Most people probably have a dark mental picture of Saudi Arabia. It might include the segregation and seclusion of women; public beheadings; fanatical and ignorant Wahhabi clerics; the majority of the 9/11 hijackers; and Osama bin Laden, the most notorious Saudi of all time. We are reminded of the grimness every time we see the brave BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner on the news, paralysed from the waist down after narrowly surviving a cold-blooded murder attempt by jihadis in Riyadh in June 2004. The Saudis are unpopular in many poor countries like Ethiopia, where they imagine they can simply rent the local women like 4x4s or camels. In Europe and the US, at least outside a narrow society of arms dealers, thoroughbred enthusiasts and oil men, their ‘Louis-Farouk’ vulgarity was once mocked and resented; nowadays every Saudi is viewed as a potential terrorist. My own perceptions of the place have been shaped by two brothers-in-law who worked there for three years in the 1980s. A colleague of theirs had a nervous breakdown, from which he has never recovered, after being sodomised in a police station following a minor traffic altercation with one of the locals, who had greater wasta (or ‘pull’) than a foreigner.
The royal biographer Robert Lacey published The Kingdom in 1981. This was immediately banned in Saudi Arabia, after Lacey refused to emend passages dealing with the 1964 forced abdication of King Saud in favour of the prime minister and regent Faisal. The author says he did not return