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The Saudi royals and Al Qaeda

Saudi Arabia Exposed Inside a Kingdom in Crisis John R. Bradley Palgrave Macmillan: 224 pp., $22.95 Secrets of the Kingdom The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection Gerald Posner Random House: 258 pp., $24.95

June 26, 2005|Simon Henderson | Simon Henderson is a senior fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of its study "After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia."

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, few Americans probably had any views about Saudi Arabia. Since that day, as a direct consequence of 15 out of the 19 hijackers being Saudi and the whole plot being led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, it has been hard to find an American without an opinion.

These opinions fall generally into two categories: The first, and probably more widely held, is that Saudi Arabia is a continuing threat to the United States and we should, if possible, diminish our relationship with the kingdom. The second is that we must differentiate between our Saudi friends and Saudi Islamic extremists, and, besides, our dependence on oil (and Saudi oil in particular) is too great to allow the luxury of any realistic alternative.

"Saudi Arabia Exposed," by British journalist John R. Bradley, and "Secrets of the Kingdom," by the American writer Gerald Posner, provide ammunition for both arguments. The authors' styles are dissimilar, but both books contribute substantially to the debate. Even though both tentatively conclude that a policy of engagement is best, the Saudi government will like neither work.

Displeasure from the Saudi capital of Riyadh is usually conveyed only obliquely. After Posner's earlier book, "While America Slept," on the Sept. 11 attacks, a highly critical article by the Saudi editor-in-chief of the English-language daily Arab News appeared, titled "Sept. 11 Attacks and Posner's Fairy Tales." Ironically, Bradley was managing editor of Arab News at the time. Not that you would learn that by searching the archive at www.arabnews.com; the article on Posner is still there, but Bradley appears to have been deleted from the newspaper's memory. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a degree of acrimony followed his departure when it emerged that he was writing a book.

Bradley does not mention Posner nor his own former editor-in-chief by name, other than to describe the latter's role as that of "minimizing the job of the government by making sure nothing truly controversial was published." For this, he writes, "obsequious editors in chief are rewarded with massive salaries, frequent appearances in the Western media, and invitations to accompany their beloved crown prince on foreign trips, when they are given to filing three sentences of hail and praise."

As the only Arabic-speaking Western journalist in the kingdom for 2 1/2 years from mid-2001, Bradley (based in Jidda, on the Red Sea coast of the Hijaz region, rather than Riyadh) had a unique vantage. He offers a window on two different Saudi Arabias. One is the fundamentalist Wahhabi kingdom, "governed by perhaps the most corrupt family the world has ever known, a place teeming with extremists, where children are taught that 'the Jews' are the eternal enemy, and where Westerners are periodically blown up in their residential compounds or gunned down in the street by attackers filled with hatred for them and seeking martyrdom." The other is a country "where Westerners ... can -- and often do -- encounter the finest traditions of Islamic hospitality, generosity, and kindness....And, increasingly, [it] is a place where the main concern for perhaps the majority of the population, the one thing in addition to their faith that binds them, despite their many differences, is ... whether they and their children will be able to find a job."

Bradley used his language skills and the access afforded by his position to penetrate the more thoughtful sections of Saudi society. He watched as a sophisticated Saudi princess denied to a visiting American journalist that the majority of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis. He was struck by the cultural resilience of those living in Jidda, where a potential rebellion "remains the [ruling family's] worst fears for the Hijaz." He speculates on "the vulnerability of a perhaps fatally weakened Saudi royal family" as local merchant families and tribes in peripheral provinces "reassert historic territorial claims."

Posner, by contrast, offers a more clinical approach, heavily footnoted, chiefly dependent on articles, broadcast reports and interviews. His most newsworthy claim is that Saudi security policy is based on constructing a "single-button self-destruct system" of its oil reserves (25% of the world's total) so that "if someone else grabbed the world's largest oil reserves and forced them to flee the country they had founded, the House of Saud could at least make certain that what they left behind was worthless." The source that Posner cites for this is electronic eavesdropping of the Saudi royal family that was given to him by a retired Israeli intelligence officer who had worked as a liaison with the U.S. National Security Agency. Posner writes that he got confirmation of some of the details from a European oil industry executive who subsequently "changed his mind about going on the record."

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