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Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey

October 23, 2009

Inside the KingdomAs an on-again, off-again member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs I have attended many of their programs over the past six years and always thoroughly enjoyed them. So I was very happy to finally get a chance to attend my first program of the season. The speaker for the evening was Robert Lacey, an author and historian who has lived in Saudi Arabia and written about the country since the late 70s. His current book, which is what brought him to this forum, Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia, has not yet been banned by the Saudi government (as was his first book on the subject, The Kingdom). Bahrain, however, has apparently banned it without even cracking the spine. Mr. Lacey shared with us that the banning of his first book had left him saddened until he had been told by a friend to “cheer up old chap, if it wasn’t banned we wouldn’t read it.” So, for Mr. Lacey’s sake, here’s hoping that the Ministry of Culture and Information gives Inside the Kingdom two thumbs down.

For his talking points, Mr. Lacey covered some of the basic information, including geography and family structure, contained in his book as well as, a plethora of historical events and changes over the years. Mr. Lacey is a wealth of knowledge, but he did jump around quite a bit in time and topic, making him somewhat difficult to follow. By the end of the evening’s presentation I felt as if I had been splatter blasted by the history of the House of Saud.

There are a couple of points which he discussed that I would like to touch on; first, the importance of the House of Saud. As the ruling family in Saudi Arabia, and thus where the country gets its name, they have maintained complete power over the area since 1932. This is especially important because both Mecca and Medina, the holiest cities in Islam, are located there. For those who might not know, every Muslim is required to make the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. By simple virtue of this fact alone, Saudi Arabia keeps the attention of the entire Muslim world.

Second, Mr. Lacey pointed out that one of the greatest strengths of the House of Saud is how it has been able to keep the different Islamic factions together in Saudi Arabia. But despite their strength internally, there is open distrust of Iran and its Shia leadership. Mr. Lacey said that there are two questions that the Saudi king will not answer in public: ‘What do you think of Iraq?’ and ‘What about Iran?’ When he asked a government official why this was he was told that the king speaks his mind, and what he would say is that you can never trust a Shia and that he doesn’t understand why the US would conquer Iraq just to hand it over to the Iranians (by giving the vote to the Iraqis a Shia majority has emerged, which gives Iran influence in the country).

There was also an article made available at the event that was written by one of the Council’s own, Rachel Bronson, Vice President Programs and Studies, titled “The United States and Saudi Arabia: Challenges Ahead” and published by the Middle East Institute. Her article expanded on the issue of the Saudi view of Iran and explored the Obama administrations approach to the region and how it differs from previous administrations and the views of the House of Saud. If you would like to read the article it can be found here on page 82 of the pdf.

Overall the program was not as informative as others that I have attended, but I am looking forward to reading the book. It appears to be an excellent place to start for someone like myself, who possesses a cursory knowledge of the region, but would like to expand on that.

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