Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Robert Lacey

Named after its ruling dynasty, Saudi Arabia is a family creation, a family fiefdom and a family business. The Kingdom’s past, present and future prospects all revolve around the dynamics of its ruling family.

Robert Lacey, author of The Kingdom, 1981, and Inside the Kingdom, 2010, is a leading authority on the history and people of Saudi Arabia—and on the House of Saud in particular. Robert went to live in the Kingdom with his own family for two years in 1979, and has lived and travelled there continuously since 2005. In 2011 he received the Al-Rawabi Award for his contribution to Saudi-British understanding.

Great Britain and the House of Saud have enjoyed a fruitful and mutually co-operative relationship for just over hundred years. Britain played a crucial role in the creation of the Kingdom in the early decades of the 20th century, in return for which the Saudis upheld and advanced British interests in the Middle East, particularly in the years of, and immediately after, the First World War. The discovery and development of Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves since the 1930s has given a global dimension to the relationship between our two kingdoms, and this submission to the Foreign Affairs Committee examines the key aspects of that—with particular emphasis on the Saudi point of view on such issues as energy policy, Islam and westernization, the royal succession, human rights, political opposition, the Shia Muslim opposition, and the Saudi role in Bahrain.


Saudi Arabia showing the oil producing areas in the Eastern Province (pink), the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the western province of the Hejaz (green), and the central area of Nejd (blue), the traditional power base of the house of Saud. From Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey 2010.

1. Say Saudi Arabia, and most people in the west think ‘oil’—the Kingdom’s oil resources are among the largest in the world, with 40 or 50 years production in reserve by any measure. For much of this year, 2012, Saudi Arabia has been out-pumping Russia, producing in the region of ten million barrels of oil per day—1.5 million or so for domestic consumption, 7.5 million bpd for export at a price of around $100 per barrel. Of this $100, it is thought that $75 or so are needed to meet domestic budgetary requirements, leaving a 25% surplus which enables the country to operate at a very low level of debt—its financial surpluses being largely invested in, and contributing to the stability of, the US dollar (Saudi Arabia comes third behind China and Japan as a holder of US treasury bonds). Saudi Arabia is the only major oil producer with currently dominant pumping flexibility, meaning that they are able to push energy prices up by restricting production—as, famously, in the oil embargo years of the 1970s—or, particularly in the years since the crash of 2008, to pump at high capacity in order to keep prices level and bolster world economic activity at a difficult time. Some Saudis like to take credit for their ‘kindness’ to the international economy in this respect, but they are, of course, acting in their own interests when they pump to keep the world afloat. In this sense, with its objective of keeping oil production constant and prices stable, the Kingdom serves as a major energy ally and long-term economic partner of Great Britain.

2. As the map above shows, Saudi oil and gas reserves are situated in the east of the country on the Gulf coast facing Iran. But it is in the west, along the Red Sea coast facing Egypt and Sudan, that lie the two Holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and it is these that make Saudi Arabia of supreme spiritual importance for the one billion-plus Muslims in the world. The fifth of the five central pillars of Islam instructs that every Muslim should seek to make their hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca before they die, and hajj numbers currently run at some three million during the annual pilgrimage season, with several million more worshippers making their umrah, or lesser pilgrimage, in the other months of the year. Islam is currently the most dynamically expanding faith in Great Britain, so here is another area of close mutual interest.

3. It was the historic achievement of the House of Saud to conquer and assimilate these two regions of crucial concern to the modern world into a single country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Oil was discovered half a dozen years after this, and it might be worth mentioning that if we, the British, who then dominated that part of the Middle East, had known what lay beneath the sands of eastern Arabia we would probably not have let the House of Saud conquer them. But they did, and the ‘Saudi’ in Saudi Arabia refers to the family who own the country. One of only two states in the world named after its ruling dynasty (the other is the Principality of Liechtenstein), Saudi Arabia is a family creation, a family fiefdom and a family business, which has, in many ways, become even more Al-Saud dominated in recent years. The Kingdom’s unique blending of worldly wealth and religious resources, the clash between the materialism that the east coast generates and the spiritual traditions of the holy cities in the west—a classic conflict between God and Mammon, ancient and modern—all these issues place major question marks over the character, stability and prospects of an important ally for Britain. When I am asked about the future outlook for this fascinating cauldron of challenges, I can do no better than to point at the pink and green areas on the map and to say that the chances of their fruitful co-existence in the future lies in the hands of the House of Saud in their traditional power base, coloured blue in the middle.

4. The House of Saud has been my particular area of expertise since 1978 when, following the publication of Majesty, my silver jubilee biography of Queen Elizabeth II, I headed for the Middle East and the study of a larger royal family, said to be some 5,000 strong in those days and surely double that size today. I lived in Jeddah beside the Red Sea with my family for nearly two years to write The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud, published in 1981. The Kingdom told the story of the successive Saudi states created since the forging of the historic alliance between the House of Saud, then obscure sultans based in Dariyah, a small village north of Riyadh, and the fundamentalist preacher Mohammed Ibn Abdul-Wahhab in 1743 (in the reign of George II and a quarter of a century before the creation of the United States of America). The Kingdom was banned by the Saudi government on the basis of the Ministry of Information’s ninety-seven objections to what I wrote about about religion, Saudi culture and controversial episodes in 20th century Saudi history. I thought this was the end of my relationship with the Kingdom, but in 2005, following 9/11 and the bloody outbreak of war on the ground between Al-Qaeda and the Saudi government, I went back to Jeddah to write about Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi role in generating the age of terror, and the Kingdom’s subsequent attempts to redeem the mistakes that resulted in 15 of the 19 hijackers being Saudis. Among these reforms was an end to book banning, but this has not prevented Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia being denied distribution since its publication in 2009.


Photographed by Captain William Shakespear, British Agent in Kuwait. Royal Geographical Society

5. Taken 101 years ago, this photograph precisely marks the moment when the Saudi-British relationship began. For a decade the India Office had been ignoring requests from Abdul Aziz (‘Ibn Saud’, the father of the modern Saudi kings) for Britain to establish friendly relations with Riyadh. But the increase in tensions that would lead to the Great War caused Delhi and London to re-examine the safety of the links between Britain and India via the Suez Canal and the likelihood that Ottoman Turkey would side with Germany in any conflict. Captain William Shakespear, British Agent in Kuwait (and a keen amateur photographer), was dispatched to enlist the help of the Saudis in eastern and central Arabia, as T. E. Lawrence was later sent to the Hashemites in the west. Thanks to the eloquent pen of Lawrence (with the subsequent help of Peter O’Toole), the Hashemites’ ‘Arab Revolt’ has entered popular history. Less well known is the fruitful collaboration between the Saudis and a succession of British agents which led to the elimination of Turkish influence from the peninsula, both directly and via Turkey’s client dynasty, the House of Rasheed, thus safeguarding the southern frontiers of what became the British mandate territories of Palestine and Transjordan. The Saudis were constructive and co-operative allies—even as British arms and money helped advance their own dynastic ambitions. When Britain signed the Treaty of Jeddah in 1926, recognizing Abdul Aziz’s conquest of the holy places, there was very much a sense in which Britain had served as godmother to the combined Kingdom of Hejaz and Sultanate of Nejd, that would become known six years later as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

6. The House of Saud has a generally retrograde image in Western media. Seen from the inside of a deeply conservative society, however, they often seem the very opposite—pioneering such innovations as women’s education, the telephone, radio and television, the internet and social media in the face of fierce and sometimes violent fundamentalist opposition. In 1965 the government had to send troops to protect the rights of girls whose parents wanted them to attend school. Ten years later King Faisal was assassinated by a nephew following a family dispute over the propriety of introducing television to Riyadh. In 1979 there were those who feared the House of Saud would go the way of the Shah of Iran, and if the family had indeed been cast aside, then—or at any time since—by its most bitter domestic opponents, then Britain would be confronted in the Gulf by two fundamentalist theocracies run by rival groups of clerics (Shia in Iran, Sunni in Arabia). When elections were held in 2004/5 for local councils as a first step towards the establishing of more democratic processes and institutions, the victors in most localities were predominantly ‘the bearded ones’—Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood. In the age of social media, Saudi campaigners for Western-style democracy and human rights have built up Twitter and Facebook followings of several hundred thousand each as they critique the autocratic Saudi monarchy. But they are dwarfed by the massive Twitter followings (of one million+) enjoyed by traditionalist sheikhs who do NOT see western democracy as the way ahead, issuing fatwas in the enduring spirit of those issued by Mohammed bin Wahhab two hundred years ago. Domestically, the House of Saud fights an unremitting battle, not least in the field of education, against the conservative clerics whose historic support brought them power, but who have declined to move forward in Western terms.

7. The phrase ‘Western terms’ is a sticking point in this debate, since many Saudis do not consider that Westernization moves their country forward—quite the opposite. They do not consider it ‘progress’ for their young women to become unmarried mothers or for their old people to be sent to old people’s homes (institutions which do not exist in Saudi Arabia). When I lived in the Kingdom in 1978 it was commonplace to see Saudi women in skimpy bathing suits at the beach. Today those same women, many of them friends of mine, consider it progress that they personally, their daughters and their society as a whole have become more modest. The Saudi reverence for age is another example of a value system at odds with the west, where thrusting youthfulness is often ranked above maturity. It is a commonplace of foreign media comment to deride the advanced age of Saudi rulers, but the Kingdom’s carefully calibrated succession system is actually a collaborative enterprise reflecting the traditional values of Saudi society, while containing two elements that western systems of primogeniture do not possess—selection by ability and judgment by results.

8. This family tree shows how, since the death of the Kingdom’s founder, the succession has moved horizontally through his sons, partly on the basis of seniority, but also on the basis of competence and the ability to command consensus inside the family, and beyond. Thus King Khaled (1912–1982) was given precedence over his erratic older brother, Mohammed, while, in very recent weeks, Prince Ahmad (born 1941), the US-educated Interior Minister, once considered a shoe-in as a future crown prince and king, has been removed after failing to live up to family expectations—thus opening the way to a jump in succession to the next generation. The names of the royal mothers in the green boxes show how Abdul Aziz took wives from all over Arabia as he conquered different tribal areas, fathering children who thus reflect the tribal make-up of the entire peninsular. In terms of blood, the family can fairly claim to contain representatives of every corner of the country.

9. Consensus is the key to understanding Saudi Arabia, and as the Committee examines the Kingdom, I would suggest they concentrate on where consensus does and does not exist. The House of Saud are essentially dealmakers—’We prefer to kill enmity, not enemies,’ as a young prince once said to me. The family’s historic power was founded on the deal they did with Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab and with the successive fundamentalist clergy who, today, preach in some 50,000 mosques. They did deals with the tribes they conquered—sometimes with arms supplied through the deals they did with Great Britain. They did deals with the sophisticated merchant families on the two coasts, east and west. King Fahd did an historic deal with the Shia opposition in the 1990s to bring them back from exile—and the family seek today to do deals with their domestic critics and opposition figures whom the Committee should seek to meet. Some are in prison, but fewer than the world imagines—and for reasons which, I think, you should invite the new Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, to explain and discuss.

10. The Committee should seek to meet and talk to domestic opposition figures—I can provide you with some names and contact details—and when you do, I think you will be struck by their passion, but also, in my opinion, by their refusal to accept the religious and tribal realities of their own society, and by their lack of practical suggestions for altering the fundamental power structure to which they object. They will talk angrily, for example, of 30,000 political prisoners or even more. I have never managed to get them to provide data to justify this huge number, which gets picked up and quoted indiscriminately by visiting journalists—including correspondents of the BBC. When you meet human rights campaigners, I suggest you ask if they can provide the names and verified identities of, say, 500 Saudi political prisoners—not including the names of those detained for terrorist offences and membership of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular.

11. When you go to see the Shia leaders in the east, by contrast, they will provide you with exact names and numbers of Shia in detention—totaling no more than 500, and probably less. Involving profound religious differences and open prejudice, particularly on the Sunni side, the Shia-Sunni problem is comparable to the Protestant-Catholic divide in Northern Ireland in its ancient, long-running bitterness and intractability. I have travelled frequently to the east to celebrate Shia festivals and meet their leaders. I would suggest that the Committee does the same and I am happy to supply names and contact details.

12. The closeness of Bahrain to the Arabian peninsular makes it a Saudi Isle of Wight—with Bahrain physically connected to the mainland by a six-lane causeway-bridge. The Saudi-led invasion of GCC troops across this bridge in 2011 provoked worldwide condemnation—which was understandable, but hypocritical, in my view. The majority of the inhabitants of Bahrain are Shia Muslims whose loyalties—social, religious and political—look beyond Bahrain to Iran and Iraq, Iran’s massive new, US- and UK- liberated Shia ally. There is not a single western country, including Britain, which would welcome a pro-Iranian Shia government dominating Bahrain and its crucial US naval base. So, inasmuch as Saudi Arabia is helping to suppress the undoubted political rights of the undoubted Shia majority of Bahrainis, it is doing our dirty work.

13. The Kingdom’s exploitation of immigrant workers is a frequent subject of criticism. I would suggest that the Committee consider the case of a country whose economy has become perilously dependent on cheap foreign labour and whose idle and feckless population are happy to let foreigners (some of them illegal immigrants) do all the hard jobs, while they, the nationals, collect the wide range of welfare benefits they extract from the government. Then, when they have finished examining who does the real work in the coffee bars, construction sites and hospitals of Great Britain, they can consider how significantly Saudi Arabia differs from that.

14. Similarly, it seems extraordinary in 2012/13 that Saudi women cannot drive, but is it not bizarre that women cannot become bishops in the Church of England? In each case the deeply held religious convictions of sincere conservatives stand in the way of an establishment that seeks to modernize. Saudi women will certainly drive one day—and it could happen before the Church of England gets women bishops. ‘Progress’ is not as simple as we would all wish. Englishmen got the right to vote in 1295 (to elect the so-called Model Parliament), and it took more than six centuries before English women could vote as well. Saudi men first voted in 2006 (in the local municipality elections) and it took less than six years for the same right to be granted to Saudi women. So which of our two allied and friendly kingdoms is the more ‘progressive’? And which has the right to investigate and preach to the other?

15. Recent reports that advances in oil extraction technology might make the United States an even larger oil producer than the Kingdom over-simplify a complex picture, but the prospect of increased US oil and gas production is welcome news to those who direct Saudi energy policy. It is often said that the days of hydrocarbon energy are drawing to a close, but those days are certain to be extended if the US and Canada join Russia as the world’s largest oil producers. There will be less economic incentive for these massive oil and gas producers to search for alternative sources of energy—while Saudi Arabia can make use of the same new ‘fracking’ techniques to increase its own production and dramatically extend the life of its reserves.

16. I would recommend that the Committee pay particular attention to the series of social and political reforms introduced by King Abdullah, ranging from the principle of equal rights for women to the encouragement of religious toleration. The last time I myself saw the King he was shaking hands with rabbis. But that was in Madrid, at the Conference of Religious Toleration he had initiated. He could never do that on Saudi soil—nor do fundamentalists applaud his attempts to normalise relations with Israel.

17. The King has also sought to reform the legal system in Saudi Arabia—with an interesting nod to Britain. One of the many problems of the Saudi law courts is that it is virtually impossible for non-Saudis to get a fair trial. So the King has proposed that commercial disputes involving foreign companies should be referred to a specially constituted commercial court in London—and not just for British plaintiffs. ‘If the plans are realised,’ according to the Financial Times of 30th October, ‘the court could hear some of the most high-value and sensitive legal claims in the world.’

18. I close with two vivid personal memories. The first is of a trip to the Lake District in the 1990’s when my car was halted outside Wharton, near Preston, by a factory siren sounding at 5 pm. Out of the factory gates streamed more than 2,000 British workers carrying their sandwich boxes—all employees of British Aerospace, then building the Eurofighter for the Royal Saudi Air Force. Here was a thriving British town earning its livelihood from the closeness of the links between our two kingdoms—with hundreds more working in the related component and supply companies in the area. My second memory is of sitting with a bearded fundamentalist cleric in the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef de-radicalisation centre north of Riyadh, half prison, half holiday camp, established to analyze the roots of violent extremism and to re-educate the misguided young men who have followed the terrorist path. This learned and deeply religious Saudi was seeking to marshal and present the Koranic arguments against a recent internet fatwa that was offering fresh justification for Islamic violence—and had just been generated by a group of extremist Islamists based in Britain.

19 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013