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How Strong Are the Saudis?

The Kingdom

by Robert Lacey
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 630 pp., $19.95

The House of Saud: The Rise and Rule of the Most Powerful Dynasty in the Arab World

by David Holden, by Richard Johns
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 569 pp., $19.95

Saudi Arabia in the 1980s: Foreign Policy, Security, and Oil

by William B. Quandt
Brookings Institution, 190 pp., $22.95; $8.95 (paper)


During the past three decades, American policy makers supported a number of third-world leaders whose essential incompetence or corruption have brought them, and their American benefactors, to disaster. Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was unable to make compromises that would have set Iran on a stable course. When that chance was gone, he was unable to apply force to put down the street revolt that drove him from power and opened the way for Khomeini and a bloody chaos that eclipses the Shah’s repression at its worst.

This experience has helped to create an almost reflexive suspicion among many Americans of their government’s choice of friends in the third world. It has reinforced an intellectual predisposition to see history as an inevitable and unfolding story, with Washington lined up on the side of a dying colonial order and able neither to recognize nor to halt the rising tide of nationalism, be it in Vietnam or in Angola. In far too many cases, the story has gone like that, with Washington’s clients unwilling to forgo self-defeating repression or to seek political answers to the threats of even greater upheaval and extremism on the horizon.

How then is one to view the archaic monarchy that rules over the world’s greatest known petroleum reserves and its second-largest accumulation of foreign exchange, but has created no recognizable modern political system; that seeks a closer strategic relationship with Washington while following a social and legal code consisting of thirteen-hundred-year-old religious teachings? The American policy makers who have to answer that question about the House of Saud perhaps deserve some sympathy, for it is highly doubtful that they know enough about what really goes on inside Saudi Arabia to make judgments about what should be done.

Largely through miscalculation both in Washington and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia has suddenly become central in some of America’s most bruising foreign policy debates. Reagan’s surprising friendship and regard for the Saudis are peeling away the support given him in 1980 by neoconservatives and American Jews who thought he would rely on American pressure rather than persuasion to consummate the on-again, off-again romance with this client-state-in-waiting.

The Saudi Arabia that Americans have come to know through the congressional debates over the sale of F-15 fighter bombers and AWACS radar planes seems unpromising on its face. The two thousand or so princes who sit on or near the top branch of the Saud family tree form the country’s only political system. They believe the country literally belongs to them and their claim to legitimacy rests on three traditional activities: managing the oil wealth now being funneled out in a colossal spending spree on economic development, arms, and payoffs; watching over Islam’s most holy places in Mecca and Medina and, to a lesser extent, Jerusalem; and safeguarding the Arabian Peninsula from the radicalism of the politics of the Arab Levant.

During the past five years the royal family has come to be dominated by a group of senior princes who try to compensate for their difficulties in carrying out these three traditional tasks by building and managing a strategic and financial relationship with the United States that will assure their survival and prosperity into the next century, even after the fabulous oil fields of their Eastern Province have been made obsolete. It is a prospect that presents extraordinary opportunities as well as dangers for both Riyadh and Washington. The Reagan administration thus far has given no sign of understanding either the opportunities or the dangers.

Despite the current importance of Saudi Arabia, most of the literature on the country falls into one of two categories—the apologetic and the ignorant.” So a pseudonymous Saudi student, “Hayyan Ibn Bayyan,” asserted in a mild attack on the royal family published last year in the United States (and not, we can be certain, in Saudi Arabia).1 He is generally accurate, but the big, handsomely produced, and generally admiring biographies of the House of Saud under review are something different. Both include too many apocryphal anecdotes and show a familiar British weakness for the romance of the desert; but they nonetheless help us to begin to understand this complex country.

They concentrate on the abilities of the current heads of the Saud dynasty to guide the system they have inherited through one of the most wrenching historical transformations ever to take place. Both books try to show that, in spite of their political backwardness, narrowness, and other faults, the Sauds are not seen by their own people as the Shah and Lon Nol were seen by theirs.

The Sauds established an early hold on Arabia’s primitive society by being able to answer the question that any monarch dreads from his subjects—what is the use of a royal family? From the eighteenth century on, the Saud clan appears as prosperous people from the oasis, good not only at fighting but at diplomacy after the fighting stopped. They could adroitly reconcile the rivalries between the peninsula’s bedouins and the hadhar, the town people who feared the nomads’ raiding. After defeating the bedouin tribes, the Sauds would pay them off with tribute, a method of survival that they continue to use today on a much larger scale. They do so nationally through the “hunting parties,” during which senior princes distribute oil revenues to the remaining bedouin tribes, and abroad through their regular payments to Syria, the Fatah Palestinian guerrillas, and other potential Arab raiders.

During the eighteenth century, the Sauds allied themselves with Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, whom David Holden describes as “a Muslim revivalist of the sternest hue—a John Calvin, so to speak, of Arabia, come as if in fulfillment” of the pattern of decadence and reform that had been predicted by the philosopher Ibn Khaldun four hundred years earlier. The unbending form of Islam propagated by the sword of the Sauds stressed the oneness of God and of all worldly things, a unity to be enforced by a central spiritual and temporal authority vested in the king/imam who heads the House of Saud.

Contemporary Saudi Arabia, for all its money and the new corruption and idolatry that wealth has encouraged, remains in theory and to a surprising extent in practice a Wahhabist state,” Holden writes. The Koran is the only recognized and enforceable code of law, “so that the country is held in a 1,300-year-old corset of town and desert morality …,” and political codes.

As if following Ibn Khaldun’s script, the original dynastic rulers gradually dissipated their strength and lost control even of their home region of Nejd in the center of the Arabian Peninsula. It is only eighty years now since the young desert chieftain Abdul Aziz and his Saud clan stormed the Musmak, the small mud fortress of the Nejd village of Riyadh, and began the conquest of the towns and tribes of the desert heartland of the Arabian Peninsula. By 1932, Abdul Aziz had been sufficiently victorious on the battlefield and prodigious in the marital bed—eventually producing forty-five acknowledged sons by at least twenty-two wives from various clans or tribes—to proclaim himself King Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal al Saud, absolute monarch of a nation whose identity he made synonymous with that of his kin.

Since then, the story of Saudi Arabia has been the story of this man’s family and its retainers. Both biographies of the Sauds have much to say about the five men who have ruled the family and the nation, Abdul Aziz (mis-known in the West as Ibn Saud) and his four sons, Saud, Faisal, and Khalid, the present king, who rules in partnership with Crown Prince Fahd.

Robert Lacey lived in Saudi Arabia for about eighteen months and got to know some of the princes and ranking members of the nonroyal technocratic elite. But the stories he tells often sound as if they have been revised by Arab storytellers for a Western journalist’s ears.2

The book by Holden and Johns is much more solid. The first ten chapters, which take us from the founding of the House of Saud up to 1945, are written in the lucid prose and with the perceptiveness that characterized Holden’s work for the London Sunday Times before his still unsolved murder in Cairo in 1977. Richard Johns, an oil and Middle East specialist for The Financial Times, finished the book, describing how the royal family rose from its poverty-stricken lend-lease days to its current dominance of OPEC. Johns’s account of OPEC meetings and pricing is not much better than the journalism of the day, but he is more acute than other Western writers in his knowledge of the competing factions within the royal family and the technocratic elite that helps to shape oil marketing and production policies today.

Throughout each book runs the quandary I felt on each of my own half-dozen trips to Saudi Arabia during the past decade. I would start my visit to Riyadh feeling that it was impossible for the anachronistic family system to function and to meet the demands for change that must be rising from the returning students who have been educated at the best universities abroad and the young women who must by now be aware of the bondage imposed on them by the old Wahhabi code. But each time the family’s almost invisible system of religious authority and clan loyalties seemed to be working for the Saudis in their dealings with a population whose lives were being transformed in ways that would drive the rest of us insane.

Perhaps the most intense pressure comes from the erosion of the barriers that the royal family had put up against foreign, and particularly Western, influences. During the past decade—when the number of Westerners living in Riyadh rose from several hundred to 40,000—their relations with the US became the central question for the Saudi leaders. Richard Johns ends his book with an ambiguous suggestion that those pressures, and the resurgent waves of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian fundamentalisms that have already torn apart Lebanon and Iran, will sweep the Sauds from power in five years. And yet, with an ambivalence characteristic of those condemned to study the Saudis, he also suggests that he is probably wrong.


Toward the end of World War II, King Abdul Aziz traveled by motorcade to the docks of Jeddah to board an American destroyer. His retainers sought to drive a hundred live sheep aboard the USS Murphy to provide the king, his forty-eight companions, and the ship’s crew daily with meat that was freshly slaughtered, as Islam demands. (The Murphy’s astonished captain allowed only seven sheep aboard, but he diplomatically yielded to Abdul Aziz’s request to pitch a tent on the foredeck.)

Two days later, Abdul Aziz met with President Roosevelt aboard an American cruiser moored in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal, to speak of lend-lease aid for his chronically broke treasury, of Palestine, and of Jews. Of the European Jews whom Roosevelt proposed he help resettle in the Middle East, Abdul Aziz said: “Give them and their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who oppressed them…. Make the enemy and the oppressor pay.”

  1. 1

    Hayyan Ibn Bayyan, “Open Letter to Saudi Arabia,” The Nation, April 4, 1981.

  2. 2

    Lacey’s account of how King Saud was deposed in 1964 by a group of elders known as the Council of Those Who Bind and Loose was told to him by one of King Faisal’s sons and is a distinct improvement over all the versions I have heard from equally well-placed Saudis. Lacy recounts that seventy senior princes met in a desert palace to engineer a transfer of power to Faisal while leaving Saud as the reigning monarch. This so infuriated the dissolute king that he angrily charged he had been turned into a Saudi version of Queen Elizabeth II.

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