The rise and consolidation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been recounted by numerous historians, both Saudi and Western. Key episodes in this historical narrative include the mid-eighteenth century alliance in Najd between the Islamic religious reformer, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and the emir (prince) of al-Diriyyah, Muhammad bin Saud; the rise and fall of the first two Saudi/Wahhabi states; the dramatic revival of Saudi power with the recapture of Riyadh in 1902 by Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman Al Saud (Ibn Saud), culminating in his 1932 unification of the regions of Najd, Hasa, Jabal Shammar (Hayil), Hijaz and Asir as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; and the material transformation of the kingdom under Abd al-Aziz and his sons and successors into an affluent and modernizing state made possible by the discovery in 1938 of enormous reserves of oil. In the official historiography of Saudi Arabia, the dominant narrative is the glorification of Abd al-Aziz’s success in restoring his family’s traditional position as the hegemonic force that unified and binds together the disparate regions of the kingdom and preserves and upholds the values and traditions of an orthodox Islamic society.
It is this official historiography that Mahdawi al-Rasheed challenges in her revisionist interpretation of Saudi history. In her introduction, Al-Rasheed states that she did not set out to write a chronological history of Saudi Arabia but rather “to present an interpretation of Saudi history that does not endorse the dominant official wisdom” (p. 12). The author, a native of Saudi Arabia who now teaches social anthropology at the University of London and in 1991 published a well-received history of her Rashidi family, contends that this official narrative perpetuates a presentation of Arabian history that plays down its tribal past and ignores regional history and culture.
Tribal and regional histories and cultural traditions that do not conform with the picture of the inevitable rise of the Wahhabi movement and of Al Saud ascendancy have been suppressed.
In her eyes, what the official narrative calls the “unification” of Arabia by Abd al-Aziz was really “the emergence of a state imposed on people without a historical memory of unity or national heritage that would justify their inclusion in a single entity” (p. 3). A population divided by tribal, regional and sectarian (i.e., Shia) differences was conquered by an indigenous Najdi leadership allied with Wahhabi religious proselytizers and sanctioned by a colonial power (i.e., Great Britain). Therefore, the official story – that in unifying Arabia Abd al-Aziz was merely restoring Al Saud authority over territory that had belonged to his ancestors – has little real justification. Unification required that Abd al-Aziz first overcome the resistance of tribal confederations and regional leaders whose claims to legitimacy were often as valid as his own.
Al-Rasheed acknowledges that personalities like Abd al-Aziz were important in establishing the kingdom, but “the project of unifying Arabia was a gradual process assisted by several factors that were beyond the control of Ibn Saud” (p. 4). She believes the Al Saud emirs of Diriyya would not have become a significant force in Najd, much less Arabia, without the British and the Al Saud alliance with the Wahhabi religious movement. Unlike the Rashidi emirs of Hayil, whose political base was in the great Shammar tribal confederation, or the Sharifs of Mecca, who could point to their descent from the Prophet Muhammad, the recognition of their position by the Ottomans and their revenues from the Islamic pilgrimage, the Saudis had no important tribal connections or surplus revenues.
While the Saudi state was never colonized by a foreign power, Al-Rasheed stresses that Abd al-Aziz’s military successes against the Ottomans in Hasa and the Rashidi emirs of Hayil depended largely on British sufferance. During and after World War I, British-supplied arms and subsidies played “a crucial role” in the Saudi conquests of Hayil and Hijaz, and it was the Anglo-Saudi treaty of 1927 that first recognized the independence of the Saudi state so long as it maintained peaceable relations with neighboring states under British protection. Britain and, later, the United States were to play major roles in enabling the Al Saud dynasty first to create and develop their kingdom and then to preserve it against outside threats.
What made the difference (along with British aid) was Abd al-Aziz’s success in reviving the Wahhabi reformist movement. Al-Rasheed dismisses popular descriptions of the Saudi state as “tribal” or “bedouin.” Creation of a “quasi-tribal confederation” known as the Ikhwan, a permanent fighting force of sedentarized tribesmen converted to Wahhabi doctrine by mutawaa (religious ritual specialists) and recruited by Abd al-Aziz, was the only way by which the Saudi emirate could grow (p. 18). At the same time, the Ikhwan settlements reduced the nomadism and political autonomy of the Najdi tribes. When the Ikhwan sought recognition as partners rather than instruments of Abd al-Aziz, he turned to the Wahhabi ulema for support and obtained a religious opinion (fatwa) authorizing him to suppress the Ikhwan by force. With their defeat in 1930, any tribally-based threat to Al Saud rule effectively ended.
For Al-Rasheed, this “holy alliance” between Abd al-Aziz and the Wahhabi religious specialists is critical to understanding modern Saudi history. So long as Abd al-Aziz and his heirs governed in accordance with the Sharia (islamic law), as interpreted by the Riyadh ulema, they would be free to rule. “In the Wahhabi idea of the state Ibn Saud found a conceptual framework crucial for the consolidation of his rule. He was granted legitimacy as long as he championed the cause of the religious specialists, becoming the guardian of ritualistic Islam” (p. 51). In turn, Al-Rasheed asserts that the senior ulema accepted subordination to the political state. Henceforth the ulema would be limited to giving opinions on matters of religious ritual, but politics was out of bounds (p. 68).
Saudi official history has tried to project an image of the kingdom as the guardian of Islam while highlighting the family’s role in modernizing the country. However, Najdi Wahhabi conservatism “did not encourage an easy immersion in modernity in the twentieth century” (p. 5). Innovations like the telegraph, radio, television and girls’ education were adopted only after the fierce objections of conservative religious circles were overcome by negotiation or coercion. Later, enormous oil wealth permitted the Saudi state to effect radical transformations of its economy and infrastructure and to develop modern bureaucratic institutions. Much of this effort required the employment of large numbers of non-Arab and non-Muslim technicians and workers. By then, the ulema had already been co-opted in the service of the state and had accepted the king’s authority and his justifications for major innovations.
Al-Rasheed differs from Abd al-Aziz’s admirers in her analysis of the means by which Abd al-Aziz consolidated his authority. He marginalized his brothers and cousins to monopolize rule for himself and his sons. She reasons that his strategy of contracting serial polygamous marriages was not to create enduring political alliances with equals but to subordinate former rivals or conquered tribes by systematically appropriating their women and encouraging those families to compete for political status or material benefits from his hands. The king’s open majlis (public audience) and generous hospitality likewise were designed, not to encourage frank exchanges on public issues between ruler and subjects, but to exhibit royal power and to create a sense of national identity “revolv[ing] around personalized contacts with the King” (p. 86).
After Abd al-Aziz’s death, however, tensions arose among his sons over the budget and the control of key ministries. This development coincided with the rise in the Arab world of nationalist and socialist ideologies that challenged monarchical rule. While the American-owned Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) was the engine for economic growth, it brought with it labor unrest and political dissidence among its Saudi and foreign Arab workers that soon spread to elements in the armed forces and even the royal family. Faisal, who deposed his discredited brother Saud in 1964 with the approval of key senior ulema, instituted important economic, social and bureaucratic reforms but at the same time strengthened the family’s control over the levers of state power. His promises of political reform, including a consultative council, were not fulfilled, and internal dissidence was sternly repressed.
Faisal used his personal piety (and his mother’s connection to the Al al-Shaykh family, the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab) to reaffirm the Islamic credentials of the Saudi monarchy. Faisal promoted the idea of Islamic unity to counter threats he perceived in the secular ideologies of Arab nationalism, socialism and communism. Despite unhappiness with U.S. support for Israel, Faisal and his successors turned increasingly to the United States for military and technical assistance. The contradiction between Faisal’s promotion of pan-Islamism and the growing reliance on the United States for protection (in most instances against nearby Muslim states) climaxed in King Fahd’s decision to allow American combat forces to be stationed in the kingdom during and after the Gulf War – “a decision that shattered the myth of Saudi non-alignment, Islamic politics and self-reliance” (p. 162).
Al-Rasheed describes how the growing dichotomies created by trying to modernize in an Islamic context and by the increasingly visible American military presence have produced serious social and political tensions. Falling oil revenues during the 1980s and 1990s brought curtailed government benefits, higher utility prices and growing unemployment. Lessened prosperity has led in turn to increasing competition for public funds among regions and for jobs between those educated at home, especially at religious schools, and those with U.S. or European degrees. Those marginalized in this economy have been attracted to messages that are both anti-corruption and anti-Western. A political awakening drawing on religious rhetoric and on centers of Islamic education has begun. The seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 and especially the open challenges to Saudi domestic and foreign policies that followed the Gulf War came from within the religious right, the Al Saud’s traditional allies. The “fragile foundation” of the state-society relationship has been exposed, and Saudi society has become polarized between those who seek greater political liberalization and social freedom and those who cherish a return to “authentic Islam.”
The appearance of an Islamist opposition in a state that claims to govern according to the principles of the sharia has seriously jarred the Saudi establishment. The state responded by a security and press campaign against the Islamists while reaffirming the kingdom’s Islamic credentials. The intensification of public debate led to limited political-reform measures inaugurated in the 1990s. Neither those reforms nor the creation of the appointed Consultative Council has silenced the voices of Islamic dissent. Saudi Islamists, some now in exile in London, have demanded a greater role in policy formulation by the ulema, especially those not tainted by close association with the state. Islamists in particular criticized the 1999 celebrations of Abd al-Aziz’s life and deeds as not only “un-Islamic” but as ignoring the importance of the 1744 rise of the Wahhabi reform movement – an event they consider to have had a greater relevance for the modern history of Saudi Arabia (p. 216).
Al-Rasheed finds it difficult to judge whether the Islamist opposition will turn into a mass movement and states that it is too early to predict the political future of the Saudi state. She does warn that an open dispute within the ruling family over the succession to the ailing King Fahd could easily lead to new outbreaks of Islamist discontent. Her book falls short, however, in not giving more attention to the voices of liberal Saudis increasingly uncomfortable with both an autocratic monarchy and the prospect of rule by religious extremists. The possibility that greater political participation could evolve from the recent reforms – by electing rather than appointing members of the national and provincial consultative councils, for example – is not discussed. The impression she leaves is that the only potential alternative to autocratic Al Saud rule is an Islamist state or one in which the ulema, like those of Iran, have the controlling influence over political and social policies as well as religious matters.
Another issue that Al-Rasheed does not squarely address is whether the present Saudi state can or should survive as a unitary entity. In a key final chapter, she contrasts the official history as it appears in Saudi textbooks and in events such as the centennial celebration of Abd al-Aziz’s recapture of Riyadh with histories of the Shia minority of Hasa, the Najdi city of Unayzah, and Rashidi rule in Hayil. These histories offer alternative versions of political and social life in those regions prior to the Saudi/Wahhabi ascendancy and question the eminence of Abd al-Aziz and his family and the centrality of their role in the historical process of unifying Arabia.
If, as she suggests (p. 214), “the ancestor cult of Ibn Saud is central to the consolidation of national unity” and for “mobilizing a society divided by regional diversity and tribal ancestries,” what does she see replacing the Saudi monarchy as the glue holding the state together? If this “ancestor cult” masks “localized identities and alternative sources of loyalty,” is she hinting that these alternative loyalties could or should replace allegiance to a centralized authority in Riyadh? If the production of more histories and cultural events celebrating the regional, tribal and sectarian diversity of the kingdom is a good thing – and Al-Rasheed appears to believe it is – might these encourage centrifugal forces seeking to throw off Najdi/Wahhabi dominance or at least to obtain for Hijazis, Hasawis, Asiris, et al. an equal or greater voice in determining local matters including religious practices?
Analogies with the re-emergence of warlords in post-Taliban Afghanistan and scenarios of potential regional and sectarian challenges to the unity of a post-Saddam Iraq come to mind.
Recent speeches by Crown Prince Abdullah and by Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal suggest that in the wake of 9/11 the Saudi Arabian government is re-evaluating what is being said in the mosques and religious schools of the kingdom. The decision this year to shift control over women’s education from the religious establishment to the Ministry of Education may indicate that the government is serious about narrowing the role of the Wahhabi ulema in non-religious matters. It remains to be seen whether these steps presage a more far-reaching reassessment of the Al Saud’s traditional reliance on Wahhabi doctrine and religious rhetoric to justify and legitimize their rule. If they do, then, as Al-Rasheed implies (pp. 197-99), the Al Saud must work hard to create a new sense that the country’s political stability and social cohesion depend on their success in promoting modernization and the general welfare rather than on perpetuating the ideal of an Islamic state that primarily vindicates a narrow Najdi/Wahhabi hegemon.
Al-Rasheed has drawn extensively on the works of other Arab and Western historians, both admirers of the Al Saud and their detractors. Her bibliography is extensive and her sources documented. This is not the definitive history of Saudi Arabia, but it is an accessible narrative that even those readers already familiar with the outlines of Saudi history can read with profit. In the end, her history engenders more serious questions than it answers. Nevertheless, these are important questions for not only Saudi policy makers but for those Americans concerned with the future of the Middle East in general and of the kingdom in particular.