Saudi Arabia Is Using Culture to Repackage Monarchy

The Saudi state is packaging its heritage industry as a mode of citizen participation. It’s an attempt to paper over a fundamental fact: the regime remains a dictatorship that maintains its rule by violently clamping down on opposition.

The Qasr al-Farid tomb in Mada'in Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site, near Saudi Arabia's northwestern town of al-Ula. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP via Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia appears to foreign observers as a land of exception only, comprehended outside the explanatory tools used to understand other nations. If it is a country with a modern economy and an ally of the United States, it is, nonetheless, a country with a dynastic regime that derives its legitimacy from the exclusivist and traditionalist ideology of Wahhabi Islam. To justify the suppression of opposition and the curtailment of the social and human rights of its citizens and migrant workers, the Saudi elite has encouraged this narrative of Saudi exceptionalism — of a Saudi Arabia without its people.

The Saudi state has depended since its inception on British and later American power. To hide the precarity of its rule and the dissent and sometimes violent threats to the regime coming from its citizens, the government wants to erase its people from political discourse. It has transformed the rich and varied history of the Arabia it came to control over the last century into the history of the House of Saud. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s penchant for violence, spectacular projects, and erratic politics abroad has only reinforced this view of the country.

Rosie Bsheer’s book Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia chips away at the narrative of Saudi exceptionalism. Bsheer contributes to the burgeoning literature on Saudi Arabia by arguing that the politics and economics of historical preservation played a critical role in the radical transformation of state power and the meaning of Saudi citizenship during the last thirty years. Nation-building everywhere involves violent processes of erasure and marginalization of peoples and places that are not central to the story the victors want to tell. Historical preservation in Saudi Arabia is no different, Bsheer contends. Saudi efforts are distinctive, however, because of the relative haphazardness and fragmentation of the process of historical preservation until the 1980s, and the sudden and spectacular push for heritage-making as a solution to Saudi political and economic problems since the 1990s.

Bsheer explains this turn to historical preservation as an outcome of the First Gulf War. In the wake of the government’s controversial decision to host American troops, a section of the Saudi ruling elite maneuvered politically to upend the primacy of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance. Economic retrenchment brought on by declining oil revenues made matters worse. It became clear that the regime had suffered a crisis of legitimacy that required redressing. “The archive and historical heritage,” Bsheer writes, “were the strategic battleground for realizing the rulers’ aims for political legitimation and economic diversification.”

Spearheaded by Prince Salman, then the longtime ruler of Riyadh and a brother of King Fahd, the new version of history sought to highlight the centrality of the House of Saud at the expense of the role of Wahhabism, shifting legitimation from religious to secular power. A Saudi version of neoliberal economic and cultural policies bolstered the move to secular history, ever more urgent in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. The remaking of Saudi history was thus to be packaged to appeal to Saudi citizens and international visitors.

The new official discourse of the ideal Saudi citizen jettisoned Wahhabi religious authority and social norms in favor of a Saudi identity based on consumption of secular cultural and social practices firmly tied to the stability and longevity of the House of Saud. Salman hoped that the business of heritage-making would lessen the dependence of the Saudi economy on the oil sector and expand the social base of a loyal economic elite to include those in the construction and service industries. The new vision of Saudi Arabia was that of a modern country of skyscrapers, hotels, malls, and new urban centers open to visitors of all nationalities and creeds, a new mecca of modern consumption on the Arabian Peninsula that could compete with its much smaller Gulf neighbors because of its rich heritage.

Heritage-making under Salman took two forms. The first was a push to collect and deposit documents in institutions that he sponsored; the second was the restoration and inscription in the built environment of a monumental history of the Saudi dynasty’s role in Arabia. Riyadh, the first capital of the twentieth-century Saudi state, and Dari’ya, the capital of the first Saudi state of the early nineteenth century, were designated as the premier sites of Saudi history. The medieval and Ottoman built environment of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities of Islam and centers of a long multicultural historical memory, was destroyed and replaced by monumental hotels and malls.

Prince Salman used historical preservation strategically to centralize the fragmented institutional and territorial authority of the Saudi state that characterized its founding a century earlier. Saudi rule was maintained through the division of the Saudi provinces and various state institutions among the descendants of King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state. They regarded this division as their personal patrimony. One of the main obstacles to Salman’s ambitions was that resistance to centralization came from within the House of Saud itself.

Nowhere is the fragmentation of state institutions clearer than in the effort, since in the mid-1960s, to create a Saudi national state archive, an effort often foiled by members of the extended Saudi family loath to submit documents generated by their provinces’ institutions to the central state archive. Saudi Arabia has had, until quite recently, no national archive. Bsheer sets out to find out why this is the case. The picture that emerges is of a highly contested, often incoherent process that took place in fits and starts — from the 1960s until it was politicized as an instrument of legitimation of Prince Salman’s vision of Saudi history in the 1990s.

Under the direction of Salman, processes of document collecting and of heritage-making were deployed as political instruments to neutralize threats to the centralization of the dynasty’s control of the state. The first such threat came from other branches of the House of Saud resistant to the consolidation of power in Salman’s branch of the family. Equally important were the demands made by the political opposition for reform and inclusion in the aftermath of the Gulf War. That opposition included Islamist movements that found the Wahhabi establishment’s acceptance of American troops on Saudi soil unacceptable. Salman’s response to these challenges was to redirect the focus of document collection from gathering state archives from elites to the collection of private documents from citizens, who were now regarded as partners, along with the state, in the making of Saudi history. Salman hoped that the principle of inclusion would now shift to the less politically threatening terrain of culture. Participation in culture and heritage would replace political participation.

When, in 1996, the state announced its plan to celebrate the Hijri centenary of the founding of modern Saudi Arabia, Salman issued a national call asking Saudis to submit their private documents to the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives, known by its acronym, Darah. Billboards and posters were plastered all over Saudi Arabia, promising citizens that, if they submitted their documents or copies of their documents, these would be preserved and made available to help write their family’s contribution to the making of the history of Saudi Arabia. Traveling vans were sent to collect, or sometimes destroy, documents that were supposed to go to Darah.

But citizens refused to accept this prerogative of the state to their private papers. Members of the royal family rushed to create their own versions of document preservation to challenge the Darah’s and Salman’s monopoly on the making of Saudi historical heritage. Others submitted their documents in the hope that their stories would go into whatever narrative history emerged from this new drive for historical preservation. A market in document trafficking took root in Saudi Arabia, a veritable commerce in heritage fueled by the insatiable need to collect. Whatever was collected sits unarchived and undigitized at Darah, which ran out of funds a few years after the push to create archives. Archiving was thus a performance of participation that lacked any political empowerment.

Salman’s ambition at remaking Saudi history was more visibly successful in his project to turn Riyadh and Dar’iya into sites of cultural tourism for Saudi citizens. These became a visible display of the significance of the House of Saud in the making of Arabia. The Saudi government pushed and ultimately succeeded in having Dari’ya declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site despite the almost complete loss of the original historical buildings.

The plan for memorializing and monumentalizing marked a radical break from Wahhabi doctrine, which preaches that all attempts to do so are an affront to God. Opposition to Salman’s urban development plans, devised through hiring a US consulting firm, came from the clergy as well as those whose properties were confiscated or bought at low prices to make room for the new plans. The cornerstone of Salman’s heritage redevelopment project for Riyadh was the Governance Palace District, which encompassed the King Abdulaziz Historical Center, the National Museum (the first of its kind), and the rebuilt adobe houses of the old city. A green space was created in the middle of Riyadh around these structures, offering one of the few public gardens in the city. Saudi Arabia now had places of leisure and cultural tourism for a consuming Saudi public.

In Dari’ya, the birthplace of the alliance of Muhammad bin Saud, the founder of the first Saudi state, and Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the ideologue that transformed a minor rebellion into the powerful political movement known as Wahhabism, Salman’s project turned this historical narrative on its head. The rebuilding of the historical city marginalized the contribution Ibn Abd al-Wahhab made to the Saudi state and monumentalized that of the House of Saud. Saudi citizens can now visit the city, sit in its amphitheater built on the location of the house and mosque where the founder of the Wahhabi movement is presumed to have lived and prayed, and enjoy a view of the supposed palace of the Saudi founder of the first Wahhabi state. It is a tangible reminder of the secularization of Saudi history.

The destructiveness of territorializing Saudi power is most evident in the attempt of Salman and his son to change the urban landscape of the Hejaz region’s main urban centers — Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina. Mecca’s history as a medieval and Ottoman city, connected over centuries to the global Muslim world through networks of trade and learning, has all but disappeared. In Mecca, the spectacular power of the Saudi regime and its alliance with one of the wealthiest families in the world, the Binladins, came together to transform the city from a place of pilgrimage as a sacred practice to one of pilgrimage as tourism. With the blessing of the Wahhabi clergy, it is now possible to perform pilgrimage from the enormous prayer hall of your expensive hotel overlooking the Ka’ba without rubbing shoulders with a throng of pilgrims less fortunate than you. This transformation of Mecca took place despite the resistance of its diverse population, which was disenfranchised, and against the advice of Saudi urban planners who offered several alternatives to deal with the pilgrim traffic through the city.

By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the radical transformation of Mecca’s urban environment had driven a hundred thousand residents from their homes. The plan that the Saudi royal family and their allies devised to take over the real estate of Mecca reads like a story of corporate predation. Under Kings Fahd and Abdallah, the multibillion-dollar Royal Endowment was created to benefit the descendants of King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia. The organization took over the endowed properties of descendants of people who had purchased land and properties around the Grand Mosque over generations. The Saudi Binladin Group, a contracting firm with strong ties to the Saudi royal family since the 1930s, was given exclusive rights to develop the areas around the mosque.

Bsheer’s book is an essential read for those interested in understanding the depth of the social and political transformation in Saudi Arabia over the past thirty years. While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s current economic modernization and political secularization policies seem to have come out of nowhere to many Western observers, they are in fact the fruition of more than a quarter century of often violent and destructive struggle among Saudi elites and between elites and citizens over the remaking of Saudi historical heritage and citizenship. It is a struggle that Bsheer’s book, peopled as it is by Saudi intellectuals, preservationists, historians, and ordinary citizens, documents well. When King Salman ascended the throne in 2015, he and his son were able to eliminate opposition from within the royal family, confiscate the wealth of the economic elite (including the Binladins), tame clerical opposition, and silence all forms of opposition to their cultural politics.

It is not clear as of now if the secular Saudi version of the country’s history will remain unchallenged. The new economic order, with its espousal of markets and abandonment of older distributive policies, creates new disenfranchised political and social classes. It also reinforces regional differentiations between provinces in Saudi Arabia. But the order has created beneficiaries with interests and aspirations for a secular neoliberal order that they view as no less politically oppressive than the older one, but that they reason is more socially liberal and open to global forms of consumption. It appears to be a bargain that a significant sector of the Saudi population is prepared to strike.

Saudi scholar Madawi al-Rasheed, who has been writing on Saudi politics for some time, finds that Saudi dissent has been either co-opted or muzzled, even as Saudi exiles continue to voice opposition to the current government. But as anthropologist Pascal Menoret has found, the social cross-class networks of the religious opposition movement, the Sahwa, among the young in Saudi Arabia are resilient and might prove difficult to destroy. In the predominantly Shi’i oil-rich Eastern Province, opposition to the regime continues despite the violence deployed against dissenters.

If Saudi citizens appear silent, that does not necessarily mean they acquiesce, a fact that Prince Mohammed bin Salman seems to understand. He no longer tolerates the silence of Saudi citizens about his political projects but asks that they publicly express support for them. Obedience in King Salman’s Saudi Arabia is also performance, but the shelf life of politics as performance rather than participation is uncertain — as is amply demonstrated by the cycles of popular protests and suppression across the Middle East and North Africa.

About the Author

Dina Rizk Khoury is professor emerita of history at George Washington University.