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robert lacey

A British journalist, Robert Lacey lived in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s and wrote about the country and its rulers in his 1982 best-seller, The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud, which was banned in the kingdom. Here, he offers a lively chronicle of the Al Saud dynasty from 1900 to the present, highlighting the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of its various kings, their continuing adjustments to the religious establishment, and the internal politics of the Saudi royal family. While he discusses the growth of fanaticism and other forces that threaten to tear the kingdom apart, Lacey says he is an optimist about the House of Saud's future: "I see [them] morphing and reinventing themselves as a constitutional figurehead. … They're realists … survivors; they know how to reinvent themselves. The ones I've spoken to know that the old days of authority, owning the country as if it's a personal possession, are long gone."This interview was conducted by producer Chris Durrance on Dec. 21, 2004, in London.

Tell me more about the Ikhwan, the Muslim zealots who were such a power in the early decades of the 20th century, and where they originated.

The first Western reference we have to the Ikhwan, the brotherhood, comes from Capt. [William Henry] Shakespear, who was one of the early British explorers in Arabia, who, [when] going from Kuwait towards Riyadh, went near a settlement called Al Artawiyah, which is where these zealots had settled. They'd found it uninhabited, and they'd created a little holy city of their own.

He just noted it in his log and gave it a very wide berth, because he'd already heard that these people were fiercely anti-Western, and it just wasn't safe for a Westerner to go near. Later, Abd al-Aziz's great British mate, Harry St. John Philby -- father of the British double-agent Kim Philby --who became a Muslim and dressed like a Muslim, who fancied himself as being really integrated into Arabia, he wouldn't go near Al Artawiyah. The closest he would go was three miles away, looking at it through binoculars.

For them to kill a foreigner might well guarantee their place in heaven. So right from the very beginning, this power that was driving the House of Saud forward and giving it control of Arabia was at its very roots anti-Western and dangerous to the West.

So what did they stand for?

photo of lacey
Basically, they are a successful ruling family  very, very good at hanging onto power and should not be underrated in their cleverness, ruthlessness, and in their sheer ability to hang on.

They stood for purity as they interpreted it. They saw themselves as deliberate imitators of the prophet Muhammad. They wore their robes short, because somewhere in the traditions of the prophet, he had said you mustn't let your robes brush the ground. They didn't wear the rather fine over-robes with gold thread, because that was a mark of personal vanity.

The sort of inconsistency in their beliefs were in their facial hair, which of course is very much a symbol of the extreme Wahhabis. The prophet said you shouldn't be vain about your hair, and you shouldn't have a big, flowing moustache. On the other hand, you shouldn't trim your beard. And so they developed this beard style whereby they'd trim the upper lip, but they didn't trim the beard. As a Westerner ... one would say that the very attention they paid to this contradicted the lack of vanity they were supposed to be espousing.

In all the time I lived in Saudi Arabia, I never met a serious Wahhabi priest; I tried very hard. I was able to meet the king and the crown prince and important members of the royal family and the intelligence staff and all sorts of people. But when it came to the real establishment of Saudi Arabia -- and that's the religious establishment -- they just weren't interested. I've interviewed many ambassadors who have served in Saudi Arabia, and they will boast of the members of the royal family they've spoken to. But the ulama, the holy men, they're totally inaccessible, ... impervious to the West and deeply mistrustful of it.

| Read an analysis of Wahhabism by Muslim scholars and experts from FRONTLINE's report "Saudi Time Bomb?" (2001)

How does Abd al-Aziz bin Saud, a great-grandson of the original founder of the kingdom, how does his partnering with the Ikhwan in 1902 connect back to the first relationship, centuries earlier, between the Al Saud and Wahhabism?

Right from the very beginning, going back two or three centuries, there was this holy alliance between the Saud family and the founder of what we call Wahhabism, although, in fact, he was preaching in a very old, established and austere Islamic tradition.

The deal was that the Al Saud would endorse this form of Islam, and in return, they would get authenticity. It's very much the same sort of bargain that the Christian missionaries struck as they went across what we call Anglo-Saxon England. What the Wahhabi preachers had to offer was more appealing than the existing paganism. There was social cohesion; there was discipline. It was part of the state-building process for these two things to be linked.

Help me set the scene, if you can, of the first major meeting with the Americans when King Abd al-Aziz met with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945.

The episode the Saudis always like to tell about Abd al-Aziz meeting FDR towards the end of the Second World War is when the American president started explaining American policy in the new postwar world and this Jewish force in Palestine and how he and the American public felt that the Jews had suffered so much during World War II, it was only fair that they should have some land of their own.

And Abd al-Aziz is said to have said that he quite agreed with that -- it was disgraceful the way the Jews had been treated by Hitler, but why should they be given Arab land as compensation? Surely they should be given a big chunk of Germany?

And as the Saudis tell it, FDR didn't really know what to say to that.

What was the agreement reached between the two?

As Saudi Arabia became more aware of itself, and right at the end of the '30s and in World War II, when they began to appreciate the power that their oil gave them, you start to hear in the newspapers talk of the Saudis coming to the help of their Arab brethren in Palestine, and there's talk at a surprisingly early date about an oil embargo. We're talking the 1940s here. But it never quite happens. The oil weapon isn't used. At the end of the day, it's those oil revenues that the Saudis want for themselves as a royal family, but also for developing the kingdom.

King Abd al-Aziz dies, and his son King [Saud], his oldest surviving son, I believe, takes over. Help us understand his contributions and who he was.

Saud bin Abd al-Aziz was the moon-faced, shortsighted, bespectacled son of the old founder of Saudi Arabia, who'd always been his father's protégé but had never quite lived up to everything that his father had. He didn't really have his father's ruthlessness, [but] he had his father's generosity, the ability to bribe and know who to pay off, which remains a very important part of Saudi power. But he was personally indulgent.

Whereas Abd al-Aziz had had lots of wives and had used the marriage bed to create this vast political party out of the different tribes of Saudi Arabia, his son Saud seemed just to have lots of wives for pleasure, no particular strategy.

And all the time there was this younger brother, Faisal, who was by far the more determined and applied and austere character, who, to his credit, tried to stay loyal to the brother. But as the family really broke up over what was going wrong in the country, ... one saw there a very interesting example of the old Bedouin way of the tribe choosing their leader and, when necessary, deposing their leader in order to find someone who can really find the way ahead.

When I was living in Riyadh in the late '70s, there were remarkable, concrete, physical tributes to Saud bin Abd al-Aziz's modernization. The first ministries down the central street, they were all built in a line in Saud's time. The schools, all this started with him. But it was in such an uncontrolled way. Somebody said to me that he was like a cushion who bore the imprint of the last person who'd sat upon him. It was a rather crude and disrespectful analogy for the fact that he was soft and that if you're going to be a ruler in Arabia, you've got to be tough; you've got to be like a hawk; you've got to be like a falcon. That's what gets respect. Saud's generosity went so far, but he wasn't tough enough.

In terms of King Saud's legacy, is it right to describe him as inconsequential and ineffectual?

I think Saud can best be understood in the context of history as being only half the package -- generous, well meaning, but also very self-indulgent. When one, as a Westerner today, gets infuriated with Saudi procrastination and Saudi self-indulgence, that's what he had to the exclusion of everything else. And his half-brother Faisal had the toughness and the genuine religious commitment and austerity and vision that the country needed to come into the 20th century.

How important was the decision to depose King Saud?

The family decision to depose Saud in the 1960s was really more of a turning point than the death of Abd al-Aziz in 1953, because it was finally coming into the modern world, but also proving that the desert democracy of sitting round the campfire and the family picking the toughest man for the job could work in the 20th century. The speed with which the change was actually accomplished and the new direction that the country took, that, I think, was the decisive turning point in the domestic history of Saudi Arabia in the middle of the 20th century.

More important than the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque [al-Haram]?

The siege of the mosque in 1979 I think can be seen as one of a sequence of highly significant points of conflict between the Westernizing and the traditional aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. But when it comes to creating the modern state, I think that domestically, the removal of Saud and the putting in place of Faisal was crucial. In foreign policy terms, the oil embargo which Faisal 10 years later imposes and the enormous oil price explosion that goes with that, that's when Saudi Arabia externally enters the modern world, having 10 years earlier set in place the domestic changes that were necessary to make that possible.

So they move away from Abd al-Aziz's more personal form of doing business.

Faisal was a more austere character than his father. Not for him the enormous lunches that we see memorialized in these wonderful photographs ... like something out of The Arabian Nights. He was a much more businesslike character, in many ways not at all of the modern world. His ferocious hatred of the Jews and Israel was implacable; it's something that went beyond anti-Semitism. I mean, he, as his father's foreign minister, the major issue of all his years was trying to fight for the rights of the Palestinians in the Holy Land. He felt fiercely betrayed by the West in the support that they gave to Israel.

He was very old-fashioned in many ways, but he also had this modern vision. He sent his latest batch of sons to be educated in New Jersey. Now, that's a remarkable thing for a man who's saying his prayers five times a day.

| Read more about Saud, Faisal, and other descendents of King Abd al-Aziz in "The Royal Family Tree"

King Faisal was also facing the challenge of [Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser. Tell us a bit about Nasser's impact.

The rise of Nasser stands really for the rise of authoritarian military rulers across the Arab world in the wake of the first defeats at the hands of Israel, when the first of these defeats shocks the easy assumptions of superiority and military power that the Arabs have. And Nasser goes along with getting rid of the monarchy in Iraq. Really the Saudis, apart from the Moroccans, are the one traditional government that remains by the middle '60s, and Nasser is the figurehead for the new Arab authoritarian way, backed, of course, in those days by the Soviet Union.

And Nasser was tremendously popular in Saudi Arabia as well, wasn't he? ...

Nasser, an Arab leader who wears a suit, who doesn't wear a fez or a headdress and traditional costume, seems to embody the way ahead, the obvious Western way. And there are, in fact, a young group of princes who, dissatisfied with the rule of their older brother Saud, who actually go off to Egypt and join with him. The photographs of them to this day, rather embarrassingly for them nowadays, show them in Western suits.

It was the strength of Faisal to realize that you can go on wearing the headdress and maintaining the traditional way of life, and still incorporate Westernization and, in fact, beat and defeat the modernization that Nasser represented.

Back in that time, Saudi Arabia was also, as I understand it, a relatively open country in terms of particularly women's freedoms and so on.

I lived in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s. It was, for a Westerner, pretty idyllic. There were the religious police; there were the rules; there were the prayer times. But it was as if we were existing in two separate universes. The Westerners were just allowed to get on with their way of life. It was just accepted that they would brew their drink and behind their compound walls live in a Western way and the Saudis would live theirs.

I remember in the '70s, people talking about how much more relaxed it had been in the '50s and '60s, when the religious establishment had not felt threatened by these rather strange foreigners whose habits they despised.

The growth of fanaticism could be linked directly to the fear of what this ... way of life came to mean. Some of the early bomb outrages by Al Qaeda inside Saudi Arabia were not so much aimed at Western compounds, but at Western compounds which had Saudi tenants living the Western way of life. That was what could not be tolerated. As long as the Westerners were behind their walls and stayed there, that was all right.

Can you help us understand the craziness of the oil boom in Saudi Arabia?

I arrived in Saudi Arabia about five years after the oil boom had started, and it was just perfectly natural to see the most smart and respectable European businessmen sleeping in the lobbies of hotels with their briefcases beside them. There weren't enough hotels for them, but they were prepared to put up with almost any hardship to get their fingers in this extraordinary pie of construction and profit. Schools, hospitals, airports, whatever you take for granted in the West, all had to be constructed, and in record time. If you were a financier, or if you had labor to produce, if you had medical services, there was just money to be made there.

So just enormous changes in an incredibly short amount of time?

I remember coming in to land in Saudi Arabia in those days and looking out at this absolute blackness of the desert, and then seeing the city ahead, and in between the city and the blackness were these little pools of blue light in the desert. I wondered what they could be. When I landed and lived there for a bit, I discovered it was families who'd driven out of the cities, and they had their little portable televisions that they were watching out in the desert. They were fleeing, as it were, this Westernization towards the desert. But they couldn't let go of the telly and [this] link to the modern world that was really transforming their lives.

What happened at the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979?

I remember I was trying to see Prince Sultan, the defense minister. I was in Riyadh. I had a sort of appointment ... and I couldn't get in. No one would talk. I tried to phone my wife down in Jeddah, and there was no answer; the phone lines had been cut off. I tried the telex, and that was cut off. One had this sense of isolation.

I just went to the airport and queued to get on a plane home. No one knew what was going on until I got back to Jeddah and our Bedouin driver came and told us and said that there were these extremists, these wild men with beards who'd seized the Grand Mosque, and that he would leave us now for a few weeks. He was going down with his rifle to help the king.

There were several days of blackout, and then suddenly, clearly, the [Saud] family decided, "We want to share this; it's a good idea to share this with the world," and then we sort of saw [it] on television. I remember the end of it, this roll of death sentences and the photographs of those who were being executed being sent to their hometowns to be executed in public and this ... great roll of dishonor scrolling down the televisions screens.

At the time, I was writing my chapters about the Ikhwan in the 1920s. I thought, well, how ironic this is; it's a throwback to the past. I must confess that I didn't see it as any more than that. 9/11, however, showed it was really an awful portent of what had been there all the time and what was waiting for the future.

It's very significant that the Grand Mosque was seized almost in the same month that Soviet Russia went into Afghanistan. It was, of course, the Soviet invasion and the Western response to it, with the help of the Saudis, that really created what we now refer to as Al Qaeda.

And what did the people who seized the Grand Mosque want?

I remember asking my Saudi friends, "Well, what do these people want?" And they said, "Well, they want to go back in time to a purer world, to an Islam that wasn't threatened by the West and where the words of the prophet, as they believe it today, ruled."

The seizure of the Grand Mosque was a very strong statement by what we must now acknowledge was a major part of Saudi society -- of distaste and disgust at what had happened in the last five or six years as a result of the oil price, the excess, the waste, the corruption, the threats to a way of life, with children no longer obeying their parents automatically, with women using their veils flirtatiously, with young people wearing jeans and sneakers. It was fear and anger expressed in violence and in a touching faith that somehow seizing the holiest place of Islam could make a difference and would trigger in true Muslims' hearts a rejection of the Western way that the government was following.

And the government's response in some ways was to give in to some of the demands of those people who seized the mosque?

I think the 20 years that followed the seizure of the mosque showed a lack of direction. In some ways, King Fahd, although a shrewd and to some degree quite ruthless man, had many of the faults of his brother Saud; an eagerness to please everybody; a belief that everything could be sorted out with the money, which still in the early years was pretty plentiful.

The bankruptcy of that, I think, was exposed, to start with, by the first Gulf War, [1990-1991] and Saudi Arabia's inability, after spending all this money, actually to cope with this military threat from Iraq themselves, and then of course in 9/11, when the extremism that had been nurtured rather indulgently came so disastrously to the fore.

How does one understand the exclusionary elements of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism, how it rejects so violently and vigorously those who don't believe the same things?

My own Western analysis of the exclusionary core of Wahhabism [is that] the gratuitous anti-Western, anti-Jewish aspects to the school curriculum, which are only recently getting changed, stem from fear, stem from an understandable apprehension that family values and a way of life are under severe threat, and the only solution is to go back to the principles of the old way. Fear generates anger, and fear generates violence, and those were part of what built the Saudi state. So you can understand why people with a knee-jerk reaction go back to them.

| Read extracts from Saudi religious textbooks from FRONTLINE's Nov. 2001 report, "Saudi Time Bomb?"

There aren't many outlets for young Saudis. There's no freedom of association; the freedom of the press is severely constrained.

It's a great challenge for the House of Saud. I feel like saying to them: "When you give these religious policemen their cars and the money they get and what [have you], and they go into the souk [the commercial quarter of a city] and break up young people meeting together, or perfectly respectable married couples because there are men and women together, where do you think your future lies? Do you think it lies with these bearded old men with their sticks, or do you think it lies with these ordinary working men and women who are trying their best to create a life for themselves?" I sometimes wonder whether the older members of the House of Saud really see that dichotomy.

There are stories of how Abd al-Aziz managed to persuade the Ikhwan that the telephone was a good thing by putting two preachers on either end, one in Riyadh and one on the coast, and getting them to say prayers to each other. Saudis tell you that sort of story rather frantically, as if to reassure themselves that the West and the extremists can be induced to get along together.

But Al Qaeda and the support that that sort of extremism still enjoys in the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia would indicate otherwise. When we use in the West the word "establishment," we think of a single power structure -- the military-industrial complex in America; the class system in Britain. I find it helpful to see the establishment in Saudi Arabia as being the religious establishment. And in a way, the royal family -- we think of the royal family as being all-powerful -- they have to cope with that establishment, and they are forever having to adjust what they do to that power, which is in a way greater than they are.

Can you give us an example of that?

An example of this is the power given to the religious police. They reflect, I think, what one has to call the establishment. ... Certainly the House of Saud feel they just can't brush them aside yet.

What was the impact of the Afghan war on Saudi Arabia?

The success of the Afghan war was a source of enormous pride to the Saudis because they felt that they themselves had done it, not just with money, but with the intensity of religious commitment, which had been injected into the struggle. They really felt, and I think there's a ... lot of evidence on their side to say, that this was crucial.

In the past, America had tried to do this sort of thing, and weapons and money alone weren't enough. We now know that for decades there'd been this unholy alliance, if you like, between Saudi Arabia and America in foreign policy, with the Saudis supplying ... men and money for the sort of things that came to the surface with Iran but which went right back to the '60s with Saudi and Arab money helping to fight the Cubans in Angola. And the Saudis never got any credit for this.

Now, in Afghanistan, they got the credit, and the world could see that their beliefs could push back one of the world's great superpowers. I think we can legitimately see [Osama] bin Laden picking [this] up, saying, "Well, if we can beat one superpower, we can beat another."

So what did he then go on to do?

Immediately following Afghanistan, bin Laden comes back to Saudi Arabia and is there for the crisis of the Gulf War. And after the triumph of Afghanistan, [Saudi Arabia] is faced with this humiliating situation, where after the billions of money that had been spent on defense systems and having Western soldiers in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia is powerless.

[Bin Laden] goes to his contacts in the royal family and offers his own services and is rejected rather contemptuously. I think we can see that as a turning point. He'd always theoretically been opposed to the House of Saud. And we mustn't exaggerate bin Laden as from what one knows. It's only in retrospect that he becomes the great hero of ... Afghanistan. He wasn't that at the time; he was a paymaster. He was sort of laughed at by some of the people I've spoken to as this rich Saudi trying to get in on the campaign.

But when he gets back to Saudi Arabia, he does become a very powerful voice, and the softness of the Fahd years really becomes exposed. I think members of the family themselves will admit their embarrassment at the way in which they had to turn so totally to the West.

And bin Laden is increasingly angry at the Saudi royal family.

Yes. There was this odd way in which the bin Laden family was sort of, well, a slightly pathetic mirror image of the royal family, with old bin Laden cultivating lots of wives and children just like his boss, ibn Saud, for whom he did his building, and, of course, even more so for Saud. It was really Saud who commissioned all the works that made the bin Ladens so, so wealthy. But then with young Osama comes the parting of the ways. He at least rejects what he sees as softness and decadence on the part of the royal patrons.

And he wants to get rid of them, absolutely ... overthrow the royal family?

There's no doubt at all, yes.

The target of his anger then becomes America. Why the shift?

America for Wahhabis is the great Satan. One has to identify, in a struggle, a single enemy if one's going to be effective. What could be clearer than America? People who have lived on the east coast of Arabia have seen the little houses, like suburban America, set down on the holy soil of Arabia.

When you see your fellow Muslims copying that sort of way of life, it's disturbing; ... it's uprooting. There are children smoking in front of their parents, listening to this decadent music, and there seems to be an answer in the Quran and going back to fundamentals. ... It's so easy, as it is with Christian religion if you look into the Book of Revelation, for example, to identify the devil. So it's pretty easy to fix on America as the modern Satan.

And what was the impact, from what you could gather from your Saudi friends, of 9/11?

The first reaction from my Saudi friends to 9/11 was denial. They made the point, which I think remains valid, that the actual ringleaders of the hijacking were not Saudis. The Saudis were there almost as sheep, as cannon fodder. That squares with the evidence to some degree that, at that stage, Saudis were the easiest Arabs to get into America without any visa troubles. But that still doesn't answer, of course, why 15, 16, young Saudis of surprisingly comfortable backgrounds should react in this knee-jerk anti-Western way to get involved with the plot.

Do you see those ideas as harking back to what the zealots at the Grand Mosque were doing in 1979 and harking back to the Ikhwan in the 1920s?

It's not fanciful to see those pilots and the young Saudis who flew into the World Trade Center as doing exactly the same thing as did the leader of the insurgents, Juhayman al-Utaybi, with his followers, going underground and fighting guerrilla warfare in the basement of the Grand Mosque, or the Ikhwan in the 1920s and '30s, riding onto the machine guns that Abd al-Aziz finally used to bring them down. It's the same quixotism; it's the same fanaticism, a direct line there of proudly resisting the march of history and sacrificing yourself to a higher cause.

What's the basis of the legitimacy of the House of Saud?

Historians and political theorists will learnedly explain how the legitimacy of the House of Saud comes from this ancient alliance with the Wahhabis, and there's truth to all of that. But basically, they are a successful ruling family.

What royal families are very good at doing is surviving and reinventing themselves. That's true whether it's a constitutional monarchy in Britain or an authoritarian monarchy. It's easy to make fun of the family systems and say, "Oh, we think we've outgrown this," but to have a family at the head of the state, it's curiously appealing. Look at America at the moment: son of Bush; the Kennedy dynasty. Even in a modern, sophisticated society, it's immensely appealing. That is the appeal that the Sauds have in their country. The fact [is] that they are very, very good at hanging onto power and should not be underrated in their cleverness, in their ruthlessness, and in their sheer ability to hang on.

What threats, what challenges do you think they face?

Looking into the future, it would be easy to identify terrorism as the greatest threat facing the House of Saud. But I think that's a mistake, just as it is a mistake for us in the West to feel that the terrorism threatens our way of life. It's an enormous red herring. What causes the terrorism -- the sense of injustice and dislocation coming from Westernization and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, as they see it, the grossly unfair Western support of their enemies in Israel -- that's a threat for the future. That is really the biggest black mark against the survival of the House of Saud.

I myself am very optimistic about the future. I see the Al Saud morphing and reinventing themselves as a constitutional figurehead. It's worked very well in Europe. I'm not just saying that because I am English and because of the success of the British royal family. People forget how many of the successful nations of Europe in the Common Market are constitutional monarchies, with this family retaining the best of tradition but in some way coming to terms with the reality of the modern world.

And also talking to younger members of the House of Saud, they don't want to hang onto power forever -- what's in it for them? It makes much more sense if they can share the burden, if the merchant classes can come in and if eventually, in some way, from the religious establishment, there can be some sort of accommodation whereby this increasingly modern ... state can go forward in a virtuous way, Islamically as well economically.

Participation presumably also means a reduction in their share of power and influence. Why give that up unless forced to?

The House of Saud are as greedy as anyone else on the planet, and they would like the maximum fair share they could get from their country's resources. They know that 100 percent of nothing is nothing and that the realities of the world mean that they'll have to settle for 50, 40, 30 percent of a country which is expanding enormously.

They're realists; they're survivors; they know how to reinvent themselves. The ones I've spoken to know that the old days of authority, owning the country as if it's a personal possession, are long gone.

| Read some opinions about the future of Saudi Arabia and the royal family.

And part of the reasons for that change is globalization, the influx of satellite TV and the Internet into people's homes in Saudi Arabia?

It's amazing when you're with a Saudi. You've almost always got a television there, just going all the time. ... It's a curious sort of dichotomy. But it is changing the way their brains are wired, and the survival of the House of Saud will be coming to terms with that rewiring that's going on in every Saudi's brain.

But hey, they're called Saudis, these people; they're called after this ruling family. It's the only country in the world named after its ruling family. While we might see that in the West as something medieval, I am always impressed by what a source of pride that is to the Saudis. This is one country that this family and this group of tribes created themselves, without the help of the West, or at least the help of the West on their own terms. That's something that goes right back into the past, and they seem pretty determined to keep going into the future as well.

So are we talking about bringing in some kind of Chinese model of reform?

The problem, when it comes to reform in Saudi Arabia, is that it is a Western word, and it's associated with Iraq and Israel, George Bush and America, and the imposition of outside values. So when you talk about social change, that's what gets conjured up.

Going for economic change is a much cleverer way of getting change accomplished; it has less potential to offend. What can be wrong with everybody becoming more prosperous and pursuing prosperity in a rational way? So ... one view of the future for Saudi Arabia is for the West to stand back and stop preaching about the sort of social change that should come about. Just let ... the Arab tradition of making money work economically, and then certain changes follow that automatically.

But in the past there has been an enormous growth in wealth in Saudi Arabia, and yet at the same time a growth in fanaticism which had made internal events in Saudi very much America's problem. Why would that change?

Terrorists and violence are by definition minorities. They have to resort to these extreme tactics because they can't accomplish them in any other way. It's very interesting that in a recent poll of Saudis, 49, 50 percent expressed appreciation or agreement with bin Laden's ideas. When these same people were asked, "OK, would you like bin Laden running the country? Would you like a second caliphate to come in Saudi Arabia?," only 4 percent said that they would actually like to live with the reality of what the terrorists are calling for. That, it seems, is the secret of the way ahead.

A British perspective on this is that we have seen in Northern Ireland the immense destructive power and ... the discouragement that can be caused by terrorism, but that at the end of the day, although the terrorists get their strength from a grievance which is held by quite a large number of people, if you can deal with the terrorists and also address the grievance in a rational way, then there is hope for progress, and the men of violence do in the end get marginalized.

America has a president at the moment who speaks in terms of good and bad, ... good and evil, and them and us, and you're either with us or against us. Where does Saudi Arabia fit into that? What kind of ally is Saudi Arabia ... for America?

Saudi Arabia doesn't fit very easily into a black and white world ... of clear distinction between good and evil. The very word Saudi itself can mean so many things to different people. You talk about the 15, 16 Saudis of 9/11, and that in some way discredits the Saudis who are running the country and who are as much victims and opponents of Al Qaeda as America itself.

Living with Saudi Arabia, for the West, is a matter of living with uncertainty and not getting automatically what you want. When you look at Saudi elections and you see no women are voting, and no women candidates are allowed to stand, and only 10 percent or 20 percent of the seats are open to election, there's no point in throwing up your hands at that. Look at it positively. It is the first election ever being held in this country. Once it wasn't possible to put "Saudi Arabia" and "elections" into the same sentence.

You've got to create an election culture in a country like this; you've got to get people used to voting, and given the way in which ... women have been seen for centuries, you can't achieve that overnight. It's certainly a better way of achieving an election culture in most people's opinion that sending an army of 150,000 in with guns and forcing people to the ballot box. It would be interesting to see which way is more rooted and actually develops out of the culture from which it from it's springing.

Forty years ago, the young princes, Talal and his brothers, were calling for a constitution, calling for political reforms. What we've got now is a far feebler version of that. It seems to have gone backwards.

Forty years ago, Prince Talal and the young princes went to Egypt and called boldly for constitutional reform in Saudi Arabia, a constitutional monarchy, and their half-brother Faisal wouldn't give it to them. But what he was introducing at that time was television, was education for women, was ... a more rational distribution of wealth in the country. And those things have changed the way that Saudis think and Saudis act, and it is from that sort of change that constitutional reform will inevitably result.

And yet at the same time you have the religious establishment who are ensuring that Saudis grow up ... hard-wired, to use your phrase, in their own Islamic discourse.

The problem is that even as the majority of Saudis changed the wiring in their heads to adapt to the modern world, there is a group who go in exactly the opposite way, and they have expressed their resistance in the violence that we have seen.

I think all one can do is just take hope from the lessons of history that this violence in the end does not win out. The way to deal with this sort of violence is actually through what's going to happen with participation, with voting: Let a few Islamic extremists take control of a local council in Saudi Arabia, and let people see what it's like to live under them. There's going to be a lot of ... pain and teething troubles. But when one looks at the progress Saudi Arabia has made in the course of a century, I think one has to be optimistic for the future and not too ready to judge by Western standards.

After all, 100 years ago, women didn't have the vote in the West. Two hundred years ago, there were great republics which practiced slavery. Those things have changed. There's no reason why the same sort of problems shouldn't resolve in Saudi Arabia and why a country like this hasn't got the resources to resolve these issues itself.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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