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A SOFT SPOT FOR SAUDI
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
November 20, 2005

November 20, 2005 -- EVER since President Franklin D. Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia's King Abdul-Aziz in the Red Sea in 1944, the oil-rich kingdom has been one of America's closest allies. Indeed, by the 1980s no power, perhaps excepting Great Britain, enjoyed closer ties with the United States.

And yet, prior to the 9/11 attacks in which 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis, there was little public interest in the kingdom. But the past four years have seen an avalanche of books on the subject, often designed to provoke a mixture of fear and derision.

John Bradley's "Saudi Arabia Exposed" is an exception, because although it contains much Saudi-bashing — often injected as an afterthought — it offers insight into Saudi life seldom reported in the West.

A British journalist who worked on a Saudi daily for two and a half years, Bradley had a rare opportunity to travel, meet people from different backgrounds and, living in a poor district of Jeddah, experience the "downstairs" side of life there.

Despite some harsh words, Bradley cannot hide his sympathy for the kingdom and its people. He liked the place so much that during his 30 months there he spent only five weeks away on holiday.

"Successive kings backed reform and embraced Western technology and knowledge" in defiance of religious fanatics, he writes. He describes King Fahd, who died last month, as "progressive and clear-headed" while the late King Faisal is "a liberal."

In fact, Bradley sees Faisal's clan, including his sons, as a force for reform. He also praises the National Guard, created by new King Abdullah as "one of the best trained and well-equipped armies in the world."

Bradley castigates the Saudi press, which, he says, is subject to censorship. And, yet, he boasts that he and an English colleague wrote all the editorials of a leading Saudi paper without being told what to say and what not to say.

Having labeled Saudi Arabia an enigma, Bradley proves the opposite thanks to his own reporting. A country that hosts 8 million expatriates from more than 80 countries and receives 5 million pilgrims from all over the world annually is hardly a "forbidden kingdom."

All this means that Bradley is at best ambivalent and at worst confused in analyzing Saudi politics.

In his view, Saudi Arabia became a breeding ground for terrorism because of dogmatic religion. He sees this as a "Semitic defect" and quotes T.E. Lawrence: "Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were people of primary colors, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns."

If one ignores such childish analyses and the sensational but apocryphal stories that Bradley borrows from others, one could enjoy this book as a travelogue containing many anecdotes for dinner table conversation and some genuine insight into a culture in crisis.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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