PRINCES OF DARKNESS
The Saudi Assault on the West
By Laurent Murawiec
Rowman and Littlefield. 305 pp. $25.95
Businessman, Billionaire, Prince
By Riz Khan
Morrow. 416 pp. $26.95
Are these two books about the same country? The first depicts Saudi Arabia as a violent, benighted place whose ruling family is pursuing a decades-long plan to subvert American power. The second is the authorized biography of the richest man in Saudi Arabia, a member of the ruling family, who is portrayed as the consummate mix of "East" and "West" -- a man who can bridge cultures and repair the torn U.S.-Saudi relationship. Unfortunately, neither is a reliable source about politics and life in Saudi Arabia today, nor does either book shed much light on the fascinating, difficult issues involved in relations between Riyadh and Washington.
Laurent Murawiec had his 15 minutes of fame in August 2002, when his briefing on Saudi Arabia before the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board (a group of outside experts and former officials) was leaked to this newspaper. Murawiec portrayed Saudi Arabia as the "kernel of evil" in the Muslim world, the source of the jihadist movements metastasizing there and thus directly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. His recommendation: To defeat terrorism, take the "Saudi" out of Arabia. This book, translated from the French original published in 2003, is an extended elaboration of his PowerPoint slides.
Murawiec raises serious issues here but does not treat them in a serious way. The official Saudi interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, is a narrow, puritanical and intolerant reading of the faith. Saudi oil money, both governmental and private, has played a central role in spreading the Wahhabi interpretation through the Muslim world. Wahhabism is one element in the toxic ideological and political mix that produced Osama bin Laden and his jihad against the United States. But in his zeal to indict the Saudis for everything that has gone wrong in the Muslim world (and beyond), Murawiec loses all sense of proportion. He twists facts, distorts history and ignores contrary evidence to hammer away at his target.
His account of the relationship between bin Laden and the Saudi royals is a case in point. Bin Laden has openly called for the overthrow of the monarchy since the mid 1990s, and Riyadh stripped him of his citizenship in 1994. Yet Murawiec contends that the two parties were tacitly cooperating all along. He chalks up the switch in bin Laden's strategy -- away from targeting "apostate" Arab governments and toward targeting the United States -- to a payoff by Saudi royals to lessen the jihadists' pressure on them at home. The bin Laden-inspired (if not orchestrated) bombing campaign in Saudi Arabia that was launched in 2003 is simply dust in our eyes, according to Murawiec. Since no members of the ruling family have been killed, the House of Saud's deal with the devil must still obtain.
No direct evidence is presented to support these charges. Murawiec simply says that it has been "rumored for some time in international intelligence circles" and confirmed to him by "an Arab foreign minister." Contrary evidence, like the 9/11 Commission's finding that there were no financial relations between the senior members of the Saudi royal family and bin Laden, is simply ignored.
Murawiec's account of the long history of close U.S.-Saudi relations is equally slanted. The 1973 oil embargo is dealt with at length as an example of Saudi hostility toward the United States. But the previous and subsequent decades of close cooperation are simply attributed to the Saudi success in buying influence in the circles of American power. (Chapter 11 is entitled "Washington on the Auction Block.") When the Saudis did cooperate with the United States, as in the 2003 war against Iraq, it was because they "could not have done less," whatever that means.
The potted history of Saudi Arabia that Murawiec presents is just plain bad. One of the central themes of the book is that the Saudi royals are the latest manifestation of marauding desert tribesmen, ignorant, violent and destructive of settled civilization. Murawiec is wrong on two counts here. First, his 19th-century stereotyping about "Bedouins" is based on the most outdated and discredited sources. Second, the al Saud are not desert tribesmen. They are from the settled population of central Arabia. They have worked tirelessly to strip the tribes of any real autonomy and settle them in order to better control them. If Murawiec had read the academic literature on the country (or even if he had read more carefully some of the sources he cites), he would have known this.
This is not a serious work of history, but Murawiec wants to make a serious policy argument. Unfortunately, his plan for "taking Saudi out of Arabia" is so far-fetched that readers might mistake him for an academic. First, detach the oil-producing Eastern Province of the country as an "autonomous state protected by the international community . . . but not subject to foreign occupation." Murawiec later acknowledges that "the West" -- that is, the United States -- will have to occupy the oil fields to accomplish this. Then set up a Middle East oil authority to spread the oil wealth of this new state throughout the region. Who will set up this authority? Presumably, again, "the West." Finally, establish an "international Muslim college" to administer the holy places in Mecca and Medina. Will "the West" establish this college and present the holy cities to it? Murawiec is unclear. Given how difficult the comparatively modest task of establishing democracy in Iraq has turned out to be, his recommendations border on the ridiculous.
Murawiec's book is a subtraction from the sum total of our knowledge about Saudi Arabia; Riz Khan's authorized biography of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is simply not an addition. Then again, it is not really meant to be. Khan, a former CNN International correspondent, has written a celebrity businessman's biography, and he's done a reasonable, if overly long, job of it. The prince -- who, according to Forbes magazine, is the fourth-richest man in the world -- resides in the private jets, massive yachts and luxury hotels that are the country without borders of the incredibly rich. Khan chronicles his travels, business dealings and philosophical musings. Remarkably, he fails to tell us why Citigroup, of which the prince is a major stockholder, divested itself in 2004 of its major Saudi asset, a share in the Saudi American Bank owned by Alwaleed. While Murawiec accepts all the negative stereotypes about the Arabian Peninsula, Khan gives us some of the positive desert stereotypes -- Bedouin true to their traditions, princely generosity distributed in the traditional Arabian manner (in a tent, even!). Neither stereotype helps us understand the problems confronting modern Saudi Arabia.
Alwaleed represents many of the values that Americans would like to see in Saudi Arabia: hard work, openness to new ideas, concern for equitable gender policies, friendship with the United States. His energies, however, seem more concentrated on managing his extensive international portfolio than on politics at home. His recent effort to play politics in Lebanon (his mother is from one of its leading Sunni Muslim families) was a failure. He set himself up as a rival of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who, since his assassination in Feb. 2005, has become the symbol of Lebanese nationalism. Alwaleed supported the pro-Syrian president of the country, Emile Lahoud, whose days in office now seem numbered. This foray does not speak well of the prince's political acumen. It remains to be seen whether he has the desire and skill to play a political role in Saudi Arabia.
The United States has an interest in the stability of Saudi Arabia's oil production, and thus of its politics. We need it to play both a more limited and a more positive role in the Muslim world. Getting that balance right requires a deeper understanding of how Saudi Arabia works. It is unfortunate that neither of these books provides that. *
F. Gregory Gause III is an associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont and the author of "Oil Monarchies."