- Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East by Jörg Matthias Determann
In Historiography in Saudi Arabia, Jörg Matthias Determann discusses the important question of how Saudi Arabia views and writes its own history. This is an important matter because of the lack of Western understanding and appreciation of the subject. Determann conducted extensive fieldwork and interviewed all the right people involved in the process of Saudi history writing. Coupled with a distinct hypothesis, Determann has crafted an account that accurately reflects the current Saudi position. To be clear, this position does not need to reflect or to coincide with Western academic or political views. Instead, this book illustrates the indigenous view on historical development through the eyes of a scholar with a very good grasp of Saudi culture, identity, and language.
Determann’s main goal is to highlight the “narrative plurality” of Saudi historiography, in contrast to the common Western perception of its being homogenous, monolithic, and of linear growth. Aside from the official state-sponsored narrative, he gives voice to Saudi historians from the periphery, mainly local, tribal, or Shi‘i writers. One of the strengths of the book lies in the practice of not only describing a chapter, but in the author’s provision “of a deeper understanding of the emergence of this plurality … why and how narrative plurality emerged in the Saudi case” (p. 6).
The author adopts both a chronological and topical approach, the latter including socioeconomic, political, and cultural aspects. His argument is then measured against fundamental questions, such as whether the pre-state population lived in jahiliyya (ignorance) and whether they were kuffar (infidels). The answer to these questions has changed profoundly over the course of the past century, and Determann provides deep insight into the debate over these questions among Saudi historians.
The five main chapters of the book each represent a different current in Saudi historiography (p. 21). The historians introduced in the first chapter are labeled “dynastic historians,” whose works set the tone for the debate over jahiliyya and takfir (declaring someone an infidel) for decades to come. Chapter 2 focuses on a group of historians who come from different regions in the Kingdom and challenge the notions of the first group by exploring local social and religious traditions that are older than the Wahhabi reformist movement. In Chapter 3, Determann describes how “the empire strikes back” with a renewed focus on dynastic historiography; however, one that is based on unification of the Kingdom and not jihad against potential infidels. This time period is also marked by a rapid transformation of the country’s economy, education sector, and social customs. These changes gave rise to a new generation of historians, who again seek to complement the official narrative by asserting the voices of towns, tribes, and religious minorities (Shi‘a). In Chapter 4, Determann assesses how these authors emerged and benefited from the state-sponsored education system and government employment. Finally, in Chapter 5, he points to a group of writers who look at socioeconomic factors related to the country’s transformation describing historical developments.
Determann concludes his study with an analysis of government involvement and influence over the writing process of history pointing to issues of empowering and censorship. Ultimately, however, this process was shaped by external global forces and influences, which encouraged the evolution of multiple narratives. But the Kingdom’s own evolution from a desert principality to a global actor and oil giant opened many ways for the growing and changing population to get their story told. Political reform and liberalization of society paved the way for a more open environment and allowed for greater participation of nonelite groups. [End Page 651]
In sum, Determann’s account describes the ups and downs of the transformation and reform processes Saudi Arabia underwent over the past 100 years through the lens of the local historian. Perhaps his emphasis on global factors is too heavy, and perhaps his exclusion of local and immigrant religious...