Book Review: King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz by Alexei Vassiliev

King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz by Alexei Vassiliev

In 2012 al-Saqi Books published a biography of King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz by Alexei Vassiliev, whose History of Saudi Arabia it published in 1997. Vassiliev, a charming writer who draws on Russian sources and perspectives on Middle Eastern history, is disarmingly frank about admitting his original motivation for choosing to study the history of Saudi Arabia. During his youth Saudi Arabia seemed remote enough from Soviet governmental and Communist ideological concerns to afford him relative freedom in formulating his own ideas and remarks about the country. As an adult, however, Vassiliev writes as the director of an institute in Moscow and not an émigré living in the West.

This substantial volume (495 pages) not only examines the life of Faisal himself but also devotes attention to that of his father King Abd al-Aziz and his brother King Saud. It further describes and analyses the political and economic issues not only of Saudi Arabia but of the wider Arab region and cold war world. Consequently Vassiliev’s book could serve as an introduction to both the issues and the atmosphere of politics of the Middle East from the 1960s to the mid-1970s, a time of tremendous instability and deadly rivalries between Arab governments. At the beginning of that period Arab leadership belonged unquestionably to Nasser, whom other Arab rulers often had reason to fear as well as respect. But while the defeat of 1967 cut Nasser and Egypt down to size, rising oil income enhanced the influence of Faisal and Saudi Arabia. In 1973-1974 Sadat and Faisal coordinated their military and economic action to telling effect, but it was Saudi’s oil embargo which proved the most successful. Indeed the embargo forms the culmination of Faisal’s career, coming as it did only a year before his life was cut short by assassination.

Vassiliev handles not only his subject but also Faisal’s relationship with his brother king Saud sensitively. He also indicates that Faisal’s political thinking, although hampered by a determination to link communism with zionism, conformed sufficiently with Saudi Arabia’s need to remain allied to the United States and did not prevent him from formulating intelligent and practical policies. Yet however talented and capable of recognising talent, Faisal does not seemed to have resisted the local tradition of selecting brothers, sons, in-laws and long-standing protégés for important posts.

Although Vassiliev finds Nasser guilty of complacency in the disaster of 1967, he clearly holds a higher opinion of Nasser than Sadat. Given Sadat’s deceitful treatment of the Soviet Union, perhaps this judgement is unsurprising. But it reflects badly on Nasser that he blamed Sadat, a subordinate at the time, for the decision to become involved in Yemen.

Although the breadth of Vassiliev’s coverage compels him to resort frequently to summary description and comment, for the most part his interpretations ring true and factual errors are few. Perhaps the most questionable remark comes early on in the book, where he states that ‘many’ Africans took their children along on pilgrimages and then sold them as slaves in order to pay for their return journey. This sounds like a repetition of a self-exculpatory local explanation for the number of black African slaves in Arabia.

The 1973–1974 oil embargo for which Faisal and his minister Ahmad Zaki Yamani were principally responsible transformed the political and economic position of Saudi Arabia and improved conditions as well as relations between other members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Faisal also fostered cooperation instead of rivalry between muslim states through his creation of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (recently renamed the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation). Moreover despite the international tensions created by the embargo, the rise in the oil prices and oil producers’ incomes which it brought about actually increased the level of cooperation between the industrialised countries and Arab producers.

Faisal ruled in a period of turmoil for both governors and governed in the Middle East. He was assassinated not by a foreigner or a political opponent but by his own unstable nephew. Faisal is remembered as one of Saudi Arabia’s most sincere and capable leaders.

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