Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia

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The history of the Arabian Peninsula before the rule of the Al-Saud royal family is rich, diverse, cosmopolitan and largely forgotten. Rosie Bsheer’s new book Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia delves into the question of how historical memory construction under the Al-Saud royal family tells us about how power works in the Gulf kingdom. A common response from her Saudi interlocutors is “we have no history,” a puzzling yet revealing claim. “He [interlocutor] was alluding to the idea that with one sanctioned historical narrative, there was nothing else to research. It was a futile endeavour.” There is a reason why so many believe that there is no real history in the kingdom, and that is because the past is dangerous to the ruling regime. Looking at the past and how it has been reshaped tells us a lot about the anxiety of power and the vulnerability of the House of Saud. This is a central contention of the book.

Bsheer opens with an example that seems peculiar to most outside observers. In 2004, Sultan Ibn Abdulaziz, the then Saudi defence minister, told the media that Saudi Arabia would fully cooperate with the US’ war on terror and proudly announced that religious textbooks used in schools had been edited to remove offensive references to other religions. However, any pressure to change history textbooks was a red line that must not be crossed. So, religion was negotiable, but history was not. While such a statement might surprise many outsiders who view the kingdom as the image of religious fanaticism, to those inside Saudi Arabia, the statement was not particularly shocking and was a product of how Saudi Arabia was changing post 1991. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August, 1990, unleashed an unexpected existential crisis within Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, fearing Saddam Hussein might march his army towards Riyadh next, turned to the US for protection and invited US troops onto Saudi soil.

This was met with serious political opposition: “King Fahd rushed to find clerics who would give religious legitimacy to his political stance and the presence of US troops during the war. He found some, but more than a hundred clerics from within the official religious establishment had also signed a memorandum of advice addressed to the king in which they recommended political, economic and religious reforms.” Many also rebuked Al-Saud’s close ties with the US and called on greater economic and social justice. The official religious establishment was created to bolster the Al-Saud regime, help crush social and political dissent and encourage a Salafist variant called Wahhabism among the general population. But now the Wahhabists were turning on the House of Saud itself, and for the first time, the Saudi regime came to see Islam as a threat to state power. The royal family responded to this challenge by changing the state’s official narrative on history by reducing the role of Islam in the founding of the Saudi state. Since the 1950s, the Saudi state adopted the narrative written for them by historians working for the Arabian American Oil Company ARAMCO, emphasising the role of the anti-Ottoman religious reformer and rebel Ibn Wahhab and his movement as being the origins of the Saudi state. However, post-Gulf War, the role of Ibn Wahhab in school textbooks was sidelined in favour of Ibn Saud’s 1902 conquest of Riyadh. The Saudi state embarked on a project to “secularise” its history, and places like Riyadh saw a boom in investment into galleries, museums, heritage sites and archives that would both tell a secular story of Saudi history, and legitimise the rule of the regime.

Archive Wars contrasts the Saudi search for history, on the one hand, with the destruction of heritage and religious sites like Mecca, on the other. However, while we use terms like “official historic narrative”, Archive Wars reminds us of the contradictions of attempting to create an official narrative, despite Saudi Arabia passing a law in 1966 calling for the creation of a single national archive. To date, no single functional national archive exists. The key reason, as the book outlines, is the lack of trust between different officials in different ministries. Ministers are reluctant to turn over files from their respective ministries out of fear of how such records could be used against them. Personal rivalries within the ruling family also make it a difficult task to enforce and compel those who possess state documents to hand them over. As Bsheer points out, this demonstrates the dysfunctional nature of power in the kingdom. The archives that do exist generate paranoia. Foreigners are often hired to help administer them as the Saudi state fears what local archivists might do if they get hold of official records.

Archive Wars is a much needed and in many ways revelatory addition to our understanding of Saudi history and politics. On a personal level, I found the work to be an absolute delight to read and one that has challenged the way I look at Saudi politics. Despite being a vital country in the Middle East, there are few good texts on the kingdom. Archive Wars will stimulate better and more critical scholarship. It changes the way we think about the relationship between archives, heritage and political power in the region, and beyond.

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