Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia
© 2009 Robert Lacey
When I first began paying attention to politics, the cozy relationship between Saudi Arabia and the DC power-caste confused me to no end. The Saudi government aided and advanced Islamic radicalism, its nationals composed the bulk of the 9/11 hijackers, and yet the Bushes treated them like they were old friends from Rotary. Karen Elliot’s On Saudi Arabia opened my eyes to the schizophrenic relationship the Saudi family has with Islamic fundamentalism, and Inside the Kingdom elaborates on that still further, and sheds light on why they and those in DC often walk hand in hand.
Inside the Kingdom considers the schizophrenic relationship the house of Saud maintains with hard-line Islam, using the author’s many years living in Saudi Arabia and his contacts inside. In the early 1980s, Lacey wrote a history of the house of Saud that was promptly barred by the monarchy; Inside the Kingdom is a sequel to that work. The story begins with Juhayman, or “Angryface”, a terrorist who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and turned it into the source of a siege. Angryface and his supporters claimed to have the Messiah in their ranks, come to punish the Saudis for their western decadence. Although the Saudis reclaimed the Mosque quickly enough, the ‘guardians’ of the holy cities of Islam had lost considerable face. You don’t see the Swiss Guard letting crazy Jesuits turn the Vatican into arenas for firefights. (They have to be elected pope first.) With the example of the Shah before them, the Saudi family responded to the threat of religious violence by becoming the sort of Saudi Arabia that Angryface wanted them to be: a puritanical state.
Lacey indicates that for the Sauds, religious extremism is a matter of having the tiger by the tail. The Sauds are Jibrils-come-lately, monarch-wise: they only established power in the 1930s, and need the religious establishment to sanction them and impart legitimacy. That means maintaining an Islamic state that fundamentalists like the Wahhabis approve of, with morality being policed not only by the civil law enforcement but by religious cops as well. But enthusiasts don’t settle for backdroom deals, tit for tat: they want the Saudi government to support the Cause totally, and if the Saudis don’t play ball explosions will follow. And explosions did follow, in 2003, after radicals of bin laden’s ilk decided to punish the Saudis for their American partnership by attacking several compounds in Riyadh. The Saudis in response are pushing back against the domestic influence of radical groups, even though they still promote them from abroad: they are also deepening their bench of support by allowing democratic reform.
As far as the American-Saudi relationship goes, the two states are partially united through common enemies. They worked together during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to funnel supplies to bands of mujaheddin who later became terror cells under the likes of bin Laden, and this alliance was aided by a mutual loathing of Iran, or rather the Islamic Republic thereof. As the Saudis and Iranian mullahs are the standard-bearers for the Sunni and Shiite schools respectively, their competition infused ethnic-cultural rivalry with holy war. The biggest fly in the ointment has been Israel, which the United States unflaggingly supports and which the Saudis detest. (This is also the biggest poStill, the two continue to make common cause together, crying over the defeat of ISIS-backed rebels in Syria and mourning the ‘fall’ of Aleppo to Assad and his allies as if the Nazis are rolling into Paris. Although the president-elect hasn’t had loving words for the Saudis, his words for the Iranians have been harsher, and he has privately invested in Saudi-land since starting his campaign. Business as usual will presumably continue. Indeed, the “dopey prince” who started a,,er, twitter war with the president-elect has evidently made nice with him.
Inside the Kingdom strikes me as useful for starting to understand one of DC’s weirder allies.