Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia

Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia, by Robert Lacey ($18.45)

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Lacey (The Kingdom) delves into the paradoxes in Saudi society—where women are forbidden to drive but are more likely to attend universities than men—and why this nation yielded most of the terrorist team on September 11, Osama bin Laden and one of the largest group of foreign fighters sent to Guantánamo from Afghanistan. Lacey’s conversational tone and anecdotal approach to storytelling and analysis gives us a vivid portrait of personal and political life in Saudi Arabia’s public and personal spheres, the traditions that govern everyday life, the country’s journey from relative liberalism on the tide of extreme oil wealth in the 1980s to a resurgence of traditionalism. Lacey shows us a land where the governing dynasty gives rehabilitated Guantánamo returnees an $18,000 stipend toward their marriage dowry, and 15 young girls died in a schoolhouse fire in 2002 because they were not properly veiled, and religious police forbade them to escape and prevented firefighters from entering the burning building. Lacey’s eye for sweeping trends and the telling detail combined with the depth, breadth and evenhandedness of his research makes for an indispensable guide. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The Washington Post

From The Washington Post’s Book World/ Reviewed by Rachel Bronson The fall of 2009 marks the 30th anniversary of three events that rocked the greater Middle East. In November and December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, U.S. hostages were taken in Iran, and extremists seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Political and religious extremism set in, and the United States was drawn more deeply into the region. The reverberations of that watershed year are still felt today in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Thus, the timing of Robert Lacey’s “Inside the Kingdom” — probing as it does the events of 1979 and their impact on Saudi Arabia and the world — could not be better. Lacey begins the book with Juhayman Al-Otaybi and his followers seizing the Grand Mosque and argues that Juhayman represents a Saudi Arabian tradition of violent religious extremism that resurfaces almost every generation. In the past, Saudi leaders contained or eliminated the most extreme elements. In 1929, for example, when religiously fanatical Bedouin warriors threatened to attack British-backed Iraqi Shiites, King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the modern Saudi Arabia, crushed them at the Battle of Sibila. Later, in the mid-1960s, despite vehement religious opposition by some of his subjects, King Faisal introduced television and education for girls. But after the mosque attack and the other events of 1979, the Saudi leadership did not suppress local extremists. Rather, it espoused an austere religious viewpoint of its own for political gains. The tactic allowed the Saudis to recruit fighters for the battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan, a war defined by the Saudi leadership as a religious cause. The tactic also helped the Saudis counter Shiite Iran’s growing popularity across the Sunni Muslim world. And it allowed the leadership to outflank those who seized the Grand Mosque by appropriating their cause. By the 1980s, radical Saudi clerics largely dictated the domestic agenda, and “no prince would have dared stand up . . . to contradict the say-so of a religious figure.” This, according to Lacey, set the context for the violence of the next two decades. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and subsequent events have caused the Saudi leadership to take another look at the more extreme and violent elements in its society. “September 11 had shown what happened when religion got out of hand,” Lacey writes. This reassessment continued with the accession of King Abdullah to the throne in 2005. Widely regarded as deeply pious, Abdullah has little sympathy for the most extreme and austere religious interpretations. Lacey quotes Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a key figure in Abdullah’s fight against extremists — and who himself has been a target of their violence — as saying: “We are building a national consensus that extremism is wrong. . . . Whoever wins society will win this war.” Lacey does a good job of encapsulating Saudi domestic history over the past 30 years, although he largely ignores the international context that allowed violence and extremism to spread and prosper. The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, regional struggles between Arab states and, later, the Iran-Iraq War made religious extremism useful to many actors, not just the Saudi leadership, a point that is lost in this primarily domestic chronicle. “Inside the Kingdom” tells an important story but one that can be found in other accounts. There is little that is new here. Perhaps most disappointing is that, while acknowledging that “at the end of a book, people expect some prognosis for the future,” Lacey prefers to end with a “messy human story” that shows the “muddle of tradition and progress that makes up the Kingdom today.” Yet few other writers are as well-positioned as Lacey to give a prognosis. He has been watching the kingdom for 30 tumultuous years and has become a trusted source. He could have, indeed should have, been bolder in offering counsel on how to understand and approach the kingdom today. Still, the time is right to consider the impact of those seminal events and the geopolitical struggle they unleashed. The rest of the world has a keen interest in the outcome of Saudi Arabia’s domestic struggles and in seeing that the pragmatists prevail over the zealots. In reminding us of this, “Inside the Kingdom” makes an important contribution.
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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