Mar 15, 2004

Review of Lippman Book on Saudi Arabia

Final Edition SECTION: Book World; T04 LENGTH: 1033 words HEADLINE: Crude Relations; Behind the scenes of an increasingly troubled marriage of convenience. BYLINE: Reviewed by Peter Bergen BODY: INSIDE THE MIRAGE America's Fragile Partnership With Saudi Arabia By Thomas Lippman. Westview. 390 pp. $27.50 Before the Sept. 11 attacks, most Americans couldn't tell the difference between Wahhabism and wasabi. Following the attacks on Washington and New York, Americans quickly began to learn about Saudi Wahhabism because of several unpalatable facts: Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi; Saudi charities and individuals funded al Qaeda; militant Saudi clerics provided theological ballast for Osama bin Laden's anti-American fatwas, and the Saudi government had long obstructed U.S. inquiries into terrorism emanating from its country. And bin Laden himself is a product of the Saudi system, a system that is in deep crisis. Despite floating on top of the world's largest oil reserves, Saudi Arabia has dire problems: Average annual income has dropped from around $20,000 to $8,000 in the past two decades; half the population are teenagers, many of whom are unlikely to have jobs in the future; in the past year, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Riyadh, and a series of massive truck bombs rocked the capital, killing dozens. You don't have to be an Arab Tocqueville to predict that the House of Saud, the only clan in the world to have embedded its family name in a country, must reform substantially or go the way of the Hapsburgs. (An instructive factoid about the glacial pace of reform in the Saudi kingdom: Slavery was abolished in 1962.) After Sept. 11 a number of books were published seeking to illuminate Saudi Arabia, one of the most opaque societies on Earth, where even such seemingly basic facts as its population are murky. Former CIA officer Robert Baer penned Sleeping With the Devil, a breezy, anecdotal account of the troubled U.S.-Saudi marriage of convenience. The Sufi journalist Stephen Schwartz wrote The Two Faces of Islam, a jeremiad against Wahhabism, while Dore Gold, a former high-ranking Israeli diplomat, contributed a probing analysis of Wahhabist influence on al Qaeda in Hatred's Kingdom. All of these books painted a deeply unflattering portrait of the House of Saud. Another source of damaging information about the Saudis has been a massive lawsuit filed by many of the Sept. 11 victims' families against various Saudi institutions and individuals for allegedly colluding to help fund al Qaeda. Adding to the tidal wave of negative publicity about the Saudis was the Bush administration's decision to redact 28 pages of last year's congressional report on Sept. 11 that explored possible Saudi links to the attacks, which only served to heighten the sense that the Saudis have much to answer for. Now comes former Washington Post reporter Thomas W. Lippman, who provides an even-handed and well-researched history of the U.S.-Saudi "fragile partnership" in Inside the Mirage. (Note to publishers: Time to retire the "mirage" cliche in future books about the Arabs.) Lippman's book is a quite different proposition from much of the recent post-Sept. 11 coverage of the Saudis. Tellingly, the first time that Lippman mentions the word "terrorism" is more than 300 pages into his narrative, which traces the Saudi-American alliance from its emergence after the birth of the Saudi kingdom in 1932 and the signing a year later of the first oil-prospecting agreement with Standard Oil of California. Lippman skillfully excavates the subsequent Saudi-American modus vivendi in the mid-20th century, a period that now seems as remote and innocent as a flickering home movie from Eisenhower's America. Lippman has done pioneering research on the early days of Aramco, the American company that more or less single-handedly created the oil business in Arabia. Some of the pictures he has found to illustrate that era are as eloquent as the interviews he conducted with the Americans who lived in the Saudi kingdom at the time: black-and-white photos of happy American faces at an Aramco cocktail party in 1950 (no Arabs in view), Aramco wives from the same year kicking up their heels in can-can dresses at some amateur theatrical event and Aramco executives dressed in sober suits sitting down in a tent to share a "goat grab" with their Saudi hosts. While detailing the partnership that the Saudis and Americans forged to create Aramco, Lippman reports on a parallel development: the hitherto unexplored story of how Americans working for Trans World Airlines (TWA) "enabled the Saudis to move from camel travel to jet travel in virtually no time" and in the process created Saudi Arabian Airlines, one of the most professional airlines in the region. This is all interesting stuff, but Lippman, perhaps in an effort to present a more balanced account of the Saudis than we have heard since Sept. 11, treats the issue of terrorism only in a somewhat cursory chapter at the end of his book. As a result readers of the book would not know that even a year after Sept. 11 Prince Nayef, the powerful interior minister, was publicly blaming Zionists, rather than his own citizens, for the attacks on Washington and New York; or that the Saudis started to cooperate with the Sept. 11 investigation only a year and half after the attacks (and then only after al Qaeda had launched suicide attacks in Riyadh); or that significant opposition to the American military presence in the kingdom following the first Gulf War came not only from bin Laden and some radical clerics but also from members of a significant Saudi political movement; or that the Saudis seem not to have arrested any of the mentors or associates of the 15 hijackers who were Saudis. Of course Lippman can't cover everything in his book, but all of the facts in this paragraph surely have some bearing on the yawning cultural and political gulf that exists between the Saudis and the United States, a gulf laid bare by the Sept. 11 attacks. That said, he has contributed valuable on-the-ground reporting about a country that remains largely an enigma. * Peter Bergen, a fellow of the New America Foundation and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden."