By AMIR TAHERI
October 26, 2003 -- IN the past two years, a growing industry has emerged producing reports, articles, books and documentaries on Saudi Arabia. Holding conferences on the kingdom is the fashion in the world of research institutes. The number of authors described as "specialist in Saudi affairs" at the bottom of opinion-page articles has multiplied.
This sudden interest in Saudi Arabia, one of the least-studied societies in the contemporary world, would have been welcome if it had been motivated by scholarly concern. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
The mass of material on the kingdom could be divided into three categories.
The first consists of James Bond-style thrillers disguised as political studies. They portray the kingdom as a giant Dr. No, with a hidden agenda either to buy or to destroy the Western civilization and seize control of the world. Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 terrorists make cameo appearances in all such studies.
The second category comprises articles and books that portray the kingdom as a cross between a hedonist paradise and a desert concentration camp.
In the third category, we find works signed by self-styled experts that bear a scholarly veneer but offer little or no serious analysis of the situation in the kingdom today.
The first two categories could be regarded as propaganda and must be discussed elsewhere. Our focus here is on the third category.
These works suffer from a number of flaws. Almost all follow a standard pattern for studying the kingdom.
This starts with a long introduction on Islam.
To be sure, understanding Islam is important for any analysis of the present situation in Saudi Arabia. But this does not mean that the two issues are identical. The traditional approach to studying Saudi Arabia tends to give the enterprise a theological dimension that is neither necessary nor helpful.
Having discoursed about Islam at length, the standard work on Saudi Arabia proceeds with an equally lengthy account of the life of Muhammad Abdul Wahhab. Since Abdul Wahhab did not leave behind much written theological work, let alone political treatises, the standard writer on Saudi Arabia is forced to concoct a Wahhabist ideology out of his imagination.
Next we come to a lengthy chapter on the late King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, founder of the current Saudi state. Here we get an account of battles fought in the last century along with a portrayal of the poverty that afflicted the desert kingdom in its early days.
The standard writer then moves to a fourth "imperative" of Saudi studies: oil. This is presented as a source of fabulous wealth, which flows on its own, requiring almost no management, no investment, no technology and no policies.
Next comes a chapter on the members of the royal family, variously said to have 5,000 to 30,000 members. The assumption is that this is a monolith in which everyone thinks and acts alike.
The typical book on Saudi Arabia will contain other cliches and images: Philby, camels, palm groves, the Empty Quarter, the Bedouin. The author would not forget Mecca and Medina, even though he may never have visited them or understand their significance in religious terms.
By the time those imperatives have been covered, little space is left to deal with Saudi Arabia as it exists now. The impression is of a society in which the last page of the calendar was torn off sometime in the 1950s.
It is as if the latest studies on the United States were limited to a history of Protestant Christianity, the Puritans, George Washington, Lafayette (The U.S. Philby), the Civil War, Caryl Chessman and the California gold rush.
What is needed is an understanding of Saudi Arabia today.
Here is a nation of 20 million people with one of the highest rates of urbanization in the world. Relative to its population, it has a larger middle class than most other Arab countries. It is also one of the few countries that tried to develop their specific models of society in the pre-globalization era.
For the average Western reader, it is hard to imagine Saudi Arabia as a society with workers, farmers, managers, businessmen, poets, writers, lawyers, doctors, artists, architects, civil servants, soldiers - in short, all the categories that exist in any other modern nation.
The really useful book on Saudi Arabia would limit the historic part to no more than a fifth.
Because Saudi Arabia has changed faster than the records of its change, the useful book would be based on personal observation and countless interviews with people from all walks of life. It would reflect the tensions - some creative, some not - that affect a society in transition from the traditional to the modern.
Instead of focusing on abstractions, it would deal with concrete issues such as the kingdom's need for an overhaul of its defense doctrine, a review of its foreign policy strategies, a thorough reform of its social and economic structures and the definition of its place in a world in which it is becoming more and more difficult to be different.
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