1Sarah Yizraeli’s Politics and Society in Saudi Arabia: The Crucial Years of Development, 1960-1982 is an empirically rich and thorough survey of economic and political transformation in twentieth century Saudi Arabia, yet is founded on some questionable assumptions. Yizraeli’s book is one in a flood of recent studies on Saudi Arabia that have helped draw attention to some unrecognized dynamics in the kingdom’s modern history. Among these new titles, Politics and Society is most closely aligned with Steffen Hertog’s 2011 volume Princes, Brokers, Bureaucrats, an economic history of the development of the kingdom’s institutions, which responds in part to earlier scholarship by Yizraeli.
2Drawing on a range of published materials and archival sources, Yizraeli’s Politics and Society documents the emergence of institutions in the modern Saudi state in the early decades of large-scale oil production. It also addresses the development strategies instituted by the Âl Sa‛ûd family both to accommodate its growing population and to manage challenges from competing segments of society. Yizraeli’s study begins in 1960, which marked the first appearance of a formal state blueprint for developing the kingdom’s economy and institutions (p. 19). Her study concludes in 1982, the year in which oil prices collapsed and the Saudi economy began a lengthy contraction.
3Yizraeli makes good use of British and American archival sources in her study. For example, she provides details from Aramco official William Mulligan’s papers to narrate the struggle for control over the educational system in the Eastern Province in the 1940s between Wahhabi notables, Aramco, and the Saudi court (p. 230-231). She also makes notable use of regional Arabic newspapers, for example, to describe how opponents of the regime in Lebanon and Iraq reported on alleged strife between the state and Najdi tribes in the 1960s (p. 76). Such sources hint at the regional tensions at play during the Arab Cold War, though this context is not explored much further in the volume.
4Yizraeli has for the most part succeeded in producing a comprehensive accounting of the planning and implementation of development strategies in the kingdom during the 1960s and 1970s. In its ambition, scope, and attention to detail, Yizraeli’s volume can well serve as a useful and authoritative reference on modern Saudi political and economic history for students and scholars alike. That being said, the study is structured around a questionable premise, which may ultimately limit its authority in that regard.
5Yizraeli’s basic premise is that a succession of Saudi rulers, from the kingdom’s founder ‛Abd al-‛Azîz b. Sa‛ûd (d. 1953) to his sons Sa‛ûd, Fayṣal, and Khâlid, adopted a two-pronged development strategy. The first pillar of this strategy was to modernize the economy and the kingdom’s governing institutions using the proceeds from oil sales. The second pillar, she maintains, entailed the “diligent preservation of the traditional structures of society and its values.” (p. 10). On account of this approach, the basis for a modern economy and infrastructure were created, “without any change in the traditional political, social and value systems.” (ibid). The author’s conclusion here, which is echoed by other scholars of the Gulf (Alnajjar, 1999), would indicate a too-credulous reading of the Saudi state’s development strategies. The notion that the radical transformation of a country’s economic and material life might leave the social fabric and value systems of that nation frozen and unperturbed seems implausible on its face. Such an outcome might be attributable in the near term to a kind of cultural or behavioral lag, a concept elaborated for the Middle East by scholars like Waterbury (1970) and Ayubi (1999), wherein the values and outlooks of a population undergoing rapid material change remain for a duration tied up in earlier modes of economic and social being. Yet Yizraeli sees such “preservation” as the deliberate and successful outcome of Saudi state policy, an incongruity which is not only conceptually unsustainable, but is not borne out by the historical record.
6That Saudi society remained monochromatically tribal and Wahhabi throughout the period under discussion could only be the case if one were measuring the nature and degree of social transformation against expectations based on the experiences of Western or of other Arab societies. Transformations of the Saudi social sphere most certainly began to occur during these crucial years, yet transpired through more oblique and unquantifiable measures. They occurred, for example, in the shift from limited to widespread literacy, a process which produced new forms of collective consciousness and thus arguably paved the way for the mass political mobilization of Saudis in the early 1990s, when the first generation of Saudi public school graduates took part in a nation-wide agitation against the policies of their government during the Gulf War. These transformations also occurred in the reshaping of the tribal systems through the decline of kin group cohabitation (in the shift from rural to urban modes of living), the manipulation of tribal leadership hierarchies by the state and, most importantly, the appropriation by the state of the tribe’s binding principle, genealogy, as a mechanism for organizing and shaping Saudi citizen identity. They also occurred in the fragmentation of religious authority through the introduction of new communication technologies, which helped bring about the rise of such freelancing figures as the millenarian activist Juhayman al-‛Utaybî, a pamphleteer who had his propaganda printed in Kuwait and distributed anonymously in the kingdom’s mosques as a challenge to the authority of his Wahhabi patrons and their royal backers. Finally, the transformations can be seen in the changing position of Saudi women, who before the 1960s were integrated into bedouin and sedentary economic life, until the promotion of Wahhabism as a locally resonant ideology of religious nationalism drove them out of the physical public space and into the symbolic realm of the public imagination (al-Rasheed, 2013). Thus, with respect to the bedouin tribes, religion and gender, the Saudi social sphere was beginning to be transformed in the 1960s and 1970s, both on account of impersonal processes, and through the deliberate efforts of the Saudi state. To discount such evidence of social change is to tell only part of modern Saudi history.