Wednesday Book: Cursed with good fortune

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The Independent Culture



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.