Commentary Magazine

The Kingdom, by Robert Lacey

The Great Arabian Saga

The Kingdom.
by Robert Lacey.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 630 pp. $19.95.

Omens all seem to point grimly to the possibility that the Great American novel, that homely and enduring landmark on the literary scene, may soon be shouldered aside by an exotic intruder, the Great Arabian Saga. Already there are several contenders for the title in the field, all of them equipped with the obligatory impedimenta of camel saddles, head-ropes, coffee pots, and saddlebags stuffed with the sonorities and rotundities of Arabian discourse. From the point of view of the spectator, unfortunately, there is one great drawback to the contest as entertainment, and this is that writers of the Great Arabian Saga, the subject matter of which is the predestined rise of the House of Saud and the creation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, are forced to pursue a well-worn trail across a drab historical landscape, much in the way that Muslim pilgrims once devoutly trudged across Arabia to Mecca and Medina.

Like them, the Western literary pilgrim is subject to the injunction that he doff his worldly garb while engaged upon his pious undertaking, which in his case means discarding his critical faculties, his intellectual standards, his cultural heritage, so as to make himself worthy to celebrate in verse and song the legendary exploits of the Al Saud. Invariably the Great Arabian Saga begins with the expulsion of the Al Saud from their ancestral capital of Riyadh by their hereditary enemies, the Al Rashid, in the closing decades of the 19th century. From there we follow them into exile in Kuwait; to the recapture of Riyadh by the young and future king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, at the turn of the century; to his harnessing of the ikhwan, the fanatical brotherhood of tribesmen, to serve as his engine of expansion; to his ejection of the Turks from Hasa in the east and of the Hashemites from the Hejaz in the west; to his uneasy dealings with the British and harmonious relations with the Americans; to the discovery of oil and its consequences; and to all the other stations along the Via Saudica at which the faithful are required to pause and tell their beads.

Unfortunately again for the bemused reader, once he has read one version of the Saudi saga he has virtually read them all. Ex Arabia nunquam aliquid novi. But, it may be objected, what of the veritable libraries that have been written about, say, the Napoleonic wars or World War I to which new books are still being added every month, if not every week? Surely this fact alone is testimony to an unflagging popular and specialist interest in these conflicts? Why then should there not be a comparable interest in works on the history of Saudi Arabia, especially when the existing literature is so meager?

To this two answers may be given. One is that the history of Saudi Arabia does not compare in magnitude or consequence with the Napoleonic wars or World War I, mighty events which altered forever the history of Europe and of the wider world beyond. Saudi Arabian history has nothing to show of an order that is even remotely comparable; it is a thin vein which has almost been worked to exhaustion by the relatively few authors who have mined it. Yet paradoxically—and this is the second answer—because their books, with a handful of notable exceptions, have been long on rhetoric and short on factual accuracy, there remains both room and need for studies of Saudi Arabia which will conform to the scholarly standards expected of historians of Europe and America.

Robert Lacey, a British journalist who made his name a few years ago with a respectful biography of Queen Elizabeth II entitled Majesty, evidently believes that his new book, The Kingdom, constitutes a major contribution to Arabian historiography, not only in content but also in form and style. He has, so he informs us, spent four years at work on it, two of them pursuing his researches in Saudi Arabia, learning Arabic, traveling about the country, and “getting to know the most influential members of the vast royal family.” His lengthy sojourn with his family in Jidda (by his account “the world’s most expensive city”) was financed, he explains, by his publishers and by his own earnings from Majesty.

To convey to his readers some notion of the size of the enterprise upon which he embarked in 1977, and of the prodigious labors which went into its execution, Lacey lists the names of some 300 persons who assisted him in one way or another. He also informs us that he himself conducted “several hundred interviews.” To demonstrate his own scholarly efforts, he appends to his text 45 pages of source notes and a bibliography extending over 20 pages. The latter comprises not only 290 books and 130 articles but also the records of the British Foreign Office, India Office, and Colonial Office relating to Arabia between 1900 and 1950, the records of the U.S Department of State concerning Saudi Arabia from 1930 to 1963, a dozen collections of private papers, and several series of published documents (including the Foreign Relations of the United States but not, interestingly enough, the British Documents on Foreign Policy, 1919-1939).

Though it is no doubt highly uncharitable to voice the thought, one cannot help wondering how Lacey found time to read and reflect upon this mass of source material in the intervals between conducting his “several hundred” interviews, spending “long months” in Riyadh cultivating the acquaintance of the Al Saud, and camping in the desert with the Bedouin. The mystery is explained when one turns to the body of the book, the quality of which is such as to make a mockery, a trompe l’oeil, of the whole scholarly apparatus he has attached to it. For if Lacey had thoroughly perused even the secondary sources he lists, let alone the primary material, he could not—except by an act of willful perversity—have produced such a confection as this, a melange of gossip, trivia, risqué stories, stale legends, cautionary tales, anecdotes of back-breaking boredom, wide-eyed pen portraits of important personages, and potted histories of places and events, all too many of which are laced with errors of an elementary kind.

Worse still, Lacey has discovered the Arabs; he has succumbed to the lure of the desert and the mystique of the Bedouin. With sinking hearts we realize that we are in for an endless round of riding, raiding, feasting, praying, and hunting the bustard, all to the accompaniment of creaking saddles, tinkling harness, Bedouin war cries, musket volleys, and so forth. Every literary prop called for in the composition of the Great Arabian Saga is here—sheep roasted whole, reposing on steaming beds of saffron rice; tall men in spotless white robes striding across rich carpets in the ruler’s majlis; grave-faced clerics pondering the subtleties of Islamic law; elderly tribesmen thrusting grubby petitions into the prince’s hand. Beards are stroked contemplatively, eyes flash with anger, shoulders and noses are kissed, camels lurch and bellow—not a single cliché is omitted from the bulging cupboard of Arabian lore.

To accommodate this rich fare Lacey has adopted a format and style which smacks of both the Arabian Nights and the meandering course of an Arabic chronicle. Interspersed in the narrative are various stories with coy titles (“The Tale of the Collapsed Tent,” “The Tale of the Misplaced Coffee Pot”), the purpose of which is presumably to point some obscure moral. These various interpolations, and indeed much of the text in which they are embedded, are narrated in a quasi-biblical, quasi-Koranic prose (with sentences on the order of, “But God had wrought much through his servant Faisal”), again presumably to fortify the desired impression of an Arabian court chronicle.



What of matters of substance? On the history of the Al Saud in the 19th century Lacey is all at sea, his narrative jejune and misleading, partly because he has drawn upon unreliable sources. If he had properly utilized only one of the works he cites in his bibliography, J.G. Lorimer’s massive Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman, and Central Arabia, he might have got the story right. On Ibn Saud’s relations with the British during World War I, Lacey is partisan beyond the call of sycophancy. He castigates the British for their untrustworthiness, their parsimony, and their general lack of appreciation of the Saudi ruler. The truth of the matter is that Ibn Saud was paid what he was worth in gold and guns, considering that his military contribution to the campaign against the Turks was minimal, and considering also (which Lacey fails to mention) his duplicity in allowing the passage of supplies through the territory he controlled to the Turkish garrison bottled up in Medina. (Here and elsewhere Lacey expresses admiration for Harry St. John Philby, the English Arabist who first met Ibn Saud while on an official mission to Riyadh in 1917, and who later became a confidant of the king during the thirty years that he was to spend in Saudi Arabia. It is a pity that Lacey’s researches in the India Office records in London did not lead him to stumble upon the lengthy correspondence which officials of that department had with Philby in an endeavor to procure from him a financial accounting of his mission, and in particular a clarification of the circumstances surrounding the disbursement of some £20,000 of the funds entrusted to him.)

Too often, as in his reflections upon the 1973 Arab oil offensive, or in his discussion of Saudi Arabia’s foreign relations, Lacey shows himself to be badly out of his depth. On other occasions he seems unaware of the implications of what he is writing. For instance, early in his book, describing the boyhood of Ibn Saud and how he, along with his immediate family, found refuge with the Murrah tribe after being driven from Riyadh, Lacey states that the territory of the Murrah included the Empty Quarter (the vast sand sea stretching from Oman to the Yemen); that the oasis of Jabrin (“Murrah country”) lies in the Empty Quarter; and that in the summer “the Murrah would drift south-west to their permanent wells”—again presumably in the Empty Quarter. Now, in the inconclusive negotiations which took place between the British and Saudi governments in the 1930’s to define the eastern and southern frontiers of Saudi Arabia (this was the most important question at issue between the two governments in those years, although Lacey does not so much as mention it) the Saudi territorial claim was largely based upon the loyalty of the Murrah to the House of Saud, and upon the extent of the Murrah’s dar, or tribal range, as evidenced by their habitual use of wells.

Where the Murrah roamed in the late 19th century, when Ibn Saud spent part of his boyhood with them, is not known with any certainty, though the little evidence that exists indicates that they did not frequent the Empty Quarter to any appreciable extent. Jabrin, to which they repaired at intervals, lies well north of the Empty Quarter, not in it; and of the 160 wells which the Saudi government claimed in 1935 as Murrah wells, only a handful were located in the Empty Quarter. In any case, the Empty Quarter is far from being the exclusive preserve of the Murrah: other tribes roam there, among them the Manahil, the Awamir, the Rashid, and the Saar. When the Saudi government renewed its frontier claims after World War II, its American advisers wisely dropped the argument based on the dar of the Murrah as being too difficult to substantiate. Perhaps Lacey would do well to look again at some of the works he so blithely lists in his bibliography. (Incidentally, one wonders whether the Saudi government would look kindly upon the definition of the kingdom’s frontiers as they appear in his end maps.)

There is a minor curiosity toward the end where Lacey casually mentions that the book has been banned in Saudi Arabia. This seems a most peculiar, not to say singular, statement to incorporate in the text of a book before publication, even presumably before it was sent to the printer. In his acknowledgments, Lacey offers the explanation that “the Saudi Ministry of Information has requested changes to my manuscript which I felt unable to make.” The explanation raises more questions than it answers. If, as Lacey says, his book was an independent undertaking, financed by himself and his publishers, why did he consider it desirable to submit his manuscript in advance of publication for the approval of the Saudi Ministry of Information? How many authors writing books about a country or its people would think of seeking the imprimatur of the government of that country before publishing the results of their work?

It is all very puzzling, the more so because one cannot help concluding that the Al Saud have been somewhat harsh in their rejection of The Kingdom—which, to judge from the reverence with which Lacey employs that term throughout his book, he clearly judges to be not of this world. For what it is worth, I can recommend it to them unreservedly as being just the kind of portrayal of themselves and their forebears that they should contemplate with rapture.

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