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 and 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)
Crown Prince Fahd
Crown Prince Fahd; drawing by David Levine


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…

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