Abdelrahman Munif, R.I.P.


The Saudi author Abdelrahman Munif has died at the age of 70 in Damascus. Why should that matter? First, because his five-book Cities of Salt saga (published as a trilogy in English by Vintage International), particularly the first volume, was an unsparing account of the formation of a Gulf petro-monarchy?in effect Saudi Arabia?written in the days when, at least from an American perspective, the corruption and cruelty inherent to such systems were largely ignored.

Second, because Munif, who was as unsparing in his criticism of American involvement in transforming Gulf backwaters where oil had been discovered, long ago anticipated the destructive cultural rift that would ensue between the U.S. and conservative forces in the Gulf kingdoms.

The Al-Ahram Weekly obit linked typically misses the point: Munif?s ?legacy will live on as something over and above literature?the struggle of a truly pan- Arab citizen to attain historical lucidity and to retrieve the right to self expression.?

That is a reference to the fact that the Saudi authorities deprived Munif of his nationality. But what Al-Ahram missed was that the experiences of this allegedly pan-Arab citizen did more than anything to reaffirm what a terrible idea pan-Arabism was, since its success would have merely added more layers of stifling patriarchal rule. Indeed, that Munif should have turned to communism and died in Syria was a testament to what abysmal alternatives secular Arab opposition figures are often left with.

NEXT: Shooting the Moon

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  1. Somewhere in this thread I hope someone will give me the history of why American oil experts didn’t just expropriate the oil and tell the Ahabs to get lost.

    Not knowing, it seems sharing the oil wealth has caused massive social damage similar to LBJ’s Great Society.

  2. JB

    Wasn’t it about theft to begin with? Wasn’t Saudi Arabia a concotion of Whitehall, supporting the claims of the Saudi founder against the rather more plausible claims of the Jordanian Husseins? (And all to secure a “sweet-heart” deal for largely Anglo-American oil interests?)

    And like every piece of Real-Politik, this has back-fired in a spectacular way– there is no “realism” in cynicism…it is a kind of “something-for-nothing” wishful thinking that believes you can substitute political/military action for producing and trading.

    The worst thing about Saudi Arabia is not that the Brits placed the oil in the hands of some thieving desert bandits– it is that the Brits put the holy cities in the hands of some PARANOID desert bandits, and turbo-charged their bogus “state” with an ocean of oil revenues.

    There will be no such thing as a Moderate Islam until Mecca and Medina are returned to the Jordanian Kingdom, with a center of gravity in a larger population than the Peninsula as a whole, a real economy based in the Levant, and a largely tolerant (almost secular) society containing a significant Christian minority.

    Instead, the holy sites are the captive of a wahhabi principality, which is most a ghost-town (with a servant class that out-numbers the indigines), %99 Muslim, and totally dependent on the manic-depressive world energy market…not a recipe for peace.

    So what we get was last Friday’s haj sermon in Mecca, spewing hatred and martyrdom even as new bombings rock Riyadh– and this was considered a good year!

    Then and now, doing the right thing is doing the smart thing.

  3. Andrew,

    Try the following:

    David Fromkin, “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East”

  4. Andrew,

    Some have advocated that Mecca and Medina should become like a Muslim Vatican City; and that this divest the Saudis of much of their influence.

    If you are advocating leaving the area alone, and letting it progress how it will, that is my policy exactly.

    MTW, Mecca will always be 100% Muslim; its a religious requirement as I recall that no non-Muslim come close to their sacred rock.

  5. What Andrew said.

    Except I still can’t figure out why the clueless natives were given such a large share of the action. That was before Jimmy Carter’s time, eh?

  6. Ruthless,

    So you advocate theft?

  7. Joe

    I don’t believe the US should try to engineer the collapse of the Saudi state (at least not at this time), but I can easily see it happening, no matter what we do or don’t do.

    When that happens, it would be good to see Jordan recover the Holy Cities… and NONE of the oil– the two should be seperate.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to hear an annusl hajj sermon that went “People, can’t we all get along? Be nice to your parents, don’t kick the dog!”?

    Instead we get “Martyrs, restore every scrap of the Arab Nation, and expel the infidel from Dar-Islam!”

    This just doesn’t make for peace.

  8. “… still can’t figure out why the clueless natives were given such a large share…”

    Because they weren’t that clueless at all? Looks like the towel-heads could get pretty good advice ever since the first oil rights were up for grabs soon after WW1.

    If one is inclined to (and has time to) read a tome of some 800 pages, “The Prize” by Daniel Yergin is a fascinating account, sweeping from the early years of Standard Oil to the oil crisis of the 1970s through to Saddam and Gulf War I. (paperback is $22 at amazon.com or barnes&noble)

  9. yergin’s book moves pretty good, but the early standard oil stuff is better written than the latter 300 pages.

  10. OMG, I agree with Andrew! Except for the Hashemite part. Hasn’t that ship already sailed? Is there any legitimacy to that plan in today’s world, or are you positing a “could have been” scenario, or are they the only alternative to the Sauds that are available.

    JB, great book.

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