Stormin' sultan

DESERT WARRIOR by General Khaled bin Sultan, HarperCollins pounds 20
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GENERAL Khaled bin Sultan was, along with the American general Norman Schwarzkopf, joint commander of the anti-Iraqi forces in the Gulf War. He is also the nephew of the king of Saudi Arabia; Prince Bandar, his half-brother, is the Saudi ambassador to Washington: Prince Khaled thus occupies a unique position in Saudi Arabia.

If Saudi is the West's most crucial ally in the Middle East, it is also the most opaque; at once complex, secretive and proud. Because of that, Prince Khaled's memoirs of the Gulf conflict - coming hard after Schwarzkopf's own writings and those of Sir Peter de la Billiere - are less interesting for their description of the war itself, with its detail of troop movements and lists of weaponry, than for their authorship. No member of the House of Saud has ever written a book, let alone one in English and for publication in the West.

Prince Khaled wanted to make sure that Saudi Arabia's rightful place among the allies would not be forgotten by history, and he goes to some length to point out details the other commanders fail to own up to. Schwarzkopf, in his memoirs, insists that securing Khaled's appointment as a general with the "authority to write cheques" was a victory for the US. Khaled maintains the US had nothing to do with his getting the job.

If the delicate balancing act Saudi Arabia kept up with both its western allies and its Arab partners were not to falter, it was crucial for the kingdom to be seen to be on equal footing with the US. "We have no interest in winning a war against Saddam if we endanger our country in the process," he quotes himself telling French defence minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement. Time and again, Khaled sheds light on the Saudi attitude to delicate issues, like the invention of his cumbersome title of "Commander of Joint Forces and Theater of Operations" to pre-empt a US takeover, as happened in Vietnam and Korea, or the cancellation of the Eddy Mitchell and Bob Hope concerts as a way of preserving Saudi tradition, or the banning of alcohol among the troops.

The most interesting chapter concerns not how the war was fought, but how it was finished. Prince Khaled believes the allies, having failed to kill Saddam Hussein, made two crucial mistakes which allowed the defeated Iraqi leader a measure of "getting away with it".

The first mistake was when the allies failed to insist that a formal document of surrender be signed or that Saddam send his most senior generals for the first meeting with the victors at Safwan just north of the Kuwaiti border. Khaled insists this "would have deflated Saddam's ego and helped bring him down". The second mistake, Schwarzkopf's alone this time, was to leave the Iraqis free to fly their helicopter gunships after the war. This concession had dire consequences for the southern Iraqi population, whose rebellion shortly after the war's end was brutally put down.

For all its military detail and its sense of life behind the scenes of the Gulf conflict, the chief value of this book to all but the most insular reader is to glean fresh insights into how Saudi Arabia is changing - or not. Here Prince Khaled comes down an the side of discretion. He has a repu-tation as a liberal, a champion of openness over traditionalism, yet you sense that this is a man who knows a lot more than he's letting on.