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House Of Saud Documentary Review Essay

GETTY / BBC

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler

House of Saud: A Family At War (BBC2) is a nuanced look at Saudi Arabia’s role in global affairs, and in particular at the change of direction taken by its new de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Rooting out terrorists, co-operating with the West on intelligence, locking up 500 senior figures, including members of his own family, on corruption charges, Bin Salman could almost seem like “a good thing”.

Perhaps he is as well, regardless of his record on human rights.

You cannot, as one commentator said on this documentary series last week, hope to turn this desert kingdom into California overnight. 

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The Saudi Crown Prince has become a pivotal figure on the global stage, for good or for ill

The experts were right to query whether Bin Salman is really trying to change things or whether this new kid on the block, with his superyacht and newly-purchased French chateau, is just going after everyone else’s wealth. To a man, though, they ignored

Matt Baylis

California was an interesting choice of word, because something like a gold rush happened in the Middle East in the post-war years, and today’s Saudi Arabia seems to be a product of it.

Alongside the expert analysis, last night’s instalment included a few human stories to illustrate how the oil-rich kingdom operates.

If they didn’t show Saudi Arabia in a particularly good light, the same might be said for Her Majesty’s government, whose servants have shelled out hefty commissions to secure lucrative Saudi contracts, ever since the Sixties.

People who questioned the payments, like communications contractor Ian Foxley, were ignored, threatened and pushed towards the door.

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The show speaks to whistleblowers like Ian Foxley who show Saudi Arabia in a poor light

Investigations, such as those by our own Serious Fraud Office, met with government opposition.

When these were shelved more lucrative business swiftly came along, particularly for our arms and aeronautical industries.

British taxes went to buy palaces for Saudi princes so British workers could stay in work and continue paying taxes.

The experts were right to query whether Bin Salman is really trying to change things or whether this new kid on the block, with his superyacht and newly-purchased French chateau, is just going after everyone else’s wealth. 

Saudi Arabian protests

Sun, January 3, 2016

Demonstrators in the Middle East have protested against the killing of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia.

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Demonstrators burn tires during a protest, against the execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, in Manama, Bahrain

To a man, though, they ignored another question.

Hints were dropped early on that the bribes and bungs were a way of life, a tribal hangover in a country that went from medieval clans to petro-superpower overnight.

That seemed, to borrow a word from the Arab historian Edward Said, a touch of orientalism.

Is it uniquely Saudi to expect and take bribes? Is it only done in swarthy, foreign places, or might it be how a large part of the world does business?

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Inside No.9 pulls off a skilful episode with 30 minutes of quiet menace

Speaking of old stories, those creepy playlets from the Inside No.9 (BBC2) team have a definite whiff of Tales Of The Unexpected, but three series in they’re not struggling to keep the format fresh.

We weren’t bowled over by the first, “comedy of errors” story, but it showed an admirable commitment to shaking things up.

Last night’s tale, “Once Removed”, went in reverse, each segment going 10 minutes back from the initially unremarkable set-up of a removal man arriving at a country cottage.

Flashy or confusing in films, when applied to 30 minutes of quiet menace with Reece Shearsmith, this rewind tactic was a triumph. They only missed one trick in my view.

As the dumpy Mrs Foulsham (Monica Dolan) set up the whole macabre massacre with a simple switch at the gateposts, they should have played that Jimi Hendrix classic If 6 Was 9.

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For a documentary exploring the challenges facing Saudi Arabia’s new ruler, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, House of Saud: A Family at War (BBC Two) had an unexpected starting point: a village in the mountains of Bosnia, where a tattered black flag of jihad fluttered in the snowbound landscape. It instantly brought into focus the idea that for any understanding of Saudi Arabia’s place in the world today, one cannot avoid its tangled relationship with Islamic extremism.  

What followed in Michael Rudin’s densely detailed opening film (of three), was an exploration of how the flow of millions of dollars from Saudi charities into Bosnia, both during and after the war with Serbia, eventually became a gushing stream of billions in the decades following. Those billions supported jihadi causes and extremists in Afghanistan, Palestine, India, Syria and elsewhere.

According to analyst after analyst, much of the funding not only for the 9/11 attacks but for many other strands of Islamic extremism, such as al-Qaeda and Isil, can be traced back to this vastly wealthy oil nation. We heard evidence that Saudi funds have bought hundreds of millions of dollars in arms in recent years that, with official export licences to Saudi Arabia, have instead been diverted to Jordan and on into Syria.

Rudin’s film suggested from the outset that jihad, in its widest missionary sense, was rooted in the make up of the Saudi state. That the “ancient alliance” between the ruling House of Saud and supporters of the ultra-conservative form of Islam called Wahhabism was, in effect, “a pledge to spread Wahhabism around the world”.  

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