Oct 2nd 2008
THE Saudi kings have been a mixed bunch, ranging from the savvy to
the dissolute. But by common consent the one who set his country
on the road to modernity was Faisal, who reigned from 1964 until
his assassination by a nephew in 1975. It was Faisal who created a
bureaucracy, organised the oil industry and launched a development
plan that included the radical innovation of schools for girls.
Joseph KÃ©chichian is an American scholar of Lebanese-Armenian descent.
Though no stylist, he knows Arabia and its princes well. His portrait
does not dwell on Faisal the man–the frugal figure who lived in a
modest house, drove himself to the office and displayed an almost
puritan disdain for princely profligacy–but on Faisal the policy
practitioner. Hence two episodes dominate the story.
The first is Saudi Arabia’s bitter quarrel with Nasser’s Egypt, in
particular over the civil war in Yemen, in which they took opposing
The second is the crucial period of 1973-74, when the habitually
cautious king threw in his lot with Egypt and Syria as they launched
their war on Israel, in the full knowledge that this would severely
strain his ties with America. The war and the subsequent oil embargo
brought to the Middle East a reluctant secretary of state, Henry
Kissinger, whose relations with Faisal were less than cordial.
Mr KÃ©chichian doe s not gloss over the rifts within the House of Saud
which accompanied Faisal’s ascent to the throne. Only when the family
and the ulema (religious establishment) finally lost patience with
his spendthrift brother, King Saud, did Faisal replace him. His task
was to restore unity to the family, order to the kingdom’s finances
and consistency to policymaking. The author also deals candidly with
internal unrest, in particular the coup attempts by air-force officers
and others inspired by Nasser’s pan-Arabist gospel.
But in other respects the book verges on hagiography. Faisal may indeed
have been a wise leader with a noble vision, but Mr KÃ©chichian is
rather too fulsome in saying so. Moreover he states categorically that
Faisal was not an anti-Semite, despite the testimony of Mr Kissinger
and others who were obliged to sit through royal rants about the
For those left hungry for more, a biography of Faisal by a Russian
Arabist, Alexei Vassiliev, is due out next year.