Saudi Arabia is the homeland of the holiest sites in Islam and has remained a locus of the Islamic religious imagination. But it became a global power player in World War I, when Saudi Arabia and the West became full intertwined, and vast reserves of oil were discovered that made the former a major power broker in global energy affairs.

A little Saudi history: The myth of Lawrence of Arabia


T. E. Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, had an enormous impact on Western conceptions of the Arab world. He even advised Winston Churchill in drawing up what became the map of the modern Middle East at the Cairo Conference of 1921. But he was never the great benefactor and liberator of the Arab peoples his admirers made him out to be. He was a potentially talented archaeologist, a writer and self-dramatizer of extraordinary genius, and a wildly unstable individual with a bewildering variety of highly entertaining fetishes. He was, however, far from the prophet of the Arab Awakening he imagined himself to be, and he was a military genius only in his own dreams.

In his wonderful book Seven Pillars of Wisdom (best read as a highly colored work of pure fiction) Lawrence presents the Arab revolt in the desert as a national uprising ignored by the pedantic British authorities in Cairo but fanned by him. In his telling, it was the crucial episode of World War I in the Middle East, destroying all Ottoman power throughout the Arabian peninsula.

In reality, the revolt was made possible only by enormous British subsidies and bribes paid to the Hashemite family, led by Sherif Hussein, who was the hereditary guardian of the Muslim holy places in Mecca. But Sherif Hussein was despised and distrusted by the general population of the Hejaz, the Red Sea coast region of Arabia, and his writ never ran inside the desert vastness of the Arabian peninsula, where the dynamic young Abdulaziz ibn Saud was then already master of all he surveyed. The tribesmen Lawrence was able to bribe or buy, who agreed to work with him on behalf of the sherif and his sons, did carry out their famous raid on Aqaba. But this was a tiny sideshow militarily irrelevant to the huge clash of the British and Ottoman imperial armies of more than 70,000 men each in the 1917–1918 battles for Palestine.

In 1920, at the urging of British political officials, British military commanders quietly withdrew their forces from the Syrian capital of Damascus, in order to clear the way for its fictional liberation by Hashemite Arab forces. This was a clumsy attempt to undermine the French authorities from occupying Syria in accord with their previous agreements with Britain, and to foster the myth that the British were the champions of Arab nationalism while the French were its cruel enemies. The French treated the British ploy with contempt. A Pan-Arab congress did meet in Damascus in 1920 until the occupying French expelled it. Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, did more than any other single person to establish the myth that the British had evicted the Ottomans (thanks to the Arabs) and had then betrayed the nationalist movement they launched. This interpretation was eagerly adopted by generations of British anti-colonial intellectuals and was a leitmotif of the Royal Institute for International Affairs at Chatham House in London for around half a century, creating what the late historian Elie Kedourie called in a famous essay “The Chatham House Version” of modern Middle Eastern history.

In reality, Arab nationalism grew in the great cities of Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus, and it was fueled by a perfectly understandable and straightforward resentment of British and French occupation of the great territories of Egypt and what became modern Syria and Iraq. Far from being a visionary prophet for the Arabs, Lawrence was a classic example of an alienated young adventurer who projected his own fantasies onto a foreign people he did not understand and who understandably had little time for him. He had zero effect on the history and growth of Arab nationalism.

Everything he did, for the most bizarre and selfish reasons, seemed to feed his legend. He abandoned his fame to serve as a humble airman in the British Royal Air Force under an assumed name. He got uneducated young airmen to whip him and to otherwise physically abuse him. He even had them write reports about his reactions to being tortured so that he could read them afterward. He was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935. Given the way he rode his bike at high speed through the narrow English country lanes, the only surprise was it had not happened years earlier. Needless to say, conspiracy theories eventually swirled around his demise. Had he lived, he might well have wrought more mischief and chaos with the schemes he would have whispered into Churchill’s ear during World War II. In the 1960s, a superb movie starring Peter O’Toole revived Lawrence’s allure. O’Toole was tall, amazingly handsome, and irresistible to the ladies. Lawrence was none of those things. He was short, coyly intellectual-looking with a large nose in an oval face, and found the female form repulsive. His enduring reputation confirms the idea that old legends, like old soldiers, never die. But unlike old soldiers, legends like Lawrence’s don’t fade away; they just come back with more allure and fantasy than ever.

The Arab revolt that worked

The real Arab revolt was led by Abdulaziz ibn Saud. The contrasts between Ibn Saud and Lawrence, and with Lawrence’s icons Sherif Hussein of Mecca and his younger son Faisal, were profound. Ibn Saud was a real prince, a man of action and a warrior hero. With his family he fled Riyadh and went into exile when he was only a teenager. In the Arabian heartland, he showed political as well as military genius in merging his loyal Bedouin tribes with the Wahhabi purists of the Islamic faith. He led what amounted to both an Arab nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist restoration movement. Its austerity, integrity, and sense of justice made it popular, and by 1914 he was the master of the Arabian heartland, a desert almost as large as India.


During World War I, Ibn Saud prudently steered clear of both the British and the Ottomans. He did not like or trust the secular Young Turk radicals who had seized control of the great empire in 1908, and though advised and subsidized by the British, he took his own course. In the 1920s, he completed his conquest of Arabia by sending his forces to capture the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina. Mecca and Medina were run by Sherif Hussein, the British idol Sir Henry McMahon and Sir Ronald Storrs had so ardently wooed in their infamous and bungled 1915 McMahon-Hussein letters. And Lawrence and Gertrude Bell had worked so hard and so well to present Hussein’s son Faisal as a great warriorprince and statesman to David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.

But in reality, Sherif Hussein was despised and resented as a repressive, greedy bumbler by his long-suffering subjects. Not only could the Hashemites not set the Arab Muslim world aflame against the Ottomans, but they could not even protect their own backyard. Sherif Hussein was sent packing by Ibn Saud in 1925 as his former subjects eagerly celebrated not their conquest but their liberation. By then, Churchill, at Lawrence and Bell’s urging, had created the kingdom of Iraq just for Hussein’s son Faisal. It did not prove to be a happy or wise decision. Meanwhile, the real power in Arabia was Ibn Saud’s.

The founding father

Ibn Saud built the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and unified its tribes through the imposition of puritanical Wahhabi Islam as a reaction to the allegedly cosmopolitan, corrupt, and decaying Ottoman caliphate in Constantinople. But it is a wild distortion to argue that traditional Saudi Wahhabism is equivalent to the Islamic radicalism that swept the Muslim world in the 1980s. The source of that later radicalism was Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran. Both Ibn Saud’s Wahhabist revolt and Khomeini’s Shiite revolt can be seen as the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation, but the latter was far more radical than the former.

Ibn Saud sat out both world wars but never showed the partiality for the Nazis that other Arab leaders (like Haj Amin al-Husseini, the commanders of the British-trained Iraqi army, and even Anwar Sadat) notoriously did. And he was implacable in his hatred of Communism as a diabolical revolutionary force. He felt the same way about Zionism, for that matter. But he was also throughout his life a great and appreciative friend of the United States. He loathed Jews, but he was appalled and disgusted by the Holocaust.

Ibn Saud built his kingdom not by destroying old values and ways but by restoring and cherishing them. He was the exemplar of a classic Bedouin sheikh. Many of the (true) stories told about him would fit characters like Jethro and Abraham in the Bible, or the first generation of Arab leaders after Muhammad. Unlike Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Ibn Saud never tried to destabilize or subvert neighboring nations. Western styles of parliamentary democracy were alien and ludicrous to him, but he carefully practiced the traditional desert Arab forms of mediation and consultation within his tribe and society. It is because his sons all have continued that practice over the five and a half decades since his death that Saudi Arabia, against so many predictions of doom to the contrary, has remained as stable and successful as it has.

King Faisal and the oil weapon

Faisal ibn Abdulaziz became king of Saudi Arabia in 1964. His ascent to the throne had not been ensured—except by his talent. He was one of Ibn Saud’s older sons, but not the heir apparent in the line of succession. But it was clear long before the death of his father in 1952 that he was the old man’s favorite. At Lake Success in 1947, the young Prince Faisal had led the Arab nations’ fierce opposition to the UN’s partition plan to create the State of Israel. Of all the desert kingdom’s rulers over the next sixty years, he would prove by far the most implacable in his opposition to the very existence of the Jewish state.


But when Faisal came to power, Saudi Arabia appeared to be in trouble. His useless brother King Saud ibn Abdulaziz had squandered the kingdom’s growing oil revenues while letting the consortium of U.S. oil companies in Aramco enjoy a free hand. Saudi Arabia appeared under threat from revolutionary Communist and Arab socialist subversion. The charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser was riding high across the entire region after defying the British and the French in 1956. Conservative monarchies seemed to be toppling across the Middle East. Revolutionary regimes that wanted to overthrow the Saudi monarchy now existed on the country’s northern and eastern borders. The Iraqi monarchy had been mercilessly massacred by a military coup in 1958. Nasser was making Egypt the region’s military mini-superpower with Soviet weapons, and Syria was its ally. Faisal, devoutly Muslim and passionately loyal to the desert traditions of his Bedouin people and to the memory of his late father, seemed a ridiculous anachronism in the modern Arab world. Instead, he was about to transform it in his image.

Characters like Faisal’s ousted brother King Saud, the obese playboy King Farouk of Egypt, and King Faisal I of Iraq, the darling of T. E. Lawrence, Churchill, and Gertrude Bell, had led many Westerners and Communists to assume all hereditary Arab monarchs could be written off as weak and decadent. But the religiously devout Faisal was not. He was a quiet, methodical, and even shy workaholic who set about cleaning up the wrecked finances of his country and studying the terms of its relationship with the American oil companies. He was not given to grandiose, empty speeches like Nasser. He hated Communism with at least as much passion as he did Zionism. He proved a formidable enemy to both.

Faisal realized that the Hashemite line no longer posed any threat to oil-rich Saudi Arabia. The Hashemite royal house had been extinguished in Iraq, and King Hussein’s Jordan was too small to worry about. Indeed, Faisal realized the advantage of keeping Jordan in King Hussein’s cautious and responsible hands. That way Faisal could support Yasser Arafat and his young PLO against Israel, but also use Jordan as a buffer, preventing it from being another revolutionary bridgehead like Iraq, Syria, and Egypt.

Faisal was helped by world events. In 1967—the same epochal year that Israel smashed Nasser’s dreams and conquered the West Bank, Gaza, and the holy city of Jerusalem—the great oil reserves of Texas started to fall short. Faisal benefited from his vast experience as a diplomat serving his late father and as the most respected senior figure in the kingdom during the reign of his worthless brother. In return for richly funding the PLO in its guerrilla attacks against Israel and Israeli and Jewish targets around the world, he won immunity for his country from PLO troublemaking and subversion that afflicted Jordan and Lebanon. He authorized his oil ministers to start negotiating with Shah Reza Pahlavi, the autocratic dictator of Shiite Iran across the Persian Gulf, about coordinating their policies on fixing oil prices.

After the death of Nasser in 1970, Faisal found his successor, Anwar Sadat, a welcome change. Sadat did not have Nasser’s grandiose ambitions to wreak revolution and havoc throughout the Arab world. Like Faisal, he was ready to work cooperatively with the Americans and was anti-Soviet. And he offered the only realistic Arab military option against Israel. The two men created a new Saudi-Egyptian axis that remains a key factor for stability in the Arab world today.

In 1973, when Sadat threw 80,000 Egyptian soldiers against Israel’s hollow shell of a defensive line on the east side of the Suez Canal, Faisal struck too. Over the following weeks, to the shock and then horror of the world, Saudi Arabia and Iran led Iraq, Indonesia, Venezuela, and the other main oil- producing nations in arbitrarily raising the price of oil. In a few months, they had quadrupled it. Britain and France had fully withdrawn from the Middle East. The United States was exhausted and demoralized from the war in Vietnam.

None of the major Western powers had either the military clout or the nerve to try to move against the key oil-producing nations, either by invasion or by fomenting a coup. Besides, Saudi Arabia and Iran were— supposedly—the United States’ main allies in the region. Nixon and Henry Kissinger had eagerly built up the shah of Iran as their regional policeman to keep the Soviets and Arab revolutionary regimes out of the Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields. The Saudis, however, had rightly judged that the shah was an unstable and unpredictable megalomaniac whom the Americans could not trust, and Faisal offered the shah a deal he couldn’t refuse: vastly increased oil revenues. The “oil weapon” was born.

Faisal did not hesitate to use it on a global scale. Threatened with the big stick of soaring oil prices, or having crucial oil supplies withheld, dozens of nations ended their diplomatic relations with Israel. Third World countries expelled Israeli development teams who were part of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s fatuous attempt to make Israel the leader of a new Third World power bloc. As the African nations fell obediently in line behind the Saudis, the United Nations was transformed overnight into a relentless global megaphone of rejection and hate against Israel and the United States. Faisal made no secret of his dark side. He was not just implacably anti-Zionist and devoted to the annihilation of Israel, but equally anti-Semitic.


He believed the ancient, long-discredited “blood libel” that Jews killed Muslim and Christian children and used their blood to bake Passover matzos. He believed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the forged Jewish plot to conquer the world concocted by the Okhrana, the czarist Russian secret police. Hitler had used the Protocols as one of his justifications for the Holocaust, and historian Norman Cohn rightly called it a “warrant for genocide.” Faisal enthusiastically gave copies of it to his visitors as gifts. Faisal was, as it turned out, far ahead of his time in championing a revived pan-Arab movement based on religious extremism. He dramatically stepped up funding of madrassas, Islamic religious schools, across the Islamic world. He was not typical of his successors, but he set Saudi policy along fateful paths that his successors did not dare to change.

There is no telling how much further Faisal might have gone. Would he have made common cause with Ronald Reagan to bring the Soviet Union down, as his successors did? He might have—or he might have refused because of Reagan’s strong support for Israel. He might well have made common cause instead with Ayatollah Khomeini after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The prospect of Saudi Arabia and Iran united in implacable opposition to the United States and Israel could have transformed the world in the early 1980s, and not for the better. But on March 25, 1975, at a majlis, a traditional gathering of Saudi royals, where even the most obscure and junior members were granted access and allowed to present their grievances and concerns, King Faisal was shot dead. He fell victim not to a Communist, Nasserite, or extreme Islamist revolutionary, but to his own nephew, a mentally deranged drug addict who had hung out in California. The killer was convicted of regicide and beheaded three months later.

Saudi Arabia’s three threats

King Faisal was followed by King Khaled (1975–1982), King Fahd (1982–2005), and King Abdullah (acting as crown prince and regent, 1995–2005). During these years, Saudi Arabia regarded the three greatest threats to its existence as a revolutionary Iran, an aggressive or unstable Iraq, and Islamic radicalism. Saudi attitudes toward Iran had fluctuated wildly since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, finally culminating in fear of the radical Shiites, which pushed the kingdom into the arms of Ronald Reagan. Like the United States, the Saudis under King Fahd financed Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran until 1988. When, however, Saddam swallowed Kuwait in July 1990, the terrified Saudi leaders realized they could very easily be next.

Relations with the United States became even closer, and Saudi Arabia became the marshalling yard for the U.S-led 700,000 strong allied army—the greatest ever gathered in the Middle East—that smashed Saddam’s military power in the 1991 Gulf War. Relations with the United States slowly deteriorated during the Clinton years, however. It didn’t help when cautious and tactful Warren Christopher was replaced as secretary of state in Clinton’s second term by in-yourface, pro-democracy Madeleine Albright.

Also, King Fahd was slowly dying, and by the late 1990s, effective power in the kingdom had passed to his brother Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz. While cautiously pro-American, Abdullah was much more traditional and incorruptible than Fahd. He lost confidence in Clinton and Albright and was concerned about the financial effect of plummeting global oil prices on the kingdom’s fiscal stability. He also noted that Iran had elected its most moderate leader since before the 1979 revolution, Mohammad Khatami. So in 1999 Saudi Abdullah concluded an oil production limiting and price-control agreement with Iran. The two giants quickly showed they still had the clout within OPEC, given the right circumstances, to make a difference. Over the next four years, oil prices trebled from around ten dollars a barrel to more than thirty. It seemed like a lot of money at the time. President Khatami served two terms in power, but his successor in 2005 was a very different kind of man. King Abdullah met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, according to Saudi sources, quickly became alarmed at how irrational and unpredictable he could be. It was a good argument for stabilizing relations with the United States.

Unfortunately for the Saudis, from their point of view, the United States wasn’t acting cautiously or responsibly in the Middle East either, after the 2003 Iraq War and the ousting of Saddam Hussein. They were privately happy to see Saddam gone, but they knew from firsthand experience that Western liberal democracy doesn’t work in their part of the world. The Saudis were also very wary of Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite feud spilling into their own country. Popular opinion among Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia was strongly engaged on the side of the Sunnis in Iraq. But oil-rich Dhahran is home to many Shiites, perhaps even a majority. The Saudis responded by building a massive, costly security barrier on their northern border.

The Saudis had an even more immediate concern. By 2006, the U.S. military was noting an increasing number of young Saudis active in theSunni insurgency in Iraq, particularly in the ranks of the suicide bombers. This identification was predictable, but it frightened the Saudis. Saudi support for the anti-Communist mujahedin in Afghanistan had produced bin Laden, al Qaeda, September 11, and the 2003 bombings in Saudi Arabia. The Iraq civil war threatened to produce a far larger number of radicalized Saudis committed to toppling their own government. So the Saudis cracked down on the radical religious teachers within their own borders. While trying to seal their northern borders, they also tried to seal their southern border with Yemen, whence an estimated 400,000 people a year were trekking north for a better life. The Saudis, suspecting radical elements in impoverished Yemen were infiltrating their kingdom, acted to shut them down by building another security fence.


The Saudi monarchy will always have its own national interests, but the interests of a conservative monarchy are much more likely to align in the future, as they have in the past, with America’s desire for a stable, non-Communist, non-radical Middle East. And if we will take the Saudis’ advice, conservative, tradition-minded monarchies are a better bet for the future of a pro-Western Middle East than are Islamic democracies and the Islamists they might elect.

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