The Kingdom: Saudi Arabia and the Challenge of the 21st Century
By Joshua Craze and Mark Huband, eds.
(Columbia University Press, 2009) 323 pp

Reviewed by Jonathan Schanzer, Ph.D., Kings College London

Drawing from articles that appeared on the now-defunct website in 2006 and 2007, journalist Mark Huband and PhD student Joshua Craze have assembled a poignant portrayal of Saudi politics and society. While it may not have been their intention, Huband and Craze have demonstrated just how important the Internet is to researchers seeking to gain insights into a very secretive Saudi society that the government shrouds from the eyes of Westerners.

The 14 contributors to this volume, about half of whom are academics, hail mostly from the Arab world, with at least four of Saudi descent (Badriyyah al-Bisher, Khalid al-Dakhil, Abdul Aziz al-Khedr, and Madawi al-Rasheed). Three of the writers are women.

Through the 61 Internet postings republished in these pages, it is clear that all have deep insight into Saudi society.

One important theme the writers explore is the frustration of many Saudis stemming from the fact that political reform is painfully slow and disjointed. Related issues include the lack of dissent and debate within the Kingdom, and the problem of corruption that pervades this oil-rich society. The fact that Saudi Arabia is an autocratic monarchy doesn’t help matters, although the contributors don’t explicitly articulate this.

Another dominant theme is the archaic and xenophobic Wahhabi ideology and its uneasy view of modernity. This ideology has fueled violence at home and abroad, while simultaneously handcuffing Saudi advances in technology and other important areas. This challenge has impacted the integration of women into a society where clerics still debate whether females should have the right to drive. It has also encumbered a beleaguered education system that is the object of a tug-of-war between those who seek to promote fact and science, on the one hand, and those who seek to promote the “science” of the Qur’an, on the other.

Another theme, no less important, is the Kingdom’s foreign policy, which is not always easy to decipher. The Saudis are clearly wary of leaning too much on Western allies, like America, but the King also seeks to position the country as the leader of the Sunni Arab world, despite a depleted military. As noted in a recently leaked State Department cable, the Kingdom won’t admit it, but it desperately hopes the United States will fend off the threat of an Iranian nuclear power.[1] And as several contributors to this volume note, the House of Saud could do little but stand and watch as Hizbullah rose to power in Lebanon, a state that the Saudis view as a strategic asset.

These and other challenges underscore how, between the ascetic state Wahhabi ideology and the virtually bottomless oil wealth that enables the lavish lifestyles of the royal family, Saudi Arabia is effectively paralyzed and caught between two worlds.

The ideology, dangers, and impact of Wahhabi Islam, however, are not explored enough in this volume. From the “Ikhwan” rebellion against the Saudi state in the 1920s to the 1979 siege at the Grand Mosque in Mecca to the attacks against the Kingdom in 2003 by Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, extremists have posed serious challenges to the survival of the state. Yet, the contributors make little mention of this, or the threats the state could face in the future. Nor do the contributors address in any serious way the threats that Saudi-financed Wahabbi education have posed to international security over the years, culminating in the 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda against America.

In the end, while this volume helps provide a better understanding of the political and foreign policy issues that vex Saudi analysts, there is still much to be explored about the Wahhabi infrastructure, the major players, and the impact they have on the Saudi state. Are there Saudis writing about this? If so, a collection of those essays would make a valuable contribution to the field. If not, the Wahhabis have a vast internet infrastructure. A survey for this landscape is desperately needed.