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Last Call: The Man who Put the Saud in Saudi Arabia

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Ninety years ago this week – January 1927 - Ibn Saud proclaimed himself King of the Nejd, and inaugurated the Kingdom of the Hijaz and Nejd – the penultimate step toward the birth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a massively dysfunctional entity that plagues us and the world to this day.

Ibn Saud had spent the years since the end of the Great War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire upgrading himself at regular intervals: He was an emir, and then he proclaimed himself a sultan, and finally a king. In 1925, he booted Sharif Hussein out of Mecca, and ended 700 years of Hashemite rule in the holiest of Muslim holy places. Sharif Hussein's British patrons found boltholes for two of his sons by installing them on the thrones of the toytown kingdoms London created in Transjordan and Iraq. The latter Hashemite reign was shortlived, ending in the bloody Iraqi revolution of 1958, when the royal family were slaughtered and the Crown Prince's mutilated body dragged through the streets of Baghdad. The Hashemites survive in Jordan, much diminished and surely a comedown for the supposed descendants of Mohammed.

Ibn Saud's progeny, meanwhile, preside over a state that is apparently both a loyal American ally and the principal exporter of the toxic Wahhabist strain of Islam that drives so much terrorism. Many of us will recall those greasy former ambassadors to Saudi Arabia from Washington and London lining up on TV after 9/11 to drone "the Saudis are our friends", even as those friends fund radical mosques and madrassahs that teach their youth to hate us all over the world.

For much of this, we have Ibn Saud to thank. He was born in Riyadh in 1875 – maybe; nobody really knows – and spent much of his youth in exile after a rival clan, the Rashidi, drove his family out, and into exile – first with some ragtag Bedouin tribe out in the southern desert, then to Qatar, Bahrain and finally Kuwait. Exiles rarely return, and Ibn Saud could easily have lived out his life as some loser in Kuwait nobody had ever heard of, but his Aunt Jawhara regaled him with tales of lost glory in the sands of Araby, and urged him to return to Riyadh and claim his destiny. One night, camped out in the desert during Ramadan in 1902, he decided to retake his home town from the Rashidi. On January 15th, he and some 40 other men leaned palm trees up against the city walls, scrambled up and over, and back into Riyadh, killing the Rashidi governor and later the emir.

That's all he was 115 years ago really – a brigand with a few dozen men. But he won Riyadh that night, and he never lost it – not till he died half-a-century later as the bloated US-backed petrocrat of a great paradox of our age: a backward but boundlessly wealthy super-state enriched by oil they need foreigners to dig out of the ground for them and whose revenues they use not to advance their own society but to reduce the rest of the planet to their own irredeemable backwardness. As I often say, the principal export of Saudi Arabia is not oil, but ideology. The oil merely funds the ideology.

And, as has been pointed out, the Islamic State is in many ways merely Saudi Arabia without a UN seat. Saudi Arabia does everything ISIS does, starting with decapitation. The vignette that for me sums up the Saudi state occurred six months to the day after 9/11 – March 11th 2002. A fire broke out at a girls' school in Mecca, and so the schoolgirls fled the blazing building. And then the Mutaween – the Saudi religious police – drove the girls back into the schoolhouse because they had committed the crime of fleeing without their head coverings, and the Mutaween were concerned that were the firemen to come into contact with the uncovered girls it might arouse them, inflame them so to speak. And so they sent the girls back into the inferno to be inflamed in a far more literal sense. Fifteen girls died that day. Six months to the day after New York policemen and firemen pounded into burning skyscrapers set alight by Saudi fanatics to rescue the trapped innocent, Mecca's policemen forced schoolgirls back into burning buildings so that the innocent might perish in the flames. The fanatics in Saudi Arabia are not merely the terrorists.

Ibn Saud built a state in his own image – starting with the name. He had 16 wives, who bore him 100 children, give or take, 45 of whom were sons. And since his death in 1953 every single one of the six Saudi kings since, under their bizarre succession rules, has been a son of Ibn Saud, yea unto to the new kid on the block, King Salman. In the House of Windsor, unless you're in the direct line of succession to the throne, you can't be a prince unless you're a son or grandson of the sovereign. But in the House of Saud, everyone's a prince: the princes are dropping from the palm trees. There's a new prince born in Saudi Arabia every ten days, thousands and thousands of princes upon princes, all the malign progeny of one desert brigand. There aren't enough jobs for that number of petroleum-sluiced princelings. So some of them live dissolute lives gambling and whoring in Mayfair all summer long. Others develop more sinister interests – there are never that many degrees of separation between the bonehead self-detonating jihadists and various of these slick, moneyed factions of the metastasizing House of Saud.

I've had some run-ins with some of the bigshot princes over the years. Prince Turki, who was at college with Bill Clinton, one of a bazillion grandsons of Ibn Saud, is quoted on the cover of my book America Alone:

"The arrogance of Mark Steyn knows no bounds."

Now that's what they call on Broadway a money quote. That's why we put it on the book. He was the Saudi Ambassador in Washington at the time. I prefer the late Ghazi al-Ghosaibi, the Saudi Ambassador to the Court of St James's. He and I sparred back-and-forth through the pages of Fleet Street in the years after 9/11. Ghazi was a witty, charming, delightful man, who just happened to be witty, charming and delightful in service of a monstrous tyranny. He penned a memoir of his time in government, with a title riffing off a famous British sitcom – "Yes, Saudi Minister." He wrote a novel – a fey, rather limpid love story - and sent me a copy with the best book inscription I've ever received:

"To Mark. Ambivalently, Ghazi."

At the Senate confirmation hearings these last weeks, the incoming Secretary of State attempted to be as ambivalent about Saudi Arabia as the US Government has always been: Yes, yes, they're not quite on board with the whole women's-rights thing, or freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of whatever, but we're encouraged by recent signs of reform, and we're confident that, if we give them another decade or three or five or seven, women will be allowed to drive as long as they're so fully covered they can't see out the window, and the public head-chopping will be cut back to alternate Fridays. Thus it has ever been, ever since Ibn Saud told the first US minister to Saudi Arabia, Colonel William Eddy, in 1946: "We will use your iron, but you will leave our faith alone."

It wasn't a great deal. And our public ambivalence about Saudi Arabia is less sophisticated than theirs about us. Ibn Saud used American "iron" – money, technology, knowhow – to transform his lifestyle, enrich his family and turn his local brand of desert Wahhabism into a powerhouse global multinational. But his country remains the same desert – literally and psychologically – as it was when he upgraded the town of his birth to the capital of a new kingdom, 90 years ago this week.

That's it for us. We'll see ya next time.

from Audio & Transcripts, July 18, 2017

 

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