If not in 1997, soon after

Keith Kyle

  • The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud by Said Aburish
    Bloomsbury, 326 pp, £20.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1468 2

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.

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[*] Kegan Paul International, 170 pp., £19.95, 7 January 1993, 0 7103 0459 5.