The Saudi Enigma: A History/Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis

By Aarts, Paul | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Saudi Enigma: A History/Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis


Aarts, Paul, The Middle East Journal


SAUDI ARABIA The Saudi Enigma: A History, by Pascal Ménoret. London and New York: Zed Books, 2005. xiv + 221 pages. Chronology to p. 227. Notes to p. 245. Bibl. to p. 248. Index to p. 257. $22.50.

Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis, by John Bradley. New York and Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. xvi + 217 pages. Index to p. 224. $22.95.

Two books, two wrong titles. Bradley clearly exposes much less than he promises to do and Ménoret "de-enigmatizes" much more than the title suggests. Saudi Arabia Exposed is a collection of essays - somewhat oddly divided into two untitled sections - that shed light on different aspects of contemporary Saudi Arabia. For two and a half years, Bradley worked for the Kingdom's main English-language newspaper A nib News, in Jidda. Based on that experience, he gives the reader some insights that might not be obtainable elsewhere, but on the whole the book lacks depth and is disappointing.

The most interesting aspect of the book are Bradley's impressions of remote parts of the country, such as the al-Jawf region in the north (known as "the desert frontier province" of Saudi Arabia), 'Asir (where most of the Saudi contingent of 9/11 hijackers came from), and the southwestern city of Najran and the Eastern Province (both heavily populated by Shi'ites, Isma'ili "Seveners" and "Twelvers," respectively). Most of these regions have always been reluctant partners in the Saudi state. Bradley shows how uneasy the relationship has been with the official Wahhabi doctrine, not only - self-evidently - in the Shi'ite regions, but also in 'Asir, al-Jawf, and the Hijaz. He rightly concludes from this that regionalism has not disappeared, and indeed continues to define life in Saudi Arabia "despite the long-established national postal service, airline, road network, universal wearing of the rhobe, and media outlets...The success of the development of any kind of national consciousness is in fact highly questionable" (p. 47).

Much less exciting are the chapters on Saudi youth ("ticking time bombs"), expatriate life ("and death"), and the urban crime wave (in some slums, "prostitution, drug abuse, and alcohol smuggling are rife, and the area becomes a no-go area after dark..." p. 145). A bit more juicy is the chapter on gender policies, where Bradley writes: "There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, meaning that Saudi women and girls too, by being kept away from men. may turn to one another for sexual relationships" (p. 182). Bradley informs the reader that gay and lesbian discos and gay-friendly coffee shops are flourishing in the three big cities. But Bradley's account of the censorship phenomenon is disappointing. Knowing that the author has worked as a journalist for quite some time in the Kingdom, one would have expected more than just a few anecdotes accompanied by a flimsy analysis.

Ménoret's The Saudi Enigma (translated from the French L'Énigme Saoudienne, 2003J is an astounding, lucid exposé - a useful antidote to the many shallow books on Saudi Arabia that have been published since 9/11. Many of those books (e.g., Prince of Darkness: The Saudi Assault on the West by Laurent Murawiec) are sensationalist and add little to our understanding. Ménoret stands on the broad shoulders of works by Kiren Aziz Chaudry, Madawi al-Rasheed, and, last but not least, François Burgat.

The message is clear: Trying to understand Saudi Arabia, we have to free ourselves from "theological" interpretations and do justice to historical, geographical, political, social, and economic explanations. Even if the key Saudi players (both in the state apparatus and in the opposition) invoke and master a religious register, we should avoid taking these Islamic discourses at face value. As Usama bin Ladin made clear to Robert Fisk in an interview in 1996: Religious discourse is like the packaging on a washpowder, i.e., a cosmetic element of marketing and communication. …

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