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Book Reviews

Saudi Arabia: History and Enigma

Madawi Al Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, second edition).

Despite its importance, Saudi Arabia remains little known about. Apart from publications of a celebratory character, there are few works which examine the events of this kingdom, which has its roots in the alliance between a puritanical preacher (Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhâb) and an emir of eastern Arabia (Ibn Sa‘ûd) in the middle of the eighteenth century. It is thus a merit of the author, a Saudi and a lecturer at King’s College, London, to have provided a summarising and at the same time documented account of the history of Saudi Arabia.

 

 

‘KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] is a country of contradictions, dear sister,’ This observation, taken from a blog, well lends itself to capturing many of the conclusions reached by the author. The first and most strident is the contradiction between the official Wahhabi ideology and the wish to promote a ‘culture of dialogue’ to oppose the ‘culture of terrorism’ which in recent years has unleashed a campaign of violence in the country after contributing in a decisive way to the attacks of 11 September 2001. At the end of a detailed analysis, the author concludes that ‘[the government] is engaged in a religious battle with its own sources of legitimacy, the set of Wahhabi principles upon which the state was founded’ (p. 233).

 

 

A second contradiction lies in the contrast between the wealth that followed the first and the second oil booms (this last began in 2004 and is still underway) and the poverty of certain areas of the country, in particular the outskirts of cities and the eastern region which is inhabited by the Shi’ite minority. One can still observe a disparity between the influence that Saudi Arabia exercises at a world level through a large number of Islamic foundations and its fragility at a local level which was demonstrated in particular during the Gulf War. This volume documents the progressive development of a modern State beginning with the heroic times of ‘Abd al-‘Azîz Ibn Saʽûd (r. 1902-1953), when all the government archives, kept in a number of chests, followed the king around when he moved, until its current organisation into ministries, although in fact power remains in the hands of informal circles which are often in competition with each other. Lastly, one can observe the growing tension between civil society and ultra-conservative movements which seek to conserve Islamic traditions (which are often specific to Saudi Arabia, such as the controversial prohibition on women driving motor vehicles). These movements are supported by the government as long as they do not call into question the legitimacy of the system, in an alliance which the author defines as ‘not so holy’ (p. 59). Over the last decade there have been various requests for reform but the government has with ease been able to divide its opponents, some of whom are liberal and some of whom are Islamist. Over the future hangs the unknown of the succession: the current king, Abdallah, established in 2007 that after his designated successor, Prince Sultan, a committee made up of thirty-five members would decide on the future monarchs would be.

 

 

Of great interest are the reflections on the significance of the more than hundred marriages of the founder of the modern State, Ibn Sa‘ûd, and the criticism of the commonplace that the Saudi emirate was created on a tribal basis. One may, however, observe that there is almost no reference to the presence of religious non-Islamic minorities, first and foremost the community of Christian immigrants which, it is calculated, amount to almost a million people.

 

 

Certain openings of King Abdallah, such as municipal elections, the inclusion of all of the four Sunni legal schools in the council of the ‘ulamâ’ or his visit to the Vatican seem to be preludes to a pathway of reform. However, concludes the author, ‘it is certainly premature to conclude that Saudi Arabia will shortly inaugurate a fourth state in which the country is ruled by elected institutions rather than a number of princes’ (p. 277).

 

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