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Jörg Matthias Determann, Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East

London, I.B. Tauris, 2014, 325 pages
Philippe Pétriat
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Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East / Jörg Matthias Determann.- London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.- 325 pages.- ISBN 978-178076-664-5.

Texte intégral

1It is a widely held view that Saudi Arabia’s history is recent, that its main elements are oil, Salafism and sectarianism, and that this recent history has been written mostly by non-Saudi scholars. In a stimulating in-depth analysis of Saudi historiography on Saudi Arabia, Jörg Matthias Determann delves into the very writing of history. He draws on an impressive range of written (including Saudi and non-Saudi historical works, dissertations, articles and textbooks) as well as oral sources. A long series of interviews gives the analysis details about the debates among Saudi historians and the unofficial process of history writing in the Kingdom.

2Determann deals with what he terms the “narrative plurality” of “Saudi writings about the past” (p. 3), by which he means the various and sometimes concurrent ways the history of Saudi Arabia has been written in spite of and sometimes thanks to a non-democratic political regime. According to the author, this unexpected characteristic is a by-product of two related processes that have influenced the writing of history.

3On the one hand, rapid state bureaucratic and technological development provided Saudi and non- Saudi writers with educational institutions, employment, and financial support. Determann emphasizes the role of two official institutions: King Saud University (founded 1957), where many Saudi historians he mentions have been educated and employed, and the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives (f. 1972) that functions as the official authority in the field of Saudi history.

4One the other hand, increasing connections with the rest of the world (“globalization”) also played a key role in the Kingdom’s historiography through the student missions sent to Egypt in the 1920s, then later to Great-Britain (SOAS) and the USA (UCLA) from the 1960s onwards, as well as through the import of foreign historians, teachers and books.

5In the first part of his book, Determann contrasts what he calls the “dynastic” histories of the Saudi States (chap. 1) with “local” histories (chap. 2) until the 1960s. The first tradition is ascribed by Determann to the seminal historical works of Ibn Ghannām (d. 1810) and Ibn Bishr (d. 1873), then continued by foreign authors such as Philby (d. 1960) and al-Ziriklī (d. 1976). These works came to dominate the dynastic historiography from the 1920s to the 1960s. Determann distinguishes three features characterizing this historiography and its “tafkīrist paradigm” according to which the Muslim subjects of the Al Saud and followers of the Wahhabi mission are the only true Muslims.

6First, “dynastic exclusivism” focuses on the Al Saud rulers and, among them, on King Abdulaziz, with the latter authors even marginalizing Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Second, dynastic histories disregard events not directly related to the history of the tree periods of Al Saud rule and suppress dissenting histories. Third, a growing emphasis was put on the Arab character of the Al Saud during the heyday of Arab nationalism, and opposed anti-Saudi and nationalist histories such as Nāsir al-Sa‘īd’s (d. 1979). Quite on the contrary, local historians of Najd, Hejaz, ‘Asīr, al-Ahsā’ and Qatīf stressed their regions’ own political and religious traditions, the history of local dynasties and their Islamic nature, which was denied or despised by Saudi (Najdi) traditions. Some, such as the celebrated historian of tribes Hamad al-Jāsir (d. 2000) and the historian of Hejaz ‘Abd al-Quddūs al-Ansārī (d. 1983), went so far as to establish some kind of mutual interregional assistance and support for regional and local histories.

7Although he stresses the absence of explicit references to national frames in these local histories, Determann could have elaborated further on the kind of community of historians formed by such authors, and which does not appear to have been limited to local interests. Building his argument mainly on Najdi historians, Determann is prone to consider Najdi historiography as the reference to compare any other historical narrative, and the Saudi rule as the final stage in the “production of territorial understanding” (p. 82) for ‘Asīr and al-Ahsā’ provinces. One may wonder, at least until the 1930s (with the last revolts in the provinces of the unified Kingdom proclaimed in 1932) and arguably much later, if Saudi dynastic histories were not particularistic histories among others. Determann’s argument about state expansion contributing to the development of narrative plurality might appear sometimes as a shortcut since state expansion means first the inclusion of ancient polities with lively historiographical traditions into a newly unified political entity. The history of Hejaz, for example, does not fit entirely into the framework of the book’s analysis. A historian like Husayn Nasīf (d. 1954) is not only the champion of local political traditions (p. 65-66); he was openly critical of the Hashemite regime and advocated a kind of constitutional monarchy, a fact that may explain why he welcomed at first the Saudi conquest of Hejaz. We might also question the example of Mecca in the author’s argument about “perennialism” in particularistic histories. For a city as complex as Mecca, it is rather simplistic and very Saudi-Najdi-centric to consider stressing its continued existence over centuries as a means to express local autonomy from Saudi rule. Finally, the reader may regret that Determann does not elaborate on the local and national incentives for such authors to write histories of their city and region. As for similar perennialist local histories in seventeenth-century monarchical Europe, these were obviously more than just a means to build their own legitimacy and to function as intermediaries between the expanding state and local societies.

8The second part of the book delves into three characteristics of the developing historiography in Saudi Arabia starting from the 1960s: the elaboration of national paradigms in Saudi writings about the Kingdom’s foundation and its development (“nationalization”, chap. 3), of local, tribal and Shiite histories (chap. 4) and finally, of social and economic approaches (chap. 5). The conclusion brings together the findings of the book and sketches some important developments (an “opening”) of historiography in Saudi Arabia after 9/11.

9The analysis is enriched by comparisons with Egyptian historiography, as studied by Yoav Di-Capua among others. After all, many of the first Saudi professional historians as Muhammad al-Sha‘afī and Muhammad Tamīmī, instrumental in creating the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives, studied and worked in Egypt. In this period, nation building had a strong impact on the formation of an indigenous historical profession and new state institutions. On the one hand the takfīrist paradigm was completed and sometimes even replaced by “unification” and “development” ones. On the other hand, particularistic histories of towns, tribes and the Shiites adopted national narratives and created “contribution histories.” Determann shows that the development of different and sometimes contradictory approaches in historiography resulted from a fragmentation of the state into rival clans supporting various histories, as well as from competition between authors to assert their specific tribe or region’s role in national history.

10One last chapter is devoted to the emergence of Saudi social and economic historians during the 1970s, a period known in Saudi Arabia as “al-ṭafra”: the boom resulting from the sharp increase in oil prices. Very often, these historians completed doctoral dissertations in the United States. However, budget cuts in the 1980s and the 1990s, and the lack of appeal of social and economic history to state sponsorship and to self-funded amateurs made it difficult for this first generation to reproduce. In the meantime, Islamic subjects and Islamic history remained strong in Saudi universities and especially at Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University, a by-product of the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi establishment’s combined influence. And yet, by contextualizing their beginnings and by resorting to Marxist and other theoretical analyses, social and economic historians have managed to question the origins of the Wahhabi mission and of the Saudi State.

11Determann’s is a refreshing work on Saudi Arabia. The reader sometimes feels hesitation about the rather strict classification and framework of analysis Determann applies to the various non-Najdi narratives. Although the book is about historiography and not history, some historiographical “features” or “paradigms” could have been explained more deeply without restricting oneself to the “narratives” they underpin. On the “takfīrist paradigm” and Wahhabi approaches to history, J. M. Determann, as a historian proficient in French, would have benefited greatly from Nabil Mouline’s study of the Wahhabi tradition (in Les Clercs de l’islam, 2011). Finally, we might wonder if this “narrative plurality” is not a usual feature in a country where teaching one nationalist history has not been experimented for a significant period of time and where trained historians still remain a tiny and dependent group. But these are the only remarks about an innovative, daring and in-depth survey of Saudi historiography.

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Philippe Pétriat, « Jörg Matthias Determann, Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 7 | 2016, mis en ligne le 10 décembre 2016, consulté le 19 février 2017. URL :

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Philippe Pétriat

IMAF - Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

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