The History of Saudi Arabia (Anglais) Broché – 30 octobre 2000
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The perception of Saudi Arabia by almost all Americans is universally negative. In part this is the result of a relentless effort to present the Arabs in general, and the Kingdom in particular, by Hollywood, the news media, and in books, in ways that are now unacceptable if the same characterizations were made of Blacks, Jews, or Women. There are the political "hatchet jobs," performed by former Rand employee Laurent Murawiec, who leans heavily on the Hitler analogies to make the case that the Kingdom is the root of all evil. There are several books by women, purportedly concerned about the "plight of Saudi women" that portray a world that is unrecognizable to any real Saudi women. But there is also a growing body of literature that attempts to depict the Kingdom in a realistic light, written by Lacey, Weston, Sanders, Coll, Lippman and others. There is the sweet irony that the best of these comes from our one time friends during the Second World War, our long-time adversary during the "Cold War," and now uneasy ally on some issues, Russia. Alexei Vassiliev has written the most authoritative, and comprehensive history of the Kingdom. Period. The prose is dispassionate, at times it borders on the ponderous, but most importantly it is virtually error free, and there are extensive references in a thorough bibliography. On first glance it might be surprising that a Russian would write the best book on the Kingdom. After all, what is the basis for their interest? On second glance however, it is important to recall that Russia has had a long-term interest, even obsession, with the countries on its southern borders, and its famous quest for a warm-water port. So, Vassiliev not only uses the traditional sources of early British, French, Danish, American and German sources, but also references voluminous diplomatic Russian sources, previously unknown to me, in order to describe events in the Arabian peninsula.
Vassiliev "drew me in early" by denouncing one of the earliest promoters of the "fantasy" view of the Kingdom, T.E. Lawrence, more commonly known as "Lawrence of Arabia." In the Notes on Sources, at the very beginning of the book, Vassiliev says, of Lawrence: "...describing events through the prism of his own false pride. His works are of scant scientific significance." The first 200 pages of this 500 page tomb are devoted to events prior to the re-taking of Riyadh, in 1902, by the founder of today's Kingdom, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. Many traditional accounts of the Kingdom literally start at this point, but educated Saudis are well-aware of the prior two Kingdoms, one even more extensive in terms of geography, than the present country, and dating from the period of the American revolution. Vassiliev covers this period, as well as the subsequent one, in balanced and measured tones, with factually based, and sourced analysis. And sometimes the reader is rewarded with anecdotes that are so relevant today. The following concerns the eponymous founder of the Wahabbi movement (more properly known as Salafis), which Vassiliev attributes to the Hijazi historian Ibn Zaini Dahlan:
"Sulaiman once asked his brother Muhammad, `How many are the pillars of Islam, O Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab?' `Five,' he answered. Sulaiman replied, `No, you have added a sixth one. It reads that one who does not follow you is not a Muslim. To you, it is the sixth pillar of Islam.'
The latter three-fifths of the book covers the creation of today's Kingdom, with the consolidation of political control occurring in the late 20's, the discovery of oil, and its eventual economic transformation of one of the poorer countries in the world into one of the more influential and wealthy ones. It remains an astonishing transformation, and overall, done well, as Vassiliev confirms. In his measured way, Vassiliev takes on the many Cassandras of doom who made "...speculative forecasts about the impending collapse of all the monarchies in the Arabian peninsula...." by saying: "It has now become clear, however, that Saudi Arabia lacked any major social groups that opposed the regime itself rather than its individual measures" (p 464).
There are a few quibbles about the author's work. He will use terms like `henchmen', apparently derived from Philby, which jar in this normally dispassionate account. The last hundred pages or so read like so many economic tables and graphs placed into leaden prose, and they are a slog.
A fellow reviewer, and friend, sometimes questions what he perceives as my unwarranted higher ratings on books, and I think his point is: If it is not an enjoyable, informative read, does it deserve 5-stars? For me, the answer is a definite Yes, if the information obtained has been worth the effort, and may be analogous to the extra effort required to read a book that is not in one's native language. Vassiliev's book is not for the "fun read" crowd, but it is immensely informative about a country that is central to many of the dominant issues of our times. Definitely a solid 5-stars plus, and I await the corrections on my reasoning.
Only one minor error regarding the number and leadership of the two forces sent to Asir in 1921-22 came to light in my first reading of this monumental book.
Vasiliev not only thoroughly documents the history of the kingdom since ancient times and through the rise of preaching radical Wahhabi Islam in 1745, he couples this puritan movement with the socioeconomic trends of the Arabian peninsula resultant of its unfriendly desert weather.
Even for readers familiar with the history of the region, the author makes striking remarks saying that people should understand the Saudi modern history as the function of a unique event in history. Saudis had the most archaic society on the face of earth at the time they received the biggest fortune ever.
Readers might be also surprised to learn that the ruling Saudi family is almost exclusively composed of the sons of the founder and their sons. Another surprising remark the author makes is that, even with the huge budget this kingdom manages, it still has no treasury department.
Not very surprising, however, is the typical third world behavior of Saudi rulers who squandered their suddenly generated fortunes either to buy political loyalties or for self luxury.
The reader might be amazed at how many chances the Saudis have missed to modernize their country and make use of their once unparalleled wealth. Instead, they protected anti-modernization fundamental groups on which the stay of the regime itself depended.
The economic and social analysis is full of broad conclusions made to fit a narrative. That material, no matter what window-dressing it is given, ends up being nothing more than opinion.
The analysis of Wahhabism and the Saudis is overly simplistic. Presented is the familiar narrative of the "partnership" that conquered arabia. Neglected are the losers and alternatives that were in competition with the Saudis in Arabia. This is very much as the title suggests a history of "Saudi" Arabia rather than Arabia itself.
The book could have been better. It needed to focus more attention on the non-aaudi narratives within arabia: Turkish, British, the western gulf states and the Hashemites. The tendancy to allow the Saudi narrative to dominate the history of Arabia needs to be challenged and re-thought.
Middle East Quarterly, March 1999