Putting a disparate history together into a coherent account, Teitelbaum (a research fellow at Tel Aviv University) shows how and why radical groups have turned against the government in Saudi Arabia – no ordinary country in which to oppose the government on Islamic grounds, for this is the original Islamic regime of modern times, deriving its authority from Islam and applying it in nearly every sphere of life.
But with power comes both compromise and a strain of radicalism – which the author convincingly ties back to the Ikhwan movement of the 1920s – that resists such accommodations. Teitelbaum demonstrates how the state increasingly co-opted and controlled the religious leadership, especially in the heyday of oil wealth, but then, starting in the late 1980s, how this control began to unravel. Then came the Kuwait crisis of 1990 and the landing of hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim soldiers – some of them gum-chewing, car-driving, unveiled, tightly attired American Christian females – and this provided the catalyst for the Islamist movement to take off. "It is not the world against Iraq. It is the West against Islam ," ran the interpretation of one newly-prominent sheikh. The radicals adopted a distinctly anti-American cast (in one case calling the United States a "nation of beasts who fornicate and eat rotten food "). As these loud-mouthed sheikhs fulminated, their establishment counterparts squirmed, agreeing with what they said, admiring their fierce independence, but unable to join them.
Teitelbaum reviews the major incidents – the royal petitions, the emergence of the London-based opposition groups, the turn to violence with Usama bin Ladin, the bombings of American installations – and finds the regime responding not very effectually to this profound challenge to its legitimacy. Still, he notes that since Crown Prince ‘Abdullah has taken charge, "the opposition activity has generally subsided."