Robert Lacey, Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia (Viking, 2009).

Historians love anniversaries. Not only can they serve as grounds for organizing conferences, but they are also perfect for pitching short commentaries to the op-ed page. The New York Times op-ed page is 40 years old in September, to be commemorated for giving rise to what one Times insider called the great “op-ed assembly lines across the land at the think tanks and universities.” Historians produce two basic styles of op-ed. One is about the lesson for the present of some past event — Vietnam’s lessons for Afghanistan, for instance. The other kind considers the enduring impact of some key figure or some signal event on our own time.

The latter form of argument appears toward the end of the preface of Robert Lacey’s Inside the Kingdom, where he explains why his earlier The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud, about the country’s “dazzling rocketing to modernity,” matters.

“What if?” is a dubious game to play with the past. But on the basis of the evidence, it seems reasonable to suggest that without the historic achievement of the House of Saud, the horrors of 9/11 would never have been inflicted on the United States, since Osama bin Laden’s poisonous hostility to the West was a brew that only Saudi Arabia could have concocted. His attack on the twin towers was a maneuver in an essentially Saudi quarrel — played out with American victims.

It is an argument he wisely forgets for the remainder of the 300-plus pages of the sequel. The third sentence has no logical connection to the second, which could be deleted without consequence. Lacey does not have the tools to explore the sources of bin Laden’s ideas and, more important, compare these to the many other strains of “poisonous hostility to the West” that exist elsewhere. He would need to do this in order to show precisely how only Saudi Arabia could produce such an event (best done by ignoring the first 1993 attack on the same building in which no Saudi-made “concoction,” let alone Saudi passport holders, figured). Most important, from the marketing angle the passage is a real disaster, offering few chances for pitching an op-ed piece. What milestone does one reach for in the case of “the historic achievement of the House of Saud” and the shadow it casts on the space where the Twin Towers once stood?

My suggestion would have been to pitch instead a 30-year perspective on the shadow cast by the tumultuous events of 1979: the fall of the shah of Iran and the beginning of the Khomeini revolution, the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, the Soviet push into Afghanistan, and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Juhayman al-‘Utaybi and followers. The story of the two-week siege is where Inside the Kingdom actually begins. The one minor problem is working out how that event actually matters to a war launched two decades later by the bad bin Laden, Osama, who back then was a rising if pious construction mogul. An al-Qaeda supporter drawn to “what if?” questions might ask, “If no siege of Mecca, then no planes operation?”

1979 is also the year that Lacey, a Sunday Times reporter and court historian who had scored big with a bestselling biography of Elizabeth II, Majesty, quit his day job and moved to Riyadh. Three years later he published The Kingdom, which ends where the new book begins, with the story of the siege. In the original, the good bin Ladens, who had done some renovation work at the site, are nowhere to be found. In the new version they are practically the heroes of the whole affair by supplying the maps to the French commandoes who ended the siege. Scholarship on Saudi Arabia was mostly a wasteland when Lacey published The Kingdom in 1982. “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,” wrote one young Saudi critic in the left-leaning Nation magazine. Only two of the mere half-dozen books published on Saudi politics in the 1970s avoided the romance that oil companies and court historians liked to tell of an all-wise tribal chief and his sons leading their people out of the medieval era into the twentieth century. Fred Halliday’s Arabia Without Sultans (1974) and Helen Lackner’s A House Built on Sand (1978) focused instead on the effects of capitalist development, the role of the US in bolstering the new oil-based authoritarian order and the emerging class, regional, ethnic and sectarian divisions that characterized contemporary society.

The US political class was then in the midst of one of its periodic debates about the wisdom of deepening the “special relationship” with the House of Saud. The Nixon and Carter administrations had both banked on the royal family, together with the Shah of Iran, to provide for security in the Gulf while assuring the world economy adequate supplies of oil at the new, higher prices necessary for all the arms purchases and base building that protected the budget of a post-Vietnam Pentagon and secured the future of the US engineering and contracting industries. Following the collapse of one of the “twin pillars” in the winter of 1978–1979, the conservative historian and defender of British imperial diplomacy in the Gulf, J. B. Kelly, wrote a scathing postmortem of US policy and the derivative, “tireless campaign” to sell Saudi Arabia as a “dynamic, stable, forward-looking” US ally.

One of the organizations at the forefront of this campaign, the Middle East Institute, created in 1946 to educate Americans about their putative vital interest in the region, had targeted the Lackner, Halliday and Kelly books for assassination. Its stable of international oilmen, State Department Arabists-turned-consultants and adjunct professors did yeomen’s work to deny, deflect, modify, qualify and make go away what all knew to be true, including, to give just two examples, the “personal degeneracy and moral corruption among members of the royal family” and the fact that the military that the US was more or less building and arming, together with the second-class Shi‘i subjects working in the oilfields, posed a “major security risk.”

The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign editor Jim Hoagland welcomed the appearance at a critical juncture of two “fat and gossipy” books on America’s ally in the Gulf, The House of Saud by long-time British Middle East correspondents, David Holden and Richard Johns and The Kingdom by Robert Lacey. According to Hoagland, the coalition of “neoconservatives and Jews” that had helped bring Ronald Reagan to power feared that Reagan was returning to the game of placating untrustworthy clients, when he should have been pressuring the Saudis to accept US bases on their soil as the only sure way to secure “our” vital interests there.

Washington’s tribe of Saudi hands all judged the Holden and Johns book better than Lacey’s. The contest was also a foregone conclusion. While neither book criticized US policy, the authors of House of Saud had clocked decades of experience in the Middle East. By comparison, Lacey was an inspired amateur, and his book a compendium of clichés, Bedouin lore and the like. House of Saud also came with an unbeatable backstory. In December 1977, Holden had been shot at point-blank range and his body dumped in a ditch on the route from the Cairo airport into town. Johns took over the project. The killers were never caught.

What got lost as the sides joined the battle over weapons sales by way of book reviews is that Lacey never pretended (or not much anyway) to be writing a book for specialists. He writes to entertain — a perfectly reasonable goal — and thereby to sell books in numbers beyond most professors’ dreams. Lacey’s book was also pretty good, his interviews molded into a story that is hard to distinguish from the journalists’ version now. In the May 2009 Foreign Affairs, Gulf expert F. Gregory Gause named Lacey’s The Kingdom one of the five key books to read on Saudi Arabia. Asked about the choice, he said Holden and Johns drew more on gossip from Beirut and Cairo and Lacey more on gossip from Riyadh.

While those coming to the study of the kingdom today no longer have to rely quite so heavily on gossip, the Middle East Institute still operates as a kind of outpost of the mutawwa‘in, the kingdom’s notorious police of “vice and virtue,” and plenty of books recycle the old clichés. Pascal Ménoret’s The Saudi Enigma, which follows in the critical tradition of Halliday and Lackner, considers the specious reasoning behind many books written in the past decade by journalists who journeyed to Riyadh to discover “the” origin of the September 11 attacks. Complex historical events cannot be “reduced to a single factor,” but those eager to win adherents in the new war or to just sell lots of books have little patience for complexity. In too many of the new tracts, Islamism or Wahhabism has spread outward from Najd, fueled by oil wealth, with bin Laden as its vector. We turn Saudi Arabia into an “enigma,” Ménoret says, by ignoring logic, rigor and related practices of the social sciences.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s “enduring enigmas,” Lacey insists at the beginning of Inside the Kingdom. It is a country whose paradoxes proved lethal for Americans, a “modern state fueling violence that spiraled” far beyond its boundaries. Following the senseless “what if” quoted earlier, he tosses out a series of rhetorical questions in place of a rationally persuasive argument with a speed that leaves those foolish enough to stop to work out the logic in the dust. “Think of the new words that we have had to learn in the past 30 years: wahhabi, jihadi,
Arab-Afghan, Desert Storm, fatwa, al-Qaeda. What do they all have in common?” Wait, you think, as Lacey rushes ahead, is it a trick? Because Desert Storm, the war to reverse Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, does not belong on a list that seems focused on political Islam, does it? Lacey does not explain. If you stop to think through the logic you find yourself falling behind in Lacey’s lightning quiz. Where were 15 of the 19 hijackers from? Which nation supplied lots of fighters in Afghanistan? Prisoners in Guantánamo Bay? Foreign fighters in Iraq?

Lacey’s new history of the kingdom follows the formula of the old one, mixing gossip, other people’s scholarship, “jokes and folktales” tracing a meandering path from Mecca in 1979 forward, with brief detours to wherever Osama bin Laden and “vacationing jihadis” turned up in the years before the destruction of the Twin Towers. Parts one and two of the book cover some of the same ground as Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower and Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, so readers may already know where Lacey is headed, and those who do not get a chattier, easy-to-follow Saudi Arabian-centered version. Specialists will gripe about the occasionally mangled translation of an Arabic word (naksa does mean “setback,” but not “disaster” or nakba) or odd rendering of an Arab name (Sayyid Qutb is more common than Qutub, for sure). I liked part three of the book best, because it covers the years since 2003, the first of the popular histories to do so. For instance, he discusses the relatively successful though not foolproof Saudi “terrorist redemption techniques” pioneered by Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, who escaped serious injury at the hands of an al-Qaeda suicide bomber pretending to give himself up. Lacey pulls together reportage, new scholarship and lots of interviews to tell the story of the House of Saud’s defeat of the latest challenge to its rule.

One recent development in the kingdom since September 11 is related only in Lacey’s hidden notes in the back of the book. He has relied on studies underway or recently published by European and American researchers living and working in the kingdom in the last few years. They include Ménoret but also David Commins, Thomas Hegghammer, Steffen Hertog, Toby Jones, Stéphane Lacroix and Guido Steinberg. Perhaps the Saudi oligarchy has finally figured out that what professors in the West write about them poses no threat.

All the new research makes Lacey’s book better (even as he ignores the critical edge of nearly all of it), and although the next monographs from Cornell and Harvard University Presses will not put a dent in his sales, they make it less likely that Inside the Kingdom will make it onto reading lists and into the bibliographies of works that matter to those taking up the study of Saudi Arabia ten or 20 years from now.

How to cite this article:

Robert Vitalis "Pitching the Princes," Middle East Report 254 (Spring 2010).

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