Thinking Aloud: “Reimagining Saudi Petro-Modernity”

Nov. 20, 2014 by Darius 

Earlier this week, I saw Yale history professor Rosie Bsheer talk about “Reimagining Saudi Petro-Modernity: History and Space in a Post-Rentier State.”  Behind the rather dense and scholarly title, Bsheer’s talk had a number of interesting observations about Saudi Arabia.

The modern Saudi state was founded in 1932 when the al-Saud family, which hailed from the interior of the country around Riyadh, defeated rivals to unify two geographically large kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.  The founding father of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al-Saud (also known as Ibn Saud), had been fighting first the Ottomans and later other Arab families, occasionally with the assistance of the British, for nearly 30 years before his creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  He ruled the kingdom for 21 years, until his death in 1953.  During his reign, oil was discovered in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, and the al-Saud family’s alliance with the US and with the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) was firmly cemented.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Saudi state was confronted with a number of social movements promoting various “isms,” chief among them Communism and Nasserism.  With the help of ARAMCO, which Prof. Bsheer described as the State Department and CIA’s arm in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi royal family was able to counter these movements.

It was at this point that one of Ibn Saud’s successors, King Faisal, strengthened official Saudi ideology’s ties to Wahhabism—the fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam that the al-Saud family had been associated with since the 18th century—and especially Wahhabism’s tenet that obedience to the Saudi royal family was obedience to God.  The Saud family had used Wahhabism previously as a rallying cry to fight the more religiously liberal Ottomans and were using it now to fight secular nationalism.

It was also at that point that Faisal and his successors began in earnest to craft an official Saudi narrative concerning the formation of the Saudi state.  This narrative claims that there was a continuous Saudi state, ruled of course by the al-Saud family, stretching from the 18th century to the present.  This continuity is the basis for modern Saudi identity.

According to Bsheer, the Saudi state faced its greatest internal challenge in the aftermath of the 1990-91 Gulf War.  For the first time, the royal family’s political opponents used its own Wahhabist ideology against it.  The opposition, largely made up of clerics, alleged that the Saud family was (a) not truly Muslim, since it allowed US troops to be based on Saudi soil, (b) promoted great social inequality, and (c) was completely dependent on foreign powers.  In response, the Saudi royal family embarked on a plan to maintain their legitimacy by harnessing the power of history and diversifying the economy.

Bsheer explained these divergent goals through the strikingly different treatment of the history of Mecca, the location of Islam’s holiest shrine, and Riyadh, the traditional power base of the Sauds.  Historic Mecca has been largely demolished and redeveloped.  This development has accomplished three things important for the Saudi regime.  First, it has kept the clerics happy, since their Wahhabist version of Islam prohibits anything that looks remotely like idol worship, including veneration of tombs and other historic sites.  Second, it removes from sight “alternate” versions of history, since Mecca and its surroundings were not actually under Saud family control for most of history.  Finally, the redevelopment of Mecca helps bring in tourism revenues and economic diversification.  For example, a major hotel complex directly adjacent to the Grand Mosque has been declared to be theologically equivalent to being in the Grand Mosque itself.  For $3,000 per night, wealthy visitors can do much of their pilgrimage duties without encountering the crowds outside the hotel.  As a result of Mecca’s development, real estate in the heart of Mecca sells for $9,000 per square foot—compared with $2,000 per square foot in New York City.

In Riyadh, the royal family has taken a sharply different approach.  There, historical buildings, forts, and other places have been memorialized, restored, and publicized.  Historic Riyadh is seen as “proof” of the al-Saud family’s right to rule.

Bsheer also devoted considerable time to detailing the Saudi state’s relationship with archives.  In Saudi Arabia today, several factions of the royal family all maintain separate archives, and many private families, including powerful families that challenged Saudi rule, have private archives as well.  In the last few years, there has been a push from a high-ranking prince to centralize the archives into one collection—ostensibly to preserve them but in Bsheer’s view to make inaccessible any documents that demonstrate a history of Arabian pluralism contrary to what the regime seeks to promote.  The royal family is taking such great pains to ensure that they maintain a lid on history that, according to Bsheer, the first thing the Saudi government did after the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt was to dispatch a “cultural mission” to ensure that Egyptian archives detailing Egypt’s “Cold War” with Saudi Arabia in the 1950s-1970s remained sealed.  Other sensitive stories in modern Saudi history that the royal family wants to control or suppress include the regime’s treatment of the social movements of the 1950s and ‘60s and the controversial 11-year reign and eventual internal family overthrow of Ibn Saud’s first successor, King Saud.  Interestingly, Bsheer noted that many U.S. documents dealing with Saudi Arabia from this period are also still classified.

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