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A love affair that survived even 9/11

House of Bush, House of Saud
by Craig Unger
Gibson Square £17.99, pp364

In crude terms, this is the book of part of the film - the middle bit of Fahrenheit 9/11 that bangs on hectically about secret Saudi connections, mysterious exoduses from the US and tubby Riyadh ambassadors taking tea with George W Bush. In subtler terms, however, it's much better than that: a notably intelligent piece of investigative reporting which lights the blue touchpaper and (unlike its original would-be publisher, Random House) sticks around to see what happens next.

Craig Unger begins while the ashes of the Twin Towers are still smoking. Barely a plane is moving over America. The Federal Aviation Authority has ordered a massive shutdown. Yet what's this flitting from Tampa to Dulles to Boston? Why, just a specially chartered jet picking up holidaying Saudis, including many notable scions of the family bin Laden.

Hearts for transplant can't go by plane; Bill Clinton's in Australia and can't get home. But a 747 filled with rich Saudis has no such problem. They're off to the desert kingdom in the blink of an eye and bleep of some exalted pager. How on earth can this possibly be?

Well now... some 35 years before, a good old Texas boy called James Bath was living in Houston and peddling used aircraft. He happened to sell one, an F-27 turboprop, to a couple of young Saudi mates: Salem bin Laden, heir to a massive construction group fortune, and Khalid bin Mahfouz, heir to the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia.

The lads came to fancy Houston, its lifestyle, its girls (and jetsetting around). They put down a few roots; they wallowed in a sudden gusher of petro-dollars; they - and many other Saudis - started to do what comes naturally: cultivate politicians, spread largesse, nurture a little influence. Over a quarter of a century, some $860 billion of Saudi money came flooding into the US and such influence followed naturally.

Meanwhile, a ripe cast of characters gathers. Here's Agha Hasan Abedi, founder of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, Saudi money launderer supreme. Here's Bert Lance, President Carter's banker chum who brought poor Jimmy so much grief. Here's young George W, a friend of Bath's, and his dad, then a Nixon loyalist making his way up the greasy pole.

Here's Prince Bandar, Riyadh's long-term fixer and smoother in Washington. George Snr, of course, went on to be Vice-President through the Iran-Contra scandal when the Saudis did him (and Reagan) a monster illicit favour. George W drilled a load of empty oil wells until a fairy godfather called Harken bought him out. Dad helped stoke Afghan resistance to the Russians and saw millions of dollars in arms and aid shuttled to foreign freedom fighters there (like a young Saudi called Osama bin Laden, the wild sheep of the construction family). And then, on 9/11, the entire brew turned utterly rancid.

The prudent point here, amply documented, is that the Bushes and the princes of Araby weren't exactly strangers to each other. They inhabited coterminous worlds. They guzzled the same gas, sipped the same heady cocktails. Unger scores because, unlike Michael Moore, he steers clear of giant conspiracies. This is America and American politics, after all.

Saudi wealth is only a fragment of the picture. It couldn't catch Bill Clinton's attention (through eight lean years for Bandar). It couldn't break President George W free from Ariel Sharon or make him follow his own road map to the end. It certainly couldn't stop the neocons wrapping the intifada and war on terrorism together in some seamless robe.

The fact is that sundry Saudi billionaires were part of the American - especially Texan - political landscape three years ago, and that dear old Bandar, the ex-President they nicknamed 'Bandar Bush' and the new President, who saw more of the Saudi ambassador than he did of his own cabinet, were particular friends.

Returning a 747 full of Saudis back to Riyadh could be arranged when nothing else moved and initiating a wonderfully permissive visa regime for Saudis - no need to turn up in person - fitted the same bill. The House of Bush and the House of Saud were, indeed, welcome guests at each others' dinner tables. But nobody brought a long spoon.

Fifteen of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. Osama, of course, was a Saudi hero, valiant for faith. The money that fuelled al-Qaeda, its outrages and its training camps was basically Saudi. The cause which drives bin Laden - a pure Wahhabi Saudi Arabia free from Western troops and taint - is indelibly Saudi.

And Osama has come to revile the House of Saud which (coincidentally) beheads its own citizens, lines its own pockets on a grotesque scale and has nothing whatsoever to do with democracy, freedom, human rights or any of that state department guff. Is the enemy of my enemy an enemy, too?

The damnable thing is that before and after the Twin Towers, Bush's Washington did not see Riyadh for what it is, among so many other things: a source and feeder of terror, a hapless adversary of reform or progress.

He saw the smiles, the yachts, defence contracts and charity cheque books, not the snarl of a theocratic autocracy bent on preserving its privileges at any price. This was - and is - a family business to put the Corleones to shame, generosity and greed, humanity and brutality hopelessly mingled. One minister looks west, the next looks east. Forked tongues our speciality.

No more reports from Butler, Hutton and points west, please. No more mouthing about Iraq or muttering about zapping Iran. This great 'war' was ignited much closer to hearth and homeland - and it will never be truly won while Saudi Arabia's future (and Palestine's past) remain unaddressed. They started it and that's where it must finish.

Who dares to set such change underway? Not the Bushes pere et fils. Not an economic order with $860 billion on its bank balance. We tiptoe gingerly across the thinnest crust of stability. It is Craig Unger's particular gift to make us see more clearly than ever what lies beneath.

· Interview with Craig Unger

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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