Review: Princes of Darkness: The Saudi Assault on the West

Princes of Darkness: The Saudi Assault on the West by Laurent Murawiec

MY RATING: 3/5 Stars

FTC NOTICE: Library Book

MOVIE TRAILER: Bhutto

REVIEW: “Let us admit…that the title “prince” is purely formal. Even if one were to respect the right of illiterate and course nomads to call their chiefs princes–we have no reason to be gratuitously discourteous–the demographic explosion of the Al-Saud family has created an endless supply of pseudo-princes. It even seems impossible to count this sub-species, which multiplies uncontrollably. Are there three or eight thousand Saudi “princes”? No one knows. If necessary, it was agreed–politeness to foreigners–to call the dozen bearded men in jellabas “princes.” But five or eight thousand? Inflation, as it is well known, devalues currency. The inflation of princes has devalued the title. Each prince thus bears the title of only one five-thousandth of a prince, so that at diplomatic receptions, the introduction might go: “Royal Highness the five-thousandth of a Prince Bandar,” which would be closer to reality” (229).

Yet, Laurent Murawiec, author of “Princes of Darkness: The Saudi Assault on the West,” wrote a book’s worth of “reasons to be gratuitously discourteous” (229), in his efforts to expose the everything he wanted readers to know about the Saudi Royal Family, he also freely injected caustic language. The author contended that Saudi oil came to life as a result of simply happening to inhabit the land under which the petrol sources rested. He wanted to establish that this royal family was nothing more than a self-propagating orgy of princes and their several wives to create future generations in order to maintain their power. “Saudi Arabia, for its part, modernized nothing. It was in 1957 – – and not in the seventh century – – that King Saud [SIC] issued and edict forbidding women to drive. In the name of Islam, the Saudi-Wahhabi regime has worsened the position of women. Sequestration inside the walls of home, the requirement to wear and an abaya showing only the eyes, and illiteracy and the virtual impossibility of exercising a profession, the prohibition of pursuing education abroad” (14-15), etc. Additional information included the author’s suggestion that the US invasion of Iraq existed as favor to Saudis…under threat of (Iran’s) Shia being able to obtain Iraqi oil reserves and out-power “The Kingdom.” He also delved into the formation of OPEC and OAPEC, asserting themselves as nothing more than political oil cartels, regardless of the fact that that the producing countries simply wanted control over what came from their territories. “Oil, everything comes down to oil” (179). Murawiec clearly had a problem with everybody and everything pertaining to the Saudi Royal Family, defining them as nothing more than Bedouin tribal thieves utilizing their religion as a weapon.

Despite the author’s frequently injected opinions that tended to distract from important historical facts, I enjoyed learning more about the Saudis and their relationship with Pakistan. This alliance may also have been the reason why Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was prohibited from obtaining “The Bomb.” I found this to be particularly interesting because, after seeing the film “Bhutto,” I wondered why Dr. Henry Kissinger adamantly emphasized to Bhutto that he would regret developing nuclear weaponry. After all, the USA developed “The Bomb,” then the USSR did the same thing. China then sensed it needed nuclear weapons to protect itself from the Russians. India felt threatened and started testing its “Bomb;” therefore, it appeared only rational that Pakistan would develop equal-caliber capabilities to protect itself from India. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was denied this power. General Zia-ul-Haq became Bhutto’s Chief of Staff (most likely at the request of the USA or Saudi Arabia), and then this man seized power via military coup…and got “The Bomb” anyway.

Mr. Murawiec did not go into all of that detail with Pakistan, because his book was about exposing the Saudi Royal Family’s power matrix. Pakistan played a somewhat minute role (in the context of their total power-base). The author explained how Pakistan’s intelligence arm, the ISI, “pulled the wool over the CIA’s eyes, manipulated American policy for its benefit, and came out on top” (77), thereby orchestrating the election(s) of Benazir Bhutto as part of a façade to appease the Western world.

While this review did not share nearly as much as what one can read and learn about in “Princes of Darkness: The Saudi Assault on the West,” my goal was to communicate that the author demonstrated compelling writing skills and strong subject matter knowledge, yet he faltered in maintaining a modicum of professionalism that one would expect from a person with his impressive credentials. I failed to appreciate when he repeatedly injected vitriolic statements such as the following: “We have seen the way in which Saudi Arabia asserted control over Pakistan, or, if you like, the Wahhabi acid bath into which Saudi influence plunged Pakistan” (107). Comments such as this one devalued the crucial information that he wanted exposed; as such, the book’s star rating was reduced.

Advertisements

Review: The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East

cvr_the-oil-kings-how-the-u-s-iran-and-saudi-arabia-changed-the-balance-of-power-in-the-middle-east-by-andrew-scott-cooperThe Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East by Andrew Scott Cooper

MY RATING: 5/5 Stars

FTC NOTICE: Purchased Copy

REVIEW: This is the second piece I have read by Andrew Scott Cooper, with the first one being “The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.” I purchased “The Oil Kings” as part of an extensive book haul in late 2015, and this piece sat in rotating loads of books from my local library system and other occasional ARCs that always, immediately, went to the top of my “To Read” stack. Had I known then what great work this book contained, I would have read it much sooner! How could I ever have delayed reading about the importance Middle East oil prices with their crude mix of politics!

The Oil Kings” revealed some jaw-dropping, pertinent micro-histories:
*“Asking the National Security Adviser to rig a defense contract” (71).
*Gilda (“the most dangerous of the Shah’s paramours” (100)).
*Corporate empire fixing.
*Money laundering from Iran, via Mexico, to support Nixon’s campaign/Watergate.
*Iran’s supply of fighter jets to South Vietnam during the war.
*Instability of worldwide economic systems.
*Scathing, SAVAK-caused “Charles Jourdan Incident.”
*Kissinger’s ambitions gone too far.
*Follow the oil; it shifts the power.
*Algiers Accords: a deadly domino effect.

My jaw dropped when I read about how “1975 Algiers Agreement” (246) shifted the balance of power in the Middle East: it betrayed the Kurds, empowered and emboldened Iraq, and weakened both Iran and the United States…immediately. Secondary consequences occurred in countries outside of the region as well. This book significantly underscored the entanglement, or interdependence, of every country with another, regardless of its location on this planet. There was no where to hide from the economic fall-out.

The Shah attempted to hide his cancer diagnosis to prevent political fall-out; I had read details surrounding its secrecy several times throughout the years. Cooper included new information and wrote about it with an unforgettable analogy: “In the spring of 1974, Iran’s supreme leader and his closest aide had both contracted incurable cancers. Shakespeare could not have imagined a more exquisite tragedy of state: unbeknownst to each other, the empire’s two most experienced helmsman were mortally ill. It brought to mind another empire whose fated Romanov dynasty and the deadly hemophilia suffered by Czarevitch Alexei, son and heir of Czar Nicholas II” (167).

While the Shah’s illness progressed, his country became more politically isolated…though one did not directly create the other; the possibility existed that the ruler’s behavior drastically changed as a result of his terminal diagnosis. By “December of 1974…it should have been abundantly clear that the Shah was pulling away from Washington to pursue a foreign policy based on independent nationalism, as Ardeshir Zahedi had been advocating since the late 1960s. Years earlier the CIA had warned that as the Shah became more assertive the chances would increase that Iranian foreign policy goals would diverge from those of the United States. Whereas Saudi Arabia was making inroads in Washington, Iran was increasingly identified as a source of tension and instability” (228). The American intelligence failure pertaining to knowledge surrounding the Shah’s lymphoma diagnosis allowed for the following situations: “…no policy adjustments made, no contingency plans drawn up, no legwork asked of the intelligence community. The transfer of high-tech weaponry to Iran did not slacken. The negotiations to sell Iran nuclear power technology remained on track. No steps were taken to reduce the number of expatriate personnel. In short, the United States continued its march to folly in Iran” (280).

This folly included targeted assassinations and generalized attacks on Americans in Iran. The warning signs and predictions were in place and well-known…but they were ignored. Everything led up to the Islamic Revolution, where this book tastefully ends but includes a follow-up to what happened to some of its key players. “The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East” contained compelling writing, great analogies, and interesting stories with just the right amount of “smut” factor. This piece easily earned its place on my “Favorites” shelf.

Review: Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War

cvr_who-lost-russia-how-the-world-entered-a-new-cold-war-by-peter-conradiWho Lost Russia?  How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi

MY RATING: 5/5 Stars

FTC NOTICE: Free Review Copy from LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program (in exchange for an honest review)

REVIEW: Have you seen a film called, “The King’s Speech” (starring Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush)? It delved into how the grandfather of England’s Prince Charles became king while building his nation’s confidence in him via a set of inspirational war-time speeches that reflected that he had overcome a stuttering issue and that the originally-intended king’s abdication would not adversely affect the nation. This film was based upon a book by the same name and was written by co-authored by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi (with the latter also serving as author of another book, “Hitler’s Piano Player”).

So, what lead me to read my first Peter Conradi book? At first glance, it was the book’s title, “Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War.” It was written in large and bright, Russian-red, Cyrillic-like block-style letters.  The cover art intrigued me, so I had to read the work’s synopsis.  The paragraphs included some teasers that dealt with the reality of what happened after former U.S. President Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.”  “In reality, Russia emerged from the 1990s battered and humiliated, a latter-day Weimar Germany, its protests ignored as NATO expanded eastwards to take in ex-Soviet republics.  Determined to restore his country’s bruised pride, President Vladimir Putin has overseen rapid economic growth and made incursions into Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, leaving the Western powers at a loss.  Now a cold war threatens to turn hot once again” (back cover).  What a tease for someone, like me, who has an interest in modern Russian history, the aforementioned countries, and the enigmatic Putin–I had to read Conradi’s newest book!

Nobody could have chosen a better writing sample as my introduction to Mr. Conradi’s work. “Who Lost Russia?” did not disappoint!  The story-telling (which included the author being an actor in some parts of the text, too) made the Russian-to-Soviet-to-Russian Federation backgrounds so much more enthralling than any of those found in the average college textbook and many competing works. I greatly enjoyed reading about the Tsars and Lenin, tribalism, ethnic Russians and how they managed their colonies, Russification, unifying propaganda and other themes, with a few of my favorites as follows:

*US permissions and Russian leadership: Who’s your daddy?
*NATO’s changing size: Is bigger always better?.
*Russia’s propaganda portfolio: Serving trolls with a side of catfish.
*Gerasimov:  Just what the doctrine ordered.
*Russia’s former republics:  Relationship status–“Its complicated.”

Peter Conradi demonstrated his ability to take complicated histories and weave them into an easy-to-follow storyline; the enigmatic Vladimir Putin repeatedly became the core of those stories in this up-to-date epic.  When most people heard about “Russia,” didn’t they instantly think about “Putin?” The United States found his rise to Russia’s most coveted leadership position to be a mysterious one. “IF WASHINGTON INITIALLY STRUGGLED TO GET the measure of Putin, it was understandable. His path to the Kremlin had been extraordinary for both its speed and its unexpectedness. At the end of 1991, as the Soviet Union broke up, Putin had been in his native St. Petersburg, where he held a relatively minor post in the Mayor’s office as head of the committee for external relations. It was not until June 1996 that he had come to Moscow to become a deputy chief of the presidential property management department. Yet by July 1998 he was head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the successor services of the KGB. In August 1999 he was named prime minister” (108).

Putin’s ascension to prime minister revealed a great dichotomy when comparing his present life with that of his past one; and, it was something in his childhood that aided me in connecting with this book. Conradi shared the following about Putin’s upbringing: “A flurry of biographies has been written about Putin, starting with is poor upbringing in Leningrad, as his home city was then known. The only child of a stern father, who was the Communist Party representative in a factory making railway carriages, he grew up in a run-down communal apartment in a once-elegant nineteenth-century apartment building in the centre of town. Amusement came from chasing rats around the courtyard. Accounts of his childhood have undoubtedly been coloured by his later career, yet he seems to have been an unremarkable boy and young man, who briefly went off the rails before finding redemption in martial arts” (108).

This story about Putin’s life reminded me of some stories my father (of Russian, English and Austrian descent) shared about his young years. Like Russia’s current prime minister, my father claimed to have had a poor childhood with a stern father; the family supposedly went from riches down to rags when they lost almost everything due to America’s 1929 “Great Depression,” which started a few months after my father’s birth. During my dad’s third year of life, his parents decided to move from Buffalo, New York, to Boyle Heights, CA for new opportunities. The new place boasted a large Russian-Orthodox Jewish community. In fact, in the early 1930s, advertisements labelled Boyle Heights as the largest Orthodox Jewish community west of the Mississippi River. The community seemed close-knit and my father shared some great memories of living there; but, what made me connect most with Putin’s childhood story came from stories of my own father finding dead rats in the streets. He claimed that he used to pick them up by their tails, swing the critters around and throw them at other kids. I remember simultaneously feeling disgusted and also laughing at the idea of my father doing something like that “back in the day.” He called those rats, “Depression Era Toys.” Thankfully he eventually grew out of (or became bored with) those toys, moved out of the neighborhood, and achieved his own successes.

Vladimir Putin moved outward and upward as well; and Peter Conradi expertly explained the reasons why Russia’s current Prime Minister ordered his military into Ukraine.  This specific area became another connection I experienced with the book, because Ukraine was not always “just Ukraine.”

My grandmother and her parents left a city specifically known as “Dolyna,” in order to the United States circa 1903. Their hometown sat within the confines of the province of Galicia, in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. This territory later became part of modern day Ukraine; and, it could eventually become part of Russia, again.

Peter Conradi’s approachable writing style took complex histories and converted them into a modern compendium for multiple audiences. I found his book to be a highly recommendable read for every individual who would want to understand personalities of world leaders, complications created by colonization and empire, complexities of geo-politics, and dynamics of international relations (emphasizing those between the United States and Russia). The author made it possible for me to re-connect with my own personal experiences and family history. While the connections I found in this book may be rather unusual, other readers may relate to facets of the book as well, embedding this highly memorable piece of literature within them (and me) for many years to come. In the meantime, as to the question of “Who Lost Russia?” future readers need to read the book and decide for themselves.

Review: Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq

cvr_overthrow-americas-century-of-regime-change-from-hawaii-to-iraq-by-stephen-kinzerOverthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq by Stephen Kinzer

MY RATING: 3/5 Stars

FTC NOTICE: Library Book

REVIEW: Stephen Kinzer’s ” Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq” sought to illustrate a trended pattern of regime changes driven by the United States government on foreign land. He detailed specific situations and defined the categories of coups, coupled with commonalities of the countries in which the USA initiated overthrows of key politicians.

Blatant coups took place in countries with rich, natural resources that fell under foreign (namely, American) control; or in scenarios where nationalization of those resources were attempted, America stepped in to protect its corporate interests. Covert coups, typically of the Cold War Era, seemed to be conducted differently because they were based on an assumption that Communism need to be stopped. “Far easier was to categorize nationalism simply as a disguised form of Communist aggression and seek to crush it wherever it reared its ugly head” (pp. 215-216).

“What distinguishes Americans from citizens of past empires is their eagerness to persuade themselves that they are acting out of humanitarian motives. For most of the “regime change” era, the United States did little or nothing to promote democracy in the countries whose governments it deposed” (pg. 316). The consistent, immediate effects of US-driven coups led to “larcenous frenzy” (pg. 306), and insufficient troop support to stop fires, looting, and other crimes of opportunity.

Kinzer’s research revealed that US has mistakenly believed that in making a foreign country turn democratic that it can be equated with the political position of being pro-American. More often than not, the converse has revealed itself to be true. Coups/Overthrows tend to “bind the United States” to the subject matter countries. It was this form of attachment that chiseled our almost inescapable legacy.

Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq became the fourth book I read by Stephen Kinzer; and, it was my least favorite of the bunch. It was typical for there to be a lack of transition between the chapters (typically representing a separate country), and when he tried to make the chapters connect toward the end of the book, his paragraphs seemed to jump around. The book lacked structural cohesion and seemed to be a rush-to-production piece that took his research from previous books and slammed it/them together to call the compendium a defined work. The fact that I had already become a Kinzer fan was what pushed me to read this book to completion.

Review: The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran

cvr_the-fall-of-heaven_the-pahlavis-and-the-final-days-of-imperial-iranThe Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran, by Andrew Scott Cooper, PhD.

MY RATING: 4/5 Stars

FTC NOTICE: Free Review Copy from Library Thing Early Reviewers Program (in exchange for an honest review)

REVIEW:  At first glance (and final review), I loved the layout and research elements of this “The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran,” by Andrew Scott Cooper. Prior to the “Introduction,” the reader encountered a list of key people and their roles, a “Revolution Timeline” and a 1979 map of Teheran, Iran (a critically important inclusion for any book focusing on Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Each chapter included two short, pertinent, and impactful quotes from different sources. History buffs, analysts, investigative personality types, and nerds at-hearts can greatly enjoy that the author shared his detailed research notes. He “constructed a 242-page, color-coordinated timeline that spanned the crucial twenty-month period from January 1, 1977, through August 31, 1978, that decided the Shah’s fate. The timeline expanded to include everything from weather reports and traffic conditions to movie and theater listings—anything to help me re-create daily life on the eve of the revolution. The timeline meant that I could follow the Shah, Queen Farah, President Carter, Ambassador Sullivan, and other personalities on a daily and even hourly basis during a critical two-year stretch. The timeline yielded unexpected patterns, trends, and turning points forgotten, neglected, or otherwise overlooked by other scholars” (15).

Dr. Andrew Scott Cooper, an expert in U.S.-Iran relations, wrote this text to serve as a correction of historical records. His qualifications included being a: “former researcher at Human Rights Watch, the US organization that monitors human rights around the world” (11). Perhaps it was this specific life experience that motivated him to write this compendium, which focused on following:

1. Iran’s human rights record within the context of the behaviors of other nation’s Cold War era dictators/rulers.
2. The scene that set the final stage for the revolution, revealing “two different revolutionary narratives” (15).
3. Farah Diba’s as a non-stereotypical model of a ruler’s wife.

The Shah’s human rights record included rumors that SAVAK held thousands of political prisoners. The last Shah countered that the numbers were greatly inflated. Dr. Cooper specified that “the lower numbers do not excuse nor diminish the suffering of political prisoners jailed nor tortured in Iran in the 1970s. They do, however, show the extent to which the historical record was manipulated by Khomeini and his partisans to criminalize the Shah and justify their own excesses and abuses” (11). The author deconstructed false analogies that compared the Shah to “Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, blamed for the deaths of 2,279 people and 30,000 torture victims, and also to the Argentine military junta, held culpable for 30,000 deaths and disappearances” (11). Further details revealed that “within the context of the Cold War battlefronts in the Middle East and southwestern Asia, the Pahlavi state was not particularly repressive, especially when we consider that Saddam Hussein, in neighboring Iraq, was credited with the deaths of 200,000 political dissidents, while in Syria, President Hafez al-Assad crushed an Islamic uprising with 20,000 casualties. That Iran never experienced violence on such a scale suggests the Shah was a benevolent autocrat who actually enjoyed a greater degree of popular support among the Iranian people than was previously assumed” (11). Several explanations throughout the book included how Khomeini and his followers slandered the regime to gain his own political power; he was quoted as follows: “I can summon a million martyrs to any cause” (103)—and he did.

While the author did debunk rumors regarding Pahlavi regime behavior and the context in which the stories developed, the questions that must be asked include whether or not the uncovered facts carried enough weight to alter the world-view of the Pahlavi regime; and, would the Islamic Revolution still have occurred? Or, were they simply historical little white lies in the whole grand scheme of things? Readers must also determine whether or not such clarifications were worthy of a several-hundred-page compendium. Andrew Scott Cooper’s collection of micro-histories kept its promise to the readers; but the writing style at times seemed a bit disjointed; and, coupled with seemingly unnecessary minutiae, the piece became a bit dry at times…slowing down the reading and enjoyment of this text. Where the author truly gained writing cohesion and an energetic traction that created reading momentum revealed itself after 400 pages. Had the author utilized the same writing style more pervasively, this text easily would have earned five stars in lieu of four of them.

Review: Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West

cvr_reconciliation-islam-democracy-and-the-west-by-benazir-bhuttoReconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, by Benazir Bhutto

MY RATING: 3/5 Stars

FTC NOTICE: Purchased Book, 2016 Library Thing Santa Thing

RELATED MOVIE(S): Bhutto (2008) Trailer (IMDB)

REVIEW: “I return to Pakistan after eight years abroad on October 18, 2007, and was greeted in Karachi by crowds estimated by Sindhi press and party officials to be up to three million people. It was a moment I have dreamt of for so many years. I was overwhelmed by emotion as I touched the land of my birth and saw the love of the people. It was a love I returned with all my heart and soul.  Politics started out as a duty for me. Over the years of pain, suffering, sacrifice, and separation, of young men and women tortured and killed, it had become an all-consuming passion” (218). An equal level of commitment resulted in “Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West,” becoming the last book written by the first-ever, female prime minister of a Muslim country; her name was Benazir Bhutto.

Reconciliation” was divided into six chapters with clearly defined elements: Islam’s saga, democratic ideals, Pakistan’s internal strife and dichotomous relations with the United States (who she repeatedly asserted as a nation pursuing arbitrary democracy), “clash of civilizations”, the need for a changed vocabulary, and fear of her nation being disintegrated from within. She successfully argued that “to understand Pakistani politics, an understanding of Pakistan’s provinces and their characteristics is necessary” (158). Over time, the reader could recognize that the author became stuck in a political quagmire; and, despite the fact that Bhutto needed the USA, she seemed to dedicate a good portion of her book to rant against her greatest ally.

Overall, I recognized that “Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West,” served as a plea for dialogue, understanding, change, help and recognition. Unfortunately, this book’s preachy and academic approach caused me to skim some of the material. Sometimes I felt like the author was speaking down to the reader; yet, fragments reflected how she wrote so beautifully, so passionately, that you could visualize where she was and feel what Bhutto felt in that moment. It set my expectations for the rest of the piece. Ultimately, the writings could not maintain a significant quantity of that communication style to reflect a higher star rating.