BOOK REVIEW / Oil, beheadings and the lash: 'The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of The House of Saud' - Said K Aburish: Bloomsbury, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
NO MATTER how you cross the Arab countries of the Middle East, you can hardly avoid the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Its empty heart and bristling coastal cities sit above the most valuable oil-bearing strata on earth. Strung together with necklaces of pipelines and watched over by early-warning aircraft, it looms between Egypt and Iran. But is it a faithful ally, enlightened oil exporter and bulwark of stability? Or is it, as the author of this indictment claims, primitive, unstable and all but bankrupt?

The House of Saud rose to dominate the peninsula in a messy series of tribal wars conducted under British auspices after the collapse of Ottoman rule. Its early kings reigned in picturesque splendour. Until the Fifities, literature on Saudi Arabia described a savage playground where drab, modern experience was stripped away and Man confronted the barren desert in an everyday contest for survival. This way of life bred a fierce code of honour nourished by an Islam uncontaminated by urban prosperity.

Said Aburish traces the corruption and decay of that medieval society as it collided with a modern world of oil companies, wealth and foreign intervention. He argues that its antique tribal structure simply collapsed under the temptations of unimaginable riches, unrestrained power and whimsical patronage. The resulting vacuum, he warns, will probably be filled by a vengeful Islamic regime, triggering a vast increase in the price of oil, another world depression and a war between the West and the Muslim powers.

This is contentious stuff, and it is not surprising that the Saudi royal family should have made strenuous efforts to prevent its publication. Earlier works on the modern Saudi state have tended to skirt around the question of corruption, stressing the country's social stability and concluding that strategy, wealth and progress would ensure its survival.

But there has been no effective study of Saudi Arabia since the decline in the price of oil and the campaign to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The Gulf war brought infidel troops on to Saudi soil. It exposed the expensive pretensions of the royal armed forces and outraged secular radicals and religious fundamentalists alike. The allied victory bought time for Western interests, but if only half of Aburish's polemic is true, it was only a prelude to that greater war for oil and for the future of the whole Middle East.

Meanwhile the West continues to pour into Saudi Arabia overpriced sophisticated weapons which gobble money from a depleted treasury and subtract funds from state spending and improving living standards, thus making social upheaval and the fall of the regime they purport to defend more likely. And in the event of an invasion, they would be of little practical use in the hands of an army chiefly composed of conscripts and mercenaries.

In Arab literature, one can play either court poet or bitter pamphleteer. Aburish, a Palestinian who grew up in Beirut, is unashamedly the latter. It does not help his case. Much of what he says is true. There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, the press is censored, order is maintained by beheadings and the lash and women exist in purdah at the behest of a rabid clergy. The extended royal family includes members notable for hedonism, cruelty and laziness.

Yet such is his searing tone that I was tempted to discount the message of his book until, sitting on a flight from Geneva to London, a wealthy, pious and well-connected Saudi next to me began openly saying the very same things. The House of Saud had to be pushed to reform, he said, before it was too late. And then I reflected that Her Majesty's ambassador to Saudi Arabia is the same gentleman who presided over British export policy towards Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Perhaps Douglas Hurd could send him a copy of this partisan, trenchant and valuable study in the diplomatic bag, as soon as may be convenient.