It must be easy to write an uninspired biography of a fascinating person because it happens often. Stanley Wolpert did it with Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah. Antonia Fraser did it with Cromwell. Denis Mack Smith even did it with Mussolini. Now unhappily that list expands to include Joseph A. Kéchichian’s [End Page 154] brief but turgid account of the life and career of Faysal ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud, third king of modern Saudi Arabia.
The author is deeply knowledgeable about Saudi Arabia and its unique dynasty, and his knowledge shows as his narrative reviews the high points of Faysal’s eventful life: his youthful travels abroad, the power struggle with his brother Sa’ud, the conflict with Nasser, the war in Yemen, and the embargo on oil shipments to the United States provoked by the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Yet the book lacks drama, and while it makes assertions about Faysal’s character and motivations, it does not capture them.
Kéchichian dwells disproportionately on the Kingdom’s external relations under Faysal and on the king’s efforts to create worldwide Islamic institutions that would legitimize the House of Sa‘ud and counter the influence of Nasser and other Arab secularists. The book reveals little that is new about Faysal’s relations with his brothers, other than Sa’ud, and omits serious discussion of his marriage to Queen ‘Iffat and her influence on him, in particular his determination to create schools for girls. This is doubly odd because the book is dedicated “In memory of ‘Iffat Al Thunayan, a queen whose life and reign were beyond value” and because, Kéchichian says, “the queen was the great woman who stood behind this remarkable king and who freely advised her husband on matters of genuine importance” (p. xi).
As for Faysal’s opinions and motivations, they are described, but the descriptions are not illuminated by his own words: Faysal is scarcely even quoted, because the author made an unfortunate decision to include his “Vital Speeches” as an appendix, rather than use them to liven up the text.
The author makes a good case that Faysal, with his judicious temperament and sound political judgment, preserved the dynasty in perilous times, but he says little new about the fascinating domestic evolution of Saudi Arabia during Faysal’s reign.
Kéchichian makes clear that he admires Faysal, whom he describes as “destined for greatness because he was a dreamer with a vision, one that drew succor from faith and wisdom, not adulation.” Perhaps so, but the author’s esteem for his subject leads him to adulation instead of scrutiny. From this account it would appear that Faysal never acted in bad faith, never made a wrong decision, and never let personal considerations cloud his judgment. Kéchichian even asserts that he “was not an anti-semite” (p. 10), even though diplomats who knew him have said he insisted that each visitor receive as a gift a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The author is not an accomplished prose stylist, and he apparently was not well served by his editors at the University Press of Florida, who failed to purge the text of contradictions, clichés, and outright mistakes. It says of King Sa’ud, for example, that “Significantly, the monarch, who was also his own prime minister, presided over council meetings even if he could not vote. This was a technical matter with little importance since all council decisions were subject to the ruler’s approval” (p. 20). Which was it — significant, or of “little importance”? Of King ‘Abdul ‘Aziz’s meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, the author says that one of the three major topics of discussion was “oil concessions.” There is no documentary evidence that the two men talked about “oil concessions.” An American company already had the Saudi oil concession at that time, and the matter was not in dispute. Worse, Kéchichian writes that Faysal’s “lifelong wish to...