Pascal Menoret L’ Enigme Saoudienne Les Saoudiens et le Monde
1744-2003, Paris: La Decouverte.
It is a well known fact that Arabian studies have been dominated by Anglo-Saxon scholarship, reflecting the historical, colonial and economic contexts of power relations in which academic discourse takes place. Throughout the twentieth century, English language publications dominated the sphere of knowledge and theorising about not only Saudi Arabia but the Arabian Peninsula in general. With the exception of two or three classical monographs and few traveller’s and colonial accounts, for example the monographs of Charles Huber and Robert Montagne, there has been little French academic engagement with Arabia up to the second World War.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the field experienced some kind of expansion with the publication of a couple of solid scholarly works by well-known French academics. The work of Bonnenfant is an example. However, scholarly work within the social sciences (for example, political science, sociology, anthropology and economics) have remained sparse. Therefore, Menoret’s book is a welcome addition, which may facilitate a speedy engagement with the subject of contemporary Arabian studies.
Pascal Menoret has written a book, inspired by academic discourse, but attempts to speak to the general French public. It is the work of a young French researcher who successfully engages in a fruitful dialogue with a large group of Saudi men who are most probably as young as he is. The book captures the youth of Saudi society, which is according to most statistics the largest group in the population pyramid. In this book, Saudi youth speak through the youth of Menoret, a refreshing voice in a field dominated by old accounts and well-rehearsed arguments.
To place this book in the right context, we must mention that it resulted from Menoret’s work at the French Embassy in Riyadh as indicated on the cover of his book. While this context is extremely important, it reflects the difficulty faced by Western scholars who engage in research in a country not known for openness and appreciation of independent research, both have influenced the quality of academic theorising about it. Outside researchers are either attached to their Embassy or local research centres, both impose their own restrictions and generate their own limitations on independent scholarly enquiry. Academic research on Saudi Arabia has long suffered from either royal patronage (that is the sponsorship of princes) or Western political agendas, which link academic discourse to economic and political policy and sometimes espionage.
The book consists of three sections. The first section deals with issues related to the construction of identity. Menoret starts with the interconnection between geography, history and religion. Unlike many other scholars, Menoret privileges the role played today by cities where the majority of Saudis live. In several sections of the book, Menoret highlights the changes that have swept Saudi Arabia in the second half of the twentieth century, for example urbanisation and the growth of cities.
Another area which Menoret introduces is the role played by Wahhabism in the formation of not only the modern state but also in the construction of identity and legitimacy. Menoret proposes that we do not look at the ‘mondialisation du wahhabisme’, that is the export of Wahhabi doctrines under the influence of the oil boom. He asserts that we should consider the ‘mondialisation de l’islam saoudien’, that is how Islam in Saudi Arabia was influenced by the thought and intellectual ideas of the Egyptian Muslim brothers since the 1970s when Saudi Arabia hosted those who fled Egypt and Syria and other Arab countries under pressure from oppressive regimes.
The above two statements need to be qualified. Menoret considers that there is a separate sphere called Wahhabi/Saudi Islam, which is today under attack. In his attempt to reject the onslaught on Wahhabism, which started after 11 september, he falls into the trap of not seeing that Wahhabism is itself part of a Salafi project which started with early Muslim reformers and scholars. While it is true that influence of the Muslim brotherhood was important over the last three decades in Saudi Arabia, we must not forget that important texts developed by Saudi religious scholars continue to influence political and religious activism in this country and abroad.
The second section is an historical account of political development in the country over the twentieth century. Menoret stops at important dates in this history, for example the establishment of the state under British patronage, the role of the central province in modern history, the contribution of merchant classes in the Hijaz, and the role of the ruling family. He gives a detailed account of the turbulent period between 1973 and 2003 which saw the growth of serious challenges to the present regime, for example the growth of various opposition groups. One important outcome during this period is the crystalisation of Islamist opposition, which challenges not only the power of the ruling group but its social and economic policies. Menoret tries to explain the phenomenon of re-islamising a space which is already islamised, a puzzle which may have confused observers of Saudi society and politics.
In the third section, Menoret gives a detailed analysis of recent social developments including a mention of the role of new women in Saudi society. The most important discussion in this section relates to the question whether Saudi religious education and the school system produces ‘terrorists’, an accusation put forward by American media and became so popular in recent years, especially after the outbreak of serious violence in Saudi cities between Jihadi Islamists and the government. In this discussion, Menoret captures the dilemma of Saudi youth who suffer from an over dose of authority in the public and private sphere. He alludes to how some young Saudis may adopt ideas which correspond to a much older generation while some old Saudis may opt out for ideas associated with the young. In this context, age is irrelevant.
Although the book has an over ambitious title which indicates that it deals with a period from 1744 to 2003, it nevertheless captures important stations in Saudi modern history. The book represents a serious attempt to make Saudi society and politics familiar to the general French public. Many government officials, businessmen and general educated readers will find the book accessible and interesting. Undergraduate students may also find that the book contains sufficient information to stir their interest in Saudi Arabia, perhaps in preparation for further research.
Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed
Welcome to the personal website of Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed. I hope that you will find the information published here of interest. The views expressed are my personal views and do not represent any organisation.
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