It was one of the more gratuitous blunders of John Foster Dulles when he was Secretary of State to respond to a question about the unwillingness of Saudi Arabia to allow any American Jew to set foot on Saudi soil by alluding to the Saudi conviction that a Jew had been responsible for the murder of the Prophet Muhammad. Although based on an aberration, the story illustrates the extraordinary tangles that democratic countries generally, and the United States in particular, get into as a consequence of their commitment to this strange desert country named after its dynasty and ruled almost entirely by a quite numerous upper class wholly generated from the loins of its founding father, King Abdul Aziz, better known in the West as Ibn Saud. Saudi Arabia was said in the Senate to be ‘scorning basic American interests’, which meant both human rights and Israel. Americans then and since have been obliged to explain that the weapons they were supplying to the Saudis would not work against, for example, Israel yet would come in handy to deter the Soviet Union.
Said Aburish, a Palestinian of English domicile and American citizenship, writes about the Desert Kingdom, in his early chapters especially, in a tone reminiscent of Private Eye. It is not necessary to be a complete cultural relativist to find the repeated parallels between Abdul Aziz and Adolf Hitler rather absurd. The Saudis were a tribe from the interior of the Arabian peninsula who belonged to the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam. They had fallen on bad times at the end of the 19th century and the ruling family, having lost its base at Riyadh, had been given shelter by the Emir of Kuwait. (Memories of this came in for much mention at the time of the Gulf War.) From there in 1902 the Saudi heir, Abdul Aziz, carried out a kind of commando raid on Riyadh. In the ensuing scuffle he got badly kicked in the groin, which seems to have done him no lasting damage, and his enemies were put to the sword. From this start he went on to conquer the whole of Nejd, to which, in 1925, he added the somewhat more sophisticated Hejaz, which includes Mecca and Medina and where the Arab revolt against Turkish rule had originated.
To Aburish, Abdul Aziz is a man without merit or virtue and his assessment of the King’s achievements is the reverse of the romantic, hero-worshipping portrait painted in several books by ‘the famous distorter of truth Harry St John Philby, whose spy son Kim must have inherited similar unendearing characteristics’. The truth is that Aburish cannot account for the success of such a degraded and insignificant barbarian as he has made lbn Saud out to be except by blaming the British. It is the case that certain individuals – Shakespear, Glubb, Philby – had some influence with the King and there is no doubt that, like many Arab rulers of his generation, Abdul Aziz saw Britain as his entrée to the Western world, until the Second World War, when he began to complain that he had been neglected by London. Britain provided small but useful amounts of cash and paid due regard to Abdul Aziz’s royal susceptibilities: for example, the diplomat appointed Minister to Jeddah received a knighthood prematurely, because the King expected it. It is also true, as Aburish points out with some distaste, that certain types of Englishman have a yen for the pure and simple life of the desert-dweller, but this doesn’t of itself make Ibn Saud a British creation.
Before the Second World War Britain exercised the degree of desultory influence on the King appropriate to a man who had shown such superior skills at small-scale desert warfare. But, by the early Fifties, it was the American oil companies, operating through their joint subsidiary Aramco, who had the dominant influence: Britain by contrast saw the Saudis as a major threat to its own position. King Saud’s assumption that where the desert flowed there ran his writ (an assumption fortified by Aramco’s glossy brochures) came into collision with the British protection guaranteed to two Gulf sheikhs, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and the Sultan of Muscat, over possession of the oasis of Buraimi and its eight adjoining villages. ‘We cannot allow this primitive, irresponsible and expansionist power to seize control of sources from which we draw an essential part of our fuel,’ Anthony Eden remarked when he was prime minister.
The monotonously hostile tone of Aburish’s opening chapters is rather a pity since he has excellent contacts in the Arab world, has been to Saudi Arabia some twenty times (but, hardly surprisingly, is able to go there no more), and has much that is interesting to say in the rest of the book, which must have taken some courage to write. Almost by definition a great deal of what he says cannot be attributed, but some of it does fit in with the periodic bursts of information that come from this underreported country. The underreporting, it should be noted, is largely the doing of the regime, which discourages the presence of independent journalists, subsidises journalists far and wide who are less than independent and threatens to treat the occasional adverse-story which escapes into the outside world rather in the fashion of the Malaysian Prime Minister.
When Abdul Aziz died in 1953 and left his kingdom to his 42 sons (four of whom have since been king), the United States had completely replaced Britain as the principal Western influence, and the Kingdom, and therefore the Saud family, were beginning to experience what it meant to roll in wealth. In Saudi Arabia, unlike almost anywhere else in the world, the most complete self-indulgence on the part of certain of the rulers co-exists with the most severe moral order, imposed by the Wahhabi religious police. The old King always regarded the oil revenue as money to be used by him as a source of munificence and the new King Saud even more so. The conflict with Britain, which began over the oasis at Buraimi, spread to the whole Middle East, with King Saud financing any anti-British activity around and claiming the benefits of anti-colonialism (whether from the United States or from President Nasser). Since the wherewithal came from Aramco, which paid the King advances on all his royalties, Harold Macmillan, when Foreign Secretary, was given to complaining about American money ‘being spent on a vast scale to promote Communism in the Middle East’ – an opinion that ranks with Crown Prince (later King) Faisal’s ineradicable conviction that Communism and Zionism were identical.
Strategically, President Eisenhower’s judgment that the House of Saud was an important part of the solution to Middle East policy turned out to be sounder than Britain’s assessment that it was a major part of the problem. Saudi Arabia has been on the side of the West for fifty years. But tactically Britain was right about King Saud: his rudderless thrashing around, ladling out his cash to all and sundry (including a £2 million cheque to the Syrians for assassinating his recent ally Nasser) was so damaging that the family had to do something about it. America helped, mainly by patching up the problematic health of Saud’s more capable sibling Faisal.
As both the wealth of the country and the size of the Saudi royal family grew exponentially, the organisation of the country became more complex but the key positions were always (or nearly always) filled by royals, of whom there are now something like seven thousand available. They are accustomed to siphoning off very large portions of the country’s income for their personal use, since there is still a certain vagueness as to where the Saudi state ends and the House of Saud begins. Aburish describes in considerable detail how the approval of princes has to be obtained at each stage of a contract (and not just any prince: it has to be the right one) and how ‘intermediaries’ and ‘skimmers’ are brought into play in the fierce competition for Saudi patronage. As the contracts are large, especially for the Saudi Air Force, even quite small commission percentages can amount to very substantial sums. Aburish maintains that there is corruption on a colossal scale: it seems unlikely that he is wrong.
The United States and Saudi Arabia are bound by ties of reciprocal embarrassment. Since the signing of the enormous Yamama contracts, the same applies to Britain – whose journalists Aburish considers more corruptible than those of the United States. Saudi Arabia’s persistent pro-Western stance in the face of America’s championship of Israel and, most recently, of the West’s behaviour towards the Bosnian Muslims can be set against the Western democracies’ astonishing acquiescence in Saudi Arabia’s attitude to human rights whereby it applies the strictest Islamic punishments with a Henry VIII-like capriciousness.
At the same time it should not be forgotten, though a reader of this book might be inclined to do so, that the consensus of Saudi opinion and stability of Saudi society are not myths created by eccentric Englishmen and the recipients of Saudi bribes. Saudi Arabia has not been held together by accident; the fact that the universities are turning out thousands of graduates does not necessarily mean that they are turning out that many potential opponents of the regime, though the excessive number of graduates in religious studies may spell future trouble. There are many Saudis, with experience of the wider world, who yet value the conventions, restraint and discipline, made sweeter of course by the luxuries of Saudi living. This no doubt is one of the reasons that the rule of the House of Saud has lasted so long and why it may last a good deal longer than its exiled critics think.
The author ensures that his book will provoke the maximum resentent by reserving his most pungent criticism for the current ruler, King Fahd. On the one hand, he describes him as ‘not only the criminal equal’ of Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi but ‘much worse in important aspects of his personal conduct and in his support for despotic regimes’. On the other, he confesses that ‘to me and many others the man is a mystery, almost beyond analysis,’ adding that the only things people who know him are agreed on are ‘his appalling laziness’ and the ‘total laxity’ with which he is said to view his family’s, friends’ and officials’ ‘misdeeds’. A more generous assessment, that of his present ambassador in London, Ghazi Algosaibi, in his little book on The Gulf Crisis,is that Fahd ‘is by nature pacific, to an extent bordering on meekness. He is cautious to the point of hesitation.’ While conceding that ‘the cheque-book has played a clear role in his foreign policy,’ Algosaibi asserts that ‘the King’s main foreign policy objective is for himself and his kingdom to be left in peace.’
It is certainly true that Fahd bankrolled Saddam Hussein to a fabulous extent during Iraq’s war against Iran. But it does not necessarily follow, as Aburish contends, that Fahd incited the Iraqi aggression which began the war. This seems at odds both with the Aburish and the Algosaibi versions of his personality. Algosaibi, more plausibly, suggests that Saddam told Fahd in advance and Fahd counselled caution. For a man who has often been portrayed as having difficulty making decisions, King Fahd was decisive enough in calling in the Americans and their allies, women drivers and all, when Saddam attacked Kuwait. He has since created the Majlis al-Shura, or consultative assembly, which Faisal only talked about.
It is Said Aburish’s contention that the House of Saud is headed for a fall. He even gives a date for it: ‘if not in 1997, soon after.’ His reasoning is fundamentally economic. The whole superstructure of the Saudi system is underpinned by an assumption of almost limitless funds; it is thanks to this assumption that luxury-loving princes, austere imams and thousands of university graduates have been able to co-exist. But the Saudi budget was already in considerable deficit when the Gulf War started because the drastic fall in oil prices had not been accompanied by any change in the massive system of subsidies for every form of economic activity, or by any move to impose direct or indirect taxes – the absence of which may help to explain the acceptance of the Al Saud. To this deficit was added the immense cost of the war, including handsome grants to the United States and other allies, and, for many years to come, the burden of the greatly expanded armaments programme. By 1997, Aburish calculates, the Saudi debt will have reached $100 billion and the country will face a financial crisis, the Government will be crippled and the House of Saud will have become radically unpopular. He cites the petitions which originated during the Gulf War, one from intellectuals and businessmen demanding greater freedom for the media, equality of all citizens, a greater role for women and a flexible approach to the Sharia, and the other from Islamic scholars and preachers, who also wanted ‘full equality among citizens, not favouring the nobles’, as well as a purge of all government officials of proven ‘corruption or dereliction’, media which ‘serve Islam’, and all laws, regulations and foreign alliances to be ‘sanctioned by the Sharia’. By 1997 the royal family will be larger, but, according to Aburish, no more interested in economising than it is now. In these circumstances the per capita income will fall further, the people will want to know why the enormous reserves that existed in 1982 have been frittered away, the West will be discredited because of Bosnia and militant Islam will be ready to break with the monarchy.
Aburish sees only one way out: heavy Western intervention. This does not sound a very likely runner. The West, he says, should force King Fahd to install a proper parliament, compel the royal family to give up their monopoly of political power, and enforce a new line of succession (for which the author makes a couple of suggestions). This is the only hope, we are told, of preventing a militant regime like that of Khomeini from coming to power. And, realising perhaps that it might be objected that it was just when the United States started to pressure the Shah for reforms that Khomeini’s success became inevitable, he concludes that if the attempt to force reform opens the floodgates and brings about the end of the House of Saud, then the West would still be in a better position for having tried. When Fred Halliday published a book about Iran, prophesying a mullah-led revolution, the revolution promptly took place. So it would perhaps be tempting fate to write off Aburish’s scenario for Saudi Arabia. But it is worth remembering the state the Kingdom was in forty years ago when few would have given it many years to survive.