The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, by David E. Long
I read this book mainly because a friend of mine happens to be a Saudi from the Eastern Provence and we were talking about a Saudi holiday a couple of weeks ago or so that I had never heard of relating to the establishment of one of the Saudi states, of which the current Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the third. Not having read a great deal about Saudi history, I thought this book would be a good one and so I took the chance to read it, and found it was quite a worthwhile and interesting book indeed if you have an interest in reading about Saudi Arabia from a generally sympathetic source. Not everyone wants to read information about the Saudis that are sympathetic, but this book manages to give an impression of Saudi Arabia that makes it easy to understand some of the complexities that govern Saudi behavior that have remained consistent over the decades and that are a result of the particular position that Saudi Arabia has had relative to most of the Arab world.
This book is a short one at around 150 pages in length. The book begins with a list of maps, tables, and figures and then a short preface. After this comes a discussion of the land and people of Saudi Arabia (1), putting the nation in its geographic context. This is followed by a discussion of the history of Saudi Arabia (2) not so much as a region but as a political and religious union between Wahabbi clerics and the royal family of Saudi Arabia starting in the 1700s and continuing through ups and downs from a base in the Najd to domination over the entire Arabian peninsula after World War I. The author then discusses the Saudi political system (3), not merely by discussing the royal family and its operation, but also the focus on consultation and consensus that form a key aspect of the political culture of Saudi Arabia, something I had heard from others who had lived there. A chapter on the relationship between oil and Saudi Arabia (4) comes next, with oil as the key source of revenue in the period after World War II, as the hajj had been the only source of foreign exchange income before then. Unsurprisingly, the discussion of oil wealth then follows naturally into a discussion of economic development and modernization (5), which has been adopted passionately by the Saudi royal family over the past few decades. A chapter on the hajj (6) shows the author keen on discussing the logistical challenge it presents to Saudi authorities. The author shows his sympathies with the Saudi situation strongly in the next chapter, on Saudi foreign policy and national security efforts (7), with a discussion of Saudi self-confidence as well as a feeling of being surrounded by enemies and featuring a worldview that allows for a flexible appreciation of its enemies. The book concludes with a chapter on some thoughts on Saudi Arabia in the twenty-first century (8), as well as an appendix on the family tree of the royal family, endnotes, a selected bibliography, and an index.
One gets a sense in reading this book of the complexity that is involved in seeking to rule over a nation when one comes from a background of isolation and even a hint of paranoia. There is no question about the complex nature of the Saudi state–it is a family which possesses a state, and there are a wide variety of people whose consultation is important to preserve the legitimacy of the state. Even with a formal legal framework that would appear to be absolutist in nature, there are requirements within the culture of the Saudi that put a soft touch on what could easily be a harsh rule. My own friendships with people from the area have demonstrated the immense fondness that people have for different members of the royal family based on their own kindness and devotion to the well-being of the people. It is unclear if the Saudi will be able to broaden the base of their economy to the extent that oil will not be necessary to preserve their status as a wealthy and powerful nature, but even if there are people who vainly imagine Saudi Arabia becoming a nation of oasis-dwelling Jeffersonians, the Saudi royal family has managed an impressive task in ruling over the area for decades and in seeking to use royal wealth to build a nation and improve it rather than enrich a selfish clique of rulers as has been the case in so much of the world.