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44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 25 January 2011
This is a fairly balanced and objective book about modern Saudi Arabia. Lacey provides a succinct and perceptive assessment of how the country's religious conservatism spawned Osama bin Laden and a generation of nihilists and how the Saudi establishment had to wake up and smell the coffee after 9/11. He is particularly good on the duplicity and intrigue associated with US-Saudi relations throughout the last 30 years and how this has had a profound influence on the politics of the Greater Middle East. In places the book conveys some sense of cautious optimism about how the country is slowly edging towards greater openness and equality for its citizens, especially women, under King Abdullah's unique brand of enlightened though cautious despotism. But well publicised episodes about the sheer medieval cruelty that still pervades Saudi society are also described in chilling detail. One is left with the impression of a country still held hostage to its own failings as a society run by the Wahabist brand of Islam in spite of the wealth and influence brought about by its oil status. This country still has a long way to go before it earns the sort of respect from the free world that the Al Saud dynasty so obviously crave.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on 10 November 2009
Saudi Arabia is not one country but a series of conflicting economic and political tectonic plates that slip and slide, emerge and subsume as groups such the young and the old, the merchant class and the unemployed,the empowered princely class and the unempowered population at large,and the religious and technical classes all compete. The House of Saud has since the Kingdom's foundation managed to ease the symptoms of tension between the plates but is generally unfitted to cope with the underlying causal economic pressures.

Robert Lacey's book "Inside the Kingdom" follows on his earlier book "The Kingdom". As a director of a number of Middle East programmes, working for a major United Kingdom company I made his earlier book compulsary reading for anybody joining my organisation.As ever Lacey has done an excellent job capturing the mood of the Kingdom as it sleepwalked itself into the current crisis.The investments in infrastructure in health care,roads,electrification but most of all clean water and sanitation, made in the 1970's and 1980's, slashed infant and particularly neo natal mortality.In the early 1960's two out of three children died before they were five. By the end of the eighties this number had fallen to Western European levels. This outbreak of children brought in its wake another burst of infrastructure investment as schools had to be built. In the mid eighties there were twice as many children in nursery education as there were in primary education who in turn were twice as many as in secondary education. A fearful symetry grew. Opening the Kingdom's first public Occupational Psychology practice we advised clients on methods of effective Saudisation - the real trick was to start with good candidates - but first we had to find good candidates. Wasta -(influence)was the only reliable method of getting a job leading to widespread corruption and incompetence. Saudis without wasta were reduced for going from door to door in office blocks trying to find a job. The Saudi secondary education system was at that time split into technical and religious streams and without saying it employers systematically discriminated against those in the religious stream. The situation was not helped by the Saudi Merchant classes overwhelming preference for biddable and cheap South Asian Labour. Entry level jobs were usually filled by Filipino,Indian,Pakistani and Bangladeshi labour, known as TCNs ( third country nationals) making that critical first job hard to find. Saudis also found the choice of working in the private sector difficult as opposed to a government job. The latter worked a five day one shift week with many other benefits whereas private companies routinely worked six days. Most Saudis were, in estate agents parlance, SILKIs - single income lots of kids imminent. Because their wives could neither work nor drive any family illness or school commitment meant that the father had to have more time off work as compared to the TCN who needed the job (Usually to support a large extended family at home together with repaying a repacious recruitment agent).With the vast majority of Saudi commerce being service based - Employers knew that no employee behind the counter meant no business. The failings of the education system have been well rehearsed and Robert Lacey illustrates the point again.

The House of Saud is similar to those cabaret artists who spin plates on canes - it takes a sharp eye and a lot of practice to keep everything going.

The Kingdom was not helped by many of the cadre of Western expatriates who worked in the Kingdom - many found that having left their home market places they rapidly became unemployable back home - the so called "expatriate trap" - and whilst they may not have intended to work in the region for the rest of their careers that became their only option. Because expatriate employment was often a precarious event depending on the whim of the Saudi owner - many expatriates became well versed in saying what the owner wanted to hear not what he needed to hear - encouraging a culture of denial of the increasing heat from the street.

The big question is what next. The oil based economy will intrinsically make the Saudi Riyal a hard currency which in turn makes the creation of jobs difficult. The large capital intensive oil and bulk petrochemical businesses look and are impressive but as modern plants they are managed and maintained by a handful of employees,they can and will do nothing for the employment prospects of many Saudis. The House of Saud needs to address more directly the fact that a larger Saudi public means that there is more public opinion.The Kingdom is more porous to outside media and traditional censorship is just putting their finger in a dyke that is bound to break. Forbidden media, such as the mosque cassettes have a temptation factor all of their own for youths for whom teenage rebellion is a natural part of growing up. The House of Saud is also going to have to address the Merchant class's needs to build their businesses on cheap South Asian Labour - renewal of workpermits now needs to set a strict term for each expatriate's stay in the Kingdom reinforced by economic sanctions - the longer they stay the more they cost. Finally the House of Saud will have to make the transition from the sons of Abdul Aziz to the next generation - in itself a process fraught with internal tensions. The House of Saud is going to have to be brave.

The big question is what next? The smaller question is whether Robert Lacey's excellent book will appear on the shelves of the Kingdom's book shops unlike its predecessor?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 9 May 2013
Even though I am visiting the Middle East fairly frequently at the moment, I never expected to read a book like this wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens next.
How does a Royal Kingdom of such overt wealth and power encompass Mecca , the home of the Muslem faith, and sustain such fierce religious adherence.
The skills and wisdom with which the successive kings worked with and listened carefully to the powerful religious leaders is dissected - Robert Lacey certainly seems to have developed exceptional access to the leading players. The kings are elected in an unexpectedly democratic manner from the various strands of nobility and come with different strengths. As the Saudi proverb goes:
If you did not go hungry in the reign of King Abdul Aziz, you would never go hungry (This is the king who conquered surrounding kingdoms to create the vast Saudi Arabia as recently as 1932)
If you did not have fun in the reign of Kin Saud, you would never have fun
If you did not go to prison in the reign of King Faisal, you would never go to prison
If you did not make money in the reign of King Khaled, you would never make money
If you did not go bankrupt in the reign of King Fahd.....
That is about as far as it goes although, for my money, King Abdullah, the present king comes out the shrewdest.

Starting in 1977, Islam fundamentalism, organised by Juhayman, rose against the Saudi royal family: "The Al-Saud had exploited religion as a means to guarantee their worldly interests, putting an end to Jihad , paying allegiance to the Christians (America) and bringing evil and corruption upon the muslims". The ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood were to re-establish the order of Allah. But the rhetoric dealt in change -promoting concepts like social justice, anti colonialism and the equal distribution of wealth. Politically they were prepared to challenge the establishment in a style that was unthinkable to mainstream Wahhabis (religious leaders), who were reflexively deferential to the House of Saud.

The Muslim Brothers were stamped on firmly by the Saudi state. Unlike Osama Bin Laden, who was financed and supported by the Saudi's in his fight first against the Soviet infidels in neighbouring muslim Aghanistan, and then in bringing his trained fighters to resist Sadam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and threat to Saudi Arabia itself. But Osama bin Laden turned against the royal family, enraged by the Saudi cooption of America onto Saudi territory to help invade Iraq. The story of Osama bin Laden's bombing of the Tanzanian and Kenyan embassies and the explanation of why the majority of the 9/11 bombers were disaffected Saudis is related in a series of interviews with those involved on all sides.

The position of women in Saudi society, the power of the fundamentalist clerics, the relations with the USA, the importance and influence of the tremendous oil wealth and the tensions within the society are all examined.
This thoughtful and enlightening book must be on anybody's reading list if they are perplexed and intrigued by the position of one of the world's most powerful religious and economic states.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 4 December 2009
Saudi Arabia is a difficult place to understand. This book is an excellent historical narrative that gives the reader an insight as to how things work at the top levels and how the country's history has evolved it into the entity that it is today.

An excellent read, and well recommended for anyone who wants to understand the country, its Islamic traditions, and its relationship with the US.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 19 May 2013
Lacey uses a perfect blend of storytelling and fact-giving to create an informative and rather gripping account of Saudi socio-political history. That's the long and short of it. If you've ever been even mildly interested in Middle Eastern politics or Islamic terrorism (which you should be), this book will shed a lot of light on the murky issue. Lacey charts the creation of terrorists like Bin Laden in an easily accessible form; he makes it quite clear how the move to religious fundamentalism coupled with US and Saudi funding of the mujahideen contributed heavily to the terrorist movement.

What is perhaps more interesting is the power play between the House of Saud and the religious sheikhs (ulema). King Abdullah's push for reforms certainly makes a western audience support his cause but Lacey forms a good question with his last chapters. Would we support a dictator who wants westernising reform or a democracy that would undoubtably be radical and religious? Are we supporters of democracy or rather western ideals? The case of King Abdullah (exemplified in his intervention of a rape victim being punished) makes the latter seem to take precedent over the former.

If this brief account has piqued your interest, do read the book!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This book is a brilliantly illuminating and often quite moving history of Saudi Arabia from its creation in 1926 (!) up to 2009 when the book was printed. It reads like an exciting novel, vividly describing a wide variety of conflicts and achievements. It puts across the points of view of (often very brave) people trying to get their country into the 20th (never mind 21st) century and on the other hand of "traditionalists" who understandably resent the way "westernisation" has destroyed their neighbourly and family oriented way of life. (If only people could be made to understand that fast cars & gated communities aren't essential to western living.) It also decribes the difficulties the rulers have in holding together a country of such diverse views that was born so recently in violence and their horror at so many of their youngsters becoming ruthless killers. So why only 4 stars? Because I read this to try to improve my understanding of Middle East conflicts and jihadism, but it finishes at 6 years ago and an awful lot has happened since then. I read this on my Kindle and feel that there is scope for a new kind of book here; one where you can cheaply buy new update add-ons (AMAZON PLEASE NOTE). Such updates could equally apply to guides to best music, etc. For example, I've got the 2001 Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music & would like to see what they've recommended since then but don't want to shell out for a complete new book every time it's updated. Add-ons at, say double the price per page of the original would be brilliant. An update of Inside the Kingdom to 2015 would get me asking Amazon for a ten-star rating for this book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 23 September 2010
This is a compelling read which gives you a real understanding of what life in Saudi Arabia is like. The style of writing is excellent with a flair that keeps you up all night.
I would recommend this book to anyone wanting a understanding of how Saudi Arabia entered into modernity.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 29 November 2009
I learnt so much from this very knowledgeable inside story of what goes on in Saudi Arabia. The conflict between the royal rulers who want to modernise and the religious powers who would like to live as Mohammed. The love/hate relationship with USA which was the cause of 9/11.
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on 19 December 2014
For all those who are seeking to gain an understanding of what the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is like to live in, this book will almost definitely be a most helpful introduction. However, the history of the country is presented in narrative terms only, and their is little to no valuable analysis of the events to provide the reader with a scholarly understanding of the kingdom's recent past. For example take the authors rather poor attempt at chronicling the origins of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin-Laden's early career. here we see no coherent thesis put forward for the origins, and merely taken through (only some of) the more dramatic segments the story. Also one comes away from these chapters of the book feeling that the jihadis were primarily motivated by their conservative interpretations of their faith, whereas recent scholarship shows causes that are political-military in nature.
However, the book for the most part does, through the many chapters where the author focuses on a single person or small group of individuals who he has met personally to demonstrate the varying facets of living as a Saudi citizen. Though I must point out here that there will be a few of these sections in the book which fall far short of giving a representative picture of reality and the chapter about the Saudi woman who discovered an amorous flourishing of lesbian eroticism in a relationship with a female friend is definitely a case in point.
Overall, please make sure you know what you expect from this book before purchase and lower you expectations in anticipation of an equally informative as well as misleading study of the Saudi kingdom.
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