The Family

Malise Ruthven

  • The House of Saud by David Holden and Richard Johns
    Sidgwick, 569 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 283 98436 8
  • The Kingdom by Robert Lacey
    Hutchinson, 631 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 09 145790 4

To date, the history of Saudi Arabia has largely been the story of its ruling family. No other modern state calls itself by its rulers’ surname and labels its citizens with it. Though there is now a governmental system of growing complexity, and inefficiency, with ministries, departments of state, royal commissions and so forth, power is still wielded in an arbitrary and personal manner. Every leading prince has his majlis, where ordinary citizens can meet him, take coffee and discuss their problems. But there are no corporate institutions or centres of power independent of the royal family. Even the formal majlis al shura (‘consultative council’), promised after the disturbances in Mecca and Qatif in 1979, has yet to come into being. Without us, the Al (family of) Saud seem to be telling the world, the state would not exist. Like it or not, they are probably right.

In theory, the Saudi state is an absolute monarchy. Under a royal decree of 1958, a Council of Ministers is responsible for the budget and internal affairs, but only the King can legislate, publish laws, treaties and concessions. A decree of 1961 forbids the formation of political parties, and prohibits the profession of any ideology other than ‘Islam’. Anyone engaging in ‘violent action against the state or the royal family’ is liable to execution. In practice, the kingdom is governed by a consensus of 31 senior princes, all of them (including the present King) sons of the late Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman al Saud (c. 1880-1953), the bedouin warrior who created the modern Saudi state.

None of this would seem extraordinary without the oil and the enormous weight of Saudi investment in the Western economic system. Saudi Arabia is the last great Muslim state to have been created in the classic manner, from an alliance between bedouin warriors and the men of religion. The first Saudi state enjoyed a comparatively brief existence in the 18th century, when the religious reformer Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab made a pact with Muhammad ibn Saud, Sheikh of Diriya, in central Nejd. Together, they pledged to restore the ‘purity’ of Islam as practised in the time of the Prophet, by purging it of all innovations and superstitious accretions, by executing adulterers, and so forth. Their fanatical iconoclasm brought them into conflict with the Ottoman and Persian empires and within a few decades the Saudi-Wahhabi state had collapsed, victim of internal family quarrels and foreign intervention.

The modern revival of Saudi fortunes is largely due to the genius of Abdul Aziz (also known as ‘Ibn Saud’ – a title comparable to ‘The O’Neill’ or ‘The MacTavish’). Starting out from Kuwait in 1902 with a band of about forty followers, he regained the stronghold of Riyadh from his family’s Turkish-backed rivals, the Rashids, and proceeded, by war and diplomacy, to recover all the former Saudi dominions and much else besides. By 1913, he controlled the Gulf coast from Kuwait to Qatar, having eliminated the Turks from el Hasa – now the Eastern Province, where, in the 1930s, the world’s largest oil deposits were discovered. In 1924, his ablest son, Feisal, added Asir, on the Yemeni border, to the Saudi dominions. By 1926, he had realised his final ambition, the conquest of the Hejaz, Islam’s holy land. The way had unwittingly been smoothed for him by the British, who had helped the local ruler, the Sherif Hussein, to remove the Turks. The Sherif was a vain and foolish old man with ambitions far beyond his ability. After some hesitation the Saudi conquest of the Hejaz was greeted with general relief.

As always, the alliance between religion and politics was unstable. The storm-troopers on whom Abdul Aziz relied for his victories, known as the Ikhwan (‘Brothers’), were bedouin from the Mutair, Utaiba and other tribes who were settled in cantonments modelled on the Prophet’s original military-religious Islamic state. Literalistic and imitative in their religious behaviour, the Ikhwan disposed of some fifty-five thousand armed men in more than a hundred settlements dotted around central Arabia. ‘I have seen them hurl themselves on their enemies,’ wrote an Arab who saw them in action, ‘utterly fearless of death, not caring how many fall, advancing rank upon rank with only one desire – the defeat and annihilation of the enemy. They normally give no quarter, sparing neither boys nor old men, veritable messengers of death from whose grasp no one escapes.’

Though acknowledging Abdul Aziz as their leader, the Ikhwan refused to recognise any territorial limits to their power. The Saudi leader’s northern and eastern frontiers were controlled by the British, whose officials were invariably impressed by his charm and courtesy. Eventually his international undertakings (as well as personal inclination) obliged him to deal with his over-zealous supporters – not least because, after conquering the Hejaz, he was anxious to reassure a nervous Muslim world that the holy cities and their pilgrims would be properly cared for. The Ikhwan were beaten back by the British in Iraq and Trans-jordan; and after a revolt by two of their leaders, Abdul Aziz finished them off himself. Their armed units were disbanded and mostly absorbed into what became the Saudi National Guard. By 1932, the genie was back in the bottle, religion relegated to its proper place: a prop to the social order, not a force to threaten it. Abdul Aziz, who already described himself as King of Nejd and its Dependencies and King of the Hejaz, gave himself a new title – King of Saudi Arabia. In the eyes of the religiously militant it was a classic instance of ideological sell-out: instead of recreating the Islamic state of their dreams, the Ikhwan (like so many of their predecessors, from the time of the early caliphs) had been used to further the ambitions of a dynast.

Religion, of course, is still employed to legitimise Saudi rule. As guardians of Islam’s holy places and major financial contributors to Islamic institutions all over the world, the Al Saud now enjoy a quasi-caliphal role, regarding themselves as non-titular heads of an increasingly politically-conscious pan-Islamic community. This gives them a moral influence within the most important bloc of Third World states which complements their economic weight in the West. But it also makes them especially vulnerable to attacks from religious quarters, as was shown in the armed occupation of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 by an eclectic group of extremists led by Juhaiman al Utaibi. A child of the Ikhwan who grew up in the shadow of its defeat, Juhaiman and his two hundred followers (who included Yemenis, Sudanese, Kuwaitis, Iraqis and Egyptians as well as Saudis) consciously imitated the style and behaviour of the Ikhwan, and called themselves by the same name. In a pamphlet published in Kuwait which circulated in Saudi Arabia before the attack on the Grand Mosque, Juhaiman denounced the corruption of the royal family (‘They worship money and spend it on palaces, not mosques. If you accept what they say they will make you rich; otherwise they will persecute and even torture you’) and pointed out that the people are not obliged to obey impious rulers, even if they rule in the name of Islam. During the occupation he broadcast his attacks over the mosque’s loudspeakers, which enabled his voice to be heard all over central Mecca. He denounced the scandalous personal habits of the Saudi princes (drinking, gaming and visits to the fleshpots of Europe), mentioning by name the Governor of Mecca, Prince Fawwaz ibn Abdul Aziz. After two weeks of hard fighting, the Saudi forces finally gained control of the mosque, and most of the surviving rebels were executed, with the full approval of the rest of the Muslim world. The faithful were generally agreed that, by bringing in arms, the rebels had gone much too far in violating the sanctuary. Nevertheless, religious attacks on the Saudi establishment continue. In Iran the Shiite mullahs (who have never forgiven the Wahhabis for destroying the shrine of Kerbala in 1802) condemn the princes for their pro-Western policies and luxurious life-style. Within the country, the regime’s critics are unlikely to have been impressed by the measures so far adopted publicly in the wake of the Mecca episode: further restrictions on the behaviour of foreigners, removal of the bibulous Governor of Mecca, more restrictions on Saudis travelling abroad. As the behaviour of the Saudi princes departs further from Wahhabi norms, the Government finds it expedient to penalise ordinary citizens, or even more vulnerable creatures such as women and foreigners. The patriarch Abdul Aziz, who epitomised both personal piety and desert hospitality, used to provide whisky and cigars for his European guests (as well as slave-girls for those, like St John Philby, sensible enough to embrace Islam). He only banned alcohol for foreigners in 1952, after a British consul had been murdered by an inebriated Saudi prince. Nowadays the fleshpots of Europe provide a safety-valve for those rich enough to afford them. If they were obliged to stay at home social mores would probably have to be liberalised.

The story of modern Saudi Arabia, an impoverished state created by the political and military skills of a single desert chieftain, would have been epic stuff even without the oil. Given that the price of oil has risen 1600 per cent in the past decade, that the Saudis control Mecca, not just for the annual two million Muslim pilgrims, but for almost the same number of foreign businessmen, technicians and workers desperate to grab hold of some of the material benefits on offer, you have the contemporary saga to beat them all: Dallas and the Klondyke, Moses and the Godfather merged into a single script. Not surprisingly, two highly successful journalists, David Holden and Robert Lacey, decided to turn their talents to an exposition of this fascinating modern legend.

Unfortunately Holden, a distinguished reporter with many years’ experience of the Middle East labyrinth, never lived to complete his book. He had written the first ten chapters (about 75,000 words) covering the career of Abdul Aziz, when, in December 1977, he was shot dead in Cairo while on a routine assignment for his paper, the Sunday Times. The cause, and exact circumstances, of his murder have never been established, despite extensive investigations by the staff of the Sunday Times. Richard Johns, Middle East editor of the Financial Times, who wrote most of the rest of the book, says in his introduction that he believes Holden ‘aroused, unjustifiably, the suspicion of some persons in the paranoid world of intelligence and subterfuge of which, I trust and hope, he was no part.’ Trust and hope are not quite the same as certainty.

Robert Lacey, also late of the Sunday Times, is widely known as the author of Majesty, a biography of the Queen written to coincide with Jubilee year. His sympathetic treatment of the Al Windsor evidently recommended him to the Al Saud, judging from the interviewees listed in his voluminous bibliography, who include King Khalid, Interior Minister Prince Naif, Prince Salman (Governor of Riyadh) and Prince Abdullah, Commander of the National Guard, all of them sons of Abdul Aziz. Others whom he interviewed, or with whom he corresponded, include Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Sheikh Yamani, the oil minister, and Adnan Khashoggi, the arms-dealer now thought to be one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. Despite this co-operation, Lacey’s book will not be allowed, officially, to enter the kingdom. Having sent a draft to the Ministry of Information, Lacey felt unable to make some eighty changes to the text requested by them. Most of these seem to have been concerned with family quarrels during the notorious reign of Saud (1953-64). Al Saud are extremely suspicious about public discussion of ‘family matters’, and Lacey must have been very naive to have thought that they would find an even remotely accurate account of these years acceptable. The late King Saud ibn Abdul Aziz is almost as much of a ‘non-person’ in official Saudi historiography as Trotsky is in the Soviet Union.

Despite their inordinate lengths, neither of these books really does justice to its subject. Holden, who had considerable talents as a descriptive writer, promised a lively and readable narrative, spiced with telling vignettes based on his own observations. The text written by his successor, Richard Johns, though strong on economic and political detail, is a stodgy chronology drawn largely from Western published sources, occasionally interspersed with gossipy anecdotes of the kind exchanged by journalists in hotel bars. The tedium is relieved, to some extent, by a lively and well-informed account of the Mecca Siege written by James Buchan, of the Financial Times. Johns is an unabashed Western chauvinist: he seems to dislike Saudi Arabia, has little sympathy for its people and their ways. He would like to see them behaving, as nearly as possible, like readers of the Financial Times. His text is least dull when describing the indignities suffered by Western businessmen, forced to sleep in hotel corridors or even in taxis at $50 per night, during the mad rush for contracts in the late Seventies. Of the inconveniences, and dislocations, suffered by ordinary Saudis, not to mention thousands of foreign workers, we hear little.

Lacey’s book would have been very much better had he not felt constrained to be over-polite about his influential Saudi hosts. He must have hoped that his book would be ordered in large quantities by the Ministry of Information, and dished out to worthy visitors. Thus the continuing discords and scandals which have upset family relationships since the death of Abdul Aziz are minimised. Political and industrial troubles, such as the strikes among oil-workers in el Hasa during the Fifties and Sixties (in which a number of workers were physically beaten to death), rate scarcely a mention. At times, the tone is sycophantic: the adjective ‘royal’, hardly suitable to the traditions of Arabian society unless Saudi pretensions are taken at face value, is sprinkled around the text like caster-sugar. Even the title, The Kingdom, is misleading in this respect: The Family, with its overtones of Chicago and New York where kin-patronage politics also flourish in an urban milieu, would have been much more appropriate.

Despite his self-censorship, however, Lacey does succeed in conveying much more of Saudi Arabia’s complex reality than Richard Johns. He understands that, in a mainly oral culture, ‘facts’ are secondary to anecdotes. His text is skilfully interlarded with stories about the Family, as they might be told in the souks of Jeddah or the goat-hair tents of the bedouin. Were he a more fastidious writer (or had he been served by a capable editor), his book would be a delight to read. As it is, it represents a partial attempt to see Saudi Arabia from the ‘inside’, in terms of its traditional attitudes and values. More’s the pity, then, that so much of this effort was squandered in trying to appease the unappeasable.

Neither book reveals a really sound grasp of the country’s social and political problems. Lacey, while capably summing up the reasons for the country’s ‘doveish’ oil policies, appears to suppose that the present structure of princely hegemony can survive into the next century. Johns’s prognosis is less sanguine: he reckons that ‘within five years the Saudi sovereigns could have had their last page in history,’ but he fails to provide a cogent analysis of the forces most likely to undermine them.

On the face of it, given the state’s monopoly of oil, and the Al Saud’s control over the state, the patronage at the disposal of the royal family is almost limitless. Unlike the Shah, they do not as a rule find it necessary to torture and murder their opponents: there are exceptions, of course, but their record in this respect is superior to that of most Middle Eastern states, including Israel. Most of the Air Force pilots who took part in an abortive coup in 1969 are, according to Lacey, living in freedom. Other former opponents of the regime, including the rebel Prince Talal ibn Abdul Aziz, who joined in Nasser’s denunciations in the Sixties, are now living the lives of prosperous businessmen. Although there are pockets of social deprivation among deracinated pastoralists who have drifted to the cities, and who now fall outside the tribal structure through which the Government’s subsidies are channelled, these are unlikely in themselves to constitute a political threat. Nor is the Shiite minority, which forms about half Aramco’s work-force of twenty thousand in the Eastern Province, likely to pose a serious challenge. Despite the appeal of Khomeini’s propaganda, they are too few, and can easily be bought off by improved wages and facilities. (The troubles in the early fifties and Sixties, though they had political overtones, were really prompted by anger at the living conditions enjoyed by Aramco’s American employees. Since Aramco was nationalised, with a growing proportion of its senior staff Saudi-born, these differences have virtually disappeared.)

A much more serious problem is posed by the country’s total dependence on foreigners in the construction and service industries. The official line is that these workers are necessary for the creation of the Saudi ‘infrastructure’, and that once this has been completed, they will all be sent home, to be replaced by a well-trained army of Saudis. To this end, prodigious sums are being spent on education, yet about 80 per cent of Saudis are still illiterate, and ill-equipped, according to Johns, to do anything other than drive trucks and taxis, and to act as door-keepers and tea-makers to the country’s princely and technocratic élite. Unofficially, the number of foreigners is estimated at 1.7 million out of a total population of only 4.3 million. (Saudis put the latter figure at over six million, but this has never been confirmed by a census regarded as accurate by outside observers.) Apart from a European and American élite and about forty thousand South Koreans, the vast majority of these workers are Muslims from Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Libya, India, Pakistan and Malaysia. Many arrive there for the pilgrimage, and stay on illegally afterwards. It is difficult for the Saudis to justify their deportation from an Islamic point of view: traditionally, the Hejaz has been universally accessible to Muslims, and for centuries people from all parts of the world settled there.

It is not difficult to see how the Islamic ideology could be used by these foreign Muslims, allied to the small, but increasingly confident Saudi merchant class, to de-legitimise the Saudi hegemony. The behaviour of the Saudi princes, both at home and abroad, is in continuous and flagrant violation of the puritanical and egalitarian norms of Islam, especially of the Wahhabi and Hanbali forms as practised in Saudi Arabia. In Islam generally, dynastic rule is only justifiable in defence of the faith. Rulers who are seen to violate its tenets are not merely worthy of condemnation: it becomes the positive duty of the faithful to overthrow them. For the present, the conservative ulema (religious scholars) are content to uphold the regime’s legitimacy in return for social and economic privileges. Many, particularly the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, are personally related to the royal family and hold senior positions in the government. However, as the late President Sadat discovered, co-opting the religious leadership is no guarantee against attacks from religious quartets: like Protestantism, Sunni Islam confers no religious or sacerdotal authority on its clerics. By advancing the most ignorant and obscurantist religious leaders, such as Sheikh Abdul Aziz ibn Baz, a blind scholar who believes in a geocentric universe, to positions of authority, the Al Saud are providing their government with the weakest available ideological defence.

There is a widely-held belief, inside and outside Saudi Arabia, that Juhaiman al Utaibi erred mainly by choosing the wrong target: if he had attacked one of the royal palaces (so King Khalid himself is quoted as saying) things might well have worked out differently. The coming decade will almost certainly witness more Islamic attacks on the Government, despite cosmetic measures aimed at appeasing the most reactionary elements in the religious leadership. The size of princely commissions alone is a continuing subject of scandal: Richard Johns mentions the case of Prince Muhammad, the 25-year-old son of Crown Prince Fahd, who apparently stood to gain an astonishing $1,3 billion from a series of exclusive telecommunications deals with the Dutch-owned Philips company. After protests from rival US competitors (represented by Prince Muhammad ibn Abdul Aziz, eldest surviving son of the Founder and grandfather of the executed Princess Mishaal), the contract was modified, and the younger Prince Muhammad was obliged to settle for a mere $500 million. Characteristically, Robert Lacey puts a different gloss on this story, presenting it as a piece of intelligent enterprise on the part of the go-ahead young prince.

According to the traditional mercantile values of Saudi society, there is nothing wrong in taking commissions on deals: everyone down the line, so the argument goes, gets his rake-off – what Westerners like to call ‘corruption’ is really an effective form of wealth distribution. While such arguments were no doubt relevant in the past, they scarcely hold water when the sums involved are such as to concentrate a country’s economic and social power almost exclusively in the hands of a single ruling family consisting of some four thousand members.

This is not to say that ‘corruption’ will bring down the House of Saud dramatically, in the Pahlevi manner. The merchant classes are still politically weak and numerically unimportant. There is no equivalent to the ‘mosque bazaar’ axis which helped bring down the Shah’s regime. Following the staggering increase in real-estate values after the 1974 oil-hike (at one time property prices in Riyadh were doubling weekly), many middle-class families have acquired a vested interest in the status quo. Its ablest members, including Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, have been co-opted into serving the Government. Nor, at the moment, would the élite units of the Armed Forces, traditional source of danger for Arab governments, seem to pose a serious danger. There are princes (no one knows how many, but probably running into hundreds) holding commands in all branches of the security services. All the ministerial posts affecting national security are held by sons of Abdul Aziz.

The greatest source of danger to the Al Saud hegemony must come from tensions within the family, in which personal rivalries are compounded by the religious and social conflicts in the country at large. After the disastrous reign of King Saud, his pious, cautious and conservative brother, Feisal, restored the family’s credibility – and its finances – by instituting the minimal reforms necessary to counter the appeal of Nasser’s Arab socialism. For the most part, the brothers trained or promoted by him (Khalid, the present King and titular Prime Minister; Fahd, Crown Prince and effective Head of Government; Sultan, Minister of Defence; Naif, Interior Minister; Abdullah, Commander of the National Guard; and Feisal’s son Saud, the Foreign Minister) are still the ruling group within the royal family. However, the fissures in this coalition are becoming increasingly apparent. The affair of the Philips contract revealed the limitless ambition of Fahd’s own family group (which, in addition to his son, includes his full brothers. Sultan, Naif and Salman, Governor of Riyadh, all of them members of an inner caucus of princes sometimes known as the ‘Sudairi Seven’ after their mother Hassa bint Ahmed al Sudairi). A natural source of opposition to the ‘Al Fahd’, whose politics and pleasures are generally ‘pro-Western’, could come from the capable and pious sons of the late King Feisal with the support of the more progressive Islamic elements. For the present, however, they are counterbalanced mainly by Prince Abdullah, Commander of the National Guard and a son of Abdul Aziz by a woman of the Rashid clan.

Political and tribal conflicts are therefore likely to be exacerbated by commercial rivalries. All of them threaten to undermine the cohesion of the Saudi ‘fratrocracy’. According to Robert Lacey, King Abdul Aziz always forbade members of his family from participating in business activity: ‘There are two things which do not mix,’ he used to say. ‘running a government and making money.’ If the kingdom inherited by his sons does fall apart, it will be largely because of their failure to heed the patriarch’s warning.