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  • Citizenship in Saudi Arabia
  • Roel Meijer (bio)
Muted Modernists: The Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia, by Madawi Al-Rasheed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 224 pages. £35.
The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism, by Toby Matthiesen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 292 pages. $85 cloth; $29.99 paper.
Saudi Clerics and Shi‘a Islam, by Raihan Ismail. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 328 pages. $74.
Crossing the Kingdom: Portraits of Saudi Arabia, by Loring M. Danforth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016. 280. $65 cloth; $24.95 paper.
Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril, by Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants. London, Hurst, 2015. 288 pages. £25 cloth; £14.99.

The Arab uprisings were about citizenship and equal civil, political, social, and economic rights. The notion of dignity expresses the demand for a new relationship between citizens and the state based on a new social contract that would be inclusive and equitable, and, if not democratic, would at least install a political system that was based on transparency and trust. The slogans of the social movements in the region — ranging from the February 20 Movement in Morocco, the uprisings in Tunisia (“work is a right, you thieves”), the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square (“bread, freedom, social justice”) and the initial demonstrations in Syria (“not Sunnis, not ‘Alawis, only Syrians”) to Bahrain (“not Sunnis, not Shi‘a, only Muslims”) — expressed this yearning for inclusion and equality. Simple demands such as the right to strike, earn a reasonable wage, establish independent trade unions, secure minority rights, purge institutions of corrupt management, establish an independent civil society, and enforce gender and religious equality are in themselves revolutionary in an authoritarian setting. These claims were briefly supported by broad cross-ideological movements that worked toward common goals based on shared notions of citizenship and common ideas of belonging. The subsequent clampdown on these rights and the restoration of authoritarianism, support for sectarianism, reassertion of class divisions and privilege are usually associated with the Gulf countries, with Saudi Arabia playing a key role in the counterrevolution. Its role in the repression of the Pearl Roundabout occupation in Bahrain on March 14, 2011, by Gulf Cooperation Council troops, support for the military coup in Egypt on July 3, 2013, by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, and intervention in Yemen make Saudi Arabia stand out as the main support of the reaction. But not only is the regime associated with the suppression, its population is also regarded as passively supporting the Al Sa‘ud dynasty.

The five books reviewed here challenge this image of perfect harmony and of a shared conservative world outlook. To be sure, Saudi Arabia is different from the other countries in the region but only to a degree. The authors show that the Kingdom suffers from the same social and economic problems and has experienced similar demands of citizenship and [End Page 667] rights as the rest of the region. They argue that agency is important and that rentier theory is of limited value. The reason is that Saudi Arabia, like many other Arab countries, never succeeded in achieving national unity, or in creating a sense of common belonging and shared identity based on equal rights and regular, abstract, and uniform relations with the state. Because the Saudi bureaucracy emerged at a much later date than those of its neighbors, these anomalies were only more dramatic. Saudi politics consist of highly personalized relations with various segments of the population, each of which enjoy distinctive privileges and entitlements and consist of highly modernized and archaic sectors side by side. What makes Saudi Arabia fundamentally different from the other countries is the pervasive influence of Wahhabism and the close alliance between the state and the deeply conservative Islamic establishment. This alliance has been both a tool for internal social and political control and an influence on foreign policy. Together, these elements provide a jumble of contradictions. Yet the five books under review provide incisive insights about the nodal point where these Saudi contradictions come together: the notion of citizenship.

Although citizenship became the central issue of the modern Saudi state the moment the country had been unified by ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin...


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