I had forgotten that a full-blood prince had been into space. In 1982, Prince Sultan bin Salman al-Saud, a nephew of the King of Saudi Arabia, was a payload engineer on the space shuttle Discovery.
His voyage to the heavens had its comic elements. The prince was the first Muslim in space and his trip coincided with Ramadan. So he rang Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, head of the supreme council of religious scholars, for advice. Since he would see 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours, he asked, would he finish Ramadan in two days?
It was a gentle act of leg-pulling. The sheikh had become a minor celebrity in the West by questioning whether man had really been to the Moon and suggesting that the Earth might be flat. He was blind and said he would rather follow the evidence of his feet than that of foreigners. But the prince, a devout Muslim and a member of the royal family, was about to prove him wrong.
“The sheikh loved that one – he laughed out loud,” recalls the prince in Inside the Kingdom, Robert Lacey’s account of Saudi Arabia’s largely laugh-free recent history. Then the sheikh pronounced: he should eat in accordance with Cape Canaveral time. As for facing Mecca when he prayed, that was perhaps too difficult.
Apparently, Nasa was delighted at the opportunity to monitor hunger in zero gravity. The sheikh was delighted too and invited the prince round for tea once he returned. Did he change his mind about the Earth being flat? Not really, is Lacey’s conjecture.
The story is redolent of the bafflement Saudi Arabia arouses in the West. But it also provides a human face amid a lot of facelessness. Sometimes it seems as if only Saudi monarchs are visible. The women are covered. The invisibility of their most famous subjects – the 15 Saudi Arabians who took part in the attacks of September 11 2001 – is their enduring legacy: they made their names when their bodies disappeared in a ball of fire and dust.
Even when Saudis splash out, it is anonymous. Ali al Faraj, the owner of Portsmouth FC, had hardly been heard of before, nor has he shown himself much since. If you believe conspiracy theories, the Saudis keep their heads down for a reason. Of all nations, it is said, they have been most successful in having their cake and eating it, selling oil to the West while undermining it with Wahhabi theology – the puritanical creed espoused by both the regime and Osama bin Laden.
Lacey does not so much dispute this portrait as provide a different perspective. This book starts where his previous history, The Kingdom, left off, at the end of the Seventies. From the 1979 storming of Mecca’s Great Mosque by an ultra-Islamist gang, Lacey argues, Saudi royals felt compelled to cede space to the religious sheikhs to ensure their rule was safe. Cinemas were shut, women more tightly controlled, liberals imprisoned and most forms of non-religious, non-violent distraction for hot-blooded young men disappeared.
Inside the Kingdom is an insider’s view, with little analysis of geopolitical machinations. What it does have is people: the women who saw female GIs driving trucks and decided to give driving a try, too (they were arrested); victims of injustice and millionaires; dissidents and the princes who jail them.
He speaks to graduates of the country’s rehabilitation programme for jihadis, who after short jail terms are given wives and jobs. It seems to work. My favourite is Khaled al-Hubayshi, an electrician with a vocation for holy war. Captured at Tora Bora, beaten and sent to Guantánamo for three years, he comments drily: “that was the end of Khaled James Bond”. The Saudi government gave him $18,000 to find a wife. His treatment may come as a jolt to those who have a rather different understanding of the term Saudi justice. But then we have come to expect surprises from the House of Saud and its fiefdom.