The dramatic story of how Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman ("Ibn Saud") restored his exiled family's political fortunes and established its dominion over the greater part of the Arabian Peninsula is well-known. It has been the subject of numerous academic studies as well as more popular works by H. St J. Philby, Robert Lacey, and others. Between the recapture of Riyadh in 1902 and his death in 1953, Ibn Saud extended his personal authority over a predominately tribal society by conquest and through an expanding system of tribal alliances. By the time of his death, the rapid post-World War II growth of a modem, Western-oriented oil sector introduced into the kingdom new political, economic and social influences that were beginning to make Ibn Saud's traditional and highly personalized system of rule outmoded. At the same time a changing regional and international environment required the kingdom to deal with the challenges of both Arab nationalism and the Cold War struggle between the West and the Soviet Bloc for strategic advantage in the Middle East.
Facing new challenges to their rule, Ibn Saud's successors were compelled to "remake" Saudi Arabia by creating modem government structures and formulating development, national security and foreign policy. These changes did not take place without a ten-year struggle between conservatives and reformists, and especially between King Saud and Crown Prince Faysal, over which strategies would best serve the overall interests of the ruling family. This family conflict over issues of government reform and policy has been less extensively examined than has Ibn Saud's creation of the third Saudi kingdom. Sarah Yisraeli's brief but comprehensive study of this crucial period in modem Saudi history therefore helps to fill an important gap in the literature of the evolution of the Saudi kingdom from a tribal polity into a nation state.
Yisraeli, an associate at Israel's Moshe Dayan Center, has examined in detail the disputes within the Saudi royal family between 1953 and 1962 as Saud, his father's chosen successor, sought to preserve Ibn Saud's pattern of authoritarian rule - what Yisraeli terms "chieftancy government"- against the efforts of Faysal and other "reformist" princes to overhaul the primitive government machinery and set new spending priorities. At its essence, the contention between Saud and Faysal was whether the king personally or the royal family collectively would have the monopoly over political power. The issue was not which of them would ascend the throne - the line of succession had been established by Ibn Saud before his death and was accepted by both men - but whether the King would be obliged to consult with, and seek the consensus of, the other senior princes of the House of Saud in making appointments and determining policy.
Drawing primarily on declassified U.S. and British diplomatic reporting (some of it British embassy Washington cables based on State Department briefings) and on the Arabic press, Yisraeli documents the dispute over making and executing policies that occurred throughout Saud's reign and really ended only with his removal by the family in November 1964. Early on, controversy erupted over Saud's wish not only to reign but to be involved in the day-to-day business of administration. He had been named prime minister when Ibn Saud, shortly before his death, instituted the first Council of Ministers in the kingdom's history. Faysal argued that, as crown prince, he and not the king should chair the cabinet. Following mediation by other senior princes, Saud was persuaded to name Faysal prime minister in August 1954. However, he then worked to strengthen the Royal Diwan, his personal office, to compete with the cabinet and thereby successfully diminish Faysal's authority.
Another step Saud took was to establish his control over the military by appointing his sons to command the Royal Guard and the tribally based National Guard ("the White Army," so-called because its members wore the tribesman's white thobe in contrast to the khaki uniforms of regular army troops). While promoting his own sons, Saud also worked assiduously to circumscribe the authority of other princes who held high public office by virtue of an informal agreement to apportion power among the sons of Ibn Saud by various maternal lines. Under Saud, the number of royal family members in the cabinet was reduced and commoners loyal to the king appointed in their place. These steps understandably alarmed other factions within the ruling family as they saw their personal interests adversely affected by the king's actions. Their unhappiness with Saud increased when Saudi Arabia's growing financial difficulties led to cuts in royal family allowances as a condition for obtaining badly needed IMF loans. With the weight of royal family support now turned against Saud, Faysal returned from an extended U.S. visit in February 1958 and resumed the premiership.
This did not end the rivalry, however, for by 1960 Saud profited from the family's growing restiveness with Faysal's austerity measures to provoke the latter's resignation. Saud thereupon formed a new cabinet under his own leadership. ln this step he had the support of a group of younger princes from less prominent maternal branches, including Talat, Nawwaf and Badr, who were advocates of greater spending on economic development and more rapid progress toward institutionalization of the government, including enactment of a "basic law" and establishment of a consultative assembly. Disappointed with Faysal's cautious approach toward political and economic liberalization, they now hoped that Saud would support and implement their reform program. When he declined to do so, Talal made his disenchantment evident to the Lebanese press. This angered Saud and led to the dismissal of the reformers from the government in September 1961.
Saud's increasing political weakness and the October 1962 revolution in Yemen, where army units toppled a royal government and received prompt military support from Egypt, led to growing sentiment within the royal family for Faysal's return. Under pressure from his uncles and brothers, Saud asked Faysal to form a new cabinet on October 25 with full authority over military and security affairs. On November 6 Faysal announced a "Ten-Point Program" for the gradual modernization of the government apparatus, social reforms such as the abolition of slavery, and the promise (not fulfilled until 1992 by King Fahd) of a consultative assembly. Faysal's assumption of the prime ministry and announcement of the reform program settled the matter.
Saud continued to resist, however, and in March 1964 demanded that his full powers be restored. His interventions at a time when the kingdom felt under threat from the Egyptian presence in Yemen led to a decision by the senior princes that his removal was now essential. In November 1964 the family, with support from a fatwa issued by the senior religious authorities, formally withdrew their allegiance from Saud and recognized Faysal as king. Saud went into exile, where he died in 1969.
Yisraeli not only recounts the various stages of this struggle for power but also shows how the Saud-Faysal rivalry played out in the development of functional government institutions, such as the cabinet ministeries, and the evolution of financial-control measures such as the Saudi Arabian Monetary Fund (SAMA), the Saudi central bank. She notes that Faysal consistently sought to give priority to putting the kingdom's finances on a sound basis, promoting governmental efficiency and setting practical goals for public spending in opposition to both Saud's focus on grandiose public buildings and the "liberal" princes' demand for spending on large projects to promote rapid economic and social transformation. In Yisraeli's view, Faysal's moderately reformist strategy succeeded because it made the royal family the supreme arbiter of policy and, by achieving consensus, helped assure the stability of the regime, although at the price of closing off the option of more rapid political, economic and social development.
In separate chapters, the author discusses the competition between Saud and Faysal over national security and foreign policy. Only after Faysal had regained control of the government in 1962 and wrested command of the National Guard from Saud and his sons, did he agree to strengthening the National Guard with the mission of preserving internal security and protection of the royal family while building up the regular armed forces for defense of the kingdom from external threats. In foreign policy, the contest was over the degree to which Saud sought to associate himself with Faysal's preference for a more balanced policy that recognized the kingdom's strategic need for the United States as a great-power protector, while avoiding serious clashes with Egypt's Nasser and other exponents of Arab nationalism.
Of particular interest to American readers will be Yisraeli's treatment of the Saudi-U.S. connection and its affect on the Saud-Faysal disagreements over foreign and domestic policy. Saud's state visit to Washington in January 1957 led to active U.S.-Saudi cooperation in trying to stem growing Nasserist influence in Syria. Saud apparently hoped such cooperation would lead to a greater role for himself in regional affairs. Faysal opposed this policy, fearing that it would put the kingdom's security at risk if it were seen in the region as an American pawn. Yisraeli suggests that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles might have played a role in Faysal's return to power in March 1958 although her evidence for this is ambiguous. Since Faysal promptly modified Saud's foreign policies and adopted a more neutralist course, it seems unlikely that Dulles intervened to support that change unless he had already concluded that Saud's weakness at home threatened larger U.S. interests in the kingdom's stability and access to oil. Later, Washington rebuffed Saud's request for help in a dispute with Faysal over the budget, saying the United States could not interfere in an internal Saudi matter. In the end, the 1958 revolution in Baghdad and that of 1962 in Yemen upset the alignment of radical vs. conservative forces in the Arab world and rendered Faysal's strategy of pursuing a friendly policy toward Nasser impossible. This meant the end of the "neutralist" policy he favored in regional affairs and the consequent growth of Saudi Arabia's security reliance on the United States.
Given the dearth of published Saudi archival material for this period and Yisraeli's inability as an Israeli to conduct research in the kingdom, she has done a remarkably good job of analyzing the critical events of this period. This reviewer's one reservation is that, except for one brief mention on page 188, Yisraeli does not consider the ideological or legitimizing role played by the Saudi religious establishment in the internal politics of the kingdom. Granted that information about the attitude of the Wahhabi ulema was probably little known or understood by the Western diplomats who are Yisraeli's principal sources, the absence of any assessment of their likely influence on events is a shortcoming. While it is true that the primary focus of decision making was within the royal family, it must also be remembered that those policy debates took place within the context of the kingdom's adherence to Islamic law (sharia), the interpretation of which was the province of the religious leadership. Certainly, the 1964 fatwa issued by the religious authorities sanctioning the royal family's decision to switch its allegiance from Saud to Faysal was an important element in legitimizing the transfer of political power. That Faysal was the son of Ibn Saud by a woman of the Al al-Shaikh family, the descendants of the eighteenth-century Islamic revivalist leader Sheikh Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, and was close personally to senior persons in the religious establishment most probably contributed to his ultimate triumph in this intra-family rivalry.
Yisraeli's book is surely not the last word on this important period of Saudi history, but it will serve until original Saudi source material becomes available. The book may be a bit too detailed for readers who are interested in only a brief overview of this period but it should be a welcome addition to the bookshelf of any serious student of Saudi Arabia's modem history. Particularly helpful are the appendices which sort Ibn Saud's sons by maternal line and family seniority and list members of the Councils of Ministers formed between March 1954 and October 1962.