Book Review: ‘Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia,’ by Rosie Bsheer

Normally, a country’s history is constructed on its cumulative developments and struggles and on the experiences of its myriad national, ethnic, religious, urban, rural, and various other groups. It is also built around a unifying ethos that is constantly enhanced with lessons learned by the institutions of the state and by the elites that lead them to perpetuate and sustain the nation. In a sense, history becomes the repository not only of what was achieved, but also of what failed. This constant and dialectical reevaluation of purposeful national existence acknowledges every group’s contribution so that none are left out of the story.

Not so in present-day Saudi Arabia. Official history there has been constructed around the achievements of the Saudi royal family that, in 1932, succeeded in establishing the third Saudi state by King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al Saud. Ibn Saud was shrewd and ambitious enough to overcome the serious local and regional challenges that had prevented the success of the first and second states––in 1818 and 1891, respectively––and to conquer and gradually pacify the territory defining Saudi Arabia today. Vanquished tribal chieftains were subdued via brutal military force, sidelined, or bought off to compel them to acquiesce to the rule of the lord from Najd––the area deep in the central desert of the peninsula––and become subjects in a kingdom that bore his family’s name.

Rosie Bsheer’s Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia (Stanford University Press, 2020) narrates the attempt to build a specifically Saudi history of the kingdom that is isolated from the period before Ibn Saud rose up and consolidated his rule. With the aim to examine the country’s archives and preserved documents, Bsheer began her endeavor in 2009 when, as she explains, she went to the kingdom as it was witnessing an opening in its public space––which, incidentally, closed with the start of the Arab Spring in 2011. Her arrival and research mission coincided with pitched, but unannounced, battles between different power centers in the royal family that were competing to become principal influencers of the country’s history writing process.

Bsheer’s arrival in Saudi Arabia and research mission coincided with pitched, but unannounced, battles between different power centers in the royal family that were competing to become principal influencers of the country’s history writing process.

Bsheer was lucky to be able to do her research in a country that did not allow much freedom of movement and access for females. This is because she was seen as having the right credentials: American citizenship and a prestigious Ivy League pedigree. To be sure, readers are fortunate that she was able to collect the information and research necessary––and to witness the physical changes in the kingdom’s social and built environments––at that critical time. In this reader, Bsheer offers an essential examination of Saudi Arabia’s identity and present challenges.

The book is composed of an eye-opening preface about the author’s research and writing process, an introduction to historical preservation in the kingdom, five detailed chapters about archival wars between members of the royal family and their entourages as well as the deliberate plans to change the physical nature of the country, and a well-reasoned conclusion. An impressive bibliography of multifarious Arabic and English language sources and archival materials that Bsheer studied exposes the reader to rich and crucial information, making this treatise indispensable for anyone interested in a look at Saudi Arabia’s modern history and especially at how the Saudi state has become a mere extension of the Saudi royal family.

Bsheer starts out by discussing two interrelated issues in the Saudi context that became evident when she started her research and interviews. Both direct the reader to the book’s thesis: that the history of modern Saudi Arabia is solely that of its royal family. The first was the common surprise of interviewees who wondered why she would want to study the history of Saudi Arabia because the Al Saud “have no history” (p. xiii). Everyone assumed that this dominant Saudi narrative of history would obviate study of any other competing narrative. The second was the violence that was associated with imposing that narrative on society; regime supporters acknowledged it as a fulfillment of the mantra that “history is written by the victors.” This violence was physical, in the form of oppression and imprisonment of regime opponents, and psychological, depriving objectors of the freedom to remember and commemorate their national past.

There was the common surprise of interviewees who wondered why she would want to study the history of Saudi Arabia because the Al Saud “have no history.”

The introduction lays out the problem of preserving history in Saudi Arabia, from the neglect that befell the archives and preserved memories of those conquered by the Al Saud to the chaos that overwhelmed the process of collecting material archives. It also contains a concise rendering of the institutional development of both the Saudi state bureaucracy and the archiving endeavor. Bsheer offers an early foray into the gradual sidelining of the religious side of the state project––Wahhabism––in favor of a secularization process emphasizing nationalism under the banner of the Al Saud. While Bsheer’s book may not be the place to fully explicate the process of diminishing Wahhabism’s role in the founding of the Saudi state, her attendance to it helps the reader in understanding her general thesis. That the separation of the religious from the temporal began mainly after 1990––when both the First Gulf War and the rise of the reformist Sahwa movement shook the establishment––is testament to the contention that the Al Saud were no longer interested in sharing the country’s ethos with any other group, elite, or socioreligious movement.

Bsheer dedicates Chapter 1 to what she calls “the occluded pasts” of those who were on the receiving end of the state’s destruction and the redesign of the non-Saudi inheritance of others. To be sure, this was a process of breaking with the past. Shockingly, it was undertaken in none other than the city of Mecca, birthplace of Islam, which is every Muslim’s qibla––direction––as s/he performs prayers toward the holy Kaaba. The Saudi state literally destroyed the built edifices of the city around the Kaaba that, for centuries, had housed and received scores of millions of worshippers from around the world. Bsheer minces no words when she writes that “[i]t is striking––yet ordinary––that the Saudi state would occlude pasts that, in the case of Mecca, are central to global Islamic modernity, twentieth-century religio-political thought, and even the making of Saudi Arabia itself” (p. 34). This was done both to erase an unwanted, pre-Saudi past and as an extension of new capitalist development that benefited members of the royal family.

Chapter 2 discusses the problem of the absence of archives in the Saudi state, specifically because the leaders ignored or wanted to occlude the histories of others. It took decades of dedicated effort by King Faisal bin Abdulaziz (r. 1964-1975) and those who came after him to build the structures of a new bureaucracy that could undertake the process of governance in a modern state. Such a bureaucracy began to build archives for the new state that, according to Bsheer, has control but remains “without hegemony” (p. 62). Having ignored the history of others within its geographic territory and lacking its own preserved official documents from central Arabia, the Saudi royal family cannot present itself as representative of all its citizens. Additionally, with the Hijaz and Mecca occluded, Riyadh became the new center of power, but without the necessary accoutrements of historical archives.

Having ignored the history of others within its geographic territory and lacking its own preserved official documents from central Arabia, the Saudi royal family cannot present itself as representative of all its citizens.

Chapter 3 charts the road of building the modern state’s historical archive under the direction of now-King Salman who, for decades, was the governor of Riyadh and shepherded the state’s collection of documents and asserted a monopoly over how they were to be used. In essence, after the First Gulf War Salman became the custodian of the archiving project. He also served as the architect of the new secular ethos and the organizer of separating Wahhabism from the ideology of the national state. Salman set out to amass millions of documents from private collectors, auctions, and local governments, and the process was not always ethical. During the reign of King Abdullah (r. 2005-2015), Salman was given the freedom to do whatever was necessary because he and the sitting king had the same aim of concealing records. Bsheer writes that “[a]rchival praxis has allowed the Saudi regime––in its multiplicity––to assemble the past, to consolidate much of the country’s dispersed material history in state warehouses with no intention to archive the records or make them available” (p. 124).

The Saudi royal family’s project of concealing old archives was accompanied by a strong drive to create a specific Saudi heritage, to which Bsheer dedicates Chapter 4. She discusses the effort to make Riyadh the all-encompassing focus of the new state, with Salman as its governor and leading the effort. Bsheer writes that “the Al Saud monarchy entered the twenty-first century with little material heritage to call its own,” necessitating the breakneck speed of construction and memorialization in old Riyadh (pp. 141-142). The process was a calculated exchange of the old places with the new; indeed, the consolidation of the Al Saud rule in the capital at the end of the twentieth century was accompanied by the destruction of the actual historical memory that was in Mecca in the Hijaz (p. 165).

The consolidation of the Al Saud rule in the capital at the end of the twentieth century was accompanied by the destruction of the actual historical memory that was in Mecca in the Hijaz.

In Chapter 5, Bsheer provides detail of the destruction of old Mecca by local and foreign construction companies, all bent on making real the royal family’s plan to redevelop the city in a neo-capitalist direction. Mohammed bin Laden’s construction company, the Mohammed Binladin Organization, spearheaded the process that saw the razing of old structures around the Kaaba and the building of a glitzy hotel above the square where Saudi kings and high ranking princes in the royal family could stay during hajj seasons without much interaction with ordinary worshippers from around the Muslim world. This was accompanied by the costly and problematic expulsion of some 400,000 residents from their homes. The construction of Riyadh and destruction in Mecca, according to Bsheer, were accompanied by “the rapid ascendancy of neoliberal forms of governance,” which was a manifestation of the development of a Saudi state capitalism that is currently the state of affairs in the kingdom (p. 195).

Bsheer’s concluding chapter is an insightful summary of the manifestations of the state-building project in modern-day Saudi Arabia. The destruction of the non-Saudi history––in the form of capturing and hiding old archives as well as razing the edifices of old built structures––helped the royal family claim sole authority. So did the state’s accelerated construction of new edifices in Riyadh. To Bsheer, Saudi Arabia now is a state with no history but with a present of materiality that helps it create a new social order. She writes, “[t]he Saudi state’s material politics speaks to how the regime aims to reengineer the social order––to supplant its religious foundations for political legitimacy with a secular material mythology built around the selective history of Al Saud family” (p. 207).

It is this project that is unfolding in the kingdom today. Perhaps that is what explains the much-touted plan of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to build a completely new city on the northwestern shore of the kingdom, called Neom, which threatens to uproot indigenous communities that have inhabited that area for centuries. Indeed, state capitalist development and the creation of new realities—while ignoring others—continue to be the animating ethos underlying the perpetuation of Saudi royal family rule. While witnessing this process will provide rich and vital information for observers of the kingdom for years to come, Bsheer’s book should be considered essential reading that pointedly paves the way to a more intentional understanding of Saudi Arabia’s development.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here