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AL SAUD'S LAW
on 8 December 2009
This is a disturbing book. Robert Lacey's "Inside the Kingdom" paints a compelling picture of a key ally of the West that is also the breeding ground for our most impassioned enemies. The Kingdom is held together by a skilled and ruthless balancing act by the ruling Al Saud clan. How long can it last? Is it desirable that it should last? What is the alternative?
Lacey describes Saudi Arabia through a series of loosely linked journalistic vignettes and case studies (" think tanks and foreign affairs societies can offer statistics and analyses aplenty," he observes). He introduces us to terrorists, holy men, secret policemen, reformers both male and female, a former Guantanamo inmate, a rape victim (who suffers more perhaps in the social aftermath than in the crime itself) and even princes and kings, both corrupt and benign. Lacey has penetrated deep into the psyche of the Kingdom, and he takes us with him. His overall tone is respectful and even empathic. This makes his picture all the more unsettling.
The central strand of Lacey's episodic narrative is the tight alliance of convenience between the Al Saud and the Wahhabi clerisy (named after the eighteenth century cleric, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab). The terms were straightforward: in return for supporting the dynasty's temporal rule (and disportionate access to the nation's wealth), the Wahhabis would be given supreme authority in matters spiritual, a sphere to which they gave a broad and in some regards an arguably un-Islamic definition. This deal was first struck at the formation of the first Kingdom in 1774 and was reasserted on the formation of the modern state in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz. It was turbo-charged in 1979 following the invasion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by fundamentalist terrorists led by Juhayman Al-Otaybi. The ruling family's response to this atrocity - following the bloody recapture of the Mosque, with which Lacey chooses to begin his story, riveting the reader's attention from the outset- was to attempt to defang the radicals by outmatching them at their own game.
Under King Khalid's appeasement policy, the Wahhabis and their fearsome agents the Mutawwa (the notorious Religious Police) were given a free hand. The result was a sustained campaign against innovations ("bidah"), increased oppression of women, suppression of the Shia minority which is especially prominent in the oil rich Eastern Province, and of anyone showing even the most incipient signs of liberal thinking or secularism (secularism became a synonym for apostasy, for which the penalty is death and accusations of secularism became the common weapon of a spiteful and well-populated class of petty informers). Education became principally religious in nature, heavily skewed to rote learning of the Koran and other texts, virtually guaranteeing the emergence of a radicalized (not to mention sexually frustrated) generation ill-equipped to play any functional role in a modern economy. The philosophy was exported too, through generous grants to madrassas, mosques and other Moslem causes throughout the world. All this took place while the government was overtly and covertly collaborating with the USA on its foreign policy agenda (the Contras, Afghanistan, the First Gulf War etc). In Saudi Arabia, as in other Islamic nations, there was widespread glee when a predominantly Saudi squad of terrorists took down the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
Somewhat belatedly, the current King Abdullah, who succeeded in2005 after almost a decade as Crown Prince, started to reverse some of these trends. He did so partly in line with his longstanding beliefs and partly in response to specific provocations. He imposed restrictions on the clerics and Mutawwa, he introduced educational reform, notably including education for girls, he moved towards greater inclusiveness for the Shia, greater toleration for (mild) dissidents and increased transparency in government. Externally, he promoted inter-faith understanding and led progressive, though unfortunately stillborn, Arab initiatives towards peace in Palestine. He also moved to diversify Saudi Arabia's foreign policy away from dependence on the USA. Many would argue that all this is too little, too late. However, the de Tocquevillian dilemma he faces is well illustrated by the results of his small step toward democratic representation. As his predecessor, King Fahd, had wryly predicted, the victors were those who were organized - the religious extremists. A dangerous moment indeed. This initiative has been quietly allowed to go dark. The survival of the regime depends perhaps on the awareness among "ordinary" Saudis that their lifestyles are at risk if it fails.
Lacey ends his book quite touchingly with the 86 year old, ailing king praying by the seashore. He does not venture a prognosis for the Kingdom. The reader is left to speculate. Will the future bring more of the same, a perpetuation of the balancing act? Will Saudi Arabia go like Iran, transforming relatively non-violently from monarchial autocracy to theocratic authoritarianism? Or will it collapse like Iraq into violent anarchy? Will the next king - surely from a new generation - make it or break it? A peaceful transition to a Western-style democracy seems to be the least likely of outcomes. If ever a book made the case for "Arab Exceptionalism, " this is it.