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Paranoia and a partisan agenda

House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties; Craig Unger; Scribner: 358 pp., $26

March 21, 2004|Stephen Schwartz | Stephen Schwartz is the author of several books, including "The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism."

The year 1979 was a climactic one in the Islamic world. On Jan. 16 of that year, the shah of Iran fled the country he had ruled in the face of a revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. That event marked the birth of an entirely new kind of Islamist sensibility bent on active confrontation with everything Western. On Dec. 24, the armies of what was then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, signaling a decisive chapter in Communism's death agony. A month before, on Nov. 20, a mob of extremists -- adherents of Sunni Islam, rather than the Shiites that controlled Iran -- seized the vast structure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site and the place where millions of Muslims assemble for the annual pilgrimage, or hajj.

Memory of the 1979 Mecca Mosque rebellion has been tenacious, especially among Saudi subjects, who claim the House of Saud called for French paratroops to retake the sacred precincts, killing hundreds of Muslims in the process. Others claim that American civilian mercenaries suppressed the rebellion. One Saudi dissident told me, with tears in his eyes, that he had touched the bullet marks in the walls with his own fingers years afterward. So much for claims, trumpeted far and wide, that Muslim holy soil must not be defiled by non-Muslims -- the centerpiece of propaganda by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in their war against the U.S. presence on Saudi territory.

The Grand Mosque was undergoing reconstruction in 1979, with work on the complex in the hands of the Saudi Bin Laden Group, as the massive construction enterprise (which made the father of Osama bin Laden colossally rich) is officially known. Without such projects for the transformation of Mecca and Medina into Las Vegas-style centers of Islamic architecture, the name might never have been known outside the Saudi kingdom.

According to Craig Unger in "House of Bush, House of Saud," the militants who seized the Mecca Mosque in 1979 were able to do so because of the involvement of Mahrous bin Laden, an elder brother of Osama, in the construction project. Indeed, Unger writes, "the Bin Laden family's trucks" were used in the raid. In the aftermath of the bloodbath, Unger writes, Mahrous bin Laden was arrested, but was later released and provided with a management post in the family business.

This charge will be a startling one to many experts in the field, as well as to most of those uninstructed in the convoluted nature of Saudi reality. That the Bin Laden clan was involved in terrorist activity inside the Saudi kingdom and has benefited from official negligence since the beginning of the recent cycle of global Muslim unrest is, at least, novel. It brings something seemingly new to the table of Saudology, the post-Sept. 11 school of analysis of the kingdom's inner and outer worlds, comparable with the Sovietology of the past.

But it is based, as shown in Unger's footnotes, on no more than a handful of references. A Google search revealed only 18 items linking the name "Mahrous" to the 1979 events.

Unfortunately, that is about all there is that appears fresh, or even very interesting, in Unger's book. A contributor to the New Yorker, Esquire and Vanity Fair, Unger seeks in this book to present the horror of Sept. 11, and quite a bit more of contemporary history, as a consequence of a "secret relationship between the world's two most powerful dynasties" (as the book's subtitle has it).

He has failed in the effort -- and more, he has betrayed a relentlessly partisan agenda, in which real journalism and historical research are as rare as oases in the Saudi deserts. His intent is clear enough: to discredit the House of Bush in this, an election year, by recycling almost every conspiracy claim made about the family, associations and administration of George W. Bush.

Some of what appears in this volume is just silly. To begin with, the House of Bush is by no means one of the world's two most powerful dynasties: It is enough to compare it with the Rockefellers to see the absurdity of that claim. Further, the House of Bush cannot be compared with the House of Saud as a dynastic phenomenon, considering that the former produced a U.S. senator (Prescott Bush, father of George H.W.), two presidents and a governor of Florida, while the latter has remade the core of the Arabian Peninsula, and a large part of global Islam, in its own bizarre image (based on the cult of Wahhabism) over the last 250 years. Of course, George W. Bush is currently the world's most powerful single individual -- but one cannot seriously describe King Fahd of Saudi Arabia as his peer in war or statecraft. Tony Blair or Vladimir Putin might qualify, but the monarch of the Saudi state?

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