The best books to understand modern Saudi Arabia

Simon Henderson Author Of After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia
By Simon Henderson

Who am I?

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.

The books I picked & why

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MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman

By Ben Hubbard,

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

Why 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.”

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

By Bradley Hope, Justin Scheck,

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

Why 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.”

The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia

By Madawi Al-Rasheed,

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

Why 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.

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

By Robert Lacey,

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

Why 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.

The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11

By Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan,

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

Why 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.)

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