At the beginning of Mr. Lacey's monumental work he relates a conversation he had with a Georgetown educated member of the House of Saud: "I have lived in the Kingdom over 30 years, yet if I was to put down on paper how my family and this country worked, I would be lucky if I got a B+ mark. You have spent four years with us. The best you can hope for is a C." Lacey clearly did his homework, as the large bibliography indicates. Moreover, he actually lived in the Kingdom, unlike so many "Saudi experts." And while there, he conducted numerous interviews with key individuals, who entrusted him with versions of historical reality not often seen in other works. He mastered his source materials, and wrote an immensely readable history of the Kingdom until the ascension of King Fahd to the throne in 1982.
A full 40% of the book relates to events prior to the actual proclamation of the Kingdom in 1932. This portion covers the ancient political alliance of the Al-Saud's with the conservative preacher, Abdul Wahab, and his family. Also, Ibrahim Pasha's 1819 destruction of Diriyah, the Saud's home village, for defying the sultan-caliph in Constantinople. But the main thrust of this section is the exile, and return of the Al Saud family in the late 1800's, culminating in the capture of the fort in Riyadh from the Al Rashed clan in January, 1902. Thereafter is a 25 year consolidation of power for the Al Saud's over most of "Al Jazeera," the peninsula. The first significant conflict was at Dilam, when Abdul Aziz only had enough ammunition for one mighty fusillade. After taking Al Hasa in 1913, he made a fateful alliance with the Ikhwan, "the Brotherhood," of fanatical conservatives who were indomitable in battle. This alliance was key to the conquest of the rest of what would become the Kingdom, including the ouster of the Hashemites from the Hijaz. Alliances are also broken, often after success, and at the end of the 20's, Abdul Aziz used some modern British weaponry to eliminate his former allies at Sabillah. Lacey says that the "big man" version of history is now passé, with the historical schools which emphasis social forces and the common man, yet he clearly credits the drive and energy of Abdul Aziz for accomplishing something never done before: the unification of most of the Arabian peninsula.
Not long after the Kingdom's formation, "black gold," the oil for which the country is now famous, was discovered in the Eastern province. The principals involved in the oil exploration are covered well in a couple of chapters, as is the impact of the subsequent wealth on what was one of the poorer countries of the world. Less well remembered, at least in the West, was the conflict between Nasser of Egypt, and the Al Sauds, with the former proclaiming that "To liberate all Jerusalem, the Arab people must first liberate Riyadh." The two sides supported the opposing parties in the Yemen Civil War in the early `60's, and only the intervention of the American Air Force prevented Egypt from bombing the Kingdom. Lacey also covered the weak, sorry rule of Abdul Aziz's first successor, Saud, and his eventual replacement with Faisal. The later was a true leader who tried to edge the Kingdom into modernization, while retaining traditional values, but eventually paid with his life for his efforts, assassinated in 1975 by a deranged nephew over the events associated with the introduction of television. The Kingdom's place in the larger world is also addressed, from inter-Arab conflicts, to the creation of the State of Israel, to the formation of OPEC. From the perspective of a quarter century, there is dissonance in Lacey assigning a full chapter's worth of importance to the movie "A Death of a Princess," an arms wheeler-dealer, Mr. Khashoggi, and the taking of the mosque in Mecca, in 1979, by the "expected Mahdi." It was only the later that had truly lasting importance, since the Al Saud's had to tact to the more conservative social side, thwarting social reforms.
Lacey tells his story well, and has a charming habit of illustrating points via "tales," identified as such, much like the Saudis themselves do. At the book's end, he wisely eschews predictions as to the future direction of the country. He does make the wise point: "Westerners assume that life in the Kingdom will, one day, be very much like life everywhere else. No Saudi will accept that assumption." (p517). The book contains some excellent historical pictures, as well as vital maps to further the reader's understanding.
Quibbles? He did make one prediction that turned out not to be true. He said that an Arab country would have the A-Bomb before the end of the 20th Century. And one of his pictures is labeled as a village in the Asir, but it is clearly the conical huts of the Tihama.
Oil and Islam. They are in the headlines literally everyday in the West, as the "wolf finally came," with gas prices soaring, and war without end continuing. Lacey's book is essential for understanding one of the most important countries of the world today, for "they" understand us far better than "we" understand them.