“The most important thing you need to know about Saudi Arabia is this: it is full of bizarre contradictions and stark contrasts, it basically lives on paradox.” This is something that I frequently tell to foreigners who come to our country and find it difficult to understand.
It is this paradox that brought Robert Lacey to Riyadh for the first time in 1979. Two years later, he published The Kingdom, a 631-page book that tried to examine how a society which insists on tradition was trying to embrace modernity. In 1982, the book was banned by the Saudi government who had many objections on its content, which resulted, as you may expect, in high sales in region. I was born a couple of years later.
In late 2006, I met Robert in the fancy lobby of Faisaliyah Hotel. Twenty-five years after his first visit, he told me, he has come back to write a sequel. Inside The Kingdom: Kings, Cleric, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia was released last month in the US and the UK. The book is not yet available here, and at the end of his preface Lacey wondered if this one will banned too. Bahrain has already banned the book, a usual case of GCC counties being more Saudi than Saudis themselves.
“In theory Saudi Arabia should not exist,” Lacey writes at the beginning of his new book. Let’s face it, there is so much to be criticized about this country. But the writer was obviously careful not to fall in the trap of easy criticism. It is a place based on extremes, and it is hard to keep a balanced view when you look at it. That being Saudi, I think Lacey has done a good job by choosing to be more journalistic than analytical, and the alternating between history and personal anecdotes makes for a vivid, strong story and an enjoyable read.
The book looks back at the past 30 years of Saudi life, starting with the Juhayman uprising, going through the first Gulf War and 9/11, and ending with King Abdullah’s effort to reform the country. What I especially liked about this book is how Lacey elegantly incorporated many voices of Saudis that you don’t typically hear from: regular men and women who often made history, whether they were aware that was what they have been doing or not. People like Fawzia al-Bakr, Mansour al-Nogaidan, Tawfiq al-Saif, and others. These people have interesting stories to tell, and their stories tell the history of this country.
For anyone curious about Saudi Arabia, I highly recommend this book. It probably won’t be enough to give you a full understanding of the Kingdom, because I believe nothing and nobody can give you that, but it certainly offers an honest attempt at making sense of what the country has gone through shaping it into what it is today. What about the future? Only God knows.