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Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia Oxford University Press USA Rachel Bronson


30th November 2011 History Books 31 Comments

For fifty-five years, the United States and Saudi Arabia were solid partners. Then came the 9/11 attacks, which sorely tested that relationship. In Thicker than Oil, Rachel Bronson reveals why the partnership became so intimate and how the countries’ shared interests sowed the seeds of today’s most pressing problem–Islamic radicalism.
Drawing on a wide range of archival material, declassified documents, and interviews with leading Saudi and American officials, Bronson chronicles a history of close, and always controversial, contacts. She argues that contrary to popular belief the relationship was never simply about “oil for security.” Saudi Arabia’s geographic location and religiously motivated foreign policy figured prominently in American efforts to defeat “godless communism.” From Africa to Afghanistan, Egypt to Nicaragua, the two worked to beat back Soviet expansion. But decisions made for hardheaded Cold War purposes left behind a legacy that today enflames the Middle East.
In this landmark work, Bronson exposes the political calculations that drove this secretive relationship. Her lively narrative is interwoven with colorful stories of diplomatic adventures and misadventures–including details of high-level backchannel conversations, awkward cross-cultural encounters, and a bizarre American request for the Saudi government to subsidize Polish pork exports, a demand the U.S. Ambassador refused to deliver. Looking forward, she outlines the challenges confronting the relationship. The Saudi government faces a zealous internal opposition bent on America’s and Saudi Arabia’s destruction. Yet from the perspective of both countries, the status quo is clearly unsustainable. This book shows how this crucial relationship evolved, and suggests ways to chart its future course.

“A thoughtful history of U.S.-Saudi relations. It challenges the common characterization of the relationship as a bargain in which the Saudis provide easy access to oil in exchange for U.S. security guarantees.”–Foreign Affairs

“This is the most solid book to date on the vital relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, with important new historical material and a hard-headed look at our tough policy choices for the future.”–Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus, The Council on Foreign Relations

“Well researched…. The best sections of her impressively researched book explain the complexity and ambition of joint U.S.-Saudi undertakings against communist governments and guerrilla movements during the Cold War — not only in Afghanistan…but also in the Middle East, Africa and Central America…. A reliable, efficient book that policymakers and regional analysts will find useful.”–Steve Coll, Washington Post Book World

“Dr. Bronson provides a highly readable survey of the twists and turns that have typified the US-Saudi relationship. While there is plenty of intrigue, she also paints a picture of a relationship far more complex than most would expect. The author brings a refreshing sense of balance to one of the hot-button topics of our day. Thicker Than Oil points the way to redefining the national interests of both America and the Saudis.” –Robert W. Jordan, United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 2001-2003

“Rachel Bronson has written a book, at once ‘cool’ and authoritative, on a subject of great controversy and importance. She makes her own way through the thicket of US-Saudi relations. A work of careful scholarship and analysis loaded with interviews and drawing on a vast literature. No axe to grind, just the story told with care and judgement.”–Fouad Ajami, Majid Khadduri Professor and Director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies

“Thicker Than Oil is a highly-engaging book on a critical topic–the nature and future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Rachel Bronson brings much-needed balance to an issue that has too often been the subject of unhelpful polemics, and she has proven herself to be a world-class researcher, unearthing numerous gems about that relationship. Her book is a vital reminder of the value of our long-time allies at a time when we have developed a bad habit of taking them for granted.”–Kenneth Pollock, Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and author of The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America

“Smart, balanced, and wonderfully readable, Thicker Than Oil is the perfect antidote to the sensationalism that has recently characterized books and movies about U.S.-Saudi relations. With an eye for the telling detail, Rachel Bronson brings down the temperature of the debate and tells the fascinating story of how the Saudis and the Americans came to be blood brothers, brought together not simply by the black gold but by geography and a common interest in fighting godless Communism. This well-documented study should be required reading for policymakers, students, and indeed anyone interested in truly understanding this most crucial and tense relationship at the crossroads where it now stands.”–Noah Feldman, Professor of Law at New York University, and author of After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy

Rachel Bronson is a Senior Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University and lives in New York City.

“A thoughtful history of U.S.-Saudi relations. It challenges the common characterization of the relationship as a bargain in which the Saudis provide easy access to oil in exchange for U.S. security guarantees.”–Foreign Affairs

“This is the most solid book to date on the vital relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, with important new historical material and a hard-headed look at our tough policy choices for the future.”–Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus, The Council on Foreign Relations

“Well researched…. The best sections of her impressively researched book explain the complexity and ambition of joint U.S.-Saudi undertakings against communist governments and guerrilla movements during the Cold War — not only in Afghanistan…but also in the Middle East, Africa and Central America…. A reliable, efficient book that policymakers and regional analysts will find useful.”–Steve Coll, Washington Post Book World

“Dr. Bronson provides a highly readable survey of the twists and turns that have typified the US-Saudi relationship. While there is plenty of intrigue, she also paints a picture of a relationship far more complex than most would expect. The author brings a refreshing sense of balance to one of the hot-button topics of our day. Thicker Than Oil points the way to redefining the national interests of both America and the Saudis.” –Robert W. Jordan, United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 2001-2003

“Rachel Bronson has written a book, at once ‘cool’ and authoritative, on a subject of great controversy and importance. She makes her own way through the thicket of US-Saudi relations. A work of careful scholarship and analysis loaded with interviews and drawing on a vast literature. No axe to grind, just the story told with care and judgement.”–Fouad Ajami, Majid Khadduri Professor and Director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies

“Thicker Than Oil is a highly-engaging book on a critical topic–the nature and future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Rachel Bronson brings much-needed balance to an issue that has too often been the subject of unhelpful polemics, and she has proven herself to be a world-class researcher, unearthing numerous gems about that relationship. Her book is a vital reminder of the value of our long-time allies at a time when we have developed a bad habit of taking them for granted.”–Kenneth Pollock, Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and author of The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America

“Smart, balanced, and wonderfully readable, Thicker Than Oil is the perfect antidote to the sensationalism that has recently characterized books and movies about U.S.-Saudi relations. With an eye for the telling detail, Rachel Bronson brings down the temperature of the debate and tells the fascinating story of how the Saudis and the Americans came to be blood brothers, brought together not simply by the black gold but by geography and a common interest in fighting godless Communism. This well-documented study should be required reading for policymakers, students, and indeed anyone interested in truly understanding this most crucial and tense relationship at the crossroads where it now stands.”–Noah Feldman, Professor of Law at New York University, and author of After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy

Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia










  • 31 responses to "Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia Oxford University Press USA Rachel Bronson"

  • RattyUK
    13:09 on November 30th, 2011
    Reply to comment

    Covering eleven U.S. Presidents, from both parties, and six Saudi kings over a sixty-year time period, Rachel Bronson makes a convincing case that the two countries have more than oil in common, and that their shared strategic interests drove much of the policies of the second half of the twentieth century, from Africa to Central America, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to September 11. The author is a skilled investigator who uncovers nuggets and facts and assembles them into a completed jigsaw puzzle that is clear and compelling. No small task here, where in the back rooms of Washington and Riyadh, secrecy is so revered. This book is a revelation.

    I never read a book this detailed, this well researched, this non-partisan, and this encompassing that was so wonderfully readable. Non-fiction books can be page turners, as Thicker Than Oil proves.

  • TrafficWarden
    13:33 on November 30th, 2011
    Reply to comment

    … 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.

  • John Baxter
    16:28 on November 30th, 2011
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    Every so often a book comes along that sheds so much light and understanding on the events and people who shaped world events that the reader can honestly say; “Now I understand.” Thicker Than Oil is one of those books.

    Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, Iran-Contra, the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, the seeds of 9/11 sown at the end of World War II: each turns out to be the logical effect of a cause put into play over many years by presidents, kings, generals, entrepreneurs and ambassadors, all appropriately greased by oil, money and a mutual distaste for communism.

    Rachel Bronson follows the trail, adds the insights, and uses the voices of the people who were actually there to document the U.S.-Saudi partnership over the last sixty years. It is the most clear and most compelling history available yet of the “uneasy” partnership.

    Enjoyably readable, impeccably researched, interspersed with humor and understanding, Thicker Than Oil is everything you want a book to be. If only the future could be as clear as the author makes the past.

  • Karla Shelton
    21:50 on November 30th, 2011
    Reply to comment

    I don’t want to repeat what was already said about this remarkable overview of the U.S – Saudi relationship, so let me just steer readers to the footnotes. They are amazing! I rarely read footnotes, but these are so revealing and easy to access that I spent almost as much time with the footnotes as I did with the text. Hats off to the author here! I cannot fathom how she got so many juicy quotes and so much factual material from such a diverse array of people in the know, people who were actually at the meetings she describes. I felt like I was the fly on the wall as policy was debated and decisions made that affected most of the major political issues of the last sixty years. Wow!

  • cjinsd
    4:25 on December 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    this book is a fantastic history of saudi arabia. for those of you that dont really want to read those enormous reviews… this book is an excellent mix of detailed information and a narrative of the important players in the kingdom’s development.

  • Seano
    9:21 on December 1st, 2011
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    A sensitive writer with a gift for weaving a textured drama from threads of fact, observation and impression, author Robert Lacey might have you thinking you’ve picked up a novel. Inside the Kingdom is a political history of Saudi Arabia in the period 1973-2005, written largely from the point of view of the Saudi royal family, to whom Lacey seems to have had frequent and confident access. Other prominent voices include academics, social and religious activists, journalists and former jihadis. Altogether Lacey has spent something close to six years in Saudi researching two books; his previous 1981 volume covered the country’s founding and early history.

    Perhaps more than anything else, his narrative illustrates our interconnectedness and how decisions often lead to unintended consequences. Lacey begins in 1973, a year when Saudi Arabia became unimaginably rich from the oil embargo. While the influx of money was a boon for some, others were frightened by the pace of change and the threat to traditional culture. The pushback came a few years later in 1979. A group convinced of their religious duty to protect society occupied the Grand Mosque, and the economically and socially oppressed eastern Shia minority rose up in rebellion. The royal family backtracked, promoting religious education, tightening social controls, slowing down reform, and allowing the religious police a greater role in managing society. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan helped provide an outlet for the country’s disaffected, unemployable but religiously indoctrinated young men. Their war-front journeys were indirectly enabled by the US and Saudi governments, which found common cause funding the Afghani and Pakistani mujahedeen (as well as Nicaraguan and Angolan counter-revolutionaries). They also conspired to support Saddam Hussein as a bulwark against Iran’s Shia theocracy, but found themselves only a few years later fighting Hussein in Kuwait, and in the process angering Bin Laden, who took offense at the presence of US troops on Saudi soil. This led to terror attacks on foreign targets within Saudi Arabia (such as the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996), the bombings of US embassies in east Africa in 1998, and finally to the hijackings of 9/11. Unable to capture Bin Laden in Afghanistan and looking for an easy target, the US lashed out at Iraq and ended up stuck there for a decade.

    It’s a fascinating tale well told and made all the more poignant by recent uprisings in North Africa which suggest the way forward is not backward to theocracy. King Abdullah has recently announced the Saudi government will be spending a massive amount on social programs to try and tamp down the aspirations of the populace. Perhaps Lacey can visit again in a few years and make a trilogy of his duology.

    A couple of the final chapters of Inside the Kingdom seem to be an ill fit, including one about women and another on the struggle for justice in a rape case in a Shia community. Both are insightful and I’m quite happy they were included (otherwise I don’t know where I might have found them) but they touch only tangentially on Lacey’s grander story arc of global economics, politics and war.

    Overall, this is a wonderful book. Highly recommended. Thank you, Mr Lacey.

    #

  • pop frame
    12:12 on December 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    This book is a good overview of the tensions in Saudi Arabia as well as an excellent source on the Saudi Royal family. However, Lacey fails to fully dredge into the mess that is the relationship between the Saud dynasty and the Wahhabist ulema that effectively runs the society. Little mention is made of the armed struggle going on in the South and the internal skirmishes are represented as being more rare than they actually are. He also does not expose the significant role that members of the royal family play in financing the export of Wahabbist doctrine throughout the Middle East and East Africa. The Saudi elite, through Hawala networks, pay for a myriad of madrasses oriented on non-muslims in developing countries. The author hints at the potential problems of the future should the Saudi’s not get their act together, but nowhere does he outline the true disaster that the country could become. The bottom line is that this is a good overview but soft-peddles the problems in the country and has a tendency toward boosterism with regard to King Abdullah. Given the importance of Saudi Arabia in the global economy, this book misses the mark.

  • TrafficWarden
    12:36 on December 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    This is a great book from a meticulous author, albeit not as an insider as he thinks he is. Never mind the few mistakes, such as Ariel Sharon being a general during the 1982 Israel war in Lebanon (Sharon was defense minister at the time). The book is well-researched and should probably be transformed into one of those impressive public TV documentaries.

    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.

  • John Baxter
    15:31 on December 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    Rachel Bronson, who works at a prestigious New York City think tank dedicated to Foreign Affairs, has written an excellent book on the history of the relationship between the governments of the United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The thesis of her book is that contrary to what some say, this friendship has been based on more than oil, that is also on shared antagonisms of Communism and Colonialism, and mutual strategic benefits. If you’re a diplomat or political scientist, this well researched and meticulously documented book, which includes little tidbits that are rarely discussed, such as Mussolini’s bombing the Dhahran oil installations at the beginning of the Second World War, will prove immensely useful to you.

    But if you approach this history as a history buff, sociologist, or interested citizen, Bronson’s almost pedantic focus on the political aspects of this long relationship and her emphasis on brevity are such that this book probably won’t meet your needs. In distilling the history of this relationship to its bare bones, Bronson elides fascinating historical details that greatly help to understand the history. Bronson, for example, mentions that after they had helped him conquer his kingdom, King Abdul Aziz fell out with his Islamic shock-troops, the Ikhwan, who were only subdued with British help. Had she written that one of the straws that broke the camel’s back was King Abdul Aziz’s use of the radio, which the Ikhwan took as proof of that their King was an “idolater” and hence illegitimate, and the British Royal Air Force had to be called in to restore order, this book would have more local color.

    I agree completely with Bronson that the Saudis were rightfully wary of allying themselves with the British, who at the time wielded an inordinate amount of influence in the region, and that an alliance with the Soviet Union was inconceivable; hence the alliance with the US. But I think she omits one of the reasons why this partnership worked so well for so long: strong cultural similarities between many of the Americans who worked in Saudi Arabia and the Saudis themselves. Texas was one of the hubs, if not the hub, of the American oil industry, and a disproportionate number of the American expatriates in Saudi Arabia were Texan. The Texas of the 1940s shared much more history, topography and culture with Saudi Arabia than Britain or any other European country keen on good relations with Saudi Arabia: many Texan preachers and Saudi mullahs were equally fond of alcohol and (often) intellectuals; both societies had had large populations with a nomadic tradition, Bedouins and Cowboys, a history of gunfights, a patriarchal and clan-based culture, a history of racial inequality (Saudi Arabia outlawed slavery at about the same time the United States ditched their Jim Crow laws, etc.) Neither Odessa, Texas nor large swathes of Saudi Arabia are quite as verdant and lush as the Garden of Eden was.

    These similarities and tensions even played off of each other. Abdullah Al-Tariki, a Saudi petroleum minister, studied at the University of Texas, and was said to have left Austin with a chip on his shoulder because as a student he had been denied entry into some Austin bars by bouncers who thought he was of Mexican origin. When he returned to Saudi Arabia, he set out to found a Saudi equivalent of the Texas Railroad Commission, which the world came to know as OPEC.

    To sum up, as a concise and heavily documented summary of the relationship between the American and Saudi governments this book is easily worth five stars. It is not, nor was it meant to be, a deeper, wider, and more thoughtful look at the shared history between these two nations.

  • nedendir
    16:57 on December 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    The painstaking research undertaken by Rachel Bronson is formidable. She remained objective, except for the conclusions drawn at the book’s end. There was a point at which everything finally seemed clear. I eagerly await her next endeavor.

  • cjinsd
    23:32 on December 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    If you want to know more about Saudi Arabia without a biased opinion toward the country or against, you’ve just found your source!

  • Seano
    4:28 on December 2nd, 2011
    Reply to comment

    This is a very well researched and written account of the major events that have taken place in the Kingdom over the past 30 years. The description of the ruling Al-Saud family is very good and the portraits of the individual members are, in my opinion, very acurate.
    The rise of Osama bin Laden is very well accurately portrayed and the author has been prolific in his sources, including personal interviews.
    As a resident of Saudi Arabia, many of the characters are well know to me and I have met a few of them – this, of course, does a lot to bring the book to life for me. Having said that, I would not hesitate in recommending this as an introduction and explanation to what is currently going on in Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East. The upheaval in Libya, Bahrain, Egypt etc becomes a lot clearer after reading books such as this.
    Thououghly recommended if you have any interest in the region.

  • pop frame
    7:19 on December 2nd, 2011
    Reply to comment

    Rachel Bronson’s book is an exceptional accomplishment. She uses a vast number of authoritative sources and weaves a compelling and readable account of complex geopolitical relationships. Marshall Lilly’s recent (August 6, 2006) review is right on target. Thomas G. O’Brien III, Palm Beach Gardens, FL

  • TrafficWarden
    7:43 on December 2nd, 2011
    Reply to comment

    Very informative and well written. Because of the Arabian names, which are unfamiliar to Westerners the story is sometimes hard to follow. I shall recommend the book to my friends.

  • Jim Levitt
    13:29 on December 2nd, 2011
    Reply to comment

    Finally, a book has been written on this crucial topic that is readable! For someone reluctant to read a book on a current political issue, I was skeptical of tackling the U.S.-Saudi relationship issue even after Thicker Than Oil was highly recommended by my more politically motivated friends.

    The language is concise, not pedantic. The text is peppered with funny anecdotes (such as the US representatives tripping over themselves at a high level meeting in the Kingdom), direct quotes from private conversations between presidents and kings, ambassadors and arms dealers, princes and rivals. There is so much information here from Roosevelt to Bush, yet the reader is pulled into the history and intrigue as if reading the latest thriller.

    This book is a must read for even the casual current events reader. Thicker than Oil cuts through all the media-hype and political spin on why and how the U.S.- Saudi partnership developed. It cuts through the noise and gives us facts. The last chapter could probably stand-alone as the single most important document on the issue. It recaps, synthesizes, highlights current – and developing – flashpoints, projects to the future and suggests alternatives. This book was a very pleasant surprise.

  • nedendir
    14:55 on December 2nd, 2011
    Reply to comment

    This book is good primer on the history and social development of Saudi Arabia. Tracing the path of the country as the path of the El Saud family, the book shows how the modern state of Saudi Arabia developed in fits and starts as various parties such as different branches of the family, the ulema, the military, radical conservatives and dedicated liberals competed for influence. There is some discussion of the growth of the oil industry, and America’s role in it, but meatier discussions are delegated to references to other books. Of course, there is the requisite chapters on the Bin Laden family, the Muslim Brotherhood, both Gulf Wars, Prince Bandar, women’s rights, etc… Overall, a good book; it covers all the major topics without focusing too much on one.

  • Dagmar Naguin
    1:14 on December 3rd, 2011
    Reply to comment

    Saudi Arabia, and America’s relationship with it, is quite possibly one of the most important aspects of the Middle East today. While issues such as Iraq, and conflicts involving Israel are also of great importance, Rachel Bronson has done a great service by producing a compelling piece of work that is really unmatched in terms of approach, documentation, and presentation. There are many poorly written books about the Middle East today that do more harm than good. Bronson’s book certainly does not fall into this category and is one of the best books on the area that I have ever read.

    What you’ll get in this book is a history of America’s relationship with the modern state of Saudi Arabia. As the title suggests, there is much more to this relationship than oil, and the relationship goes far beyond that of the Bush family. Bronson has gone a long way in debunking much of the conspiracy theory garbage that has been produced from both the left and right on this subject. Her sources and methods are close to perfect here, and it is rare to find an author that goes to such great lengths to make sure that a full and accurate picture is presented. The amount of sources in this book is beyond belief, and her selected bibliography is filled with enough books to keep you busy for a long, long time.

    The most refreshing aspect of this book is that Bronson demonstrates how so much of what would be considered “common knowledge” about Saudi Arabia is flat out wrong. What Bronson has done with this book is shown how lazy most other observers of the region actually are in their research. Since reading this book, I have flipped through a number of other books about Saudi Arabia, and I can clearly see at this point that most other authors start with their conclusion and work backwards from it. Bronson conducts honest research, lets her work speak for itself and as a result, her biggest strength is her ability to take a subject that so many authors have sensationalized, and produce a serious work that actually contributes to a greater understanding of that subject, rather than a book that detracts from it. By taking a quick look at the titles of many other books about Saudi Arabia, it is clear that more often than not, authors are taking a subject of vital importance, and making things worse rather than better.

    This goes for films too. It makes me queasy to think back to the days when I thought Fahrenheit 9/11 had provided me with a sufficient understanding of Saudi Arabia and America’s relationship with it. After reading this book, I can’t even begin to describe how poorly equipped a person would be if they thought Michael Moore’s film gave them a better grasp of U.S.-Saudi relations.

    Put simply, this book is a must-read if you seek a greater understanding of Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East in general. There is no excuse for serious observers of the region to pass over this book. But even if you are new to the subject matter, this book will be immensely helpful. It is well-written, and quite clear in its presentation. It is my sincere hope that as many people read this book as possible.

  • PaulTheZombie
    2:23 on December 3rd, 2011
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    Saudi Arabia is the proverbial “man behind the curtain,” the guy who exerts power, wields influence, and manipulates events but seeks to remain largely anonymous. Trouble is, Robert Lacey keeps pulling back the curtain to reveal the secrets and mysteries of this most peculiar kingdom.

    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.

  • Ripel
    4:16 on December 3rd, 2011
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    Robert Lacy has performed a great service in his book Inside the Kingdom. Some reviewers criticize that he neglects to talk to the common man and just uses historical material available through the media. Clearly, Lacy’s access to senior Saudi officials indicates that his ancedotes and accounts of their actions reflect inside knowledge. Much of this is not available through other sources. Lacy gives an outstanding background of the Royal Saudi family, especially King Abdullah. I worked in Saudi Arabia for 45 months, from 2006-2010. It is difficult to meet “common” Saudis unless you are Muslim or speak Arabic fluently. Inherently, most Westerners meet the “upper crust” because they are most interested in talking to Westerners and also are the ones who speak the best English. So when I was invited to Saudi homes, it was usually the home of a senior Saudi military leader. Consequently, I believe Lacy did an excellent job with the sources he had. I only drop to four stars because much of the information is available from other sources. His ancedotes were fascinating, however, and Lacy’s writing style is lucid, fluent, and engaging.

  • Juana Cruz
    7:36 on December 3rd, 2011
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    I’d rather you spend your time reading the book instead of my review, so I’ll be short.

    If you want to understand the root of the Saudi power, the various religious groups and pressures, the attempts to westernize and the religious pressure not to, the political system (as it is), the relationship with the west (as it is), the relationships with other powers like China and russia, and where the future of Saudi politics is headed, this is a real source of information. While reading it, you’ll fully understand the roots of Bin Laden and how he became what he was and where his group currently lies in the scope of world politics, this is the book.

    Well written, an easy read, this book explains much. Buy it.

  • John Baxter
    10:31 on December 3rd, 2011
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    America–here meaning the USA–has had a close relationship with Saudi Arabia since that country’s founding in the late 1920s, a fact that many people are vaguely aware of but don’t really understand in detail. Rachel Bronson has therefore done general and specialist readers a service by comprehensively outlining this relationship since its inception to the present day.

    The basic bargain struck between the two countries many years ago involved the US offering a defence umbrella to the Saudis in return for the opportunity to exploit Saudi Arabia’s oil resources, the profits of which were eventually split 50/50 between Aramco and the Saudi government. Although the parameters of the oil/defence deal have changed over time, it remains the core of the US-Saudi relationship. However, Bronson reveals that anti-Communism was an important ideological driving force behind US and Saudi Arabia co-operation in the international arena, where they both pushed hard against Soviet-backed regimes in the Middle East and Africa during the 70s and 80s. It was King Faisal (1964-75) who first promoted Islamic solidarity as a political counterpoint to Nasser’s Pan-Arabism, and this was quietly approved of by the Americans from Johnson onwards: Islam was a convenient galvanizing force against godless Communism. On financing anti-Communism, the deal was also 50/50, and the Saudis poured millions of dollars into promoting what is now called “Political Islam” besides. This “containment” policy continued apace under King Fahd (1975-95) who was largely pro-American.

    A major thorn in the side of US-Saudi relations has always been the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and Saudi Arabia has not been shy about using oil as a political weapon against Israel’s number one supporter, the US: thus the oil embargos of the late sixties and early seventies. Bronson adds small but significant details about these events that help us to understand that when Saudi Arabia acts one way publicly it may quietly being working in the other direction elsewhere. For example, during the oil embargoes Saudi Arabia continued to help supply the US military with fuel. That is not to say that Saudi Arabia did not have clout: Israel stopped its bombardment of west Beirut in 1982 after the Saudis threatened to pull its investments in the US.

    The US-Saudi relationship has changed over time and the author tracks these changes chronologically through the Reagan and Clinton years. By the 1990s America had become highly invested in Saudi Arabia militarily and long-laid preparations for a Gulf war were activated in 1991 after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This marked a high point of co-operation between Saudi Arabia and the US, but such co-operation cost the House of Saud dearly at home in terms of political capital, and the scene was set for an outbreak of domestic terrorism that shook the ruling family. King Abdullah (1995/05- ) has since tried to distance himself from America.

    This well-structured book covers s a lot of ground, and is full of interesting historical detail. It deals very well with the US-Saudi relationship, though its tone and orientation may appear to be uncritical and/or sympathetic to US interests at times. Also, the author’s paradigm of pragmatists versus religious extremists inside Saudi Arabia may be a bit too simplistic; statements like “In today’s fight against terrorism and extremism, Saudi Arabia is both part of the problem and part of the solution”, are not very sophisticated.

    Thicker Than Oil falls into the category of international relations and it may be a bit dry/fact-dense for the some readers, but anyone with the remotest interest in the US-Saudi relationship, most obviously Middle East specialists but perhaps also expats working in Saudi, will greatly benefit from reading this very useful book–I picked it up expecting to glean a few nuggets of information and ended up taking nine pages of notes.

  • nedendir
    11:57 on December 3rd, 2011
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    Reducing bilateral relations between America and Saudi Arabia to oil alone is a mistake, argues Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East and Gulf Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, in this provocative book. Contrasted with recent titles on US-Saudi relations, her target is not the malevolence of the House of Saud or the supposed infesting character of America’s alliance with the sentry of the Muslim faith; instead, Ms. Bronson asks: how could two countries as different as America and Saudi Arabia forge such a close alliance for so long?

    Two parts form the answer: the first is that the alliance has not been airtight, much less free from squabble. Over the years, America and Saudi Arabia have clashed repeatedly, not least over America’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ms. Bronson’s thorough research elucidates the ups and downs of America’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, clarifying times when America’s leaders have wanted closer ties with the kingdom and others when distance was warranted. Dispelling the myth that America and Saudi Arabia have always been close, Ms. Bronson pulls together the different strands of the story and highlights the conditions under which the two states have been attracted to one another.

    From the close examination of history comes the second part to the answer: that the alliance was always about more than oil. Anti-communism and real-estate were equally important factors that brought the two countries together. America’s anti-Soviet agenda found an natural partner in a devout country that was awash with money; time and again, America would turn to Saudi Arabia to finance anti-communist struggles the world over. The Saudis often obliged, for their own anti-communist reasons. Saudi Arabia’s attractive location also led policy makers as early as World War II to pronounce the fruits of partnership with the kingdom.

    From this tripod–”oil, gold and real estate”–a strong alliance emerged, one that went awry after September 11. For many Americans, this is not an alliance worth saving; Ms. Bronson disagrees. By bringing to light the history of bilateral ties, she illuminates both why this alliance could prove conducive to American interests and how it can be made so today. A book worth reading, especially given the poor scholarship of many of its competitors.

  • Satish KC
    16:38 on December 3rd, 2011
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    Saudi Arabia is a kingdom that lives in two unique worlds. As a global center of both the Islamic faith and oil it has to deal with the ancient and the modern and is torn by the two. Robert Lacey does a wonderful job of offering a narrative that describes how the worlds events during the past 60 years have shaped, and been shaped. Lacey gives us the standard history tour which one might expect, but he also goes behind the scenes and offers just the right amount of opinion with history.

    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!

  • Seano
    21:34 on December 3rd, 2011
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    This book was informative, and unbiased. It gives the reader an almost fly on the wall picture of inside Saudi Arabia.

  • Ripel
    23:26 on December 3rd, 2011
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    As one very familiar with Saudi Arabia–and who blogs about it at Crossroads Arabia–I find Rachel Bronson’s book to be the current best on the topic.

    Without shying away from problems in Saudi Arabia, or within the US-Saudi relationship, Bronson treats all parties involved fairly. I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia in the early 80s, and then again from shortly after 9/11 ’til October of 2003. Much of what she writes about, I experienced from within the US Embassy in Riyadh and my travels around the country. Her observations and assessments almost exactly match my own.

    She carefully points out that for most of its history, Saudi Arabia and the US had mutual interests, primarily in fighting the Cold War against the Soviet Union. These mutual interests overrode differences. For example, using religion as a weapon in that war was something both the Saudis and the American governments–from Eisenhower through the early Clinton administration–saw as desirable and useful. But due to domestic political pressures, as well as those from a revolutionary Iran, the Saudi government let things go too far.

    After jointly chasing the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the US government–as well as the Saudis–largely forgot about all the people who were sent there on a mission, both religious and military. We are all still facing the consequences of that negligence today.

    Bronson also points out that Saudi reforms are real; that the Saudis provided far more support to the US government in its wars against Afghanistan and Iraq than it’s generally credited for; and that pressuring the Saudi government to pick up the pace of reform requires something more careful than simply shouting at them from a newspaper or Congressional hearing.

    If you’re interested in what’s going on in Saudi Arabia right now, there’s no better place to start than with this book.

  • Anna Poelo
    3:45 on December 4th, 2011
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    If Inside the Kingdom reads like a great adventure story that’s because it is. Lacey takes you through the history of Ibn Saud leading his many brothers and other allied desert tribes to conquer and consolidate the barren Arabian peninsula.

    The Saudi family cut a secret deal with the British so that they could keep their desert kingdom but agreed not to expand any more. Their allied tribes, known as “The Brothers” suspected this and it did not sit well. They continued their cross border raids on neighboring “countries.” The situation finally came to a head and “The Brothers” arrived on the field of battle on their camels with their swords. The Saudis led by Ibn Saud himself arrived in a fleet of Chevrolets that had been mounted with heavy machine guns and “the betrayal” and slaughter ensued.

    Fast forward to the late seventies and The Grand Mosque was taken over by Islamist fundamentalists (again calling themselves “The Brothers”) who took to firing rifles from high in the minarets into the pedestrian traffic of Mecca. After a Saudi offensive “the brothers” holed up in the catacombs beneath the Mosque until the Saudis smoked them out with paralyzing CS gas. Needless to say that things did not go well for any of this band of brothers that survived.

    There has always been tension between the immense wealth of the Saudi royal family and the religious elite who lend legitimacy to their regime. This uneasy alliance ignites repeatedly through the countries’ history.

    Saudi oil wealth also causes friction with its poorer neighboring countries. Lacey takes us through the Soviet/Afghan war where Osama bin Laden first rose to recognition. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait follows where bin Laden’s defense plan for the peninsula was snubbed in favor of the military might of the American infidel. Although Osama bin Laden had previously always been loyal to the Al-Sauds, who had made his family incredibly wealthy, he now began to see them as traitors to Islam and lapdogs of the Americans.

    Lacey takes us through 9/11 and its aftermath and gives us a good look at the royal family’s response to the US as well as what was done “in country.” This is a story that is still being written. It was fortunate timing to be reading this as Osama bin Laden was killed in that it reminded me that certain myths (Osama the great warrior of Afghanistan – he never did much actual fighting) were just that, myths.

    While this is an entertaining and absorbing read it focuses on the last thirty years or so. For those more interested in the entirety of Saudi history, I would recommend first reading Daniel Yergin’s classic history of oil, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, and The Arabs (Penguin History), which spends more time on the earlier days.

  • Jim Levitt
    9:31 on December 4th, 2011
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    Robert Lacey (the renown biographer of Queen Elizabeth II) lived in Saudi Arabia to understand its history and people and provides an amazing mixture of analytical history and anecdotal episodes in this book providing an insight into the Kingdom.

    Saudi Arabia, as someone observed, is a living proof of the law of unintended consequences.

    King Faisal is upset with American support for Israel and triggers an oil embargo. Oil prices rise. Saudi Arabia gets rich. Ostentatious lifestyle arrives into the Kingdom. So does modern education. Radicals use religion to decry both and capture the Grand Mosque. The Royal Family build consensus and its brave sons remove the terrorists from the Mosque. Though the radicals are dead, their policy is adopted by the rulers to diffuse popular anger. Religion and religion based education is accorded supremacy. A new generation of radical and poor youth arise. They are exported for jihad against the infidel communists. The jihadists taste victory and develop a sense of their destiny. A Sunni Arab brother invades another Sunni Arab brother. Americans are invited to protect the Kingdom. Jihadists see the Americans as modern day crusaders. A new King with better credentials of austerity tries to ameliorate radicalism and modernize the country without Americanizing the country.

    The book provides an excellent insight into the Kingdom’s history. I cannot understand why Saudi Arabia should ban this book. My respect for Saudi Arabia and its rulers increases after reading this book. I disagree with several of the policies of Saudi Arabia. But I disagree with several of the policies of my beloved India too!

  • eliteuser
    15:31 on December 4th, 2011
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    Detailed analysis of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia
    American foreign policy exists simultaneously at several levels. Talk radio and TV pundits occupy the surface level, while foreign policy professionals understand increasingly deeper layers of information, history and interpretation. Rachel Bronson uses a scholarly approach for this in-depth discussion of America’s complex relationship with Saudi Arabia. Linked by their animosity toward communism, and a fundamental supplier-customer relationship based on oil, the Saudis and Americans were allies throughout the Cold War. Then, they worked clandestinely to thwart the Soviets. But in the post-Cold War environment, conditions changed. The Saudis faced a major threat from other Islamic nations over their monarchy and their close relations with the U.S. Bronson densely packs her book with historical events in diplomatic, military, religious and cultural frameworks. Much of this material was classified and unavailable previously, so Bronson has fresh information. We consider this essential reading for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the vital, evolving relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

  • cjinsd
    22:06 on December 4th, 2011
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    i would give the book itself, as it is, 5 stars, had it not been entitled and promoted the way it is

    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)

  • PaulTheZombie
    23:15 on December 4th, 2011
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    Very well written account of the recent history of Saudi Arabia. An easy to read language with well documented anecdotes of the life inside the kingdom

  • pop frame
    2:06 on December 5th, 2011
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    This sweeping political tour de horizon, across modern Middle Eastern History, by a seasoned historian and author, with Saudi Arabia as its centerpiece and focal point, is timely, smart, informative, and cuts to the chase (as well as to the bone). Its main themes and stories are already well known: the internecine struggles within the royal family, as well as within Islam; how oil money has corrupted both the U.S., the Arab world and the Saudi Nation; and how the Arabs and Israelis continue to play each other off for greater influence over the U.S. economy and U.S. national security: They both have learned to “game” the shameless and endless corruption of U.S. politicians.

    What this book brings to the party is that it goes directly to the heart of these matters without the normal detours of fluff and insincere disclaimers, or the niceties required to protect reputations that the wider set of facts revealed here suggest do not deserve such protection. It is this sense of an expose, coupled with a keen sense of urgency, as well as a precise sense of what is important to history, that makes for uncommonly good, if not, altogether exciting reading.

    Thus it goes without saying that this book has a strong and refreshing irreverent tone to it. But this tone is not just irreverence for irreverence sake. It is a case of old wine being updated and poured into new bottles: old facts merged with a few fresh and newly revealed ones, all grafted onto the old stories. Together they provide a new basis for fresh thinking, fresh historical analysis, and fresh, more novel, interpretations and results. To wit: a surprisingly interesting but subtly revised history of the religious strife within both the Saudi royal family and the larger Muslim family; new revelations about how American politicians were brought to heel in the F-15 AWACs procurement episode (of which I was involved in); how the Arabs coalesced against the Saudis when Saddam invaded Kuwait, requiring the royal family to do the unthinkable: ask the U.S. for help; and how the royal family itself hoisted on its own petard, laid the groundwork and paid for the emergence of al Qaeda, as well as others Muslim radicals and internal enemies. Thus it is the series of vignettes based on new facts and the new interpretations of them that provide the excitement for the book and gives rise to new twists that leave a few tattered reputations flailing in its wake.

    The main story line of course is built up on the development of the Saudi Arabian Empire, a fluke of history if ever there was one. It is a case of turning a series of running skirmishes across the desert, among sword-wielding camel and sheepherding tribes, into world-class manipulators. The winner of the last set of skirmishes (the Aziz brothers in 1925) conquered the land of sand by brute force and imposed its will as well as its dessert morality upon the surviving tribes. But with the discovery of oil (voila!) changed everything including the way the new nation and the self-installed Saudi royal family orientated itself to Islam. With oil came more money than any of the camel herders, Sheiks or Mullahs could ever have imagined, turning a family of dusty tribesmen into world-class power balancers and manipulators. The Saudis declared themselves a kingdom and a state (and even today, many Arabs still claim them to constitute, neither), and then what enviable world manipulators this small band of Bedouin tribesmen became.

    For the first several decades, manipulations (more appropriately referred to as the Saudi balancing act) occurred mostly in-house – among the contending factions within the royal family and just beyond it within the Sunni wing of the larger Islamic religious family. Under the carefully engineered protectorate of the House of Saud, the influence of the royal family, through its petrodollars was felt across the Islamic landscape. As a result, no one should be the least bit surprised to discover that the version of Islam practiced within Saudi Arabia as well as among most Sunnis outside it, has been shaped to serve the Saudi royal family’s needs. And, as a result, it is thus argued by their enemies at least, that the version they have crafted has also been steeped in the same kind of hypocrisy and contradictions that reflect that family’s politics and morality.

    Until recently, the royal family had done a relatively good job of keeping things on an even keel within this tightly wound set of moral and political constraints. However when the more religiously devout (led by “the Muslim Brotherhood,” and followed by sympathizers such as Osama bin Laden), became more than just restless with the informal arrangement, it became time for the Saudi royal family to “fish or cut bait.” In due course, even to the religiously devout (who were drunk on the “Kool Aid” of the royal family’s largesse), the moral and political balancing acts practiced by the House of Saud, had begun to look suspiciously like religious apostasy. But the royal family, with endless faith in its manipulative powers, discovered almost too late that there was a limit to how much the Mullahs and Imams could be “reasoned with” (spelled co-opted and manipulated) through political power, prestige, class perks, big cars and apartment, and especially money.

    After Saddam Hussein’s power grab of Kuwait took place in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, the royal family’s main trump cards had played themselves out. All the Arabs that were not already aligned against the Kingdom showed its teeth now with great glee. Everyone knew what Saddam’s next move was going to be because it was obvious and eagerly anticipated: an equally quick take over of the Kingdom and thus ridding Islam of this insular decadent scourge. With its back up against the wall, in a few tense moments, the royal family, in order to save itself, had no choice but to cast its lot with the “infidels.” The American military came galloping to its rescue. And as they say, the rest is history.

    But there is much more here lying in the subtext: For instance, the book reveals in relief how both nation states and religions have come about through relatively free-standing mythologies, and mythical origins, centered on local moralities and belief systems organized according to local survival strategies. Watching the Saudi movie being played from beginning to end, it is difficult to see how there is any fundamental difference between the Saudi model and any others, including our own. Second, watching the way the U.S. is manipulated through its corrupt Congressmen, the book gives an even more generalized view of the modalities of corruption: ours against theirs. Again ours, stripped of our own patriotic brand name, is the same as that anywhere else in the world. We come off looking like bigger hypocrites than even the Saudis, and that is saying something. Five Stars

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