Oct. 16, 2009 -- Journalist Robert Lacey, who has been living in Saudia Arabia for several years, provides gives readers an insider's look at the country's recent history in "Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia."
He explores how the aftermath of the 1970s oil boom created a divisive society, with residents struggling to balance the demands of religious law with those of the modern world. His writing winds its way through the Persian Gulf War to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States to the current fluctuations in the oil market.
After reading the excerpt below, head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
As it happened, Bandar bin Sultan had been away from the phone that warm August night—he was taking a break at his home in Aspen—and by the time he got the message it was too late for him to call Riyadh. When uncle and nephew spoke the next day, George W. was on television, handling questions on the Middle East at a news conference. The two Saudi princes, one in Riyadh, one in Colorado, watched the president speaking in Texas—and Abdullah grew angrier than ever at the American's total acceptance of the Israeli point of view.
"If the Palestinians are interested in a dialogue," said the president in the apparently reasonable tone he reserved for his most provocative statements, "then I strongly urge Mr. Arafat to put 100 percent effort into solving the terrorist activity, stopping the terrorist activity. And I believe he can do a better job of doing that."
The disdainful use of "terrorist activity" to describe the battle that Arabs saw as a fight for justice caused Abdullah to explode for the second time in twenty-four hours. He characterized this phrase in the same way as he did "Israel's right to defend itself"—as a disingenuous simplification.
Bandar must get to see Bush at once, instructed the crown prince, and within hours the ambassador had managed to get a message to Colin Powell, the secretary of state, and to Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser.
"We believe," went the message, "there has been a strategic decision by the United States that its national interest in the Middle East is 100 percent based on [Israeli prime minister] Sharon."
If this was America's decision, it was her sovereign right to make it. But it was Saudi Arabia's sovereign right, declared the crown prince, to pursue her own course in response to that.
"Starting from today, you're Uruguay, as they say." This particular phrase was contributed by Bandar, deriving from his version of a knock-knock joke that ended with the punchline, "You go Uruguay, and I'll go mine." He had taken notes while Abdullah spoke to him on the phone, then amplified his uncle's thoughts, as he used to do with Fahd's to craft a message that would, in his opinion, press the particular buttons of his listeners.
"A government that doesn't keep its finger on the pulse of what its people are feeling will not survive," continued the message, which ran, in the end, to twenty-five pages of Bandar's notes. "Look at what happened to the Shah. Sometimes we come to a crossroads; we have to make choices, and we are not afraid to make the strategic shift that our own interests dictate."
It was a firm and extensive warning, and to emphasize the point, Abdullah picked up the phone again. He ordered General Salih bin Ali Al-Muhayya, the Saudi chief of staff, who had arrived in Washington the previous day for the annual review of Saudi-U.S. military collaboration, to return to Riyadh immediately. The general was instructed not to meet with any Americans. A delegation of some forty senior Saudi officers who were flying to join Muhayya were ordered off their plane. The annual review was canceled.
"That's the moment the U.S. knew they had a problem," remembers one of the Saudis involved.
"Hey, you guys scared us," said Powell to Bandar.
"The hell with you," replied the prince. "We scared ourselves."
* * *
The Saudis had expected that the White House would take four or five days to get back to them. In the event, George W. Bush's personal, two-page letter of conciliation arrived in less than thirty-six hours—and it was a revelation.
"What came through," commented one surprised Saudi, "was the humane part of George W. He was very, very positive."
Writing warmly, the president totally accepted Abdullah's point about the blood of innocent people—"Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim"—and he told the crown prince that he rejected the humiliation of individuals, which the Saudi leader took to be a response to the complaint about the Israeli soldier's boot. Most important of all, the president set down quite explicitly his acceptance of the "Two-State Solution"—the creation of a viable Palestinian state on the West Band and Gaza Strip.
This was new—"groundbreaking," felt the Saudis. No U.S. president had given such a strong commitment before, and it staked out a U.S. position that was clearly different from that of Sharon. Bush's letter had "things in it," according to someone who saw it, "[that] had never been put in writing. He wrote constructively about the status of Jerusalem and the settlement of the refugee issue. He actually said, 'I support two states.' "
The letter offered the prospect of a peace settlement with which the Saudis could live, and Bandar carried it back to Riyadh to discuss its contents personally with Abdullah. The U.S. president had even expressed a willingness to take a more active role in the peace process himself.
In the days that followed Abdullah got in touch with other Arab leaders—the presidents of Egypt and Syria and the king of Jordan—to share the good news. He briefed them on his message, and on the personal reply that his protest had prompted. He summoned Yasser Arafat from a visit to South Africa to come and read both documents: when Abdullah felt stirred to action, nothing much stood in his way. He got Arafat to give a written pledge that he would meet Bush's conditions for restarting peace talks.
"'This is your last chance,' we told him," according to Bandar. "'You can't screw it up like you did with Clinton.'"
Arafat's pledge was sent to Washington with the crown prince's own response to Bush's letter, and by early September Bandar was back in Washington, working out the details. On Friday, September 7, his U.S. counterparts seemed ready to move on a peace initiative, and over the weekend he discussed definite steps—a speech by Colin Powell, by Bush himself (the Saudis' preferred option), or possibly both. Yasser Arafat was coming to the UN later in the month; Would Bush agree to meet him? The president did not like the idea.
"Arafat is a liar," he complained.
"We know that he's a liar," responded the Saudis. No one in Riyadh liked Arafat. Cabinet members knew they were in disfavor when the king assigned them to escort the Palestinian leader on one of his regular fundraising trips—"I had him once for nearly a week," recalls one minister with a shudder. "All those kisses and licks!"
Bush should hear out what the Palestinian said, the Saudis counseled, then hold him to whatever he promised.
"If he goes back on himself," said Bandar, "we won't trouble you with him again."
"Suddenly," remembered the Saudi ambassador, "I felt … that we really were going to have a major initiative here that could save all of us from ourselves—mostly—and from each other … The happiest man in the world on Monday night was Bandar bin Sultan. I was in the swimming pool [of his palatial residence in McLean, Virginia] smoking a cigar. I gave myself a day off because I had worked the whole weekend. I had been to Saudi Arabia … out with the [Bush] response, back with our response. I worked on the weekend up to three o'clock, four o'clock in the morning ... I worked all Monday. And I said to my office, 'Tuesday, I'm taking the day off.'"
Tuesday was September 11, 2001.