When it emerged that most of the 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, the country’s rulers admitted that something had to change. Did it? Writing ten years after the events of 9/11, and against the background of the advent of the Arab Spring, former resident and seasoned observer of the Kingdom Andrew Hammond argues not. Reform was and is an illusion.
The Kingdom was founded and continues to be sustained by an alliance between the Al-Wahhabi clerics and Al-Saud Royal Family. This alliance is predicated on upholding an exceptionally conservative and reactionary school of Islam. Before the first decade of the 21st, Century policy was determined by the need to preserve this alliance internally, while seeing off challenges externally, like secular Arab nationalism and, more recently, Al-Qaeda and Iran. Since 9/11, the Royal Family has had to make the right sort of noises to give the right sort of impression in the West that the country is changing. Hence much ballyhoo is made about projects like the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), touted as concrete symbols of progress.
However, KAUST and related initiatives exist in bubbles. Nothing has or will be done to weaken the twin pillars of Wahhabi clerics and the Royal Family, who continue to rule the roost, making few meaningful concessions to the populace to share in the governance of the country. Control of the media remains tight. Strict gender segregation that makes Iran’s theocratic model look progressive by way of comparison continues. Even the Hajj (which the author has experienced first-hand, sharing an interesting account in this book) is controlled and contrived to buttress the country’s uber-Islamic credentials. Meanwhile, foreign policy remains subservient to US interests. WikiLeaks release of US diplomatic cables, which the book cites extensively, have revealed in stark fashion the men behind the masks in Saudi Arabia – even more hawkish than Washington’s neo-cons when it came to dealing with Iran’s nuclear energy programme, to take just one example.
The fear among the Saudi ruling classes that the US would invade the Kingdom or overthrow the Royal Family in the aftermath of 9/11 was a real one. Such fears have long side dissipated. The impression of genuine reform has won over many sceptics. Hammond is probably right to suggest that the assessments of authors like Robert Lacey about the ruling elites’ incipient conversion to democratic, pluralistic values rest on wishful thinking. But he does not answer a troubling question, presumably because to ask it risks conceding that the self-serving justifications the House of Saud resorts to in order to rationalise its oppressive rule may have some validity: were the Kingdom to fall, would anything better replace it? There are plenty of courageous individuals in Saudi Arabia, men and women committed to democratic, pluralistic and humane values, fighting for the sorts of things we take for granted in the West. But how representative are they? Unfortunately, there is no critical and systematic discussion of what sort of alternative might plausibly replace the House of Saud.
Overall then, the book presents a convincing argument that the so-called reforms Saudi Arabia has undertaken in the last decade or so are mostly a sham. The rulers think they rule Islam’s version of paradise. So why is there really a need for reform? Despite that, there is plenty of trouble in that paradise. After one has finished this book, however, one is left no clearer as to what the possible alternatives are, to replace the current social compact between the clerics and monarchy. Despite that compact’s backward, retrograde foundations, it has proved remarkably durable in the face of the challenges modernity has thrown at it. This book shows how it has dealt with the most recent challenges. Of course, whether it can carry on doing this is anyone’s guess.