The best books to understand modern Saudi Arabia

Why am I passionate about this?

British by birth, American by naturalization, Simon Henderson started in journalism as a trainee at the BBC before becoming its correspondent in Pakistan. Joining the Financial Times a year later, he was promptly sent to Iran to cover the 1979 Islamic revolution and went back again for the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. He now analyzes the Gulf states, energy, and the nuclear programs of Iran and Pakistan as the Baker fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


I wrote...

After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

By Simon Henderson,

Book cover of After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

What is my book about?

I have written about the Saudi royal family – the House of Saud – for nearly 30 years. My first in-depth study was After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia. I followed this up in 2009 with After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia. My latest study, A Fifty-Year Reign? MBS and the Future of Saudi Arabia published in 2019, examines the circumstances by which Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman may, or may not, become king.

Whatever happens the kingdom is changing, with social liberalization, a less central role for the Islamic religious hierarchy, and attempts to move the economy away from its dependence on oil. But MbS is an autocrat with a streak of ruthlessness, as illustrated by the detention and torture of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman

Simon Henderson Why did I love this book?

The assiduous New York Times reporter digs deeply into the persona of the Saudi crown prince, and is rewarded with many anecdotes. Unsurprisingly, most are anonymous. A revealing one is: “One foreign official recalled that the prince’s leg never stopped bouncing during their meeting, making him wonder if the prince was nervous or on some sort of stimulant.”

By Ben Hubbard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked MBS as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Financial Times Book Best Book of the Year 2020

A Foreign Affairs Best Book of the Year 2020

The gripping, untold story of how Saudi Arabia's secretive and mercurial new ruler rose to power.

Even in his youth as a prince among thousands of princes, Mohammed bin Salman nurtured sweeping ambitions. He wanted power - enough of it to reshape his hyper-conservative, insular Islamic kingdom.

When his elderly father took the throne in 2015, MBS got his chance. As the hands-on-ruler, he made seismic changes, working doggedly to overhaul the kingdom's economy, loosen its strict Islamic social codes and…


Book cover of Blood and Oil: Mohammed Bin Salman's Ruthless Quest for Global Power

Simon Henderson Why did I love this book?

Another post-Khashoggi product, by two Wall Street Journal reporters, this volume is longer than Hubbard’s but doesn’t get as close to what may make MbS tick. Their reporting’s strength though is chronicling the initial steps of MbS’s Vision 2030 plan to transform the kingdom, and the background to his pet project – the $500 billion futuristic city of NEOM in the northwest of the kingdom.

They write: “Mohammed decided to build not just a city but a mini-kingdom. It would have cutting-edge technology and medical care, all powered by solar energy rather than oil.” The vision statement for the project reads: “The land of the future, where the greatest minds and best talents are empowered to embody pioneering ideas and exceed boundaries in a world inspired by imagination.”

By Bradley Hope, Justin Scheck,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blood and Oil as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'If you've ever wondered what would happen if limitless money met limitless power, wonder no longer, it's all here...Terrifying, disturbing and ghastly' Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland

'Explosive' The Times

'[A] Crisp page-turner of a book teeming with telling detail ... Splendid' Financial Times

'The fascinating and highly entertaining tale ... Fly-on-the-wall reporting and palace intrigue worthy of Machiavelli' John Carreyrou, author of Bad Blood

Longlisted for the 2020 Financial Times / McKinsey Business Book of the Year

Blood and Oil the explosive untold story of how Mohammed bin Salman and his entourage grabbed power in the Middle East and…


Book cover of The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia

Simon Henderson Why did I love this book?

London-based Professor Al-Rasheed combines the objectivity of an academic with years of criticism of the House of Saud, and her consequent life in exile. One assumes the title is an allusion to Louis XIV of France who ruled for 72 years. A tougher read than the journalistic flows of the other books listed here, it is nevertheless very solid and perceptive.

By Madawi Al-Rasheed,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Son King as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi regime operatives, shocking the international community and tarnishing the reputation of Muhammad bin Salman, the kingdom's young, reformist crown prince. Domestically, bin Salman's reforms have proven divisive, and his adoption of populist nationalism and fierce repression of diverse critical voices-religious scholars, feminists and dissident youth-have failed to silence a vibrant and well-connected Saudi society.

Madawi Al-Rasheed lays bare the world of repression behind the crown prince's reforms. She dissects the Saudi regime's propaganda and progressive new image, while also dismissing Orientalist views that despotism is the only pathway to stable governance…


Book cover of Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia

Simon Henderson Why did I love this book?

Better known these days for his writing on the palace dramas of the British royal family and being the historical adviser to the Netflix series The Crown, Lacey previously wrote the 1981 doorstopper The Kingdom: The History of Saudi Arabia to 1979. That was the year of the seizure by Sunni extremists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca as well as the Iranian (Shia) revolution.

This latest volume, published in 2009, looks at Saudi Arabia and the transition which was already taking place before the current King Salman took the throne and before anybody had heard of MbS.

By Robert Lacey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inside the Kingdom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Saudi Arabia is a country defined by paradox: it sits atop some of the richest oil deposits in the world, and yet the country's roiling disaffection produced sixteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. It is a modern state, driven by contemporary technology, and yet its powerful religious establishment would have its customs and practices rolled back to match those of the Prophet Muhammad over a thousand years ago. In a world where events in the Middle East continue to have geopolitical consequences far beyond the region's boundaries, an understanding of this complex nation is essential. With "Inside the Kingdom", British…


Book cover of The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11

Simon Henderson Why did I love this book?

With this year’s 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, this book, published on the 10th anniversary, is a useful reminder of the events of that day and the subsequent investigations of why it happened.

The civil case against Saudi Arabia for alleged complicity with the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi, continues, albeit with little publicity. That is likely to change. Osama bin Laden’s own legal reckoning was less formal of course – the Saudi whose name has become synonymous with terrorism died in a hail of bullets from U.S. Navy SEALs. (I can also recommend the movie of that event Zero Dark Thirty.)

By Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Eleventh Day as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

FINALIST FOR THE PULITZER PRIZE
 
For most living Americans, September 11, 2001, is the darkest date in the nation’s history. But what exactly happened on 9/11? Could it have been prevented? And what remains unresolved? Here is the first panoramic, authoritative account of that tragic day—from the first brutal actions of the hijackers to our government’s flawed response; from the untruths told afterward by U.S. officials to the “elephant in the room” of the 9/11 Commission’s report—the clues that point to foreign involvement. New York Times bestselling authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan write with access to thousands of recently…


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The Last Whaler

By Cynthia Reeves,

Book cover of The Last Whaler

Cynthia Reeves Author Of The Last Whaler

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Arctic adventurer Eternal optimist Unrealistic realist Foodie Teacher

Cynthia's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This book is an elegiac meditation on the will to survive. Tor, a beluga whaler, and his wife, Astrid, a botanist specializing in Arctic flora, are stranded during the dark season of 1937-38 at his remote whaling station in the Svalbard archipelago when they misjudge ice conditions and fail to rendezvous with the ship meant to carry them back to their home in southern Norway. 

Beyond enduring the Arctic winter’s twenty-four-hour night, the couple must cope with the dangers of polar bears, violent storms, and bitter cold, as well as Astrid’s unexpected pregnancy.

The Last Whaler concerns the impact of…

The Last Whaler

By Cynthia Reeves,

What is this book about?

The Last Whaler is an elegiac meditation on the will to survive under extreme conditions. Tor, a beluga whaler, and his wife, Astrid, a botanist specializing in Arctic flora, are stranded during the dark season of 1937-38 at his remote whaling station when they misjudge ice conditions and fail to rendezvous with the ship meant to carry them back to their home in southern Norway. Beyond enduring the Arctic winter's twenty-four-hour night, the couple must cope with the dangers of polar bears, violent storms, and bitter cold as well as Astrid's unexpected pregnancy. The Last Whaler concerns the impact of…


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Interested in Saudi Arabia, politics, and September 11th?

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