This book by a leading American Gulf scholar is one of the most comprehensive studies of contemporary Saudi legal and political reforms to appear in some time. It covers judicial reforms, national and international dialogues on governmental legal regulations, political participation and municipal elections, political reforms including monarchical succession, public petitions for reform, and Saudi-U.S. relations. The author's final conclusions focus on domestic reforms under King Abdallah, whose reign began in 2005. The book points out how necessary and timely the recent reforms have been for the regime to maintain its legitimacy in a growing environment of political disaffection brought by rapid modern change.
For those interested, or with interests, in Saudi Arabia, this is a must read. Its narrative not only covers Saudi legal and political reforms over the past decade, but also describes a wide range of Saudi views in response to the pace of reform in the kingdom.
The large number of appendices include government-created dialogues and petitions, and a speech by King Abdallah calling for an end to religious conflict and confrontation. Another constructive element of the appendices is that they present the subject through Saudi eyes. Since 9/11 in particular, much of the coverage of Saudi politics in the Western media is viewed through Western eyes. While that might explain how Western readers might think and respond to political and legal changes brought about by incredibly rapid modernization, it does not explain Saudi actions and reactions to legal and political reforms.
As noted, the book is about contemporary reforms. In fact, modern Saudi legal and political reforms have been relatively recent. Whereas it took the Western world six centuries to reach the level of current modernization, Saudi Arabia has done so in living memory. But it has also evolved extremely rapidly. For anyone visiting the kingdom today, it is hard to believe that, before founding Saudi Arabia in 1932, King Abd al-Aziz ruled over Najd, a relatively small, isolated area in central Arabia with an Islamic/tribal political system that had not changed a great deal since the establishment of Islam 1400 years ago.
Because of the rapid social, political and economic changes effecting Saudi legal and political reforms in such a short period of time, however, it would have been helpful for the reader if a short historical narrative had been added to the introductory chapter about how the Saudi social and political reform process evolved up to the time covered by the book. Of particular interest would have been how maintaining a balance between modern needs and traditional values evolved to the present time. Cultural shock brought about by rapid modernization financed by oil revenue has made the process of balancing behaviors brought about by modern technology and traditional Islamic customs and values increasingly difficult.
A small example of the value of a short historical overview, in my opinion, was the beginning subtitle in the section on Saudi-U.S. relations following the 9/11 attacks — "The Saudi-American Divorce" — and the penultimate subtitle, "American-Saudi Re-engagement." The analysis of the section is valid, but the term "divorce" overstates the case. From the time the United States opened a legation in Saudi Arabia, there have been actions by both countries that upset relations with the other. But, like many marriages, bilateral U.S.-Saudi relations have always been based on mutual self-interest, regardless of how many heated differences they have. That appears to be the case with U.S.-Saudi relations; for better and for worse, they have remained intact.