The Caravan

Introduction To Crosswinds: The Way Of Saudi Arabia

Thursday, October 29, 2020
screenshot of book cover for Crosswinds: The Way of Saudi Arabia by Fouad Ajami

The publication of Crosswinds: The Way of Saudi Arabia has been a long time coming. Fouad Ajami’s intimate portrait of Saudi society and politics, drawing on his visits to the kingdom in the 1990s and early 2000s, was finished in 2010. The manuscript was submitted to Hoover Institution Press that year, and in the coming months it would be edited and typeset. But before its release Ajami put the book on hold, partly out of concern for the security of some of the Saudi sources identified, though never named, in the text. Unfortunately, what started as a temporary pause turned into an interminable delay as new developments in the Middle East beckoned.

In late 2010, a revolution took place in Tunisia, and soon a revolutionary fervor swept the region. The Arab Spring, as it would be called, seemed to usher in a new era in Arab politics. Regimes were toppled as crowds called for freedom and dignity and an end to oppression. Ajami was enthusiastic about this moment, hopeful that the Arab world might finally overcome the endemic corruption and tyranny that had plagued it for decades. During this time, I was his student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington—the last year he taught, 2010–11. “The Egyptians have surprised the hell out of me,” he said in class of the uprising in Egypt that followed hard on Tunisia’s. “My enthusiasm for the revolt in Egypt is boundless.” In February 2011, when President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was finally deposed, he brought champagne to class.

The next great battleground in the revolutionary upheaval was in Syria. Peaceful protests broke out in early 2011 and soon gave way to a full-fledged civil war. In 2012 Ajami published a book on the conflict, The Syrian Rebellion, charting the uprising’s course. “Of the Arab societies stirred by the turmoil of 2010–2011,” he wrote, “Syria stands alone in the price paid by its peoples, and the cruelty and tenacity of the regime.” Indeed, exceptional circumstances had led him to Syria. He had put the Saudi book aside.

For better or worse, the Arab Spring did not visit Saudi Arabia. Ajami was not surprised. “This realm is not fragile,” he once remarked in class. The Saudis were in fact the counterrevolutionary power. They intervened to prevent an uprising in neighboring Bahrain and gave refuge to the deposed Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who died in Jeddah in 2019.

In June 2014, Fouad Ajami died, far too early, after a short battle with cancer. He would never have the opportunity to return to the Saudi book. Surely he would have liked to revise and update it substantially before seeing it published, but there is no use in sitting on the manuscript forever. Enough time has passed to allay his earlier concerns. It is a small tribute to him that Hoover Institution Press has agreed, with the support of Michelle Ajami, to bring out Crosswinds in its original form.

Much of course has changed in the kingdom since 2010. The long reign of King Abdullah, who ruled effectively from 1995 onward, came to an end with his death in 2015. He was succeeded by his half-brother Salman, one of the last surviving sons of the founder of the modern kingdom. In practice it has been Salman’s favored son, Mohammed bin Salman—known by his initials, MbS—who has managed the daily affairs of state. In 2017, MbS assumed the role of Crown Prince, thus making him the heir apparent. His ascension, whenever it takes place, will mark the first generational change in the leadership of Saudi Arabia since 1953, the year when King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern kingdom, died.

The rise of MbS heralds a new era in Saudi history, one possessed of both promise and peril. On the one hand the Crown Prince has overseen an unprecedented series of social and economic reforms, intended to make Saudi Arabia into a more “normal” country. He has opened the country to tourism, stripped the religious police of their power of arrest, granted women the right to drive, legalized movie theaters and concerts, and eliminated public flogging as a punishment. He has sought to encourage foreign investment and cultivate the non-oil sector of the economy. As regards the U.S.-Saudi security relationship, he has shown less regard for the idea of keeping the United States at a distance, inviting U.S. military forces to return to the kingdom after a nearly seventeen-year absence. Through much of this he has dramatically curtailed the power and influence of the religious establishment, the historical partner of the House of Saud in running the country. Indeed, MbS has played down the formative role of the Saudi version of Islam, known as Wahhabism, in the history of the kingdom.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia under MbS has become a more repressive and authoritarian country. In an essay from the early 1990s, Ajami described Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies as “a benign political order”: “No ‘visitors of dawn’ haul people off to political prisons in the dynastic states; men do not ‘disappear’ as they do in Damascus and Baghdad.” MbS has done much to challenge that description. No dissent to his policies is tolerated. All sorts of alleged dissidents, from religious actors to liberal reformers, have been rounded up and detained. Many of these, such as female advocates of women’s driving, pose no discernible threat to his rule. Then there was the incident in October 2018 that sparked international outrage. At the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Saudi agents brutally murdered the journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi, possibly as part of an attempt to repatriate him by force. Khashoggi had sought refuge in the United States, where he wrote critically of the Crown Prince, speaking in one article of the “climate of fear and intimidation” that had descended on the kingdom.

MbS, it is fair to say, does not fully adhere to “the way of Saudi Arabia” that forms the subject of this book. The Saudi way was a cautious one: halting reforms, benign authoritarianism, deference to the religious establishment, and royal consensus. In this last regard MbS has again departed from precedent. Traditionally, Saudi kings were, as Ajami put it in a late 2010 commentary, “first among equals” with their brothers: “The sons of Ibn Saud have had a way of dividing the power and the spoils of their father’s inheritance.” Today such royal power-sharing is no longer practiced. MbS has moved aggressively to concentrate power in himself at the expense of his relatives, stripping many of their portfolios and assets and reportedly placing some under house arrest.

Given the changes in Saudi Arabia over the past five years, Crosswinds may appear dated in some respects. It does well, however, in putting current developments into perspective. Focusing on the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, the book covers the critical events of the Gulf War, 9/11, the Al Qaeda revolt of 2003–6, and the U.S. intervention in Iraq from the Saudi perspective. In addition to his travels in the kingdom, Ajami draws on his extensive and varied reading—newspapers, fatwas, memoirs, travelogues, and novels—in depicting the “Saudi way” that was the hallmark of this period. The book, to borrow a phrase from the late L. Carl Brown, is “vintage Ajami.” It “crisply presents characters and anecdotes, using them as springboards for musings on larger issues.” Many of its recurring themes still bear much relevance to the current situation in the kingdom—the balance between reform and tradition, the strength and resilience of the political order, the problem of jihadism at home and abroad.

While Crosswinds does not predict or anticipate what has happened in Saudi Arabia during the last five years, its author rightly understood that “the personal factor matters in a monarchy of this sort.” For this reason, he was uncertain about the future of the country. There was, in the words of one of his Saudi interlocutors, a “silent crisis in the land,” a certain dissatisfaction and despair felt by many segments of society. MbS has sought to alleviate this crisis. Whether he can succeed without provoking another remains to be seen.