The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Three views from outside 

If there's anything worse than a book review, it's probably a review of a book review, and even worse is a review of of a review of three books. I'll try and avoid that, but there's a very good review here

In the review, he points out:

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's triumphant return to Tehran in February 1979, the last act in the dramatic overthrow of the Shah of Iran, presented Washington with a major policy quandary....Saudi Arabia was the logical fallback.... But like their social system, the Saudis' religion--the puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam--made America uncomfortable. Unaccountable to their subjects, the Sauds, tribal despots, spent lavish sums not just on themselves but on mosques and madrassahs across the Muslim world, promoting the anti-Westernism that was inherent in their faith. Their missionary efforts did not save them from widespread criticism from their own subjects for ties with the Western heathens. But the United States, obsessed with communism's threat, chose to overlook the possibility that Wahhabism might itself be dangerous.

The Bush coalition's victory simply re-affirmed the Saudi monarchy's dependence on US control of the Gulf. At the same time, the coalition's use of Saudi bases to invade Iraq, as well as its decision to retain them after Saddam's defeat, inflamed many Saudis and provided bin Laden with justification for jihad against both America and his homeland.

The first book he reviews is "House of Bush, House of Saud" by Craig Unger. Now for my taste, this was a bit too strong on the conspiracy theory theme. My problem is that I've never come across an organization where more than three people can both keep a secret and do what they actually agreed to do (apart from, sadly, Al Qaeda). The notion of governments sharing major secrets and dark agendas, with all those journalists around, never rings true for me. Viorst counters this by saying

But, as a prominent Iraqi once said to me, "just because we Arabs are addicted to conspiracy theories doesn't mean we are always wrong." As an example Unger sketches some rather shady ties between George W. Bush's Harken Energy, the source of his oil wealth, and BCCI, the Saudi-dominated bank that triggered a major scandal in the 1990s, when the first Bush was President.

Referring to the Bush and Saud families, the reviewer says

They had shared secrets that involved unimaginable personal wealth, spectacular military might, the richest energy resources in the world, and the most odious crimes imaginable.... Unger links items of circumstantial evidence to conclude that immediately after 9/11, the second President Bush acceded to a Saudi request to repatriate planeloads of Saud and bin Laden family members without interrogation by US authorities.

Strong stuff. Personally I didn't buy a lot of this book, but it was a good read.

Thomas W. Lippman, in "Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership With Saudi Arabia", approaches the problem differently. For a longtime journalist in the Middle East, he is surprisingly thin on politics. Instead, he goes back to the early days, when the first oil producers arrived on Saudi soil, and takes a friendly walk down memory lane to tell us about the seed time of the American-Saudi relationship.

I haven't read this one, but now I will.For example, I never knew about this incident in the east.

In a little-known incident, Aramco's Saudi workers went on strike for higher wages and better housing in 1953. The monarchy was stunned by their presumption. When a workers' delegation brought its case before the government authorities, they were arrested, and when the strike spread to the airbase at Dhahran, the state sent in troops and forced the workers to return to their jobs. The royal family left no doubt whom it favored in the contest. Even when it nationalized Aramco twenty years later, its objective was to raise its own income, not provide a better life for its citizens. Though Lippman draws no conclusions of his own, he reveals much about the rising bitterness among the population toward the monarchy, which surely tells us something about why bin Laden found Saudis so easy to recruit.

The next book is John Bradley's "Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis". Now John is someone with whom I've exchanged emails, and indeed his site's URL is up at the top of this blog. I've also had emails from readers, generally from the anti-muslim wing, that have been very critical of him. I have a very simple view in these matters; if someone can antagonize both the Saudi regime, and anti-muslimists, then he's probably getting it more right than wrong. John is:

An Arabic-speaking ex-editor of the English-language Arab News, he uses a graceful journalist's pen to write with scholarly authority. He lived for several years in Jeddah, in the Hejaz, a sector of the peninsula that has resisted Wahhabi puritanism since the Sauds conquered it nearly a century ago. Bradley's work shows a sensitivity rare for a Westerner, reaching directly to the society's core.

John points his finger very accurately at a major social problem:

Bradley recognizes, for example, the dangers to social stability of the 60 percent of Saudis who are under 21. Poorly educated, living at home where they are coddled by parents and foreign servants, without qualifications for administrative jobs but refusing manual work, they are utterly directionless. All contacts with the other sex are forbidden. These youth spread their discontent over the Internet, but otherwise boredom hangs over them "like a toxic cloud." Crime among the young and jobless has risen nearly fivefold since 1990. Their life, Bradley says, promotes feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, leading "some to wantonness and others to the straight and narrow of fundamentalism."

He also outlines one of the hidden dimensions of Saudi society.

Whatever his other strengths, Bradley is at his most impressive in dealing with the subtle political ramifications of Saudi Arabia's tribal system, about which Westerners know almost nothing. He reminds us that more than once in the past century or so, the Sauds have had to face tribal uprisings, which they suppressed brutally, and that tribal rivalry is far from over.

Try getting a police or armed forces job with a name that's not "pure arab". Potential applicants with any suggestion of Shiite or foreign ancestry need not apply.

Even if you don't read the books, the 5-page review is itself worthy of some time.

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