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Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula Roundtable: Knowledge In the Time of Oil

[This is one of seven contributions in Jadaliyya's electronic roundtable on the symbolic and material practices of knowledge production on the Arabian Peninsula. Moderated by Rosie Bsheer and John Warner, it features Toby Jones, Madawi Al-Rasheed, Adam Hanieh, Neha Vora, Nathalie Peutz, John Willis, and Ahmed Kanna.]

(1) Historically, what have the dominant analytical approaches to the study of the Arabian Peninsula been? How have the difficulties of carrying out research in the Arabian Peninsula shaped the ways in which knowledge is produced for the particular country/ies in which you have worked, and in the field more generally? 

Before the oil boom of the 1970s, Western scholarship on the Arabian Peninsula was dominated by travel literature and monographs published under the auspices of oil companies. There was no serious scholarly work in history or the social sciences with the exception of R. Bayly Winder’s seminal work on nineteenth century Arabia. There were plenty of Orientalist travelogues about the Bedouins, tents, camels, horses, and coffee pots. Charitable authors depicted an image of the noble savage who engages with fair warfare (ghazu) in a free independent spirit. Less charitable accounts narrated the minute details of a godless world dominated by savagery, treachery, and greedy and manipulative tribal sheikhs and amirs, in subservient relations with the superpower of the time, first the Ottomans and later the British. 

As oil entrepreneurs began to be dispatched to local leaders to negotiate long-lasting concessions in the 1930s, Western audiences wanted to know more about the region to assess whether heavy financial investment could be secured and honored by unruly tribal sheiks. Moreover, as the future of the Arabian Peninsula was being decided on the eve of World War One, the same audiences wanted to figure out who could be trusted to act as a client to the emerging superpower, namely Great Britain. The questions about which legal arrangements would govern oil concessions and who would be a good candidate for an indirect rule arrangement became urgent and in need of assessment in quasi-academic monographs. At this juncture, knowledge about the region became entangled with imperial design and oil interests. Power and oil determined the fate of this knowledge, which from this point on concentrated on investigating tribal politics, Islamic politics, and leadership. Islam in its Wahhabi version became an object of study only to provide background about those who ruled in its name and were ready to be patronized by superpowers. British scholarship gave way to US interest in producing knowledge to enlighten those oil managers and entrepreneurs with regard to their surroundings. The historiography sought to establish the clear social and geographical boundaries of a region that had no history of being partitioned in clearly demarcated ways fit for the modern nation state. 

After the oil boom, political scientists dominated the field with the rentier state model that reduced the population to bribed loyal subjects and their leaders to benevolent, paternalistic patriarchs. In the time of oil, the world wanted to know how these societies consented to authoritarian rule. The answer from the rentier state model was lavish subsidies, bestowed on people by redistributive fathers of the nation. In the 1970s, only Fred Halliday and Helen Lackner were able to narrate a different story of struggle, oppression, and manipulation that dominated the project of state and nation building in the Arabian Peninsula, which at the time was understood as including Yemen. The field of Arabian studies was dominated by political scientists and political economists, while anthropologists, with the exception of a limited number of monographs on Yemen and Oman (itself a function of Cold War politics after the Dhofar insurgency and the establishment of a hard-line socialist South Yemen), were in general denied access to societies (especially Saudi Arabia) as their method involved talking to the people rather than the powerful elites and oil oligarchy. It was only in the 1980s that Soraya al-Turki, a local anthropologist, was able to study family networks in Jeddah. She was a pioneer in studying kinship during changing times. 

In the 1980s, when I was working on my first book, Politics in an Arabian Oasis, a historical anthropological study of state formation before oil, I was faced with paucity of English sources, apart from the travel literature of George August Wallin, William Gifford Palgrave, Charles Montagu Doughty etc. and the imperial British, Ottoman, and French archives of the nineteenth century. Arabic sources were there, but they have become hostage to the logic of power and oil as the Saudi state established its own historiography centers. The narrative of the three glorious Saudi states had become by then a dominant story to be told and retold in an attempt to fix history from the perspective of the existing state.

Even today, studying countries in the Arabian Peninsula remains mediated by gatekeepers whose interest lies in maintaining the image of stability, affluence, and security. It is only after the pressure of the international community on Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of 9/11 that Western researchers were able to conduct field research, which ironically appeared under the institutional patronage of the ex-director of Intelligence services, Prince Turki al-Faisal. This new generation of scholars that took advantage of the momentary rift between Washington and Riyadh unsurprisingly focused on Islamism and jihadi networks and their monographs are now available in Arabic inside Saudi Arabia. Others who benefited from this short-lived openness (academic infitah), but offered critical assessment of the stability and affluence of Saudi Arabia, may find it difficult to return for further research. My work and that of Steffen Hertog, Toby Matthiesen, Robert Vitalis, and Toby Jones may not find their place at Saudi Arabia’s regular book fairs in the near future. Yet in the age of the Internet, Saudis access this research online as they have become experts in overcoming censorship.

The Wahhabis of central Arabia and the Shi‘a in the oil rich Eastern Province are well researched. However, with the exception of the German scholar Werner Ende, social scientists have ignored the Shi‘a in Medina, Ismailis in the south, and Sufis in Hijaz, just as historians have ignored the study of slavery in the Arabian Peninsula, abolished only in the 1960s. As the “woman question” became important with the global discourse on gender equality, we find that new research is beginning to emerge. Amélie Le Renard’s book on young urban Saudi women in Riyadh is a new development. So far, no Western scholar has studied urban and rural poverty or the plight of the unskilled Arab, African, and Asian labor in Saudi Arabia. Of course, there are plenty of statistics, but in-depth studies are difficult to come by. Helene Thiollet’s work on African immigrants in Saudi Arabia is a welcome beginning. Today, there is more to Saudi Arabia than radical Islam, benevolent rulers, and oil, thanks to a new set of questions asked by researchers who are not convinced by the old narratives. 

(2) What are some of the new and innovative ways of thinking and theorizing the Arabian Peninsula and how has your work drawn on these approaches? How do these new theoretical interventions address elisions or tensions within more traditional approaches?

In my historical work on Saudi Arabia, A History of Saudi Arabia, I wanted to write revisionist history that goes beyond the story of the magical personality of Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom. I considered state formation a function of wider international rivalry and local forces represented by religious groups, merchants, slaves, tribes, and women. I refused to take for granted not only oil, as a straightforward blessing leading to modernization, and also the consolidation of the project of the state, as a redistributive charitable center. I examined how oil contributed to authoritarian rule. In studying Islam in Contesting the Saudi State, I showed how religion and politics create consent and contestation. Later, I highlighted Saudi transnational connections and assessed their impact locally and globally in Kingdom without Borders. More recently, I wanted to correct the record about Saudi women and move away from holding Islam responsible for all Saudi ills. In A Most Masculine State, I look at the gender question from a wider perspective that considers the role of the state, oil, religion, and culture. In all my research, I have drawn on wider theoretical perspectives in historiography, such as the Annales School of bottom up history. From social anthropology, I drew on theories of state formation in tribal society, but without falling into the dichotomies of E. E. Evans-Pritchard in the study of African political systems. From political science, I preferred to challenge the dominant paradigm of the rentier state without committing myself to its bribe for loyalty approach to power and state society relations. I was appreciative of Robert Vitalis’s work in his book America’s Kingdom for establishing how the United States, oil companies, and the authoritarian Saudi state cooperate to ensure a prolonged state of dependency, racism, and unlimited profit. The study of a country like Saudi Arabia benefits from an interdisciplinary approach that enriches our understanding of the complexity of a society that has experienced rapid change.

(3) “Sectarianism” seems to have reemerged in popular and academic work on the Arabian Peninsula as both the label for and analytic of a socio-political phenomenon. What is the utility of both past and more recent formulations of “sectarianism” as an analytical tool for the study of the Arabian Peninsula? What challenges or problems have these formulations created?

National narratives about the region have glossed sectarian differences in the pursuit of national uniformity. The region has always been diverse. Class, sect, ethnicity, gender, and other markers of identity have always been there, but now these identities are politicized in the struggle for equality, social justice, personal and collective rights, and the fair distribution of resources. Regional and global rivalries have worked along existing divisions and strengthened them. The politicization of sectarian identities is obviously not the same as old style sectarian differences and pluralism, a feature of all past and present societies that endorse world textual religions, such as Christianity and Islam. Present day sectarianism is a political tool to score goals, share public wealth, and forge loyalties. Both majorities and minorities can be extremely sectarian as they both may need to cover up internal differences within their sect and maintain the veneer of solidarities. Local actors and states employ sectarianism to pursue projects that may not be in the interest of the people, not even members of the sects themselves. The lack of cross-sectarian political trends and movements as a result of oppression contributes to make people retreat into the security of their sect and voice their demands in sectarian terms. Yet, sectarianism conceals internal differences between members of the same group and forges a solidarity that can be detrimental to personal freedom and choice. Sectarianism is maintained by a combination of forces and as long as the region is a platform for regional struggles between Saudi Arabia and Iran under the auspices of the United States, it is difficult to see how sectarianism may become less relevant. I hope new research highlights how fluid and situational sectarian identities are despite the claim that they are historical and eternal, and thus will never disappear. Like ethnicity and nationalism, sectarianism is a constructed identity that obscures more than it illuminates. Yes, sectarian identities may never disappear, but they may coexist with other more important identities. 

(4) What is the relationship between local scholarship produced in the Arabian Peninsula and the work done by academics in the United States, Western Europe, Russia, etc.? What kind of attention has been given to local and regional knowledge production, if any?

Many local historians and social scientists are trained in Western academic institutions. This brings about a cross fertilization of perspectives, rich sources, and rigorous analysis. Western academic platforms offer more freedom for local researchers to tackle taboo topics such as religion. I would not have been able to write on religion and politics in Saudi Arabia in the way I did had I not been based outside the country. Most Saudi researchers are constrained by state agenda, which determines the conclusion before the research starts. For example, if the state wants to condemn radical religious opinions, suddenly we find a plethora of researchers doing exactly that. If the state wants to glorify a king, we are quick to come across biographies that paint a rosy picture of this or that king. Saudi political science academics like Matruk al-Falih are harassed and put in prison if they engage with politics outside the university. Al-Falih’s critical work on development is published outside Saudi Arabia. He is currently banned from travel. Arabic professor Abdullah al-Hamid was recently sentenced to eleven years in prison for his involvement in defending human rights and writing Islamic books on the sovereignty of the umma. All his books deal with ways in which Islam has been hijacked by the Saudi state to justify absolute monarchy. The suppression of literature such as novels and poetry dates back to Abdulrahman Munif’s time.  

My worry is that even Western academia is not immune to being co-opted by oil money. As local princes and research foundations pour money into Western academic institutions, we begin to see how this oil money may undermine academic freedom. In Britain, the London School of Economics had to cancel a conference in the United Arab Emirates in March 2013 because one of its researchers, Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen was denied access to Dubai and was returned to London. He was going to present a paper on Bahrain. I myself was denied access to Kuwait as a result of Saudi pressure. There are other untold stories of manipulation which forces researchers to avoid antagonizing Gulf rulers by engaging in self censorship to the detriment of impartial knowledge or even alternative interpretations of history and society. As more Gulf money penetrates civil society in the West, I think academic freedom in the West itself will be in danger. While I have never taken for granted Western academic freedom, I always thought of this freedom as a veneer that can easily be exposed. Take for example the work of Vitalis mentioned earlier. His academic credentials are beyond doubt, but his book did not receive the full recognition it deserves in Washington simply because it exposes with evidence US oil intrigues in Saudi Arabia. I always feel uncomfortable when professorial chairs in addition to research centers in esteemed Western universities are named after sponsors who oppress their own people and deny them freedom of conscience. In many cases, Gulf patronage of research centers is a public relations exercise and has nothing to do with sound academic research. How can those Gulf rulers be patrons of academic research when they deny their own researchers the freedom to write and think freely? How can I sit comfortably in a lecture hall named after a dictator listening to a deluge of examples of oppression inflicted on academics in some Gulf countries? It is a very unpleasant feeling!

(5) Some argue that the Arab Uprisings changed the ways in which the Middle East can and will be studied. What has been the immediate impact of the Arab uprisings on scholarship on the Arabian Peninsula and what are likely to be the long-term effects?

One of the outcomes of the Arab uprisings on academia is to finally go beyond Islam as the only variable that shapes the past, present, and future of the region. Islam is now one variable among many others that are important for understanding the Arab world despite the success of Islamist movements in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. I think this is a welcome development as it promises a more nuanced approach to interpreting the Arab world. Moreover, I can see shifts in the thinking of academics who are now going beyond the previous fatalism about the prospect for democracy in an area long associated with authoritarian rule. The old essentialist views about Oriental despotism or Islamic dictatorships are beginning to be eroded as a model to explain why democracy is late, why Islamism is prominent, why women are oppressed, and why people have not rebelled earlier. The intense youth mobilization in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman where the rentier state model was applied prove that to understand these societies we also need to go beyond oil. I can see new projects formulated by a young generation of scholars and graduate students that explore the youth, art, poverty, human rights, media, and other relevant areas that have become so important in the last three years.

One of the negative consequences of the Arab uprisings on Arabian Peninsula studies is the revival of the literature that glorifies the so-called resilient monarchies who are believed to enjoy far more legitimacy than the vanishing Arab republics. Here, we come across a mix of wishful thinking and utopian visions. Again, oil and subsidies are cited as reasons behind resilience.  Rulers’ political wisdom, Rousseau style social contract, and paternalistic benevolence are allegedly markers of difference between republican and monarchical authoritarianism. We find a small number of scholars who challenge this view as they include in their analysis a wider set of factors, the most important of which is the continuous Western support for Gulf authoritarianism and applause for “liberalized” autocracies. A second noticeable negative impact is the increasing restrictions on research and foreign researchers who are denied access to their field and the increasing harassment, travel bans, and imprisonment of local academics. GCC states increasingly monitor their own students who go abroad to pursue higher education. They are expected to become ambassadors for their regimes and to defend their policies, rather than independent scholars. The pressure on scholarship is mounting during this great moment in the Arab world, and it has already started to shake the cities of the Arabian Peninsula.


Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula electronic roundtable contributions:

Thinking Globally About Arabia by Toby C. Jones.

Knowledge in the Time of Oil by Madawi Al-Rasheed.

Capital and Labor in Gulf States: Bringing the Region Back In by Adam Hanieh.

Unpacking Knowledge Production and Consumption by Neha Vora.

Perspectives from the Margins of Arabia by Nathalie Peutz. 

Writing Histories of the Arabian Peninsula or How to Narrate the Past of a (Non)Place by John Willis.

Towards a Critical Cartography of the Political in the Arabian Peninsula by Ahmed Kanna.

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