An entertainingly exhaustive, though imperfect, biography of an inscrutable monarch.
Few countries were changed as completely and irrevocably over the course of the 20th century as Saudi Arabia, and no leader shaped his country as thoroughly as did Ibn Saud (1876–1973). Husband to at least 20 women and father of “at least 45 sons and probably an even larger number of daughters”—a few of his sons have succeeded him as king—Ibn Saud began life as a Bedouin raider living in a tent and ended it as an all-powerful potentate worth billions of dollars, a transformation that resembles nothing so much as the history of his own homeland. Darlow and Bray (who died in 2010) collaborate on a comprehensive history of the only man in modern times to lend his name to a country, a rebranding that marked “the beginning of a shift from being a host of separate, often competing, tribes and regions into one coherent, centrally administered state.” The authors adroitly narrate the military and political maneuvers that consumed much of Ibn Saud’s attention, but the welter of detail they provide will overwhelm some readers. As Darlow and Bray chronicle the sprouting of skyscrapers and expressways in the shifting sands of one of the most traditionalist societies on earth—where even “the existence of barber shops and the practice of clapping” are controversial topics, and where women are famously treated as the property of their guardians—some of the more arcane minutia of the king’s life merely clouds the picture. Ultimately, readers may feel the book is both too long and too narrowly focused.
Amusing anecdotes and exotic backdrops keep readers engaged, but they do little to aid in understanding the complex society in which Ibn Saud lived.