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Of Sand or Soil: Genealogy and Tribal Belonging in Saudi Arabia

Nadav Samin, Of Sand or Soil: Genealogy and Tribal Belinging in Saudi Arabia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. 

[This review was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Arab Studies JournalFor more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]

Is Saudi Arabia a “tribal state,” and if so, what, exactly, is tribal about it? For some, scholars and laypersons alike, tribalism remains the driving force of the social, political, and cultural modes of organization in the kingdom. For others, the opposite rings true: the very existence of the Saudi state is premised on curtailing tribalism, with all its trappings. Challenging such dichotomies, Nadav Samin’s Of Sand or Soil: Genealogy and Tribal Belonging in Saudi Arabia reveals the continuities and the breaks in the social, cultural, and political life of “tribalism” as deployed by both regime and society. His study is a compelling and archivally grounded ethnography of why genealogy matters in the kingdom, revealing “the dynamic and contingent nature of tribal identity in modern Saudi Arabia” (16). In so doing, it turns the once-fraught topics of tribalism and genealogy into critical avenues through which to understand modern politics, society, and power. 

Questions of social and political change in Saudi Arabia, and the agency of its subject-citizens, animate the book under review. Instead of taking for granted the state-building mechanisms of bedouin sedentariza-tion and “religious reconditioning”—considered hallmarks of Saudi state formation—Samin interrogates their consequences for sociopolitical life. He attends to the ways in which these techniques shaped the sociabilities of the peoples of Arabia, rural and urban, tribal and nontribal. While the new state’s socialization mechanisms—educational, legal, institutional, and otherwise—eliminated most aspects of bedouin life, Samin convincingly shows that “genealogical consciousness survived into the modern age relatively intact as a dimension of culture that escaped traditional Saudi-Wahhabi reconditioning” (73). Indeed, the importance of evincing tribal belonging has only increased in the last few decades. Once an object of institutional reform in the making of the modern state, the tribe has become a source of nostalgia, Arab authenticity, and importantly, symbolic and material benefits.

The author is committed to highlighting the role of subject-citizens, rather than the state, in the development of this new sociopolitical reality. In fact, he devotes five of six chapters to the bottom-up practices that have reified the importance of tribal identity in contemporary Saudi Arabia. These practices include premodern modes of genealogical production and understandings of social hierarchies among settled and bedouin communities, both of which have shaped the current “blood sport that is the kingdom’s modern genealogical culture” (123). Central to the genealogical industry is the intellectual work of Saudi historian, judge, and journalist Hamad al-Jasir, who single-handedly shaped practices of lineal authentication and whose life history is the thread that ties the books’ chapters together. Yet Samin’s bottom-up approach notwithstanding, his final chapter reveals that the modern genealogical culture emerged as a result of state policy. In genealogy, the centralizing regime found an instrument that at once served to identify and categorize its diverse and at times restive subjects while dividing them along reinvented lines, namely, tribal and nontribal. The crown jewel of what the author terms “the genealogical rule of governance” that emerged in Saudi Arabia was the “four-part name,” the identity classification system that the regime institutionalized in 1969 in order to manage the population (166). By the rules of this system, subject-citizens were required to include in their identification cards their first names, fathers’ names, grandfathers’ names, and unprecedentedly, their tribal names as well. According to the author, this system “created the grounds for a fixation on tribal belonging, as it placed the individual’s tribe at the foreground of their public identity, and invented a new inadequacy for those whose popular name (al-shuhra) could not be linked credibly to a prominent tribe” (186). This new emphasis on tribal names, the author suggests, compounded the crisis of identity that Saudis were starting to experience due to the rapid changes that followed the 1973 oil boom.

The regime’s glorification of tribal belonging among a now-sedentary population “has compelled many in the kingdom to rediscover or invent patrilineal affiliations to prominent Arabian tribes through which they can authenticate their position in modern Saudi society” (6). Further, such politicization of identity coincided with a tectonic shift from the oral culture of the bedouin to the new textually based, religious-bureaucratic order of the Al Saud regime, with devastating effects upon social life. The state’s privileging of this culture of textuality allowed for a once flexible, inclusive, and changing conception of identity and belonging to harden and become codified, In this way, the regime fixed genealogy, and in so doing institutionalized a hierarchically organized social order that favored those with “prestigious” tribal origins, a claim so difficult to evince that the origins of the ruling family itself remain hotly contested. Even the source of genealogical authority shifted from “the localized purview of town and tribal elders to the publishing and distribution networks of scholars such as Hamad al-Jasir” (10). Saudis thus rushed to participate in the material contest for tribal nobility, to produce lineal claims of their own, and to counter other claims they saw as inauthentic. In one of the book’s most interesting contributions, Samin shows how perceptions of racial and ethnic difference extant since the emergence of slavery in premodern Arabia continued to structure these modern genealogical claims, revealing how racial categories were not simply an effect of the oil industry.

Not only have the genealogical struggles produced new anxieties for “Saudis unsure of their own place within the genealogical matrix,” but they have also rendered tribal identity “one of the only meaningful forms of civic association permissible in the kingdom” (82, 6). As a matter of fact, by the late twentieth century, the surviving node of tribal organization—genealogy—became a battlefield on which inter- and intrastate struggles were shaped, producing new forms of tribal belonging. Samin argues that al-Jasir is the central figure in this battle, having embarked on a genealogical project of his own in the 1970s, likely as a result of the abovementioned identification regime. His published and unpublished works and correspondence, which constitute the core source material for Samin’s book, are the center stage on which Saudi Arabia’s nationwide genealogical battle played out. Samin describes how, in the politically charged genealogical culture, al-Jasir lost the impartiality of the scholar and “helped rearticulate social distinctions between tribal and non-tribal Saudis in modern, textual terms” (90). Al-Jasir thus emerged as a “social engineer,” the enforcer of this hierarchical industry, reifying the conditions of tribal belonging and “the caste-like fissures running through Saudi society” (90). The genealogical industry became so destabilizing for social and political life that by the 1990s, it was taken over by Saudi Arabia’s most impenetrable institution, the Ministry of Interior. As Samin concludes, “Lineal authentication became a core political function not only at the once-dominant margins, but at the highest reaches of the Saudi state” (191).

This first-of-a-kind English-language intellectual biography of al-Jasir is thus as important for what it divulges about the prolific scholar’s role in the kingdom and its cultural politics as it is for the complex social history it puts forth. From al-Jasir’s confrontations with the religious and secular branches of the regime, his correspondence with “Saudi lineage seekers,” and his changing views of tribalism, the reader witnesses the deep transforma-tion of Saudi society. The detailed historical and archival work and the deep ethnographic research shine throughout the book, even if they expand on already existing arguments and conceptual framings put forth by scholars such as Abulaziz H. Al Fahad. The book could have benefited from a stronger introduction that clearly delineates the book’s intertwined arguments, of which there are many. A more important problem is Samin’s decision to leave the discussion of the state and its policies until the end. This choice not only leaves the reader unclear about the origins of the genealogical industry and the permissible discursive and material fields in which it operated, but, to an extent, it also recenters the role of the regime in the genealogical industry, countering the book’s goal of highlighting the role of people, and not the state, in the making of this genealogical culture. Finally, while genealogy matters, as Samin explains throughout the book, the author nonetheless overstates its role in Saudi politics and society. Saudi Arabia is not merely a genealogical state, as the author suggests, just as it is not a “tribal state,” a “techno state,” or a “biopolitical state.” Rather, like all states that have to adopt multipronged techniques of governance for their own survival, the Saudi state is all these things at once. Despite these shortcomings, Of Sand or Soil is a welcome contribution to scholarship on Saudi Arabia, one that challenges the arguments of some of the most recent works in the field, and that will be of great interest to an audience with some familiarity with the history and complex workings of the Saudi state. 

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