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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 4, 1982, Page 7
The House of Saud: The Rise and Rule of the Most Powerful Dynasty in the Arab World
By David Holden and Richard Johns, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1982 569 pp. $19.95
Reviewed by John A. Shaw
Bernard Shaw once commented that three people collaborating on a book was as desirable as three people collaborating on a baby. The House of Saud suffers not only from the unevenness inherent in such a joint effort—aside from the contributions by Holden and Johns, there is a chapter by John Buchan—but from the seeming current wisdom that bulk is equivalent to thought and synthesis so far as Saudi Arabia is concerned. That the result seems incompletely digested, however, does not detract from the story's fascination.
Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the Ibn Saud of Western legend, was heir to a political and religious tradition which sprang from the central plateau of the Arabian peninsula. A giant of a man, he literally hacked his way to the control and stabilization of central Arabia and then expanded that control east, west and south in what, to the Saudis, was a sort of manifest destiny. Holden's chapters, which carry the story through the Second World War, weave Arabian peninsular politics into the larger tapestry of Western interests in the area. The way in which Abdul Aziz moved from being a minor British pawn to his successive recognition by Britain as Sultan of the Nejd and then King of Saudi Arabia, is a reflection both of his canniness and of the increasing importance of Arabia to the world in the course of his life. His rise, moreover, was concomitant with the decline of British power worldwide and especially in the Gulf.
Palestine, Oil, Modernization
The problems which currently occupy center stage in the world community provided the challenges which have occupied the successive rulers of the House of Saud for the past half century: Palestine, oil, and modernization. The centrality of the Palestine issue to Saudi rulers from its origin, and U.S. disregard of the Saudi position, led to the certainty of increasing tension between the two countries, especially when set against the special relationship which had developed as a result of oil and the revenues it generated.
Indeed those oil revenues themselves have provided the central challenge to successive Saudi rulers because they set in motion the modernizing process which challenged everything that seemed fundamental to the monarchy. Wahabi fundamentalism and great wealth seem unlikely companions, and there was no dearth of critics both within the Kingdom and across the Red Sea to point up the shortcomings of an antiquated Bedouin monarchy awash in money and self-indulgence. If this was the view of the era of Abdul Aziz's successor, King Saud, from both a Western and Arab nationalist point of view, the comparable criticism within the royal family itself and within the religious and tribal groupings which undergird the monarchy provided for a regeneration of the monarchy by the family and King Faisal. The consultative process which is at the heart of Saudi government is under-appreciated by Western observers. In fact, the process allows for the critical give and take among the major political figures and interests in the Kingdom which alone assures the consensus which is essential for progress. King Faisal had the experience and respect to effectively utilize the consultative process to accelerate the modernization of Saudi Arabia—a technique which Abdul Aziz himself had begun. Faisal was the perfect bridge between the old and the new because he was steeped in the traditional Bedouin world and appreciated the requirements of the modern world. Johns seems to have lost hope for the judicious melding of past and present at his passing. While he appreciates the foundations which allowed for the stable transfer of authority to King Khalid (and more recently in the same manner to King Fahd) he apparently sees the engine of modernization and the corrupting influences which follow it as inescapably bringing to the fore the forces of "reaction".
There can be no argument that a tension exists between the traditional mode of life in Arabia and the emerging tone and quality of life there. The attack on the Haram Mosque in Mecca was indeed the "return of the Ikhwan"—the puritanical and fundamentalist brotherhood whose simple zeal both helped to found the Kingdom and then had to be curbed. But that effort was more of an echo from the past than a harbinger of the future. The royal family itself partakes of all the tribal divisions in Saudi Arabia and is the root of the religious tradition. The consultative process which the King and his most senior advisors are perpetually engaged in should insure that ongoing policy initiatives are in keeping with their traditions. The vitality of that process and the fact that constant adjustments are being made to accommodate dissent and disagreement within the family and the Kingdom at large, the relatively small and homogenous population, and their immense oil revenues together should insure that the reports of the imminent demise of the House of Saud are greatly exaggerated. Johns' effort never really comes to terms with the regenerative process that is the mirror image of seeming drift.
John A. Shaw is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.