... to The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa'Ud which ends at the beginning of the `80's. At the beginning of his previous work, Lacey relates how a Georgetown educated member of the House of Saud told him that he had lived in the Kingdom for 30 years, and if he tried to explain the country, and how it worked, the best he could do is get a B+ on the paper, and therefore, Lacey, as an outsider, could only hope to earn a C. I disagreed, and in my review, said that Lacey deserved at least a B+, if not an A-. For this work, which covers the last 30 years, he deserves a solid A.
Lacey starts with "Angry Face," Juhayman, and his followers, including the expected "Mahdi," who seized the mosque in Mecca (Makkah) in 1979. (This event is also covered well by Trofimov, in The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine). The author selected a wonderfully appropriate epigraph for this section, from Dostoevsky: "Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer. Nothing is more difficult than to understand him." Lacey did a commendable job in explaining the grievances of those being overwhelmed by the "future shock" that was roiling the Kingdom as a result of the influx of money and foreigners (and their ideas) following the sharp increase in oil prices after 1973. This event, plus the revolt of the Shia, in the eastern town of Qateef, in the same year, had the net effect of nudging Saudi Arabia to a much more conservative governmental social policy, yes, in effect, co-opting a portion of Juhayman's agenda... and the women disappeared from the TV, and the "Opera House" remained closed for many a year! Lacey also covers the Saudi-American alliance of the `80's, ironical in retrospect, openly supported "jihad," certainly when it was fighting the "godless" Soviet Union in Afghanistan. And now both countries suffer from the "blowback," in CIA parlance. Part Two deals with the second decade of the 30 year period, the `90's. The author again commences with an all too appropriate epigraph, this time from Edward Gibbon: "So intimate is the connection between the throne and the alter that the banner of church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people." The seminal event in this decade was Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, and his expulsion, lead by an American coalition. The net effect on the Kingdom, who saw American female soldiers driving, which was emulated by their Saudi counterparts, was to again nudge the Kingdom into a more conservative mode. Still, despite the various "fetishes" developed by the religious police, say, against red roses on Valentine's day, the country continues to be overwhelmed by Western (and world) influences, and sadly, the upholders of tradition saw nothing wrong in the influx of fast food restaurants, which led to an "epidemic" of diabetes. Paralleling events in the Kingdom, Lacey devotes space to events in not so far off Afghanistan, where the "students," (the Taliban) were seizing power, and welcomed Bin Laden from the Sudan. The last third of the book starts with "15 flying Saudis," the events of 9/11, and the aftermath, and the Kingdom's own "9/11", which occurred on May 12, 2003, when three upscale compounds were attacked by suicide bombers in Riyadh. Clearly Lacey empathizes with the modernizing goals of now King Abdullah, who had been de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since King Fahd's stroke in '95, but only obtained the full title after his death in 2005. He closes his epilogue poignantly, with the King praying longer one evening after seeing the progress at KAUST, the university that bears his name, slower than he had hoped.
There is a small "cottage industry" which publishes books, and promotes articles that depict the Kingdom as "mysterious," that wants to "rip the veil" off Saudi society, that "exposes" the Kingdom, that produces sheer fantasies of life in the Kingdom. Lacey might have foregone a few book sales by not following this gamut, but for those who want to understand the country (and even ponder how we in the West perceive the country), this book is an essential read. The author has an extraordinary range of contacts in the Kingdom, and has woven the stories of real Saudis into his story, such as the "jihadis," Mansour Al-Nogaidan and Khaled Al-Hubayshi. Overall, through the sheer number of Saudis who were willing to speak "on the record," you had a sense that they trusted Lacey to tell the story in a balanced way, which I think he has. Tis a shame that it will be one more book on the Kingdom that will be banned by their Ministry of Information.
I loved the way Lacey utilized Saudi parables, as Saudis themselves do, to make a point, with my favorite being "The Donkey from Yemen." Lacey should also be commended for correctly translated the meaning of "Tash ma Tash," the Saudi sit-com, unlike the authors of a couple other books on the Kingdom.
Quibbles? Well, I have a few, and they only underscore the difficulty for a foreigner to get it "all right," but often they can, even better than a Saudi, due to the perspective, and "lack of baggage," including tribal ones. Per Lippman, in Inside The Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia it is unlikely American women were in Al Kharj before 1950, not 1944, as Lacey indicates (p 9). There would have been no "hilal" moon (or any other), on Muharram 01, 1400 (p 22). I'd love to know how the M113 armored personnel carrier was a "success" story of the Vietnam War (p 32). Al-Nakba (the disaster) is usually associated with the Palestinian expulsion of 1948, not the defeat of `67 (p 56). Steve Coll, in his The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century says that there are two versions of how Osama's father, Mohammed, lost his eye, but both occurred in Ethiopia and neither involved soccer; Lacey says that it happened in the Sudan, as a result of a soccer game (p 58). Concerning the formation of "Al Qaeda", the BBC documentary "The Power of Nightmares, directed by Adam Curtis, gives a much more plausible explanation its origins - it was invented by Americans, (!!) for the trials of the 1993 bombers of the WTC, legally, so that RICO laws could be utilized, which involve "conspiracy" and an organization. Later, Bin Laden co-opted the term! It is extremely unlikely that Bin Laden had (has) a "database" of names of all the muhahideen and their contact details, save in his brain (p 148). "Only" three compounds in Riyadh were attacked on May 12, 2003 - the Oasis compound was not (p 244). And Lacey entitles a chapter on the women of Saudi Arabia the "girls" of Saudi - and not a single "girl" was in the chapter (p 274).
Overall, though, a thoroughly researched, and balanced book, written to illuminate Western and in particular, American readers on Saudi Arabia, (Lacey, a British writer even explains that Sandhurst is the "West Point of England.") and should be read in conjunction with Lacey's earlier work, The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa'Ud Though I'm sure Lacey would demur that "it is beyond the scope of this course," should not all Americans ponder the progress made after each countries "9/11" concerning the issues he only discusses about the Kingdom, be it educational policies, human rights, detention facilities, employment of youth and counteracting those who advocate endless conflict with "the other." An essential 5-star read.