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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz (STR)
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz (STR)

The Daily Review, Wed., Jan. 20

Arabia's split personality Add to ...

In the preface to this book, British journalist Robert Lacey recalls his previous work on Saudi Arabia, titled simply The Kingdom, and published in 1981. That contribution was banned by the Saudi authorities within a year of its publication. But in 2006, an unnamed but powerful Saudi friend of Lacey's invited him to return to the country to assess its situation in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001. For three years, the Briton travelled between Jeddah, the historic Saudi commercial capital, and London, researching this volume. At the conclusion of the preface, Lacey asks, "Will they ban this book like the last one?"

While little is predictable in Saudi Arabia, it appears unlikely that Inside the Kingdom will be prohibited from distribution there. Lacey's new book may best be described as an ameliorative narrative of past history and current controversies under Saudi rule. His aim seems to have been to publicly acknowledge the oppressive practices of the rulers, the extremism of the Wahhabi sect that is the official form of Islam to which they adhere, and the complaints of many Saudis about their conditions of life.

But now, he implies, we should move on: Lacey answers these realities - treated in numerous commentaries both within and outside the desert domain since the events of 2001 - with extravagant praise for the reform efforts initiated by Saudi King Abdullah since he gained power in 2005.

Very little here will therefore be new to Saudis and active Saudi-watchers, except that Lacey has supplemented his account of known, if often contested, facts with material from interviews with numerous Saudi officials, who are named at length in the acknowledgments. Given that such anecdotes cannot be confirmed by alternative sources, some of his disclosures remain questionable. Such contacts also cut two ways. They cannot help suggesting that the view of Saudi Arabia offered here is a "state-approved," if a modernizing and therefore moderately self-critical, one.

Saudi Arabia's direction has yet to be determined

From the establishment of the present-day Saudi order in the 1920s, the kingdom has contended with tension between the radical demands of Wahhabi doctrine - which Mr. Lacey describes as puritanical, but about which he offers few substantial details - and the practical needs of the house of Saud in governing their subjects. The book begins with the seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca, Islam's most sacred location, in 1979. That terrorist raid was carried out by hundreds of fanatical young men, led by a deranged figure in his 40s, Juhayman al-Otaybi. Al-Otaybi was a student of a blind cleric prominent in the Wahhabi elite, the late Abdul Aziz Bin Baz.

Although the terrorists proclaimed another of their number, Muhammad Abdullah Al-Qahtani, as the Islamic messiah, or mahdi, their violent action was stimulated less by enthusiasm for the alleged mahdi than by rage over the increasing adaptation of the Saudi rulers to "Western" manners, including the introduction of television, increased permission for women to work and inclusion of photographs on identity cards.

The capture of the grand mosque was deeply embarrassing to the Saudi rulers, who finally resorted to French commando help in retaking it. (The " mahdi" died in the bloody confrontation, and al-Otaybi was executed.) But it should have been more discomfiting to the Wahhabi teachers who had mentored al-Otaybi. Indeed, the Wahhabi clerics called on the royal authorities to allow the defilers of the grand mosque an opportunity to repent before acting against them. A Lacey informant who belonged to al-Otaybi's group states that the supremely influential Bin Baz had not only provided most of the financial support for the insurrectionary faction, but also repeatedly intervened with the government when its members encountered trouble.

Lacey follows his retelling of the 1979 crisis with chapters covering most of the past and present challenges created by the volatile partnership of the Saudi royals and the Wahhabi clerics. These include the discontent of the large Shia minority in the Eastern Province, the main oil-producing territory, given that the Wahhabis consider Shiites heretics, and the birth of an alliance between the Saudi Wahhabis and their near-disciples, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, against the populism of Gamal Abdel Nasser. They range to the better-known Saudi involvement in the Afghan resistance to the Soviets and later installation of the Taliban regime; the inevitable friction between Saudi rulership and Wahhabi sectarianism over the energy relationship with the West; the biography of Osama bin Laden; and new conflicts between royals and radicals over the Saudi role in the Gulf War of 1991.

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All of which leads to 9/11, the Saudi response to it, and succeeding attempts at change in Saudi governance. Lacey notes that like the other Saudi leaders, then-crown prince Abdullah was at first inclined to blame a Jewish conspiracy for the attacks on the United States. This book's description of popular Saudi excitement over the murderous assault of al-Qaeda remains disturbing, even after eight years. But Abdullah was also, according to then-U.S. ambassador Robert Jordan, as cited here, the first of the princes to accept that Saudis had a determining hand in the terror strikes. When 9/11 occurred, ruling King Fahd had been incapacitated since 1995. According to Lacey, Abdullah was so distressed by the situation that he reached for, and attained, considerable influence over domestic affairs, in an effort to resolve Saudi Arabia's "new," but really old, problem.

Lacey writes, "9/11 finally settled who ruled whom in Saudi Arabia." This judgment appears more than a little too definitive. King Abdullah has visibly striven to reform his country, especially in the areas of women's rights and education, but Saudi Arabia's direction has yet to be determined. At the end of his chronicle, Lacey refuses to offer a prognosis for the future, referring to "the muddle of tradition and progress that makes up the Kingdom today."

Unfortunately, that description describes Saudi Arabia's entire past as well as its present. A definitive account of Saudi Arabia's response to 9/11, and the reforms launched by King Abdullah, will doubtless have to wait for a truly decisive shift - either toward real transformation or toward attempted restoration of absolutist and clerical oppression.

Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism at www.islamicpluralism.org. He is the author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror.

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