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Rosie Bsheer, Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia

Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2020, 416 pages
Philippe Pétriat
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Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia / Rosie Bsheer.- Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020.- 416 p. ISBN 978-1-5036-1257-0

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1To all those who have embarked on historical research in Saudi Arabia, access to records held in official institutions remains a puzzling problem. Rumours of private archives bought or stolen by officials only to be hidden in the basements of archiving institutions are persistent. The magnificence of the same institutions’ buildings is nonetheless rarely proportional to the amount of archives they are reported to hold. Rosie Bsheer’s Archive Wars is thus a much-awaited exploration of the Saudi State’s bureaucratized efforts to centralize the archiving of the country’s records, normalize the making of history, and enshrine official narratives in the built environment of Riyadh and Mecca. By addressing the issue of the gradual elaboration of a “secular national mythology built around the selective history of the Al Saud family” (p. 207) and of this narrative’s impact upon archiving policies and the rebuilding of the Saudi cities during the 1990s and 2000s, the book makes a major contribution to the understanding of historical issues at stake in Saudi Arabia.

2Archive Wars is broadly structured along a chronological path leading from what Rosie Bsheer argues are “occluded pasts” (chapter 1) to the creation of the Saudi archive institutions from the late 1960s (chapter 2) and the violent competition over archiving that was typical of the politics of history in Saudi Arabia until the early 2010s (chapter 3). It offers a much-needed historical survey of the creation of archival institutions (most notably the Riyadh-based Darat al-malik ‘Abdelaziz, Institute of Public Administration, and King Fahd National Library) and of their competition with the support of rival kingly factions. The fascinating career of Yahya Ibn Junayd at the head of the King Fahd National Library and then the King Faisal Foundation embodies the growing preoccupation with archives in Saudi Arabia and the “archive wars” that unfolded in the 1980s and 1990s. It also hints at existing contradictions between authoritarian policies on the one hand, and opportunistic, individual, and rival initiatives on the other hand. The book’s last two chapters are more explicitly urban oriented. They deal with the official sanction given after the 1990–1991 Gulf War to a newly defined narrative that was designed to engage political opposition and underpinned major urban reconfiguration, Riyadh’s developing districts (chapter 5) and Mecca (chapter 6) being the most dramatic examples.

3As emphasized by Rosie Bsheer, the Saudi State entered the 21st century without a functioning archival institution of its own, although several institutions with different kingly and princely support had been successively inaugurated and were at war for the collection of official and unofficial archives across the Kingdom. In reaction to the massive contestation and economic recession of the 1990s which shook its legitimacy, the monarchy promoted a revised and secularized narrative that evinced the previous focus on the religious foundations and emphasized the unique role of the Al Saud. The then powerful governor of Riyadh (now king) Salman ibn ‘Abdelaziz and his clients played a key role in advocating for the revision and centralization of archiving and urban planning in order to foster the imposition of this revised version of Saudi history. The official narrative, built around the Al Saud and exclusive of the pre-1932 history, was thus being enshrined in the architecture and monuments of the kingdom’s main cities. To the monarchy’s official historians and its clientele of capitalists and entrepreneurs, as well as for a flood of foreign consultants in urban planning and heritage marketing, late 20th-century and early 21st-century Riyadh (Central and al-Dir‘iyya districts) and Mecca (the Haram) offered majored opportunities for the destruction and rebuilding of old and new quarters. Urban spaces, even in Mecca, were commoditized to offer new outlets for investments and promote the uprooted version of Saudi history decided by Salman and his advisors.

4As they were collected from ministries or families, sometimes deceitfully, official and private archives were submitted to similar processes of commoditization, or erasure as potentially subversive records. While archiving and space building are common patterns of every modern state’s construction, Rosie Bsheer convincingly argues that their successive features in Saudi Arabia illuminate the maintenance strategies of the Saudi monarchy from the era of the Arab Cold War with Egypt in the 1960s until the silencing of all dissenting records by King Salman and his son Muhammad. This most capitalist way of heritage making stirred up some oppositions by intellectuals and non-official religious scholars in Riyadh, Mecca and Jeddah. Rosie Bsheer’s fieldwork in Riyadh’s libraries and building companies in Mecca (such as Saudi Binladin Group) does not only illuminate the everyday practices of archiving and space building that concurred with such bureaucratized efforts, and the most vocal criticisms such efforts stirred up, but also enables her to describe meticulously many instances of rivalry between archiving institutions, and opposition and even subversion by employees inside the companies and State institutions tasked with implementing the officially sanctioned narrative and erasing challenging vestiges.

5One might regret that Rosie Bsheer did not push her arguments on history making and space building further in the introduction and the conclusion. Readers in history would have appreciated that recent scholarship on Saudi historiography be engaged more explicitly in the opening of Archive Wars. Developments on the narrow focus of the available literature on contemporary Saudi Arabia and the subsequent neglect for history sound fairly formulaic, while the criticism of “persistent orientalism” is a bit of a stereotype in the early 21st-century. The history of wahhabiyya, and of the Ottoman and global history of the Arabian Peninsula, all mentioned in chapter 1, are fields that have recently been greatly expanded – albeit not always in the American scholarship and the mostly political approaches that are given privilege in Rosie Bsheer’s bibliography – not to mention the history of urban architecture and of historiography in Saudi Arabia. The conclusion is mostly devoted to a political analysis of the violent and exclusive practices of power of Salman and his son Muhammad. The final pages sometimes lose sight of the book’s main argument about the coherence of the archiving and urban monumentalization policies. It tackles historiographical issues only intermittently, as if the book was, in the end, more about contemporary politics than history.

6As made clear in her introduction, Archive Wars is mostly a top-down and state-view account of the politics of archive and urban planning, despite some developments on alternative or, to borrow from Madawi al-Rasheed and Robert Vitalis to whom Rosie Bsheer owes much, “counter-narratives”. Religious scholars, in particular, whether they support or oppose the narrative and monumentalization promoted by the State, are not given as much voice as expected from Rosie Bsheer’s exceptional fieldwork. And yet, the sanction given by official scholars to the destructions in Mecca as preventing people from transforming places such as Muhammad’s home into visitor attractions, stands in sharp contrast to the celebration of the Al Saud in al-Dir‘iyya and Riyadh Central District. Once the reader gets to the conclusion, she/he is actually left with the question of the systematic nature of the two projects of archiving and heritage building surveyed in the book. While heritage making and transformations of urban landscapes are mainly described as processes of destroying and building, the shaping of archives very often appears in the book as being driven mainly by processes of hiding and forgetting (peculiar ways of shaping, indeed), whatever the light such archives cast on Saudi history.

7What Rosie Bsheer argues is a “regime’s” efficient strategy connecting both projects often appears as incoherent, beyond the similarity of purposes and violent methods. Little is known of its inspiration, actual elaboration and coordination in the shadow of Prince, then King, Salman and his closest advisors. Everyday archiving practices and efforts to normalize the writing of history are, as described in chapters 2 and 3, erratic, dependent on the changing balance of monarchical power or on the archivists’ individual commitments, and ultimately conditioned by the endemic rivalries of a “fragmented state” over “scattered archives” (p. 68). Rosie Bsheer herself relies on European consular archives selected by and made available at the major archival institution in Riyadh, the Salman-supported Darat al-Malik ‘Abdelaziz, to found her argument about the failure of the Al Saud to build a national ideology after the official unification of the Kingdom in 1932 (p. 52). The rich interviews she conducted with archivists show that the collecting process was given priority over the organizing of archives (p. 123). The absence of coherent strategy even seems to have been reciprocated in the reshaping of Riyadh and Mecca urban landscapes until the 1990s (p. 175–176). The translation of the “politics of history” into history learning, text and handbooks in the 20th and early 21st century are hardly dealt with, although Rosie Bsheer had made it the subject of her previous researches. This leaves us with many questions as to the consistency and “remarkable efficiency” (p. 58) of the bureaucratized efforts upon everyday conceptions of history as experienced in schools and public spaces around re-enhanced monuments.

8The reader sometimes feels as if Rosie Bsheer were struggling too much to have her argument framed into a broad political account of the Saudi “regime”, even if this entanglement might entail taking her interviewees (whether supporters or opponents) too much at their word, while much seems to be un- or ill-coordinated, dependent on circumstances, and transactional. As it addresses issues central for all researchers on Saudi Arabia and builds its stimulating arguments on an original fieldwork, Archive Wars quite logically offers much to be discussed.

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Philippe Pétriat, « Rosie Bsheer, Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 14 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 février 2021, consulté le 11 avril 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/6476 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.6476

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Philippe Pétriat

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