by Andrew Delatolla
The book Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change edited by Bernard Haykel, Thomas Heggghammer, and Stéphane Lacroix examines a number of topical and emerging issues throughout its four parts: politics, oil, Islam and Islamism, and social change. While many of the topics have been explored by existing research, the book compiles arguments that are at the forefront of these issues; offering compelling new lenses in which to view them.
The introduction, written by the editors, states that the content of the book will explore how Saudi Arabia is on the brink of ‘dramatic change and transformation’ (10). The authors are set to task on this, to which some do a better job than others at highlighting the contention between traditionalist forces and the pressures of modernisation. The authors provide strong narratives in their attempt to untangle the mix of influencing variables which affect the state environment. Overall, the sectioning and ordering of the chapters is questionable in regards to their content and it may have been of use to address these problems at more length in the introduction. Nevertheless, the arguments made throughout this book offer new dimensions in which to explore old issues that plague the study of Saudi Arabia.
The first part of the book on politics contains three chapters: ‘Oil and Political Mobilization in Saudi Arabia’ by F. Gregory Gause III; ‘The Dogma of Development: Technopolitics and Power in Saudi Arabia’ by Toby C. Jones; and ‘Enforcing and Reinforcing the State’s Islam: The Functioning of the Committee of Senior Scholars’ by Nabil Mouline. Together the three chapters discuss the many aspects of the political landscape, examining issues such as oil, regional stability, ideology, religion, development, and popular opinion in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The discussions in these three chapters provide solid introductions to the narratives that unfold in the following sections; exploring many of the topics touched on in the first three chapters at length. For example, Gause examines the impact of oil markets on social mobilisation, arguing against notions that downturns in oil prices increase social dissatisfaction within Saudi Arabia due to public dependence on revenues from oil resources, leaving the reader asking: what exactly is the role of oil in Saudi politics and society? This is a question that is examined in the second part of the book and is answered in a variety of ways. The section on politics continues with Jones’ chapter, which raises concerns regarding the conflict between modernity on the one hand and tradition on the other; a theme that reappears in the section on social change. Subsequently, Mouline’s chapter delves into the politics of Islam and political Islam and foreshadows the proceeding chapters in the section on Islam and Islamism.
The second section of the book examines the dynamics surrounding oil. Rather than merely adding to the already enormous literature on the oil resource curse, this section exposes how oil functions within international markets and the domestic environment of the state. In Giacomo Luciani’s chapter ‘From Price Taker to Price Maker? Saudi Arabia and the World Oil Market’, the argument is made in favour of changing the relationship Saudi Arabia maintains with oil in regards to market pricing. While this is a very interesting thesis, the chapter amounts to a series of suggestions on how to alter Saudi leverage in these markets and amounts to an explanatory policy proposal. In comparison, Steffen Hertog’s chapter is less mechanical in its explanation of Saudi Arabia’s political economy and provides an in-depth analysis of the state’s economic development and business infrastructure. In his contribution, Hertog finds that regional cohesion seems to underpin why some areas are better apt to bargain with state rulers and thus make gains through state-sponsored development. The final chapter in this section by Bernand Haykel examines the domestic and state relationships to oil resources. Haykel explores the perceptions of oil in cultural and ideological productions, the state’s view on oil, and al-Qaeda’s discourse regarding the use of oil. Through this exploration, Haykel achieves what he sets out to do: ‘gain insight into Saudi culture, history, and society’ while making convincing arguments regarding the types of relationships various actors have with oil and how oil has become central to the justification of political action.
‘Islam and Islamism’ documents Islam’s role as a source of state legitimacy as well as antagonism within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This section begins with the David Commins’ excellent discussion of the definitional and philosophical differences between wahhabi and salafi, and how the two have eventually become synonymous in current discourse with the chapter titled ‘From Wahhabi to Salafi’. Subsequently, Stéphane Lacroix explores the role of religious networks in society and their interactions with the state. Through this exploration, Lacroix is primarily concerned with al-sahwa al-islamiyya (the Islamic Awakening or Sahwa) and provides the reader with a good understanding of how these networks operate and the roles they play as stabilisers or destabilisers within Saudi Arabia. In doing so, he demystifies the idea that Saudi Arabia is void of popular forms of organisation. Lacroix’s argumentation is easy to read and provides excellent nuance, explaining that such forms of organisation are not always provided the political space necessary to actively organise. This vigorous relationship between the state and popular forms of organisation is further explored in the proceeding chapter, ‘The Struggle for Authority: The Shaykhs of Jihadi-Salafism in Saudi Arabia, 1997-2003’ by Saud al-Sarhan. From al-Sarhan’s explanation, it is evident that political space granted by the state emerges and retreats depending on state interest but he should make this clearer throughout the text, especially in the introduction and conclusion. The final chapter in this section by Thomas Hegghammer, documents the various ideological schools within the overarching categorisation of jihadism. This chapter breaks down fundamental misconceptions that all jihadis are ideologically the same, while offering various lenses to view such movements from. This is an informative chapter and its placement at the end of the section is awkward. As a good and descriptive chapter that explores the nuance of jihadi movements it would have provided useful background information following on the chapter by Commins and before the chapters by Lacroix and al-Sarhan.
The book is concluded with the section on social change. Abdulaziz H. Al Fahad’s chapter provides the narrative of early social change and state development by examining the growth of the state and shrinking of Bedouin cultural practices. Unusually, Al Fahad has also authored the subsequent chapter titled ‘Rootless Trees: Genealogical Politics in Saudi Arabia.’ Both chapters written by Fahad are strong, and the second chapter builds on the previous one. However, it may have been better suited as one chapter in two parts. While both chapters work together, there is overlap between the two that could have been replaced by additional nuance as the second chapter discusses the genealogy of tribes and their interactions with the state as it developed and emerged. The final two chapters by Madawi al-Rasheed and Amélie Le Renard, provide enlightening discussions on the socio-political dimensions that police the female body. Al-Rasheed argues that the continual ‘subordination and exclusion of Saudi women is a political – rather than simply a religious or social – fact’ (293) highlighting the importance of the political struggle, yet correctly arguing that ‘it is premature to conclude that women are ready for greater confrontation with both the state and its religious scholars’ (312). Critically, al-Rasheed provides a clearly written chapter that gets at the core of the interplay between state policing, fetishising, and appropriating the female body and everyday acts of resistance. Le Renard digs deeper by exploring how space has become an informative and influencing factor in women’s society. Le Renard describes the shopping mall as a place of surveillance, but also a space where women can walk around, socialise, and have discussions. While this may seem trivial, Le Renard argues that these modern spaces allow women to transgress narratives of tradition and conservatism and perform modern-urban lifestyles. This chapter, though well written, comes across as a fragmented script of a larger project by trying to take on too much information. Al-Rasheed and Le Renard find agreement in their conclusions by hinting at the possibilities of changing dynamics within Saudi Arabia, yet they are rightly conservative in making general claims of immediate change.
Saudi Arabia in Transition is an overall good reader, providing accustomed students of Saudi Arabia, as well as those wishing to further their knowledge on the Kingdom, with insight into the current research being produced. Not only does this book highlight the areas where change and transformation within the Saudi state are inevitable, it explores how historical developments have already enabled dramatic transitions. While most of the chapters are well written and thought out, some could have used more work. The main criticism with the book is regarding the sectioning and ordering of the chapters, which done in another way may have given the book, as a whole, better readability. Nevertheless, the book fulfils its purpose and highlights the various areas that are on the brink of change and transformation in the Kingdom.
Andrew Delatolla is a Doctoral Candidate in the department of International Relations at the LSE. His research focuses on the changing perceptions of statehood during the process of state formation and state building in the late 19th century Middle East.