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In Princes’ Pockets

Tariq Ali reviews the book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, by Robert Vitalis, in the London Review of Books:

The day after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, a Saudi woman resident in London, a member of a wealthy family, rang her sister in Riyadh to discuss the crisis affecting the kingdom. Her niece answered the phone.

‘Where’s your mother?’

‘She’s here, dearest aunt, and I’ll get her in a minute, but is that all you have to say to me? No congratulations for yesterday?’

The dearest aunt, out of the country for far too long, was taken aback. She should not have been. The fervour that didn’t dare show itself in public was strong even at the upper levels of Saudi society. US intelligence agencies engaged in routine surveillance were, to their immense surprise, picking up unguarded cellphone talk in which excited Saudi princelings were heard revelling in bin Laden’s latest caper. Like the CIA, they had not thought it possible for him to reach such heights.

Washington had taken its oldest ally in the Arab world for granted. In the weeks that followed 9/11, the Saudi royal family was besieged by a storm of critical comment in the US media and its global subsidiaries. Publishers eager to make a quick dollar hurriedly produced a few bad books with even worse titles – Hatred’s Kingdom, Sleeping with the Devil – that set out to denounce the Saudis. The mini-industry had little medium-term impact, and normal business was soon resumed. On 14 February 2005 there was even a re-enactment of the meeting that had taken place sixty years before on the USS Quincy, moored in the Suez Canal, at which Roosevelt and Ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia, signed the concordat that would guarantee continued single-family rule. The interpreter was Colonel William Eddy, a senior US intelligence officer and much else besides. Considered too insecure during the ‘global war on terror’, Suez was rejected as a potential venue for the re-enactment: the grandsons of the two principals and Eddy’s nephew had to make do with the Ritz in Coconut Grove, Florida. A giant gold-plated Cadillac in the Arizona desert might have been more appropriate.

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