Two terrorist bombings that killed 24 American servicemen stationed in Saudi Arabia have drawn attention to the existence of opposition within the Kingdom to the Saudi government's close strategic cooperation with the United States. Western media have reported on the activities of a small but vocal group of Saudi dissidents based in London who are using modems and fax machines successfully to distribute anti-regime propaganda within the Kingdom as well as abroad. King Fahd's illness, allegedly a stroke that obliged him for a time to hand over his royal duties to his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, has led to speculation abroad about his continued fitness to rule and about the possibility of renewed jockeying for power among the royal princes. These events, moreover, have taken place against a background of almost two decades of tensions in the Persian Gulf region and of stagnant oil revenues that have largely depleted government cash reserves and produced sizable budget deficits. In response, the Saudi government has continued to spend heavily on defense while beginning to curtail subsidies to the public and downsize the bureaucracy. With its economy now growing more slowly than its population, acceptable employment opportunities have declined for a rising number of young Saudis. Some observers believe their frustration will manifest itself in increasing alienation from the monarchy and sympathy for radical change, possibly of an Islamic extremist character.
On December 1, 1996, The New York Times reported that the CIA had organized for the first time a special interagency task force to undertake an intensive analysis of the threats to Saudi Arabian stability and to U.S. national security interests in the Kingdom. According to the Times, serious questions have been raised whether these events were sufficiently destabilizing that the United States might lose its closest ally in the Gulf to religious-based revolutionary forces similar to those that overthrew the shah of Iran in 1979. The outcome of the CIA study, the Times reported, was that despite these problems, Saudi Arabia remains politically stable and is unlikely to become another Iran.
The reported outcome of the CIA study is in sharp contradiction to the gloomy prognosis set forth in this book by Palestinian journalist Said Aburish. Writing initially in 1994, Aburish asserted that simultaneous financial, social and political problems at a time of serious divisions within the royal family have already destabilized the Kingdom. He predicted that these negative forces could produce a serious internal crisis as early as 1997 unless the West, and in particular the United States, were to intervene to force the Saudi monarchy to give up its monopoly on political power, stop the waste of the county's wealth, end corruption and abuse of human rights, reform the system of justice, reduce the level of arms procurement, and permit the price of oil to rise "to appease the "Saudi people." The book has now been reissued, presumably to capitalize on the renewed American congressional and media interest in Saudi Arabia arising from the attacks on American installations. The only discernible change from the 1994 edition is the insertion of a preface in which Aburish states that his earlier predictions have now materialized. In the absence of any serious attempt to reverse the critical situation he described, Aburish claims the West's ability to guarantee the continued flow of oil at a reasonable price is now in jeopardy and the political tensions afflicting the Kingdom threaten the stability of the entire Middle East and the Muslim world.
Aburish's principal themes are that Saudi rule has fostered large-scale corruption and waste of resources; that the response of the House of Saud to both internal and external pressures for change and reform has been minimal and ineffective in placating rising opposition to its rule; that the expenditure of vast sums of Western arms has been intended primarily to ensure Western support for the survival of the ruling family but has failed to develop a truly effective national defense force; and the Saudi Arabia is now so broke and so estranged from its Arab and Muslim neighbors that it can no longer be expected to play a moderating or influential role in regional affairs, including the Arab Israel peace process.
A major problem with this book is that only rarely does the author cite his sources. There are no footnotes. Aburish offers extensive details of alleged acts of oppression, corruption, and misbehavior by members of the Saudi ruling family, including those at the highest level, and their cronies. Some of the stories he tells have appeared elsewhere, e.g., the incarceration of an American businessman after a falling-out with his princely business partner, the lavish commissions allegedly paid to senior princes and other officials on certain defense contracts, the "Death of a Princess" episode and Saudi efforts to prevent airing of a TV film dramatizing the story. Other stories are plausible but are unsupported buy any documentation. Understandably, many of his sources would not speak on the record. However, it is frustrating not to be told at least whether the information was obtained from a participant in the event, a Saudi official, a foreign government source, Saudi dissidents, a journalist or mere coffee house chatter. Even material presumably based on published works or on press accounts is largely unsourced. For a serious student of Saudi Arabia, there is virtually no way to check the accuracy of Aburish 's information or to judge the reliability and motivation of his sources.
Another major problem is that the author so clearly despises the Saudi royal family that the book is a polemic rather than a work of objective journalism. His interpretation of almost any action by a Saudi leader in the twentieth century is negative. For example, lbn Saud's practice of serial marriages to women of different Arabian tribes has often been mentioned by Western observers as an astute way of cementing alliances and consolidating power through means other than the sword. To Aburish, however, Ibn Saud was nothing but a lecher whose desert liaisons were primarily motivated by lust rather than by political strategy. His repeated likening of lbn Saud to Adolf Hitler (pp. 30, 40, 45) is not only strained but clearly intended to tarnish the farmer's reputation in the eyes of Western readers. Indeed, Aburish dismisses most Western writers and journalists who have written on Saudi Arabia as sycophants motivated by financial gain or as fearful of losing their access to the Kingdom if they published unflattering information. Even some who have written critically of the Saudis are blamed for using Saudi excesses to denigrate all Arabs.
A third problem with Aburish's book is that his bias against the Saudis often leads him into making questionable judgments. On pages 16-18, for example, he appears to argue that in the immediate post-World War I era, any of the other ruling houses of Arabia--the Hashemites of Mecca, the Rashids of Hayil or the Idrisis of the Asir--would have been better rulers of Arabia and more committed proponents of a broader Arab unity than the "blood-thirsty," "fanatical," and "semi-literate" Ibn Saud. His arguments on this score are unpersuasive, especially since they focus more on the presumed higher social standing in Arab society of these other families than on the demonstrated political and military skills of their leaders. Ibn Saud's success in unifying most of Arabia, Aburish concludes, was due not to any inherent competence on his part but to British "connivance." To repay the British for their support, Aburish asserts (p. 22) that Ibn Saud signed in 1927 a "lopsided" friendship and cooperation treaty even Jess favorable than one previously turned down by the Hashemites. This judgment runs counter to that of British historians like Clive Leatherdale whose Britain and Saudi Arabia 1925-1939: The Imperial Oasis convincingly shows that the 1927 Treaty of Jeddah was in fact a considerable coup for lbn Saud. Not only did he become the first Arab ruler to secure a treaty in which Britain recognized his complete and absolute independence but the greater concessions were made by Britain, which abandoned also any attempt to include in the treaty language previously rejected by the Hashemites recognizing Britain's obligations to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine.
Finally, in reissuing this book, neither Aburish nor his editors made any attempt to correct some of the glaring errors in the text and bibliography. He twice refers to former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Walter L. Cutler as "Harold," even though Aburish states he interviewed him for the book. The names of French author/diplomat Eric Rouleau, professor James Piscatori, and British author B.R. Pridham are misspelled.
This book does raise some important issues, including whether the U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia necessarily coincide with those of the Saudi royal family and whether the United States should intervene in Saudi internal affairs to force its rulers to initiate urgent reforms that would stave off a revolution and the assumption of power by an anti Western Islamic regime like that in Iran. Unfortunately, the strong anti-Saudi bias of the author and his "the sky is falling" predictions of imminent chaos, if not revolution, in Saudi Arabia make his assessment of this threat unconvincing. This does not mean that the House of Saud and U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia do not face serious challenges now and in the years ahead. But analogies to the situation in Iran in 1978-79 are misleading, and even Aburish acknowledges that a cohesive force capable of replacing the Saudi monarchy does not yet exist. Meanwhile, this book is of interest more for how the House of Saud is perceived by a Palestinian Arab nationalist--revisionist history with an attitude--than it is as a cogent analysis of the choices confronting U.S. policy makers worried about the stability and viability of the Saudi Kingdom.