Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia Hardcover – Oct 2009
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"This is high drama and an epic tale. Dazzling---on every level." ---Tom Brokaw --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
"Robert Lacey has returned to the Kingdom to provide an insightful and intimate portrait of a country—and a family—chained to tradition and challenged by the remorseless march of modernity. Lacey provides many startling and often delicious details that make this history fresh, surprising, and essential." --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.See all Product Description
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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.
the title 'inside the kingdom', at least to me, somehow implies that we are about to be briefed in on special insights that come from someone who intimately knows the country and its people as an insider, or, in the case of saudi arabia, at least a semi-insider
on the front flap, the text reads 'with inside the kingdom, bestselling author robert lacey gives readers a remarkable portrait in full of this most enigmatic of lands', so that also helped to build up expectations that, eventually, did not materialize whatsoever
the book is little more than an extremely meticulously researched list of political events of the last 30 or so years, more or less in chronological order, and focussing almost exclusively on the royal al-saud family and their halo circle, and their significant political enemies within and outside saudi arabia
so far so good, and if that's what you are after, you will get it in excellence (in fact, the subtitle does narrow down the scope of the book), but do not expect real insider's knowledge. the book, for the best part of it, may have been written in a library anywhere in the world with good research facilities. the book is also very materialistic in the sense that it focusses on material events and, sometimes quite annoyingly, in such painstaking detail that i got the impression that digging up details had become to the author an end and not a means. you will learn little about the national psyche, culture (apart from its aspects in religion), youth (apart from some easily diagnosable issues such as unemployment) and in general, the saudi people as such do not feature very much, issues the discussion of which would help the reader to relate to and understand the focal issues of the book. there is no memorable discussions of the arab or saudi mind, attitudes, thinking patterns in general. even if the author very often quotes individuals regarding specific issues, the focus of the book is definitely on political events and not people
the statements on the back cover, like 'provide[s] an insightful and intimate portrait of a country' or 'sweeping, beautiful writing', are also lacking substance, in my opinion. i would not think the author even made as much as an attempt at 'sweeping, beautiful writing'
this book would be very satisfactory if it had not been misrepresented and had a different title, something that truly expresses the nature of the book. it could be an excellent source of reference, and it contains tons of interesting data. it is a very thoroughly researched and well (although not remotely 'beautifully') written piece, and it would surely deserve 5 stars had it been sold for what it is. unfortunately, what it is sold for, it is not
(i have been living in saudi arabia for several years now and thus feel somewhat qualified to contribute this book review)
Thirty years ago Mr. Lacey published a history of Saudi Arabia called "The Kingdom," a book, by the way, that the House of Saud elected to ban. Mr. Lacey's new tome basically picks up where the last one left off.
Mr. Lacey's prose is enjoyable and his book is well structured, describing and explaining events in a logical and chronological sequence with digressions and thematic developments where appropriate. And after reading his book, I have gained a renewed appreciation for the Law of Unintended Consequences. We learn that the Arab oil embargo, which was precipitated by U.S. support for Israel during the 1973 war, resulted in unprecedented prosperity in Saudi Arabia which, in turn, caused a backlash among Islamic conservatives, which fostered the growth of organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood where Osama Bin Laden found a home, who then went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, and so on and so on. Mr. Lacey also does a fine job of chronicling the evolution of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and the Royal Family's genuine fear of the Shia extremists that control the government of neighboring Iran. And he effectively buttresses his arguments with insightful anecdotes and telling vignettes.
The events in this book have been chronicled elsewhere--it doesn't contain startling revelations or previously undisclosed diplomatic secrets. But it does help you understand the forces that have created the current mess in the Middle East, many of which were unleashed unwittingly by the participants. And I personally will take it as a sign of hope for the region (albeit a small sign) if the Kingdom, this time around, does not choose to ban Mr. Lacey's book.
Lacey's point of strength is his ability to shift between micro and macro smoothly. Like a good movie, the book closes by updating readers on the whereabouts of its main characters. Lacey provides enough history needed for first time readers, which makes the book extremely helpful for beginners on Saudi Arabia.
The book opens with the story of Juhayman Al-Oteibi, the man who organized the occupation of Mecca in 1979. Lacey suggests that Juhayman's debacle was a turning point in Saudi politics and policies, as the kingdom eventually endorsed his radical platform. While true, Lacey should have also noted the influence of the Islamic revolution of Iran in pushing more Islamist radicalism across the region, including inside Saudi Arabia.
The buildup of radical Islam - with official government blessing - across the kingdom was coupled with the war in Afghanistan between a growing Islamist movement there and the Soviet occupation. Saudis were generous in supporting the war, as young Saudi men found their way to the rank and file of the anti-Soviet movement throughout the 1980s.
Once the war in Afghanistan ended, the Saudi warriors - first and foremost amongst them Osama Ben Laden - found themselves addicted to war and thus became cannons on the loose. It was only a matter of time before they turned their attention against Saudi Arabia and its allies, mainly the United States. Throughout the 1990s, the Saudi government found itself grappling with de-radicalizing its own citizens and containing the radicals' security threat. By the end of the decade, King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke. Crown Prince Abdullah became the de facto ruler.
The crown prince had to wait to become King to implement a series of reforms that he had in mind. According to Lacey, the king's religious credentials and his reputation as a hardworking man who stays away from excesses put him in a good position to initiate reform.
Finally, Lacey skillfully shows how in Saudi Arabia, change does not necessarily start from the top down, and perhaps should be implemented from the bottom up, that is Saudi Arabia can change only after the culture of its people changes. He cites a few cases, such as an assault on a girl in Qatif, to showcase the importance of the ruling family in curbing fanatics and old common practices that are at odds with modernity and modern states at large.
The book is very good at explaining how Saudi Arabia was a fairly modern kingdom until a terrorist attack made it one that espoused the very ideals the terrorists espoused. This lead almost directly to the creation of the 9/11 factor and Osama Bin Laden. But only after the terrorists came home did Saudi Arabia start to act in anything approaching a reformist mindset. Lacey does a great job of showing how any reform was slow and met with tremendous opposition and even now minor steps require major battles. All in all a very good read!