SAUDI ARABIA Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs, ed. by Paul Aarts and Gerd Nonneman. London, UK: Hurst and Company, 2005; and New York: New York University Press, 2006. xvi + 455 pages. Index to p. 462. $50.
The editors and contributors of this book are to be congratulated on producing one of the most comprehensive works on contemporary Saudi policies and politics to appear in recent years. It is detailed, meticulously researched, and broad in scope. Given the plethora of Saudi-bashing polemics regularly appearing in the mass media and published by the trade press in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, it is a welcome addition to the literature on a country about which considerable public interest throughout the Western world is inversely proportioned to its depth of understanding.
The book is divided into five parts, each containing essays by several authors: Part One, Ideology and Change addresses the impact on the Kingdom of the Islamic revival movement of the eighteenth century religious leader, Shaykh Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, whose name was used by the revival's opponents to coin the term "Wahhabism;" Part Two: Political Economy addresses the degree of accommodation of traditional Saudi business practices and ethics with the requirements for participation in a modern global economy; Part Three: Regime and Opposition addresses the role of rulers and ruled, and the political opposition to the traditional Islamic monarchal system; Part Four: External Relations addresses Saudi foreign policy, including regional policies and relations with the United States. In Part Five: Conclusions, the coeditors put forth the view that, if the current polity is to remain, "...it will come as the result of a very gradual process, driven and signaled as much by the incremental expansion of the grip of representative institutions on day-to-day and technical decision-making, and of the habit-forming effect of even limited exercises in political participation and discussion, as by grand political departures" (p. 454).
The greatest strength of the book is in its objective, factual presentation of changing political and economic events and trends in contemporary Saudi Arabia, not merely since September 11, but in the years preceding it. The chapters are well developed and well documented. They are replete with numerous informative footnotes, which taken in isolation would alone be well worth having for anyone seeking to look in greater depth at Saudi political dynamics. It is understandable but a pity that the sources used were not placed in a single bibliography.
Despite the wealth of information presented, it is not a book that can be easily digested, particularly by the non-specialist. The prose is somewhat wooden in style, and the penchant for adopting Western social science terminology and methodologies is often misleading, giving an impression of analytical precision where in reality little exists in the behaviors under examination. …