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New Books on the Kingdom: Understanding and Misunderstanding - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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If you establish the list of 20 or so countries that are almost constantly in the news, not always for the best of reasons, Saudi Arabia would certainly have a place.

Concerned about the future place of Islam in an increasingly complex global system? Well, you cannot fully examine the issue without knowing something about Saudi Arabia.

You wonder what is going to happen next in a Middle East that is on fire with wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, producing threats, including mass refugee movements, looming over the Mediterranean, Europe, and even the Euro-Asian continental landmass.

Again, you cannot exclude Saudi Arabia, an Arab country and a fixture of the Middle Eastern geopolitical system, from the analysis.

Seeking to understand the modern version of religion-based terrorism?

There, too, Saudi Arabia has a place both as a victim of terrorism and as the provenance of many militants in recent years.

As the depository of the world’s largest oil reserves, Saudi Arabia also features prominently in any clinical study of the global energy situation.

The kingdom, located at the meeting point of two continents and close to the world’s busiest navigational routes, also has a place of choice on the geostrategic chessboard, more recently highlighted with the emergence of modern piracy’s threat to shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

The kingdom is attracting more attention than usual for yet another reason: it is going through a period of transition marked by a generational change, a new approach to economic planning, and re-visiting the reform agenda from new angles.

Not surprisingly, the conjecture has produced a crop of new books on the kingdom both in Europe and the United States.

These books could be divided into three categories.

Some are straight journalistic reportages laced with a dash of history and some speculation about the future. Others are works of desk scholarship, at times based on academic work. In a third category we have books that seek to settle ideological scores with the kingdom.

With few exceptions, what is lacking, or at least not given enough attention, is Saudi Arabia as a living and changing society which cannot be properly understood through old clichés.

For example, the kingdom is often labelled “a closed society”. But how could a country in which 30 per cent of the inhabitants are expatriates from some 80 different countries be regarded as close; and that is without mentioning the millions of foreign pilgrims that call every year? The claim that the kingdom is closed to foreign scholars and media is also hard to sustain. It would be hard to visit any of the Saudi major cities without running into half a dozen academics, mostly from Europe or the US, on field research projects often financed by the kingdom. As for media access, there are those who believe that senior Saudi officials spend too much time talking to foreign reporters.

Another cliché is regarding the kingdom as a textbook monochrome for religion, with a single existing faith. In reality, however, the kingdom hosts communities from almost all Islamic schools, not to mention expatriate Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and followers of other faiths.

The typical book portrays the kingdom as both a physical and cultural desert.

The physical part is largely true, although these days even the awe-inspiring Rub al-Khali (The Empty Quarter) isn’t as isolated as it was even half a century ago. As for culture, the kingdom is anything but a desert. The whole place is bubbling up with poets, novelists, historians, academics, and “thinkers,” a category dear to Arabs. Even Saudi television shows, including comedies, have now found an audience beyond the kingdom’s border. There has also been a revival of many traditional arts and crafts, if only because a middle class has emerged to provide a market for them. Believe it or not, there are also quite a few Saudi painters whose work deserves more attention. The next Oscar ceremonies in Hollywood will include a Saudi feature film, a comedy, as candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. (It would compete against an Iranian film!)

“Conservative” is one of the kindest labels attached to Saudi Arabia which is portrayed as a society impervious to change. However, few so-called “developing” countries” have experienced the level and intensity of social, economic and even political change that the kingdom has gone through since the 1950s when King Saudi Ibn Abdul-Aziz took the first timid steps towards reform.

Those who have observed the kingdom in the past half a century could testify to the massive physical change that has transformed once semi-derelict towns and villages into modern urban centers. The result of this gigantic transformation may not always satisfy those nostalgic for a romantic Arabian past. But none could deny the scope of change.

The rapid introduction of all the paraphernalia of modern life, from the earliest telephone system, which was for long banned under religious rules, has brought the kingdom into the modern age of global information technology.
Many other aspects of contemporary life have also been woven into the fabric of Saudi society, circumventing initial hesitations or hostility on narrow religious interpretations. These include banks, insurance companies, public corporations, and, of course, modern structured civil and military services.

The provision of compulsory primary education and the rapid expansion of secondary and higher education facilities for both boys and girls have produced at least two generations of Saudis with modern-style educational background.
Another label used for the kingdom is “tribal”, conjuring the image of desert warriors on their steeds or camels riding into battle sword in hand. However, Saudi Arabia today is a largely urban society in which class and economic-social status often trump residual sentiments of attachment to a tribe. New forms of organization have come into being, including professional associations, chambers of commerce and industry, literary and social clubs, alumni unions, pressure groups campaigning for various issues, and, of course, the Consultative Assembly (Majlis al-Shura) which has steadily developed into a dynamic legislative organ.

One new book that stands out if only because of its focus on the here-and-now of the Saudi reality is “Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change” by Bernard Heykal, Thomas Hegghammer and Stephane Lacroix as editors.

The book which includes contributions by Saudi academics is the fruit of both desk and field research by the editors.

Here, the approach is existential rather than essentialist.

Most writers on Saudi Arabia devote much space to the past, from the origins of the Saudi state in the 18th century, to the detriment of the living and changing society that the kingdom is today. It is like doing a book on the US but devoting the bulk of space to the early days of European immigrants and their struggle against Native Americans.

Saudi Arabia in Transition”, however, jumps over the past to devote its 15 chapters to different aspects of Saudi Arabia’s development.

Sometimes, the writer acknowledges the reality of change in the kingdom, but reads too much into it. One example is “Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism and Road Revolt” by Pascal Menoret. He gives us a graphic account of young men embarking on a motorized version of the game of chicken on Saudi Arabia’s vast, and often mercifully uncrowded, highways. The author sees this as a form of social malaise with erotic undertones. However, the so-called pastime of joyriding was certainly not invented in Saudi Arabia. In fact, an early example of it is portrayed in Nicholas Rays’ 1955 film “Rebel Without A Cause”, starring James Dean.

Had Menoret looked more carefully he might have noticed that young Saudis have other means of enjoying themselves than merely imitating James Dean. However, the book merits attention because it sees Saudi society as art of the modern world with the anxieties of a contemporary urban life.

One book that looks back is Chad Parker’s “Making the Desert Modern: Americans, Arabs, and Oil on the Saudi Frontier, 1933-1973 (Culture, Politics, and the Cold War)” which tells the story of Aramco, the American-Saudi oil company set up in the 1930s and destined to become a giant in the global energy market.

Parker’s narrative is intense and, at times, even entertaining. But I think he overestimates the role that the oil company, and the US in general, played in shaping what is Saudi Arabia today. Especially exaggerated is his claim that Aramco contributed to “nation-building” in the kingdom, something for which it was neither qualified nor intellectually equipped.

There is no doubt that, after the historic Red Sea meeting between King Abdul-Aziz and President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 the US occupied a major place in the Saudi geopolitical landscape. But that does not mean that Washington tried to co-pilot developments in Saudi Arabia. As Parker shows US diplomats were always instructed to raise “the usual issues” of human rights, equality for women and religious diversity as a matter of routine in formal contacts with Saudi officials. But Washington never intended to exert any real pressure on any of those issues. In fact, in 1965, Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State in the Johnson Administration instructed US diplomats to steer clear of commenting on Saudi domestic policies.” The Saudi king knows better than you what is good for his people,” he quipped.

Toby Matthiesen’s book “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism” narrates the history of a community that accounts for between 12 and 15 per cent of the kingdom’ population. The Saudis captured the eastern shores where the majority of Shiites in the peninsula lived from the Ottomans in 1913. That gave Hanbali theologians, often erroneously called Wahhabis, an occasion to demand that the local population convert to their brand of “true Islam.”

One routine assumption made by writers on Saudi Arabia is that the state created by successive Saudi kings was bound by treaty to have its policies ratified by religious leaders.

Matthiesen, however, shows that things were not as simple as that.

In fact in the emerging kingdom it was religion that was annexed by the state not the other way around. In almost every case the interests of the state, most importantly its stability and security, trumped most theological considerations raised by clerics. In fact, in 1930 when zealots stared to threaten the kingdom’s relations with its near or far neighbors, King Abdul-Aziz reigned them in with an iron fist.

As already noted, the peninsula had always been more diverse than often assumed. Since the 8th century CE, there were Shiite communities in Medina (known as Nakhawila) and Ismaili tribes in Najran, not to mention Zaidis, a kindred community present in many parts of the peninsula.

Matthiesen designates Shiites of the Eastern Province as “oppressed minority” but quickly notes that, in religious terms at least, they are subject to few restrictions. They have their own theological colleges (howzahs) to train their clerics, including one for women, have regular contact with fellow-theologians in Najaf, Beirut and Qom, and permitted to organize public ceremonies to mark key evets of their calendar especially in the months of Muharram and Safar.

In “Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond” Simon Ross Valentine repeats the mistake of many writers on Saudi Arabia: imagining a religious doctrine labelled Wahhabism and elevating it to the status of the religion of the Saudi state. However, scholars of Islam know that there is no such thing as a Wahhabi School and that the Saudi state presents itself as bound by Islam not any ideological version thereof.

It is clear that Valentine did his best to dig out “Wahhabi” excesses and put them under the stage light. He cites a number of strict rules and restrictions imposed by Saudi society, many of which are rooted in ancient tribal traditions rather than any extremist reading of Islam. And, yet, he is honest enough to note that many of those restrictions are more honored in breach than in observance. In a chapter entitled “Serpents in Paradise” Valentine even claims that when in Saudi Arabia he was offered all manner of “forbidden fruits” available in any Western metropolis.

The challenge that Valentine and other Western writers on Saudi Arabia face is how to liberate themselves from the belief that there is an ideal model applicable to all societies. Saudi Arabia is certainly not a Western-style liberal society and it is possible that most of its inhabitants don’t wish to live in one. The crucial question, therefore, is whether Saudi society is coherent in its own term and whether it respects its own stated rules and professed values.

Valentine does not tackle the problem directly. But, perhaps without knowing it, he reveals some of the inconsistencies, not to say the hypocrisies that undermine the internal logic of the Saudi system which one may or may not approve of. His list of things and behaviors “forbidden” but readily available would be as long as the telephone directory in Jeddah.

In fact, each year Jeddah hosts a festival under the slogan “Kunna Kidda” (What We used to be) which reflects the diversity of the kingdom, the measured pace of life and a surprising degree of liberty that does not accord with official clerical discourse.

Saudi Arabia: Kingdom in Peril” by Paul Aarts and Caroline Roelants is the latest in a series forecasting dramatic changes in the kingdom. The series began in 2012 with Thomas Lippman’s ”Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally” which, contrary to this title, showed that the kingdom was not on any edge.

Paul Aarts and Caroline Roelants, however, try to use the matrix of “The Arab Spring” to justify the “peril” in the title of their new book. They succeed in identifying and numerating many sources of possible tension in both domestic and foreign policies. However, they, too, end up contradicting their own purported thesis that the kingdom may be in imminent danger. They do little original work in depicting any external threats that Saudi Arabia faces, and has faced since its inception as a kingdom, and try to pass by the internal threat, especially from Jihadi terrorists.

The kingdom faces many challenges in an unstable region shaken by the war of sectarians, clashing empire-building ambitions and a deepening vacuum that sucks one country after another into a black-hole of systemic failure. The choice that the kingdom faces may appear to be either to use that terrifying background as an excuse for triggering the security reflex and postponing all economic, social and political reform or to go into panic mode and embark on hastily designed and risk-fraught changes. However, a wiser choice would be to regard change not as an enemy but as a partner in building the future in the context of measured but serious reforms introduced at a pace that the Saudi society can cope with.

Aarts and Roelants avoid discussing those options. The need for a deeper probe into the kingdom’s current needs and future prospects remains.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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