incisive view of the reign of Khalid, who died just a year after the book’s writing. His portrayals of the current King Fadh (then the Crown Prince) and Abdullah (now the Crown Prince) are limited. Particularly noteworthy are his views of the inner workings of the Al-Saud family and how they work together to
ensure their continued survival. Lacey’s book is well supported by his personal contacts within the country and interviews and conversations that result from them.
The book is also limited by the period it covers. At the time of its writing, Desert Storm/Desert Shield were still nearly
ten years away. The holy war in Afghanistan was yet to begin. The rise of Islamist terror was only hinted at, with most terrorist acts—including those aimed directly at the Saudis—more secularly political.
All in all, this is an excellent source for information about Saudi society and politics and the developing role Saudi Arabia
played in the world from its founding to 1981. Highly recommended.
Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Relationship with Saudi Arabia By Thomas Lippman, Westview Press, New York, 2004
This book is currently the gold standard for books on Saudi Arabia, though it, too, is a bit dated already. The book was written based on Lippman’s personal experiences in Saudi Arabia, the most recent in the book being in 2002. While he does fill in the gap left between his book and Lacey’s The Kingdom, he misses the changes that have happened in the country following, particularly, the terrorist activities within Saudi Arabia itself since 2003. He misses, also, the incredible pace of reform that has taken place throughout the country, in education, domestic politics, and the media. As Lippman, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, continues to visit the country, we can hope for an updated version.
Inside the Mirage does an excellent job in telling the story of US-Saudi interaction from the earliest days, starting with the visits by American medical doctors/missionaries in the 1920s, through the development of ARAMCO, to the complicated—and mostly unknown—history of US-Saudi military cooperation. Particularly noteworthy, I think, is Lippman’s portrayal of how the first Americans involved in the search for oil worked with the Saudis of the Eastern Provice
and the not-always-smooth relations with the Nejd-centric government.
This is an excellent book on the multi-leveled relationship that has remained largely constant over a 70-year period, but which is undergoing tremendous challenges from inside and out today.
Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure of America’s War on Terror By Sen. Bob Graham, Random House, New York, 2004
Books by politicians, current or former, tend to fall in a few categories. Foremost among them is the one that goes: "How I saved the world", followed by "How I saved the world, except my stupid enemies got in my way." Bob Graham’s book falls in the latter category.
Graham spent 10 years on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Based on his book, it doesn’t seem time particularly well spent.
I will certainly cede him certain latitude; I know there is a lot of information that he—and I—cannot talk about due to its classified nature. There is much he talks about, though, that can be checked against public records. If one does so, one finds that Graham is not being honest in his portrayal of the US-Saudi relationship, nor of the facts concerning Saudi involvement in 9/11.
The question of Saudi involvement was answered by the 9/11 Commission, comprehensively. The conclusions of the Commission do
not accord with Sen. Graham’s assertions. They looked at the same intelligence Graham saw and came to opposite conclusions. The check from the Saudi Ambassador to the US’s wife that ultimately found its way to a terrorist, for instance, has been shown to be not a matter of "Saudi government funding of terrorists," but rather an instance in which Saudi generosity was abused. Similarly, the allegationsâ€”shared by Graham and Michael Mooreâ€”that Pres. Bush somehow did special
favors for the Saudis in helping members of the ruling family and of the bin Laden family leave the US, are shown to be untrue in the 9/11 Commission report.
Graham certainly makes valid points about bureaucratic inertia, about the internal politics that keep the FBI and CIA from
integrating their information, about people missing opportunities that might have had played a role in stopping 9/11. But he follows a strange form of logic–based primarily on 20/20 hindsight–to make his points. Time after time, his "proofs" rely on a string of contingencies that only look feasible in retrospect. "If A, and if B, and if C,
and if D, then E" is a perfectly valid argument. But the truth of the argument depends on each of the four predicates being true, independently of each other. His arguments might be true, but they are far from proven. And in not being proven, they make a weak case for a particularaction.
This is a must-read book for anyone serious about understanding how Middle Eastern (or most Asian) cultures work, from the ground up. Pryce-Jones is superb in his analysis of the fundamental difference in values between East and West. Trying to apply the values of one to the other–in either direction–leads nowhere.
While I’ll keep this review focused on how the book pertains to Saudi Arabia, I want to note strongly that it also applies broadly to the entire Mediterranean basis, to Japan, China, Korea, Pakistan, to Latin American with an ethos of "machismo", and all other cultures where the concepts of "honor" and "shame" are the driving forces. I note, too, that what Pryce-Jones describes is not limited to Muslims in the Middle East, but also to Christian Arabs and Sephardic Jews. He describes a culture, not a religion.
I think the most valuable contribution Pryce-Jones makes is his clear analysis of the values held by tribal cultures, particularly those of "shame" and "honor". These values represent both ends of a balance beam. For an individual, family, group, tribe or country, when one goes up, the other goes down. They form the basis of a zero-sum game. When A’s honor goes up in relation to B, B’s shame necessarily goes up; when A’s honor decreases, B’s shame is lessened.
Other important chapters deal with the male/female relationship and the patron/client relationship. The former is pretty much as you’d expect: women hold the honor of the family. That which diminishes a woman’s honor, diminishes the family’s honor. The latter, though, has more wide-ranging effects. Patrons accumulate clients as it adds to their honor and power. Clients go to patrons for protection, but also because belonging to a strong and honorable group leads to a share of that honor and strength.
Pryce-Jones’ descriptions of patron/client relationships go a long way toward toward explaining things that clash badly with
contemporary ideas of governance. A patron, for example, has duties toward his clients. This can include getting jobs for the client or his family. Thus, personal relationships often count for more than technical qualifications.
The book reminds me of a university course I took in International Relations. The first of the required reading texts was The Godfather. We thought it somewhat strange to find that on the reading list, but after reading it in terms of power relationships, it became quit clear why this was a basic text. It’s perhaps more fun to read than The Closing Circle, but Pryce-Jone’s texts is certainly more to the point. Excellent book and a must-read if one wants to understand how Middle Eastern societies actually work.
[Note: The Closing Circle was originally published in 1989, then again in 1992, with a new introduction taking into account the Gulf War. It has since been republished, in 2002. Thisreview is based on the 1992 edition.]
This book, by two former NSC staffers, is excellent in almost every regard. Let me first start with its limitations. The book, published in 2002, is necessarily bound in its ability to cover things more recent. For example, the book offers cautions about going to war in Iraq. That’s been done, so the authors’ viewpoints are of historic interest only. Secondly, while the book is generally very balanced, there is, nonetheless, a whiff of the Clintonian approach to international issues and a hagiographic view of Richard Clarke, former anti-terror advisor to the NSC. Thirdly, while the book takes on to some degree "sacred terror" on the part of Christians, Buddhists, and Jews, it is utterly silent about Hindutva, the pernicious Hindu fundamentalism that is waging is bloody war in India.
That said, this book is a remarkable achievement. It traces the multi-threaded origins of Islamic terror, focusing appropriately on the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, the extreme interpetation of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, andthe teachings of
the Deobandi school of Islam prevalent in South Asia. I think more focus should have been given to the Deobanis, the ones who provided the theological underpinnings of the Taliban. But in its discussion of the threads of Islamic terror, the book does not fall into the error of painting entire countries and populations as terrorists in training.
The most important aspect of this book is that it clearly differentiates the motivation of those that kill in the name of religion and those that kill in the name of politics. The former, according to the book, are not fighting a war on the plane of political reality, but instead they fight an eschatological war between Good and Evil. They do not seek to persuade or win adherents and power. They seek to bring to an end the corrupt world they see around them. Those who die as a result will either be rewarded by God, or cast into hellfire. Their terms are not negotiable; they have no place for compromise. They repudiate as blasphemous any suggestion of a democratic state as that, in itself, is a blasphemous usurpation of the role of God.
Politically oriented terror, on the other hand, has goals that can be achieved in real time and in the real world. There are
finite political aspirations–statehood, a share in the power dynamic, political and economic control over personal destinies–that can be gained through compromise and negotiation.
They caution–wisely, I believe–in conflating all terrorist acts under one rubric. There are two different wars going on, with different motivations, which require two different approaches to confront them.
First, Washington should avoid putting Palestinian terrorism into the same rhetorical basket as jihadist violence. Arafat is not bin Laden. Both use terrorism, but there the resemblence ends. Arafat uses it tactically. Bin Laden uses it strategically. One wants to pressure an opponent, the other to wipe him out. Equating them confuses not only the American people but also the allies on whom we depend.
This does not mean that Arafat’s use of violence should go unanswered, or be accepted as the cost of doing business on the way to a Palestinian state. It does mean that it is not Arafat’s terrorism but bin Laden’s terrorism that threatens the United States with mass casualties. Palestinian terrorism will presumably diminish when Arafat is replaced by a responsible leadership seriously focused on state-building. No such outcome is conceivable with respect to jihadist zealots in bin Laden’s camp. [Page 412]
Things become complicated, of course, when the protagonists use words that blur the distinction. The PLO, for instance, has secular goals. When it uses religious terminology, it becomes easy to mistake what sort of war it is fighting with that of Al-Qaeda. Similarly, when Usama bin Laden speaks of "re-establishing the Caliphate", he does not mean a temporal power structure. He means bringing on the end of man’s reign on earth and establishment of the world as God means to rule it. By keeping clear what the real motivations of the different groups are, in our own minds, we can more effectively deal with the terror.
The book also provides a useful reminder that not all religious terror is Islamic terror. It does not argue for moral equivalence in the acts of some Israelis and Arabs, for instance. They are not saying, "but they all do it." They do point out that groups like Gush Emunim are not actually seeking political ends as ends. They seek to recreate the world "as God wants it". This is directly equivalent. It is a secular-seeming battle, in part being fought on the mundane
plane, but the true battle is over the meaning of existence.