Michael Field, The Merchants (London: John Murray, 1984).
John R. Presley, A Guide to the Saudi Arabian Economy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984).
King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, made peace with the Hijaz in 1925 over coffee with the leading merchant of Jidda, Haji ‘Abdallah Alireza. Doha merchant ‘Aballah Darwish virtually ran business in Qatar in the 1950s and 1960s with his partner the ruler, Sheikh ‘Ali bin ‘Abdallah Al Thani. Such alliances between merchants and rulers are the social and political pillars of modern states in the Arabian peninsula and the subject of Michael Field’s unique and informative book. We read how nine merchant families made their fortunes through a combination of luck, talent, hard work and — above all — government patronage.
Before oil enriched the rulers, wealthy families such as the Alirezas and al-Qusaybis in Saudi Arabia provided crucial financial backing to the often indebted King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. Educated and traveled, they proved ideal liaisons with foreign powers and businessmen. The al-Qusaybi brothers prospered in Bahrain in the early part of the century as King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz‘s main supplier of foreign goods and his diplomatic channel to the British.
Reward for service to the king, especially in the early days, was more prestige than commissions, although association with the king did open up new business opportunities. Later, with the oil boom, rulers bestowed land grants, government contracts and a host of business concessions on loyal merchants.
Field, a journalist and consultant, describes his book as a “collection of family stories.” But these stories, based on personal interviews and some British agency documents, have never before appeared in such detail. The classic rags-to-riches tale of Sulayman ‘Ulayan, who began his working life as a transportation dispatcher with Aramco and now heads a multinational conglomerate with shares in Mobil, Occidental and Chase Manhattan, may be familiar to some, but the Alireza emigration from Iran, the early intrigues of Bahraini Yusuf bin Ahmad Kanu, who founded the Gulfs largest shipping agency, and the daring rice deals of Haji Ahmad Sultan in Kuwait are related here with new vividness and detail.
Field’s book is padded with chapters on Arabian society and recent history — as they concern the merchants — and the changing structure of the family company in the 1970s. The enormous oil wealth of the rulers, says Field, has opened a gap between them and the older wealthy families, but the political alliance remains and “rulers seldom do anything which will seriously interfere with the merchants’ pursuit of profits.”
One would like to know more about the tensions and conflicting interests between merchants and rulers in boom and post-boom Arabia, especially as declining oil revenues shrink the rulers’ bag of favors, and altogether new classes emerge to claim their share. But the stories are entertaining, informative and faithful to their protagonists. Field avoids the sensationalizing that less sensitive and experienced observers of Arabia so often succumb to. Fasi, Khashoggi, Far‘un and other showy jet setters who rate coverage in the Western tabloids are not typical Arabian merchants. The richest ones, Field reminds us, are often the most discreet.
The Merchants easily surpasses John Presley’s Guide to the Saudi Arabian Economy as an initial guide to the personalities and forces of Arabian business. Presley was an adviser to the Saudi Ministry of Planning, but his book is almost fatally outdated. Presley looks at features of the Saudi economy in the 1970s — inflation, manpower shortages, and over-rapid growth — but misses those of the 1980s — stagnating construction and trade, the manpower exodus, bankruptcies and private sector debt, and the rise of Saudi protectionism.
Presley cannot be blamed for failing to predict the plummeting Saudi oil production and its consequences, but his predictions for the 1980s were over-optimistic even when they were formulated. Still, the book is rich in statistical information from the 1970s (virtually all of which has been published by Saudi government agencies), with some 50 charts, tables and diagrams. The student or researcher of recent Saudi economic history will find the book a useful resource.