Saudi Arabia's founding monarch 'Abd al-'Aziz Ibn Sa'ud (c. 1876-1953) had a remarkable life. Already the subject of a slew of biographies, he is the subject of another study here, the first in over a decade. Though not an academic work, this sympathetic volume by Bray, a lecturer, translator, and broadcaster, and Darlow, a television producer, is aimed at a general readership. Though it draws on an impressive array of sources, its value lies less in its analysis than in its lively narrative. It is an accessible departure point for the interested reader.
Much of this biography centers on Ibn Saud's earlier years rather than on the kingdom that was later to bear his family's name. These were lean years indeed for the future monarch, who was forced as a boy to take flight from his family's tribal enemies. The austerity of Ibn Saud's nomadic upbringing makes his life trajectory all the more notable. As poverty and flight gave way to conquest, expansion, and ultimately power, it is hard to envisage how stark a contrast this turn of fortune represented.
Anecdotes add welcome color to this portrayal: Ibn Saud's attempts to bring hundreds of sheep aboard a U.S. battleship so as to entertain his American guests with traditional Arab hospitality on one occasion is complemented by Winston Churchill's puffing cigar smoke in the king's face on another, while insisting that his "religion prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, after, and if need be during, all meals and intervals between them."
The focus is overwhelmingly on Ibn Sa'ud, the man and his life, rather than wider issues relating to Wahhabism or contemporary Arabian society. Indeed, the latter receive cursory exploration.
While too long to be a genuinely introductory guide, Ibn Saud will encourage students and interested readers to explore Saudi and Middle Eastern history further.