‘The Kingdom’: US-Saudi Relations on Film

Review: ‘The Kingdom’

Watching the trailers for ‘The Kingdom’ over the past several months, I was curious about how the film would portray Saudi Arabia and Saudis. I had personal experience with terrorist bombings of residential compounds in Riyadh and wanted to see how accurate the film might be.

The film could have taken the low and easy road, pandering to stereotypes, and shown the Saudis as slavering jihadists looking forward to killing the infidel. It could have taken (and did to a very minor extent did) the path of ‘Syriana’ [see my review here and Amir Taheri’s here], claiming on the basis of old and mistaken stereotypes that the oil companies write the rules.

Instead, I was pleased to see that the film showed that while there are bad Saudis, there are also good and decent Saudis who care about their country, their religion, and justice.

The film carries a very strong sense of authenticity. The researchers did their homework when it came to finding the right imagery to convey the sense of time and place. Much of it was shot in Abu Dhabi, with some B-roll materials from Riyadh spliced in. The rest was filmed in ‘non-denominational’ deserts in the American Southwest and in DC. The film was mostly realistic, too, when it came to the bombings, but not quite the same as the compounds bombed in 2003. The film spares us the body parts. That was fine by me, as I found myself slipping back to the reality of May 2003.

The film was accurate in its portrayal of a sharp-elbowed FBI investigation team running headlong into the reluctant Saudi police, a reaction not unknown to American local police departments and itself the subject matter of other films.

The film gets off to an iffy start, I think. The collage over which the opening credits run provides a brief and mostly accurate history of Saudi Arabia and its relations with the US. I think it focuses inaccurately on oil. While oil is certainly an important aspect of the US-Saudi relation, it is neither the sole one nor necessarily the most important one. Here, though the film feeds the meme that it’s ‘all about oil’, viewers needn’t worry about it. After the credits, the word never comes up again.

In order to avoid spoilers, the rest of the review is below the fold. I haven’t compromised major plot development, but some of the early set-up is discussed. You can also find a lengthier review at Crossroad Arabia, focusing more on the film v. reality clash.

‘The Kingdom’ works from a dated template. The ‘rules’ about how the US government and its agencies respond to an overseas bombing had chanced by 2003. What the film shows is based on rules that applied in 1996 and 1998. In reality, as soon as they could fly in—the next day—a team of about 35 FBI investigators were in Riyadh. These were a specialized group, designed to investigate bombings. They were professional. They did not (at least publicly) carry weapons. The women on the team—and there were several—knew better than to wear form-fitting T-shirts as their outerwear. They were also prepared to work cooperatively with their Saudi counterparts, whether from the police, Saudi Arabian National Guard (one of the 2003 compounds housed American and others on contract to the National Guard), and the Ministry of Interior. The Saudis, post-9/11, were also prepared to cooperate.

Probably the least accurate part of the film was its portrayal of the US State Department and its officers. Nothing new here: they’re tediously shown as ‘cookie-pushers’ who have yet to evolve backbones. That’s the standard stereotype, particularly from the political right, but it’s far from the reality. I won’t speak for all State officers; some actually are wimps. That’s not the case for most of them, though, as many do live brave lives.

By 2003, and therefore the unstated time of the film, new protocols had been established between the FBI and State. State would work to ensure FBI access to sites, evidence, and suspects. Investigative teams would be of a manageable size and the agents would not bear arms unless specifically authorized to do so because of particular circumstances. The teams work under the leadership of the FBI’s Legal Attaché and under the authority of the Ambassador. The LEGATTs, as they are called, know the territory and just what they can and cannot do. The film wanders into a bit of fantasy as its FBI team breaks command structures and simply shows up in Riyadh without Department of Justice authorization. A move like this would have led to instant firing. Nor could their plane have entered Saudi airspace without clearance from the Saudi government, through the US Embassy.

All in all, though, this is a good film. It’s not the very best action film you’ve ever seen and some of the intended laughs fall flat. There’s lots of shooting and explosions, running around and fast car chases. But there’re also occasions in which the viewer is asked to think about the fact that it’s not only the victims who are human, but those who try to do their jobs in the midst of confusion, emotional turmoil, and the threat of further deadly attacks. Here, the film shines.

This part of the story is carried by excellent acting by the principal actors: Jamie Foxx, heading the FBI’s team, and Ashraf Barhom, leading the Saudi police effort. Both show the awkwardness in dealing with complete strangers, fighting against the stereotypes they carry in their own minds. Jason Bateman and Ali Suliman have perhaps the most subtle performances as, respectively, an FBI agent who learns that ‘kick ass’ is not always the best procedure, and a Saudi police sergeant who puts duty to his country above all else. I think Chris Cooper isn’t asked to do much and I guess Jennifer Garner is there because the producers thought they needed some sort of female presence. She adds nothing.

If you’re looking for a film that bashes Saudis or the Administration, this isn’t the film for you. If instead you want a film that accurately portrays the complexity of US-Saudi relations at both official and personal levels, a film that shows how Saudi society itself is trying to come to terms with terrorism, then you don’t want to miss it.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, National Security, Policing, Religion, Terrorism, World Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
John Burgess
About John Burgess
John Burgess retired after 25 years as a US Foreign Service Officer, serving predominantly in the Middle East. He contributed 35 pieces to OTB between February 2006 and April 2014. He was the proprietor of the influential Crossroads Arabia until his death in February 2016.


  1. Rick says:

    Anyone knows if it was influenced.

    Hollywood, Arab-Americans and civil activism
    09 February 2007

    Washington, D.C. – As we watch events and relationships between the United States and the Middle East evolve, we don’t see many positives. However, a couple of meetings this week in Washington, DC showed me that there are some signs of progress although they might seem quite small.

    A short while back, I wrote about a new Hollywood blockbuster film debuting this April called “The Kingdom”. This movie focuses on terrorist incidents in Saudi Arabia where Americans living in Western compounds were killed. It stars two Academy Award winners, Jamie Fox and Chris Cooper, along with superstar Jennifer Garner and even country star Tim McGraw. It has an $80 million budget and with its thriller, shoot-em-up style looks to be a real box-office winner.

    The day after the article appeared in the Arab News, I received an e-mail from the technical director of the movie, Ahmed Al-Ibrahim. He told me to give him a call. The power of the press shows through again.

    Ahmed is a Saudi and he was called in early in the production of the film to advise on technical issues. My question to Ahmed was whether this film would present a fair and honest view of Saudis and Saudi Arabia. We agreed to meet at the offices of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) to discuss this issue with him and officials of the ADC and Friends of Saudi Arabia (FSA).

    Ahmed assured us that the film was going to present a fair perspective on Saudi Arabia and Saudis. We were all quite pleased that Universal Studios had actually employed a Saudi as a consultant to the movie. Employing Arab and Muslim consultants on films relevant to them has not been done very often in the movie industry. Both ADC and FSA were impressed with Ahmed and the role he is playing with Universal Studios in their production of “The Kingdom”. Ahmed went on to say that although this movie was fictional and a “Hollywood thriller” and would take liberties accordingly, the preview did not present a true view of what the final movie would be. Ahmed said, “All of you will be pleasantly surprised when you see the final product. Saudis and Saudi Arabia come out looking very good in the film. The producers really listened to what I had to say about, not only technical matters, but also fairness to the Saudis.”

  2. John Burgess says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘influenced’.

    That can mean anything from ‘subordinated to’ to ‘informed by’. The piece you cite says it tried to get things right by bringing in people who know the territory to serve as consultants. That seems not only intellectually honest, but smart.