Wednesday Book: Cursed with good fortune

SAUDI ARABIA: THE SHAPE

OF A CLIENT FEUDALISM

BY GEOFF SIMONS, MACMILLAN PRESS, pounds 45

THE SAUDI official took one look at the new high-cost housing units outside Riyadh, and despaired: "How can bedouins and their goats be cajoled to the 18th floor of a tower block?" In a book replete with anecdotes, this one somehow encapsulates the dilemma of Saudi Arabia. On the face of it, here is a nation blessed with extraordinary luck. One family (the House of Saud) wrested control of a million square miles of sand, captured the two holiest sites in Islam and created a kingdom, in the early Twenties - just as geologists were discovering the largest oil reserves on earth buried beneath the dunes.

Yet while the regime struggles to keep its populace content (if not happy and free), it remains hamstrung by its anachronistic ways. This is the typical tale of an ancient culture grappling with modernity - only now the stakes are much higher, and failure could spell doom on a global scale. That is the impression Geoff Simons conveys in his excoriating account of the corruption of the House of Saud, and the West's complicity in its fortunes.

Few authors have catalogued the vicissitudes of Arabian politics so sharply and in such detail. Dozens of maps, tables, chronologies and cross- references make this book a wonderful resource, as well as a riveting read. Today's Saudi Arabia, we learn, is the third incarnation of the kingdom. Yet its martial spirit has given way to supine behaviour, claims Simons. Despite its huge arsenal, Saudi Arabia still found itself forced into summoning half a million "infidel" troops to defend it from Saddam in 1990.

Timely and compelling, this book asks what "Western values" really mean if we tolerate a medieval regime that bases its authority on inheritance alone. How can we justify incarceration without trial, torture of children, public decapitations, subjugation of women, and virtual slavery? Why do we appease a dynasty whose intrigues make the Borgias seem like social workers?

The answer, of course, is oil - both its strategic importance, and the myriad benefits petrodollars provide for Western firms, especially arms manufacturers. While Washington rails against Iranian "fanaticism", it turns a blind eye to Riyadh's worst excesses. And Britain's Al-Yamamah arms deal in 1985 remains the largest in history. As Simons describes it, the Saudi-American axis constitutes a "plutocratic symbiosis", with the Arabian peninsula now serving as America's military launch-pad.

However, the twin blessings of Mecca and oil now represent poisoned chalices. When the oil price falls, the country becomes just another vulnerable third-world economy. And while the ruling clan remains immune from economic woes, their profligacy and corruption create further problems.

The stark contrast between the House of Saud's puritanical Wahhabi beliefs and their alleged decadence lays them open to charges of betraying their religion. A few among many examples: one sheikh spent pounds 30,000 on chocolates; the Nasriyah Palace consumes more water and electricity than the entire city of Riyadh; and the royal family has disbursed $50bn in gifts of land to cronies.

Simons adds a string of new charges: the Saudis' dogged attempts to acquire nuclear weapons from China; their desire to destabilise democratic Yemen; their funding of US proxies, whether in Angola or Afghanistan; and the way that Aramco (the largest American business outside the US) willingly delivered strikers into the hands of a murderous local sheikh. Then there is the Saudis' bankrolling of Iraq's long war against Iran, and their history of coveting Kuwaiti land (paradoxical, since the events of 1990- 91).

Wealth, alleges Simons, allows Saudis to buy the loyalty of a billion Muslims world-wide, through aid programmes and sponsorship of mosques and schools. Yet Saudi attempts to return Islam to its Hejaz origins, to fill the void left after the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, ring hollow. Their austere fundamentalism and thinly veiled Arab chauvinism antagonise too many other Muslims.

The Saudis themselves pushed aside rivals earlier this century. What is to prevent the same happening to them, asks Simons? Nor has America learned anything from history. Just as with the Shah, the US backs "moderate" (ie pro-Western) King Fahd, while ignoring the "gathering clouds" ahead. The bombers of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam dubbed themselves "Liberators of the Holy Places" - a clear challenge to Fahd, self-proclaimed "Protector of the Holy Places". In Simons's book, Osama bin Laden, alleged godfather to the terrorists, emerges as the quintessential disgruntled Saudi protege turned dissident.

One way out of this conundrum may be to replace Saudi nepotism with a truly representative government, albeit one grounded in Islam. Simons's greatest fault is his anti-religious prejudice, which clutters his otherwise outstanding analysis. He ignores the vibrant debate about state, faith and modernity that has gripped Muslim academics since the 19th century.

Is he suggesting that the debate has simply bypassed the desert fastnesses? If so, Saudi Arabia's future choices look bleak indeed - clan rule in perpetuity (unlikely); a Western-imposed solution (untenable); or an even more rigid Islamist regime (unthinkable). Maybe goats living on the 18th floor is the most honest approach after all.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game