Cordesman has penned an indispensable work that provides well-needed balance to the recent deluge of emotional and often inflammatory works regarding the desert Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, he provides a brief overview of the modern history of the kingdom followed by a solid section on the "boom-bust" cycles of oil revenue and the dangers of relying so heavily upon a single commodity. Although the analysis is derivative, Cordesman has an organizing principle that informs his two-volume study:[1] "At present, Saudi society is too conservative, welfare-oriented, and lacking in political experience and modern economic institutions for ‘democratization' to push the Kingdom in the right direction or meet its social needs."

The inability to expand the oil wealth and bring a majority of Saudis into the work force is a recurring theme. He also states that the kingdom "is more threatened from within than without." Those threats include reduced oil revenue, the expanding youth bulge, limits to economic diversification, the autonomous power of the ulema, and external regional pressures. How the leadership contends with the Islamist masses and the even more radical ulema will deeply affect the future of the kingdom.

In a section on building true (i.e., non-oil-based) wealth, Cordesman discusses an insightful new foreign direct investment code that could pave the way for additional Western capital to flow into Saudi Arabia by, among other things, making the security of the equity more transparent, especially if arranged through Saudi banks. The assurances of the new code would help soothe investor nerves.

Cordesman is at his best when writing about foreign policy and economics, with the section on U.S.-Saudi relations of particular interest. He analyzes the reciprocal weapons and oil trade between the states and how this relationship does not reflect the entire situation, which also includes longstanding academic exchanges, joint telecommunications efforts, and cooperation in troubled areas (such as the Horn of Africa). That said, he acknowledges that Saudi assistance against terrorism, especially in tracking its funding, will be crucial to bridging current tensions.

Cordesman's approach is that of a concerned friend, one who worries that Saudi Arabia's future looks bleak unless deep reforms are promulgated—and soon. There is still time to act, he implies, but the window is closing.

[1] Since these volumes are quite different in scope, only the first is reviewed here. The second is titled Saudi Arabia Enters the Twenty-First Century: The Military and International Security Dimensions.