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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning and Insightful, April 24, 2006
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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.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The non-oil connection, June 4, 2006
By 
N. Tsafos (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
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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.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Current Book on Saudi Arabia, April 17, 2006
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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.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard to Criticize, But . . ., October 24, 2006
By 
Dianne Roberts (Los Angeles, California United States) - See all my reviews
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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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a very useful book on relations between the American and Saudi governments, February 12, 2007
Rachel Bronson, who works at a prestigious New York City think tank dedicated to Foreign Affairs, has written an excellent book on the history of the relationship between the governments of the United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The thesis of her book is that contrary to what some say, this friendship has been based on more than oil, that is also on shared antagonisms of Communism and Colonialism, and mutual strategic benefits. If you're a diplomat or political scientist, this well researched and meticulously documented book, which includes little tidbits that are rarely discussed, such as Mussolini's bombing the Dhahran oil installations at the beginning of the Second World War, will prove immensely useful to you.

But if you approach this history as a history buff, sociologist, or interested citizen, Bronson's almost pedantic focus on the political aspects of this long relationship and her emphasis on brevity are such that this book probably won't meet your needs. In distilling the history of this relationship to its bare bones, Bronson elides fascinating historical details that greatly help to understand the history. Bronson, for example, mentions that after they had helped him conquer his kingdom, King Abdul Aziz fell out with his Islamic shock-troops, the Ikhwan, who were only subdued with British help. Had she written that one of the straws that broke the camel's back was King Abdul Aziz's use of the radio, which the Ikhwan took as proof of that their King was an "idolater" and hence illegitimate, and the British Royal Air Force had to be called in to restore order, this book would have more local color.

I agree completely with Bronson that the Saudis were rightfully wary of allying themselves with the British, who at the time wielded an inordinate amount of influence in the region, and that an alliance with the Soviet Union was inconceivable; hence the alliance with the US. But I think she omits one of the reasons why this partnership worked so well for so long: strong cultural similarities between many of the Americans who worked in Saudi Arabia and the Saudis themselves. Texas was one of the hubs, if not the hub, of the American oil industry, and a disproportionate number of the American expatriates in Saudi Arabia were Texan. The Texas of the 1940s shared much more history, topography and culture with Saudi Arabia than Britain or any other European country keen on good relations with Saudi Arabia: many Texan preachers and Saudi mullahs were equally fond of alcohol and (often) intellectuals; both societies had had large populations with a nomadic tradition, Bedouins and Cowboys, a history of gunfights, a patriarchal and clan-based culture, a history of racial inequality (Saudi Arabia outlawed slavery at about the same time the United States ditched their Jim Crow laws, etc.) Neither Odessa, Texas nor large swathes of Saudi Arabia are quite as verdant and lush as the Garden of Eden was.

These similarities and tensions even played off of each other. Abdullah Al-Tariki, a Saudi petroleum minister, studied at the University of Texas, and was said to have left Austin with a chip on his shoulder because as a student he had been denied entry into some Austin bars by bouncers who thought he was of Mexican origin. When he returned to Saudi Arabia, he set out to found a Saudi equivalent of the Texas Railroad Commission, which the world came to know as OPEC.

To sum up, as a concise and heavily documented summary of the relationship between the American and Saudi governments this book is easily worth five stars. It is not, nor was it meant to be, a deeper, wider, and more thoughtful look at the shared history between these two nations.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an absolutely remarkable piece of research, August 4, 2006
By 
Lee L. (Baltimore, MD) - See all my reviews
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Saudi Arabia, and America's relationship with it, is quite possibly one of the most important aspects of the Middle East today. While issues such as Iraq, and conflicts involving Israel are also of great importance, Rachel Bronson has done a great service by producing a compelling piece of work that is really unmatched in terms of approach, documentation, and presentation. There are many poorly written books about the Middle East today that do more harm than good. Bronson's book certainly does not fall into this category and is one of the best books on the area that I have ever read.

What you'll get in this book is a history of America's relationship with the modern state of Saudi Arabia. As the title suggests, there is much more to this relationship than oil, and the relationship goes far beyond that of the Bush family. Bronson has gone a long way in debunking much of the conspiracy theory garbage that has been produced from both the left and right on this subject. Her sources and methods are close to perfect here, and it is rare to find an author that goes to such great lengths to make sure that a full and accurate picture is presented. The amount of sources in this book is beyond belief, and her selected bibliography is filled with enough books to keep you busy for a long, long time.

The most refreshing aspect of this book is that Bronson demonstrates how so much of what would be considered "common knowledge" about Saudi Arabia is flat out wrong. What Bronson has done with this book is shown how lazy most other observers of the region actually are in their research. Since reading this book, I have flipped through a number of other books about Saudi Arabia, and I can clearly see at this point that most other authors start with their conclusion and work backwards from it. Bronson conducts honest research, lets her work speak for itself and as a result, her biggest strength is her ability to take a subject that so many authors have sensationalized, and produce a serious work that actually contributes to a greater understanding of that subject, rather than a book that detracts from it. By taking a quick look at the titles of many other books about Saudi Arabia, it is clear that more often than not, authors are taking a subject of vital importance, and making things worse rather than better.

This goes for films too. It makes me queasy to think back to the days when I thought Fahrenheit 9/11 had provided me with a sufficient understanding of Saudi Arabia and America's relationship with it. After reading this book, I can't even begin to describe how poorly equipped a person would be if they thought Michael Moore's film gave them a better grasp of U.S.-Saudi relations.

Put simply, this book is a must-read if you seek a greater understanding of Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East in general. There is no excuse for serious observers of the region to pass over this book. But even if you are new to the subject matter, this book will be immensely helpful. It is well-written, and quite clear in its presentation. It is my sincere hope that as many people read this book as possible.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Detailed analysis of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, June 8, 2007
Detailed analysis of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia

American foreign policy exists simultaneously at several levels. Talk radio and TV pundits occupy the surface level, while foreign policy professionals understand increasingly deeper layers of information, history and interpretation. Rachel Bronson uses a scholarly approach for this in-depth discussion of America's complex relationship with Saudi Arabia. Linked by their animosity toward communism, and a fundamental supplier-customer relationship based on oil, the Saudis and Americans were allies throughout the Cold War. Then, they worked clandestinely to thwart the Soviets. But in the post-Cold War environment, conditions changed. The Saudis faced a major threat from other Islamic nations over their monarchy and their close relations with the U.S. Bronson densely packs her book with historical events in diplomatic, military, religious and cultural frameworks. Much of this material was classified and unavailable previously, so Bronson has fresh information. We consider this essential reading for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the vital, evolving relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly readable, meticulously researched, even-handed, August 14, 2006
By 
THOMAS G. OBRIEN III (Palm Beach Gardens, FL United States) - See all my reviews
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Rachel Bronson's book is an exceptional accomplishment. She uses a vast number of authoritative sources and weaves a compelling and readable account of complex geopolitical relationships. Marshall Lilly's recent (August 6, 2006) review is right on target. Thomas G. O'Brien III, Palm Beach Gardens, FL
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent,balanced work, March 16, 2014
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Absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in U.S.-Saudi relations. Well written, balanced, and authoritative. I purchased this work hoping for a better understanding of relations between the Kingdom and the United States and was not disappointed. Those looking for social and cultural points may want to seek additional works as this is largely a political and diplomatic history that is useful in understanding present day relations. Excellent work that flows and keeps the reader, be they an academic or a layman, interested
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5.0 out of 5 stars The "story" behind the story!!, January 7, 2013
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I have recently acquired a desire to know the real story of the US/Saudi relationship. I have been reading a lot about the middle east because frankly - I live in that part of the world now. The more I understand about the relationship and why, the more it makes sense. Definately not a boring read. Enjoy!!
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Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia
Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia by Rachel Bronson (Paperback - June 25, 2008)
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