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John P. Jones III
- Publié sur Amazon.com
America is now engaged in the 10th year of war in Islamic countries, and there is no end in sight. A realistic understanding of the very heartland of the Islamic world is essential for the political leadership in our country - the decision makers - and it is equally important for the academics and "think tank" specialists who provide the advise and "policy papers." This book is not for the casual readership of the general public, but it would be inspiring if a few "enlightened citizens," in the best Jeffersonian ideal, would tackle it, simply to be better informed on one of the central issues of our times.
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.