on April 24, 2006
Every so often a book comes along that sheds so much light and understanding on the events and people who shaped world events that the reader can honestly say; "Now I understand." Thicker Than Oil is one of those books.
Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, Iran-Contra, the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, the seeds of 9/11 sown at the end of World War II: each turns out to be the logical effect of a cause put into play over many years by presidents, kings, generals, entrepreneurs and ambassadors, all appropriately greased by oil, money and a mutual distaste for communism.
Rachel Bronson follows the trail, adds the insights, and uses the voices of the people who were actually there to document the U.S.-Saudi partnership over the last sixty years. It is the most clear and most compelling history available yet of the "uneasy" partnership.
Enjoyably readable, impeccably researched, interspersed with humor and understanding, Thicker Than Oil is everything you want a book to be. If only the future could be as clear as the author makes the past.
on June 4, 2006
Reducing bilateral relations between America and Saudi Arabia to oil alone is a mistake, argues Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East and Gulf Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, in this provocative book. Contrasted with recent titles on US-Saudi relations, her target is not the malevolence of the House of Saud or the supposed infesting character of America's alliance with the sentry of the Muslim faith; instead, Ms. Bronson asks: how could two countries as different as America and Saudi Arabia forge such a close alliance for so long?
Two parts form the answer: the first is that the alliance has not been airtight, much less free from squabble. Over the years, America and Saudi Arabia have clashed repeatedly, not least over America's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ms. Bronson's thorough research elucidates the ups and downs of America's rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, clarifying times when America's leaders have wanted closer ties with the kingdom and others when distance was warranted. Dispelling the myth that America and Saudi Arabia have always been close, Ms. Bronson pulls together the different strands of the story and highlights the conditions under which the two states have been attracted to one another.
From the close examination of history comes the second part to the answer: that the alliance was always about more than oil. Anti-communism and real-estate were equally important factors that brought the two countries together. America's anti-Soviet agenda found an natural partner in a devout country that was awash with money; time and again, America would turn to Saudi Arabia to finance anti-communist struggles the world over. The Saudis often obliged, for their own anti-communist reasons. Saudi Arabia's attractive location also led policy makers as early as World War II to pronounce the fruits of partnership with the kingdom.
From this tripod--"oil, gold and real estate"--a strong alliance emerged, one that went awry after September 11. For many Americans, this is not an alliance worth saving; Ms. Bronson disagrees. By bringing to light the history of bilateral ties, she illuminates both why this alliance could prove conducive to American interests and how it can be made so today. A book worth reading, especially given the poor scholarship of many of its competitors.
on October 24, 2006
I honestly find this book very hard to criticize and give "only" a 4 star rating to. As far as a work of history goes this is pretty impressive. The author clearly researched the living heck out of her subject and has more than ample footnotes to prove it. There's no reason to doubt any of her facts as anything but 100% true, and mostly comprehensive. She has a dispassionate writing style letting the facts she has uncovered speak for themselves, untempered by either leftist or rightist interpretation. And although her topic itself can be a bit dry at times, she writes quite well and the book is not a chore to finish. All of these things are like rare sparkling gems in most works of history geared towards popular audiences (i.e. as opposed to textbooks . . . in which case the above traits would probably be even more precious.)
You will learn some good information in this book. It has a brief review of Saudi Arabia's history, but the focus of the book is really on the relationship between the US government and the Saudi government so it doesn't really start until the '20's or '30's where America first begins exploring for oil in the peninsula, and doesn't get meaty until the '40's when official government relations are upgraded to embassy level and FDR and Abdel Aziz met onboard the USS Quincy. True to her title the US Saudi relationship has been about more than oil, and has taken on an air of surprising friendship in many cases, where both sides really are genuinely helping themselves out by helping out each other. On the oil front Saudi Arabia has used it as a weapon against America far less so than it's neighbors and other OPEC nations, being a reliable source to counterbalance what OPEC is doing, and covertly supplying the US military even during periods of embargo. On the geographic front they are key to American access to the gulf, and have generally been more reliable than is reported in allowing military operations from or through their territory. On the economic front Saudi Arabia has invested largely in America, and on the political front we were true allies in fighting communism. However, with the end of the Cold War this anti-communist bond dissolved, and as many know the infrastructure built to channel radical islamist fighters into Afghanistan didn't, setting much of the stage for 9/11 and our current war on terror. The info in this book regarding these events is very good.
Where this book falls short is that it seems to be missing the forest for the trees. It's so focused on the intergovernmental relationships and on presenting mostly a chronolog of what's happened, that as you read you feel there's an 800 lb guerilla in the room that no one's talking about: mainly Saudi society and the population at large. Because much of this book is sort of chronolog, there's very little satisfying analysis of why the things she's reporting are happening, and little attempt to understand this. A happens, then B happens, then C happens, and that's about it. Many would argue this is a good thing since it lets the reader make up their minds, but I would counterargue that because Saudi society (as well as practically any mention of American society) is mostly left out there's not enough comprehensive information for readers to make a truly well grounded opinion. Much allusion is made to the house of Saud's fear of being deposed and that it can't alienate its population too much, but what really IS the Saudi population like? What are the major camps of political and religious thought? Just how radical or pragmatic are they? What do they believe? How educated are they? How much grassroots support for terror is there, and how much can the government really feasibly curtail local "charitable" giving? Unfortunately you won't get much on the above type of questions.
Ultimately the author believes, and says so early on in the book, that the world is practically driven by government policies and the world's problems can thus be solved with government policies. Thus the nearly singular focus on governmental relationships without delving into the makeup of Saudi Arabian society seems natural, but just as much to be tragically missing the overall big picture. Last her "solutions" to the strains on current Saudi-US interactions sound like a UN debate on what to do about Darfur, and about as effective. We need a more "nuanced" this to "promote stability", a "smarter" policy that to "reduce radicalism", a "laser-like focus" on this issue. But it's all very non-specific and general, with little analysis on whether a US governmental change of tract can actually change Saudi popular behavoir. When she does mention specifics of policies they're incredibly weak. She lauds, for example, how great a $100,000 grant is to a Women's university in Jeddah is to help them work with Duke university, and how this was some huge public relations victory in the kingdom. But I highly doubt anyone in the kingdom even knows about the program, or in what appears to be a very fundamentalist Islamic nation barely cares even if they did hear. WTO membership is another one of her big solutions. Again I find it hard to believe that those supporting the terrorist (who rarely seem to be in it for economic gain as far as I can tell) will throw in the towel when they see that the US has paved the way for Saudi participation in a complicated worldwide uber-bureaucratic entity which may or may not make the general Sauid population a little bit richer.
There's good info in here, its meticulously researched and completely fair, it just seems a bit too myopic to be as useful as it could have been.
on April 17, 2006
As one very familiar with Saudi Arabia--and who blogs about it at Crossroads Arabia--I find Rachel Bronson's book to be the current best on the topic.
Without shying away from problems in Saudi Arabia, or within the US-Saudi relationship, Bronson treats all parties involved fairly. I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia in the early 80s, and then again from shortly after 9/11 'til October of 2003. Much of what she writes about, I experienced from within the US Embassy in Riyadh and my travels around the country. Her observations and assessments almost exactly match my own.
She carefully points out that for most of its history, Saudi Arabia and the US had mutual interests, primarily in fighting the Cold War against the Soviet Union. These mutual interests overrode differences. For example, using religion as a weapon in that war was something both the Saudis and the American governments--from Eisenhower through the early Clinton administration--saw as desirable and useful. But due to domestic political pressures, as well as those from a revolutionary Iran, the Saudi government let things go too far.
After jointly chasing the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the US government--as well as the Saudis--largely forgot about all the people who were sent there on a mission, both religious and military. We are all still facing the consequences of that negligence today.
Bronson also points out that Saudi reforms are real; that the Saudis provided far more support to the US government in its wars against Afghanistan and Iraq than it's generally credited for; and that pressuring the Saudi government to pick up the pace of reform requires something more careful than simply shouting at them from a newspaper or Congressional hearing.
If you're interested in what's going on in Saudi Arabia right now, there's no better place to start than with this book.
on January 26, 2016
Missing lots about US intel and big oil Regime building in Saudi Arabia. Arguably that's another book but there should be off-ramps because the Monarchy and these two are like the Hooper Triplets. Overall, however, well worth the kindle price. Nice and useful brief overview of Monarchy from 1740s up to WWI.
The Strongest point of this book is it's depiction of US and Saudi intelligence overlapping in what some writers call The Safari Club of late 1970s and how this sowed the seeds of today's plural of ISIS from Africa all the way to Indonesia.
on June 28, 2016
.the interrelationships between Israel and PALESTINE is very moonlighting. Also the Cold war and communist aggression in the middle east was presented very well. The amount of money that Sadi Arabia spent was new information that I had never heard. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Middle east.
on March 25, 2016
I'll admit freely that I picked up this book from the library after hearing a short NPR segment about the author. Living in the oil-rich state of Texas, we personally have a interesting view of Saudi Arabia's relationship with the US, so I was intrigued by the book's premise.
A year later I was barely 3/5 through the book and I had pushed it aside for over a dozen other more exciting books. This reads like an Arabic-heavy textbook. Yes, the author throws in some very (very) light commentary of her own, but mostly it is fact reporting. Granted those facts are reported from both sides of the equation, not just the Americans, but it's still a pretty dry read.
Once I picked Thicker Than Oil up again after about 10 months away, I was able to pick up the thread of the narrative once more. This time I was in the 90s and I recognized all of the players on the board. I enjoyed finishing the book and drawing my own conclusions as to the effects we are living with 10 years after it was published.
Overall this is a great primer on the Saudi Arabian/US relationship, but it is not light reading so do not be fooled by the book's diminutive size. Bronson did do some incredibly thorough and unbiased research and I applaud her for that.
on June 25, 2016
I found the book informity about our relationships in the middle east. If you want a quick read, I recommend this one. By reading this book, I am now reading others books about the area and what a pain the in side they are to us.
on June 22, 2016
Eye opening; it explains a lot of actions taken by our country that were never revealed to the public. Seeing the progression of events succinctly organized in one volume shines a light on a multi-decade partnership by giving the reader answers to questions about the U.S.attempts,for example after 9/11, and why the government worked so hard to try and keep the the fact that most of the terrorists on that fateful day were Saudi nationals. Great book.
on December 20, 2011
Great Book. Rachel Bronson does some great analytics on the various security, economic, and relational aspects of US-Saudi interaction over the last 80 years. It starts where Denny leaves off ("We Fight for Oil" 1928) and leads us through the various twists and turns of US - Saudi relations from the end of WWII and British Empire through the Cold War up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. She also highlights some of the more blunt realities in that relationship: "The fact that Saudi Arabia controls the largest oil resources in the world gives it a long-term interest in stable and long term prices to dissuade conservation and alternative fuels off the market." The only down side of this book is that Bronson argues strongly that we need Saudi Arabia as a partner but neglects to point out the full ramifications of past outcomes of that pairing. Perhaps we (the US) need to focus more on energy independence from the Middle East rather than how to ensure stability for the current fuel economy?