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Corrupt and Brutal

Rami El Amine
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud
Said K. Aburish
St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996

Being a Lebanese Shiite who grew up on an American military base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and has done quite a bit of reading on the politics and history of the Middle East, I always thought I had a good sense of the excesses, corruption, and brutality of the House of Saud, the Saudi royal family. But now, after having read Said Aburish’s book, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud, I realize that what I knew was only the tip of the iceberg.

Part of the reason so little is known about what goes on inside the Kingdom is that, from its rise in the early 1900s, the House of Saud has used its wealth and power to lie, cheat, deceive, blackmail, and cover-up anything that challenges or exposes its corrupt rule.

Aburish demolishes the myth propagated by books and movies like Lawrence of Arabia which portray Ibn Saud as a wise, gentle and simple man who united the many tribes of Arabia into a modern nation state.

To give his family and rule some legitimacy he hired an Egyptian cleric to make up a family tree which shows Ibn Saud as a direct descendant of the Prophet.

He brought the various tribes and large families under his rule through terror and force. His armies were led by the fanatical “soldier-saints” or Ikhwan of the Wahhabi sect of Islam, a puritanical and extremist minority to which the House of Saud belongs. Between 1916-1928, these forces killed and wounded 400,000 people, one percent of the population, in putting down 26 rebellions against the House of Saud.

Western culpablity

However, it wasn’t the ferocity of his Ikhwan-led forces which allowed him to conquer most of the Arabian peninsula and declare himself King in 1930, it was British support.

The growing importance of oil, the fact that Saudi Arabia was one of the cheapest places in the world to produce it, and the decline of the British empire allowed the US to step in and take over from the British. In 1933 Standard Oil of California won the country’s oil concession from a British company, marking the beginning of what Aburish refers to as the “brutal friendship” between the US and Saudi Arabia.

This friendship, which consists of the royal family keeping oil prices low and using its oil wealth to buy US arms in return for protection, could best be seen during the Gulf War.

However, the threat to the royal family is not just external. Domestic opposition has been growing but the level of repression makes Saddam Hussein look like a saint. The royal family has waged a genocidal war against the defiant Shia minority.

The mistake Aburish makes is to predict when the House of Saud will fall, even though he acknowledges that there is no “ cohesive force capable of replacing the royal family” Which leads to a second mistake: appealing to the same Western powers, which he stresses throughout the book are the main reason the royal family has survived, to do something about the situation.

That aside and considering the fact that the book was published in 1994, it’s probably the best book about the inner workings of Saudi Arabia out there.