In 1981, two books on Saudi Arabia were published within days of each other: The House of Saud by David Holden and Richard Johns and The Kingdom by Robert Lacey.
If the first had the faint air of the Financial Times and the second the hothouse scent of Town & Country, they nevertheless advanced our knowledge of Saudi Arabia and its ruling house by a distance. At a time when the very institution of monarchy in the Middle East seemed doomed by the fall of the Shah of Iran, neither book was ready to write off the Al Saud (‘the clan of Saud’).
If both books are now dated, it is for the same two reasons. There was next to nothing in either about Saudi women, immured away from Western eyes by jealous families and Wahhabi custom, and not nearly enough about religion. As Lacey says here with admirable candour: ‘I did not begin to guess, when I brought my family to live in Jeddah three decades ago, at the world-shaking climax to which the contradictions and hypocrises around me would lead.’
Holden and Johns are dead. Lacey, very much alive, more than makes up the deficiences of 1981. Saudi women crowd these pages, demanding to be heard, to drive automobiles, to travel without the say-so of a male guardian, and for their husbands to be a bit nicer. There is a chapter on Sapphic love among neglected wives, which should be a warning to the wise. (Homosexual relations among unmarried Saudi men are, presumably, vieux jeu.).
Gone is the privilege of meeting Prince This and Sheikh That in their gracious palaces. In its place is a profound understanding of monarchical government at a period of great strain. Lacey’s chief principle, to which he remains true through a succession of short, bright chapters, is that 9/11 was a ‘manoeuvre in an essentially Saudi quarrel — played out with American victims.’ In other words, the alliance of puritanical religion and tribal power which created the Saudi state in the 18th century and revived it under Abdul Aziz bin Saud in the early 20th, is always at high tension and may snap with consequences for the whole world.
Retracing his steps, Lacey begins with the attack on the shrine at Mecca in November, 1979 by millenarian insurgents under Juhaiman al-Otaibi. He then shows how the Al Saud, in their attempts to outflank the religious radicals, stifled civilian life and meddled in Afghanistan with consequences in the persons of Osama bin Laden and the Afghan veterans and, by 2003, devastating truck bombs in the capital, Riyadh.
Meanwhile, the Al Saud had to contend with the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the rise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, his invasion of Kuwauit and the American expedition to get him out, and the festering sore of Palestinian mistreatment. Since 2005, when the much underrated Abdullah came to the throne, the Al Saud seem to have gained the upper hand, stabilised their rule and made a limited opening towards constitutional government.
Saudi Arabia is not a literary nation, and what is to be learned of the country is learned through conversation. The book progresses in a cascade of vivid interviews with no hint of what the hours of jolting through the half-built suburbs in bedouin taxis, cost Lacey in nerves, money and peace of mind.
Englishmen have been drawn to the Saudi court since Captain William Shakes- pear died in one of Abdul Aziz’s tribal fights in 1915. An open-sided tent, in which the present King Abdullah plays a sort of desert pétanque, is known as the fillabee, after Harry St. John Philby (father of the Soviet agent, Kim) who brought it from India. Lacey’s interviews with the princes, and particularly the grandsons of Abdul Aziz, now in middle age, are full of valuable information, but he has also gone to the religious suburbs of Riyadh and the date-palm towns of Qasim to talk to penitent and not-so penitent radicals.
The late Abdul Aziz bin Baz, the blind old mufti ridiculed in The Kingdom for pronouncing the world to be flat, is reborn as a sort of Wahhabi Hume, courteous, sceptical and deeply innocent. Bin Baz’s catechism of the first Saudi astronaut, Prince Sultan bin Salman, in 1985 (‘How was it that we didn’t fall out of the sky? How could the shuttle fly that fast without using its engines?’) makes one highlight of the book. The other is Lacey’s stay among the Shia in the Eastern Province, long neglected and mistreated as heretics by the Al Saud and their religious allies. That passage culminates in the terrible story of the ‘girl from Qateef’, persecuted by the police, religious courts and her family in 2007 for suffering multiple rape. In the end, the royal family intervened on her behalf, but not enough to protect her and her husband from divorce and ostracism.
It is not so much the courtier in Lacey, as a more general sympathy, that will not permit him to leave the story there. The book ends with good King Abdullah, seated alone and desolate on a chair on the beach at Jeddah, saying his prayers to a God whose special favour to his family may not always be clearly evident.
James Buchan’s latest novel is The Gate of Air (MacLehose Press).
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 5, 2009