Too much oil, too few options

Saudi Arabia may seem rigid, autocratic and antiquated, but it is slowly changing. Under King Abdull

Prophets and Princes: Saudi Arabia from Muhammad to the Present, Mark Weston, John Wiley & Sons, 640pp, £18.99

The Saudi princes, with their picturesque costume and antiquated statecraft, have often seemed to wise outsiders to be ripe for the historical boneyard. Yet, since seizing control of the little mud-walled town of Riyadh in 1902, the al-Saud ("Saud's folk") have outlasted their enemies and rivals: the other Arabian sheikhdoms, the Sharif of Mecca, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, and, at the time of writing, Osama Bin Laden. By the short-winded standards of the Near and Middle East, the al-Saud are stayers.

Absolute monarchs, subject by their own account to the Quran and their subjects' petitions only, they have produced strong kings. Abdul Aziz, the famous "Ibn Saud" who founded the modern state, and his son Faisal were the greatest Arabs of their ages. But with them came the feckless alcoholic Saud, deposed in 1964; gentle Khaled (1975-82); Fahd (1982-2005), who prom ised well but was incapacitated for nine years by illness; and now stuttering Abdullah, for years in his brothers' shadow. Meanwhile, the sons of Abdul Aziz are coming to the throne at ever more advanced ages, as in the last days of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or what Mark Weston calls "the Chernenko syndrome".

The al-Saud have had crude oil in abundance since 1938, but that is both a blessing and a curse. They have not needed to tax their subjects or provide those liberties that a taxpaying people comes to demand. Yet, as the author reminds us, oil made little contribution to the king's revenue until after the Second World War, and between 1982 and 2003, when the market was glutted, a barrel of Arabian Light sometimes could be had for $10. The vast Saudi oil reserves attract envy as well as love, and the revenue from their headlong development, both in the 1970s and today, has strained the puritan state to breaking point.

Above all, since the famous meeting between President Franklin D Roosevelt and Ibn Saud at Great Bitter Lake in 1945, the al-Saud have enjoyed the protection of the United States. This relationship, which sits most unhappily with US support for Israel, has passed through periods of intense pressure: the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Palestinian intifada of 2001, and after the 11 September 2001 attacks, an operation financed by Bin Laden and largely executed by Saudi rebels.

The US guarantee of Saudi security, implicit since 1945, became explicit with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the despatch of half a million US troops to Saudi Arabia. Weston wonders whether that guarantee will at some point include protection against nuclear attack.

Weston, who has also written about Pakistan and Japan, is an enthusiast of the al-Saud - a much rarer beast in the US these days than in the age of Abdul Aziz and Faisal. He sees the al-Saud as much better than the alternative, which would be an Islamic republic.

A protégé of Prince Turki al-Faisal, once head of Saudi intelligence but now somewhat in eclipse, Weston has absorbed a certain amount of Saud ideology. He begins with a long account of the Prophet and the early caliphate, to show that the al-Saud are the direct inheritors of the first Muslims. As the Saudi kingdom was not founded until 1932, you can believe that or not. Best not.

Weston moves on to the first Saudi state (1744-1818), when the al-Saud of the time allied with a fierce and radical preacher called Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. That state came up against the reality of Ottoman power and was destroyed. What survived was the fundamentalist "Wahhabi" ideology, embodied in the descendants of Abdul Wahhab, known as the al-Sheikh ("the sheikh's folks") and a certain geopolitical caution. Abdul Aziz never provoked the British, and was not overly distressed when British aircraft and armoured cars helped break his rebellious tribesmen in the 1920s. Unlike Bin Laden, who chose to fight a superpower, the al-Saud are politicians.

Of the founder of the second state, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, we know a very great deal, and not just from his Boswell - Harry St John Philby (father of Kim) - but also from a host of other admirers, British and Arab. His family life can be studied in obstetric detail. Weston adds nothing to this twice-told tale. Of the age of Saud, Faisal and Khaled, he also has little new to say and relies on the two standard British accounts, both of which came out in 1981: Robert Lacey's The Kingdom and The House of Saud by David Holden and Richard Johns. Having no Arabic, Weston has not seen recent Arab writing on such critical events as the November 1979 siege of Mecca.

The book is never not serviceable and intelligent, but in truth it only comes alive in the new century, with Weston's stay in Riyadh as a visiting scholar at Prince Turki's King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in 2004. His account of the wave of bombings that spring and summer, when the al-Saud finally woke up to the threat from the Bin Ladenites, is particularly interesting.

For King Abdullah, the Emperor Claudius of this story, Weston has boundless admiration, both for his commitment to reform and his good judgement in carrying it out. Squeezed between the constitutionalists on his left and the conservatives, fanatics and Bin Ladenites on his right, Abdullah must take care. He must also manage the succession into the third generation - that is, the rise of the grandsons of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. With a barrel of Arabian Light now above $100, Abdullah has some breathing space.

Unusually for a book of this sort, Weston has both talked and listened to Saudi women. One of his sources tells him that she would much rather see reforms to the one-sided divorce law, which deprives divorcees of their children, than be allowed to drive a car. (Actually, the shah reformed the Iranian divorce law, and look what happened to him.) Weston rightly stresses the powerful effect on public opinion of the 11 March 2002 Mecca girls' school fire, in which 15 students were trampled to death because the mutawwa'in ("volunteers", or religious police) would not let firemen in while the girls were unveiled. There are also excellent accounts of the liberalisation of the press, the purging of school textbooks of some of their xenophobic and anti-Semitic material, and of the making of the satirical television series Tash ma Tash.

Weston's conclusion is one that is widespread in Saudi business and progressive royal circles: that Abdullah should reform the economy, and the politics and religion will sort themselves out. By taking Saudi Arabia into the World Trade Organisation in 2005, the king has committed the al-Saud to a more open economy, which might discourage the princely graft and commission-gouging of the last oil bonanza of the 1970s.

The al-Saud are in a race to create an economy independent of oil. When pressure falls in the oilfields and the wells run dry or fill with water, 30 million people cannot go back to herding camels, fleecing pilgrims and stoning adulteresses as in the 18th-century Saudi state. The desert will not even support one million. That is the challenge to the al-Saud, compared to which Bin Laden is a mere inconvenience.

James Buchan is a former Jeddah correspondent of the Financial Times. His latest novel, "The Gate of Air", has just been published by Quercus