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Reviewed by:
  • A History of Saudi Arabia
  • Joseph A. Kéchichian (bio)
A History of Saudi Arabia, by Madawi Al-Rasheed, Second Edition, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 317 pages. $90.

Professor Al-Rasheed, who teaches the Anthropology of Religion at King's College, London, is the author of several critical studies on the Kingdom. This updated and highly accessible book provides careful analyses of the internal as well as external challenges facing Saudi Arabia that are both intriguing and worrisome.

As the custodian of Islam's holiest shrines, Saudi Arabia exercises significant influence in the Muslim world, even if most Westerners connect its wealth to vast oil reserves. Many mistake its staunch conservatism to those associated with closed societies, arguing that Saudis are isolated from [End Page 159] the outside world, even if for centuries its citizens interacted with, and continue to welcome, millions of pilgrims. It must also be emphasized that the cradle of Islam produced several monarchical regimes, with the last coming about in 1932, when 'Abdul 'Aziz bin 'Abdul Rahman Al Sa'ud united various tribes into a modernizing state.

It is this story that Al-Rasheed recounts skillfully, describing how the state emerged between 1902 and 1932, and how the Al Sa'ud gained control as they earned the loyalty of their subjects. One of the most interesting points in Al-Rasheed's analysis is her shrewd observation that the ruling family successfully absconded tribalism in contemporary Saudi Arabia. "Given the scholarly attention devoted to documenting and interpreting the ikhwan rebellion," she writes, "it is surprising that the Sa'udi state is still mistakenly considered by some scholars as the epitome of the tribal state. This misconception continues to be propagated despite evidence to the contrary. While substantial sections of the population were certainly tribal in the 1930s, the state was definitely a non-tribal entity that gradually undermined and broke the cohesion of the various tribal groups" (p. 68).

In fact, Al-Rasheed persuasively concludes that the country's history throughout the 20th century was dominated by the story of state formation, which required the establishment of various institutions. Most of these were created under King Faysal's emancipated reign, when opposition forces emerged, threatening the very stability of the monarchy. Al-Rasheed writes that "while Faysal is remembered for his social and economic reforms, he is also remembered for brutal suppression of dissident voices in Saudi Arabia, which in the 1960s consisted of an amalgamation of Nasserites, Arab nationalists, Ba'thists, socialists and even communists. By the 1970s Faysal had tightened his internal security measures and succeeded in suppressing various opposition groups, which never recovered from brutal force at a very early stage in their political evolution. The so-called secular opposition came to an end in Saudi Arabia" (p. 129). For all his "cruelty," Faysal focused on state building within Saudi traditions, even if his assassination in 1975 and subsequent violence associated with the 1979 Makkah Mosque takeover illustrated that the popular monarch had failed to eradicate opposition, secular or religious.

This is the crux of Al-Rasheed's investigations in her two new chapters, "The challenges of a new era," and "Modernising authoritarian rule." Impeccably researched and well argued, the author reveals an alleged fragmentation within the ruling family, which translated after 9/11 into further repression under extraordinary circumstances. Riyadh was shocked by the blemish and was further confronted by extremists after the 2003 assaults on living compounds that left hundreds dead. The nascent Islamist wrath forced the Saudi "state" to introduce "minor reforms." Many of these were cosmetic in nature, the author claims, coming as they did under pressure, especially by the United States, which played a vital security role.

While it is correct to assert that the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait dramatically altered the security equation on the Arabian Peninsula, it may be overstretching it a bit to claim that "Saudi Arabia could no longer conceal its dependence on the United States for security." Riyadh was persuaded "to invite American troops to defend its territory," but this decision did not shatter "the myth of Sa'udi non-alignment, Islamic politics and self-reliance" (p. 157...


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pp. 159-161
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