Robert Lacey settled in Saudi Arabia to write his new book, Inside the Kingdom. He tells Laura Chubb why we should be listening to Saudi voices
Saudi Arabia troubles many a Western mind. Public beheadings, rigorous separation of the sexes, limited rights for women and ever-present religious police sit uncomfortably in our ‘modern’ world, and most Westerners choose to recoil from Saudi’s realities rather than face them. This is precisely what makes Robert Lacey’s Inside the Kingdom so enthralling. The book is a sequel to The Kingdom, published in 1981, which told the country’s history up to the bloody seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979 by Islamist fanatics, who felt Saudi was becoming too liberal. Lacey moved back to Saudi to write part two (he lived there briefly to write the first book), exploring how the events of 1979 paved the way for 9/11.
Most effective about Inside the Kingdom is that it’s told through the mouths of Saudis. Lacey puts it best when, on the phone to Time Out from the UK, he tells us: ‘A lot of The Kingdom was based on documents. What was wonderful about this book was the opportunity to write living history.’ It makes a narrative about this most mysterious of nations instantly more accessible: we hear human voices telling human stories. And while humour is infrequent, it’s memorable when it does arise: we particularly like it when Prince Sultan bin Salman al-Saud, who is preparing to go into space, asks a religious scholar whether since he will see 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours, could he finish Ramadan (which coincided with the trip) in two days?
Lacey, who also wrote best-selling biopics of the Windsors and car manufacturers the Fords, has been referred to as the ‘method actor’ of biographers. ‘I’m rather proud of that,’ he admits. When he wrote about the Fords, he moved to Detroit and worked on the assembly line for a week. Moving to Saudi Arabia in 2006, 25 years after he first settled there, Lacey was a little more restrained – ‘I didn’t grow a beard and a moustache this time’ – but he was again enchanted by Arabia. ‘A bit of me feels Saudi,’ he offers, unembarrassed.
Lacey shows more sympathy for the subject than most Western authors, probably because he has actually spoken to Saudis and come to know their condition well. Inside the Kingdom’s tagline points to ‘the struggle for Saudi Arabia’, which Lacey clarifies as the ‘constant debate over the speedometer’. In returning to Saudi, Lacey discovers that time has moved backwards, not forwards. The society has become more conservative (‘when I first lived there, European women were told not to wear the abaya; now all Western women do as a matter of respect’) and religion is preferred over education.
The 1979 Grand Mosque debacle was a result of money procured from the oil boom having a Westernising influence on Saudi; that it happened in the same year the Shah was overthrown by religious clerics in Iran spooked the Saudi royal family, and a more pious regime was adopted in response. Unfortunately, according to Lacey this helped fuel the sort of fanaticism that would later bring down the World Trade Centre, aided by another event in 1979: Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. But interestingly, 9/11 alerted the ruling family to the idea that things had gone too far, and the book touches on the government’s efforts to reintegrate and deradicalise jihadis. The speedometer may be gaining pace again – for better or worse.
The Kingdom was banned in the country it attempted to understand; whether Inside the Kingdom will be banned remains to be seen. But perhaps it’s more important that people outside the country read it. ‘Saudi Arabia’s closedness – it remains one of the few countries that is difficult to get into – enhances the sense of mystery,’ says Lacey. Fear of the unknown, together with Saudi’s oil and religious power, has led to Western demonisation of the country over an attempt to understand it. Lacey says his book is ‘about the universal human condition in a part of the world that’s becoming more and more important’. Which means it’s not just a thrilling read, but an essential one. Inside the Kingdom is published by Hutchinson.