Underwritten by His Majesty, Robert Lacey Gamely Ventures into the Saudis' Desert Kingdom

updated 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

British author Robert Lacey has acquired a palate for camel's milk. He's also learned Arabic, how to wear a Ghutra headdress and when to leave a dinner with Saudi Arabia's King Khalid (right after finishing, which is a gesture of thanks for the meal).

That's the good news. The bad is that during his 18 months of research on The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa'ud, Lacey, 38, developed a leg ailment known as "mutton grab knee." It is a stiffness that comes from dining Arab-style—sitting cross-legged on a carpet and leaning over to pull chunks of lamb from a communal carcass. Lacey also came down with piercing headaches, caused by stress and overwork, which Saudi physicians treated with aspirin, Valium—and mangoes.

The author of Majesty, the chatty 1977 best-seller on Queen Elizabeth II, survived to finish his anecdotal 631-page history of Saudi Arabia (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95). U.S. reviewers have hailed his lively narrative style and his careful balance between empathy and skepticism. "I try to get inside my subjects and see the world as they do," says Lacey. "I don't see the point of knocking."

Before tackling The Kingdom, Lacey had been ready to move his wife, Sandi, 35, a graphic designer, and their kids, Sasha, 15, and Scarlett, 9, to the U.S. to start a book on the Kennedy clan. Six weeks before departure he became fascinated by stories he heard from a Muslim friend about Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa'ud, the penniless Bedouin who returned from exile in 1902 and overthrew the rulers of central Arabia with 40 followers. Ibn Sa'ud's 4,000 relatives, including his son, now King Khalid, built the modern Saudi state on an oil income that is currently $272 million a day. Lacey scrapped the Kennedy book, pooled a $300,000 advance from his publishers and his remaining income from Majesty, and moved his family to a four-bedroom concrete-block house in a dusty back street of Jidda, the Saudi commercial center on the Red Sea.

The Laceys hoped they would catch glimpses of the closed Saudi society more easily living there than in Jidda's luxurious foreign compound. "We found, however, that we did not exchange tea parties with our neighbors," sighs Robert. "The Saudis are such secret people. They don't really want foreigners around." With little to show for his efforts after six months, Robert came down with headaches. Sandi, unfamiliar with the language and forced to wear ankle-length street clothes, also felt the strain of living in a society where women are veiled and highly restricted in their activities. She stayed sane by writing long letters to her analyst in London.

Gradually the family made inroads. Robert met twice and dined once with King Khalid at the weekday open houses he holds, a Bedouin tradition. The author was also eventually invited to sip mint tea with assorted Saudi princes and commoners. On a desert journey to retrace the footsteps of Britain's legendary adventurer T.E. Lawrence, Lacey and his daughter camped with Bedouin tribesmen. "That was magical," he recalls. "You have the stars in the sky, the campfire crackling. Even rich Saudis go out in the desert for relaxation. It is their equivalent of going to a health farm or seeing a psychiatrist."

Inevitably, Lacey became intrigued by a "contradictory" culture that could accept public beheadings but forbid telecasts of The Muppets because they disapprove of the heroine, Miss Piggy (pork in any guise is considered unclean by Muslims). Observes Lacey: "Some say the Saudis' money will be just like firewater was for America's Indians—they will degenerate. The Saudis say their Muslim values will see them through."

The son of a bank manager, Lacey interrupted his history studies at Cambridge to spend a year in West Africa's Togoland in Britain's version of the Peace Corps. Later he drifted into journalism and worked as an editor for the Illustrated London News and the Sunday Times. After churning out worthy but widely unread biographies of the second Lord Essex (favorite of Queen Elizabeth I) and Sir Walter Raleigh, he quit newspapering in 1974, determined to produce a commercial hit. With Majesty he succeeded.

Since finishing The Kingdom, Lacey has dashed off a slim picture book on Diana, Princess of Wales. He has also begun work on a BBC-TV series about Europe's aristocratic families. When that project is over, he plans to return to the Middle East—this time to Israel. "My ambition is to do there what I did with Saudi Arabia," he says. "I will go and soak up the atmosphere."

Sandi will certainly welcome Israel's more Westernized culture. Saudi Arabia was summed up for her the day Robert's female London research assistant came to Jidda. After picking the assistant up at the airport, the Laceys' Bedouin driver demanded to know if she was Robert's "wife No. 2."

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