- Politics and Society in Saudi Arabia: The Crucial Years of Development, 1960–1982, by Sarah Yizraeli
Sarah Yizraeli returns to the field of scholarship on Saudi Arabia with her latest publication. Many might remember her first book, The Remaking of Saudi Arabia: The Struggle between King Sa‘ud and Crown Prince Faysal, 1953–1962 (Syracuse, 1998), in which she laid the groundwork for her analysis of the power struggle between Sa‘ud and Faysal. Her latest study uses similar arguments as the basis for her description of Saudi society during the oil boom years. Thanks to her sound historical research and writing skills, she is able to identify the main stages of development as well as the main actors and stakeholders in the development process.
However, her intentions with the new book go beyond simply describing the transition of the kingdom into the new age. She seeks to repair the distorted image of Saudi Arabia in the public opinion caused by biased media coverage. This is a very honorable goal; however, her image of Saudi Arabia is that of a society with radical roots that produced bin Ladin’s group (p. xi). Thus, aside from her historical narrative, the author also tries to find the link between the two: a changing society in the 1960s and 1970s and a terror organization in the 1990s and early 2000s. Perhaps this will lead her to a possible third volume of her chronicle of Saudi development, but, as the preface for the book under review, it is stretched too far.
Yizraeli’s conclusion that “the roots of radicalization… lie in that period midway through the twentieth century” cannot be supported. Reaching this conclusion is a surprising by-product of the book, which otherwise explains in great detail the intricacies of consensus building and decision-making among the Saudi elite. Yizraeli further concludes that the radicalization of Saudi society must be traced back to the two-track development policies of the Al Sa‘ud and the other segments of the ruling [End Page 485] elite. On the one hand, the country readily cooperated with the West (US, Aramco) in business and other economic matters, while on the other, the social and religious sphere was left mostly untouched from the reform process. Faysal’s credo, “Modernization without Secularization,” summarized the domestic agenda and relationship with stakeholders in the political, economic and social leadership of the country.
Steve Coll (The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, Penguin, 2008) likewise saw a connection between young Usama’s identity and Faysal’s agenda; however, I suggest a different interpretation. What should be noted is that Faysal and his camp skillfully played the ancient Saudi political game of give-and-take, of forging alliances, making compromises and coopting possible adversaries. When this creates the by-products of stability and prosperity, I am hesitant to call it a blueprint for future radicalization.
But, Yizraeli makes other, more authoritative assertions from her field of expertise: she frequently refers to tribal elements and values in all segments of society and the idea that tribalism as a mindset can influence the decision-making. She also stresses the importance of reconsidering Aramco’s role in the development process, not as “motor of change” but a mere contributor and strategic facilitator. That the US played a more quiet and economic than political role during this era, however, is not a new realization, but one that deserves greater public attention. It was described earlier by David E. Long (The United States and Saudi Arabia: Ambivalent Allies, Westview, 1985).
Finally, a word on the sources: Yizraeli, as an Israeli scholar, is barred from conducting research inside the Kingdom. Perhaps it was because of this limitation that she relied on only a handful of Saudi Arabian sources including the often-cited, but conspicuous Anwar ‘Abdullah book. Primary sources about Saudi Arabia, particularly from that time period, are rare and hard to locate. However, the King Abdul Aziz Foundation for...