With Friends Like These
Reviewed by Thomas W. Lippman
Sunday, May 29, 2005; Page BW05
SECRETS OF THE KINGDOM
The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection
By Gerald Posner. Random House. 254 pp. $24.95
The dust jacket of Gerald Posner's Secrets of the Kingdom calls it an "explosive study" of Saudi Arabia. In 14 of its 15 chapters that's not true, but in chapter 10 it is -- literally.
There Posner reports that Saudi Arabia has wired all of its major oil facilities with interlocking Semtex explosive charges that can be detonated from a single control point. Moreover, he says, the Saudis have blended radioactive materials into the Semtex so that detonation would not only destroy the facilities but also contaminate them beyond repair.
Why would the Saudis set off what's essentially a networked dirty bomb over their oil infrastructure? Because, according to Posner, they want to make certain that nobody could benefit from invading their country or taking down the ruling House of Saud. If the al Saud family goes, Posner writes, the world's petroleum-based economy goes with it.
Posner, the muckraking author of nine previous books, acknowledges that he cannot be sure this story is true. And indeed a Saudi official has questioned the credibility of the allegations. Posner attributes the story to conversations among Saudi officials intercepted by the National Security Agency and Israeli intelligence and compiled by the NSA into a file called "Petro SE" -- for "Petroleum Scorched Earth." It is possible, he concedes, that the Saudis knew their conversations were being overheard and concocted the doomsday scenario to ensure that the United States would come to their aid in a crisis. "What better incentive for Western powers, particularly the United States, to come to the aid of the House of Saud if it were under external or internal attack," Posner writes, "than to think that if it fell, like the shah of Iran did a quarter century ago, they would take the energy infrastructure of Saudi Arabia with them" and cause worldwide chaos?
The wealth of detail in Posner's account gives it an air of credibility. Moreover, Saudi Arabia does have a Nuclear Energy Research Institute, with scientists who are familiar with radioactive materials such as cesium that could be used in dirty bombs. Because (according to U.S. intelligence reports) the kingdom financed the development of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, it would have had access to nuclear material, if only through the clandestine network of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. And while Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has never agreed to an international inspection protocol.
On other levels, though, Posner's account defies belief. Hundreds of Americans work for Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, many in senior positions and many with intelligence connections. Would none of them have spotted this mammoth undertaking and reported it? Would the Saudis really destroy facilities in Medina, a city so sacred that non-Muslims are prohibited from going there? And who, in a royal family that operates by consensus and spreads out decision-making power among several senior princes, would have his finger on the detonation button? Thinking that the House of Saud would give absolute doomsday power to one individual runs contrary to Saudi Arabia's history for the past half century.
Moreover, if the story is true, what should the world do about it? Posner does not say. Having rolled this grenade under the reader's chair, so to speak, he just leaves it there. He does note that Semtex has a shelf-life of about 20 years and that the Saudis allegedly acquired their supply in the early 1990s -- which means that a few years from now the explosive network (if it exists) will no longer be functional. What are the implications of that? Posner says such questions can usefully be addressed only after the Saudis have been persuaded to allow international inspectors into the facilities that supposedly have been wired to see whether, in fact, they have been. Saudi officials and Americans familiar with Saudi oil installations have greeted Posner's account with derision. "The idea makes no sense, and whoever wrote it has no credibility," Saudi Oil Minister Ali Nuaimi said while in Washington earlier this month.
Aside from the chapter about the oil-field explosives, there isn't much new in Secrets of the Kingdom . Readers who were persuaded by the intimations of skullduggery in Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud , which reached a wide audience via Michael Moore's movie "Fahrenheit 9/11," will find their suspicions reinforced; those who take a more nuanced view of Saudi Arabia and U.S.-Saudi relations are likely to find Posner's book a tendentious rehash of old material, repackaged to put the kingdom in the worst possible light.
We can stipulate that Saudi Arabia has more than its share of odious, reprehensible people, some of them with American blood on their hands; that its social customs are sometimes alien to Western sensibilities; that its human rights record is deplorable; that business deals there have been landmarks of corruption; and that a lot of Saudi money has supported bigotry and funded terrorism. Posner reviews these issues but adds very little to our knowledge of them. Except for the "Petro SE" material, he relies almost entirely on secondary sources, drawing heavily from mainstream news outlets and well-known earlier books. Mike Ameen, a longtime Aramco executive, and Hermann Eilts, a former U.S. ambassador to the kingdom, are quoted only from their remarks on a PBS documentary, even though both men are easy to find.
The result is a briskly written narrative that will shock anyone who has been marooned on a desert island for 40 years but contains little new for readers who have been paying attention. Here are stories about Adnan Khashoggi, Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, various kings and princes, and the puritanical Wahhabi religious establishment. The controversial 1980 public television film "Death of a Princess" surfaces here, and the 1981 fight over selling AWACS planes, and the Carlyle Group, and the BCCI bank-fraud scandal and the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74. These are entertaining tales, but often told.
Some of the supposedly new material is also flimsy. "The 9/11 Commission gave the Saudis a free pass," Posner asserts in his opening chapter. "This book shows why." But he neither establishes that a whitewash took place nor explains why it allegedly occurred. To support his charge, he offers an entire chapter about the extravagance of Prince Mohammed bin Fahd and another about the global business dealings of Prince al Waleed bin Talal. But the former's excesses are well known, as are the latter's business ventures, and Posner does not even suggest that this information has anything to do with the work of the 9/11 Commission. Relying mostly on news reports, Posner assembles a coherent narrative of Saudi funding of terrorist groups, but he acknowledges that on this issue the 9/11 Commission did indeed go after the Saudis, noting in its final report that "al Qaeda found fertile fund-raising ground in Saudi Arabia." Posner includes a hair-raising account of how the Saudis fund the distribution of extremist literature and ideas inside the United States, but that ground, too, has been extensively plowed, most notably in a long report last December by Freedom House, a nonprofit group that supports democracy abroad.
It is understandable that Posner wanted to keep his manuscript secret in hope of making news upon its release, but it would have benefited from a good vetting by a reader more knowledgeable about Saudi Arabia and the region. Such a reader would have caught the obvious errors that pockmark the text. Posner writes that in 1957 King Saud "was still smarting over the U.S.'s support of Israel in its 1956 war with Arab countries," when all Arabs know that Suez was the one Arab-Israeli war in which Washington stood with them against Israel. The Shatt al Arab is a waterway, not "a disputed region of land." The Bedouin are not a single clan. And Aramco's Mike Ameen would never have said of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the kingdom's founder, that "people who dealt with him never considered him bright," as Posner reports. Ameen was talking about Abdul Aziz's dimwitted son, Saud -- as he confirmed when I called him, which Posner never did.
Posner's best chapter is his last one, entitled "The Future?". The question mark is apt. Posner gives a compelling summary of the economic, social, educational and political choices facing Saudi Arabia and its rulers and notes that there are "no easy choices." As he observes, Saudi Arabia must make major changes to satisfy the aspirations of its restless younger generation, but "if it moves too quickly, it will destabilize the peace within the fractious monarchy itself, especially when King Fahd dies and succession again confronts the country." Well put. It's regrettable that Posner didn't put his powers of observation to more productive use in the rest of the book.
Thomas W. Lippman, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, is the author of "Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia."