Rosie Bsheer, Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia (Stanford University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Rosie Bsheer (RB): This project took off in 2004 as an exploration of the politics of historical production in Saudi Arabia through a study of the country’s history textbooks. Initially, I traced shifts and elisions in the state-sanctioned historical discourse by exploring the different editions of Saudi Arabian history textbooks that the Ministry of Education had issued since the centralization of education in 1970. I was struck by how the importance of religion to the making of the Saudi state and its citizens became less and less important in the official study of the past after the 1990s. This challenged most of what I had read about Saudi Arabia until then, which prepared me even less for the realities I encountered on the ground when I moved there a few years later. Indeed, as I traveled from the capital, Riyadh, to Mecca and Medina in the west and Qatif and Dhahran in the east, I realized just how important the past was, both for the ruling elites and for ordinary people.

Archival, ethnographic, and oral history research made it clear that following the 1991 Gulf War, history became a battleground for different sorts of claim making—historical, political, and economic—both among the ruling elites and between them and other Saudi Arabians. On the one hand, those in the highest echelons of power, despite their differences, went to great lengths to archive, commemorate, and commercialize a revised and more secular historical narrative. This was most visible in Riyadh, where a heritage industry—museums, archives, and historical sites—was well on its way, if still in the making, by the late 2000s. It was also evident in the neglect or active destruction of particular historical sites and spaces outside the capital, primarily but not solely in Mecca. At the same time, citizens and residents found themselves part of this emerging archival landscape—as archivists, historians, archeologists, architects, urban planners, or owners of private archives. Many did what they could to “protect” what they saw as the last vestiges of pasts that did not conform to the singular state history. Simply understanding the symbolic politics of writing official Saudi history and counternarratives to that history was no longer sufficient to explain the myriad developments and dynamics I encountered on the ground. Research in Saudi Arabia particularly foregrounded the centrality of materiality—of documents, artifacts, buildings, and spaces—to the state’s history-making project. Studying these top-down material efforts, while examining the role of material politics in both statecraft and the nature of power, became necessary, and ultimately led to the writing of this book.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

RB: Taking late-Ottoman Arabia as one of many possible starting points, Archive Wars explores how the destruction of one form of historical memory in Mecca has been complemented by the belated creation and memorialization of an official, secular history in Riyadh. It approaches this dissonance through a genealogical reading of the material, spatial, and symbolic politics of Saudi modernity. The book addresses the late-twentieth-century production of state archives, memorial spaces, and urban redevelopment plans, and the power struggles therein, as everyday practices of state making. Specifically, in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, ruling elites in Saudi Arabia adopted measures that aimed to reconfigure state power by pacifying wartime popular opposition, reshaping the politics of subject formation, and diversifying the petroleum economy. The ensuing struggle over state form—what I call archive wars—revolved around the production of history, the reordering of space, and the repurposing of valuable real estate. Historicizing these practices helps us rethink the nature of modern archival formation as well as statecraft while calling into question scholarly assumptions about the cohesiveness of authoritarian states, and of states in general. Approaching the domains of history making and urban planning as mutually constitutive, contested, and ongoing material practices of state formation complicates conventional understandings of the nature of state power and its imbrication with archive formation.

J: What were the biggest challenges of conducting research in Saudi Arabia?

RB: The logistics of living in Saudi Arabia were by far the biggest challenges. I could write a book just about the encounters I had during the two months I spent trying to find a long-term apartment rental. As a non-Saudi woman living there alone, the process entailed bureaucratic gymnastics, to put it mildly. That I was violently mugged on moving day only complicated matters, emotionally, for sure, but also logistically. The culprits stole all my forms of identification—including my passport and national ID—as well as my cash and all access to it, and this in a country where my legal status did not allow me to open a bank account. Having to deal with Saudi police and various embassies was infuriating and mindboggling, but ultimately instructive, and in hindsight, even comical. Still, I would say that transportation was perhaps the most frustrating aspect of conducting research there. At that time, women were not allowed to drive and taxis were a rare sight—especially outside of city centers. Ridesharing apps were non-existent. Many times I found myself stranded for hours in the heat, waiting for a taxi to pass by and take me home or to my next meeting, which I learned to schedule hours apart. What made it all worth it was the warm welcome, generosity, and encouragement I received, whether at archives and other state and private institutions, by individuals involved in the processes I was studying, or people I met on the way. The extent to which Saudis and others went to help me with my research was most humbling. I wish I could say more about it—and the myriad amazingly unbelievable moments I found myself in (as a historian)—or to even just thank them by name, but I will spare them what risk doing so may carry.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RB: I wrote the book in as accessible a style as I know how, but ultimately Archive Wars is an academic book. Still, I hope that anyone interested in the history and politics of the modern Middle East in general and the Arabian Peninsula in particular will pick it up. I am especially hopeful that people in Saudi Arabia and the region will read it, which is why I am currently working on an Arabic translation. The book will likely also appeal to historians and archivists in general and to scholars of religion, heritage, state formation, and urban planning in particular.

It is presumptuous to think that the book will have any meaningful impact. I nonetheless hope that it will at least open up space for debating several issues that animate my work. First, historical craft and method. How can we use materiality, for example, to think more critically about the practice of history and to push back against the archive fetish that still animates many history departments and graduate training programs? Second, questions of modern power and state formation, and the singular ways in which we have come to think about the state itself. How can the archival method I propose make visible the multiplicity and plurality of state and regime, the competing forces that shape them, and the always ongoing work-in-progress that is the state? Third, de-exceptionalizing the Middle East. How does approaching Arabia and the Middle East more broadly as a space of theory making complicate and expand our comparative understanding of things like the modern state, as well as related questions of economy, society, and urbanism?

Finally, I can only hope that beyond contributing to knowledge on Saudi Arabia as well as the politics of knowledge production there, this book will humanize Saudi Arabians and the lifelong struggles they have waged for a different and more equitable future.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

RB: I am currently working on a second book project, tentatively titled Crude Empire. It examines the history of Saudi Arabian state formation through connected and competing processes of capital accumulation, land redistribution, and infrastructural development. As a legal history of private property ownership in Saudi Arabia, it takes seriously the emergence and centrality of private land ownership to state formation. Doing so sheds light on the kinds of social relations that the kingdom’s successive property laws were meant to engender and the struggles they prompted. Relatedly, the project explores the transnational political, economic, social, and technical networks that have shaped state formation through a study of the various flows of capital and expertise that have enabled the ruling Al Saud monarchy’s imperial conquests in the Arabian Peninsula, and the subsequent transformation of their empire into a state in 1932. Local traders, seafaring merchants operating across the Indian Ocean and South Asia, multinational corporations, and imperial powers financed and constructed the state’s infrastructural, bureaucratic, disciplinary, and carceral requirements. Along with legal scholars, these have sustained the authoritarian state in its current form, as the project aims to show.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 4–7) 

Redefining the Archive

This book shows how the battles to erase and remake history through archives and the built environment, and the commodification of historical artifacts and space, were part of the same state project to erase and remake the country’s discursive and material history. Rooted in Riyadh and Mecca, the project was in turn part of the regime’s battle to reconfigure Saudi state power following the 1991 Gulf War and the political, social, religious, and economic crises the war created. As the underpinnings of history writing, documents and artifacts hold great value for historians as well as rulers, even when they are marginal to people’s daily experiences and how they relate to the past. The built environment, in contrast, reveals centuries, if not millennia, of human history and is ever present in everyday lived experience. It structures people’s lives, the ways they inhabit or challenge their surroundings, and how they view the past. The built environment, and space more generally, also reflects the ideological, affective, and material tendencies of those in power and how they aim to use the past to shape the future.

Historical documents, archives, commemorative spaces, and the built environment are types of archives designed to tell a certain story about the past as well as about futures that are in the making. As forms of political communication that knit across state and society, such technologies of knowledge production are evidentiary networks through which official historical knowledge moves and becomes visible, “set[ting] the stage for future historical narratives.” But they are more than just spectacles whose salience lies in the symbolic power they hold. The very materiality of these archives—the overabundance of records, limitations on space, deteriorated sites of heritage, private property ownership, and financial constraints—sets the conditions of possibility for these spaces of memory making. It brings historical narratives to life and makes them into monuments in their own right. These monuments are also sites of capital accumulation that, in postwar Saudi Arabia, responded to looming economic and financial crises. They are central to the state’s material politics and are constitutive of the political economy of state making.

Importantly, archives and built environments structure what is preserved and what is not. The production of history as well as the state is in fact premised on and necessitates the selective erasure of some pasts and these records, objects, and spaces that stand witness to them. The singling out of Riyadh and Mecca for the state’s post–Gulf War cultural, economic, and political reengineering projects indeed reflects that. To pay attention to the lifeworlds of the built urban environment—the production and destruction of cities as archives—is to read physical geographies along and against the grain and how they lend themselves to state power. It is to understand the truths that erasure mobilizes, materializes, and normalizes in the service of state formation. Erasure is not simply a countermeasure to the making of history: it is history. From the hiding or purging of documents and artifacts to the demolition of monuments and buildings, destruction is a requisite for the making of history and, as we will see, of the state.

Understanding this fact is key to understanding history and modern state making everywhere. Contrary to popular and academic belief, the elision and destruction of historical artifacts and spaces are not particular to certain types of states: authoritarian, religious, “nonmodern.” These bureaucratized, everyday forms of violence, which Chiara De Cesari describes as “cultural governmentality,” are pillars of modern statecraft and sovereignty. They are structural even to those states hailed as the most modern, secular, and liberal, such as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. What varies from place to place is the precise political-economic stakes in the struggle over knowledge production and state form. In late twentieth-century Saudi Arabia, the struggle—what I call archive wars—revolved around the production of history, the reordering of space, and the repurposing of valuable real estate as a means to diversify the petroleum economy. It aimed to reshape modern Saudi power, society, culture, and economy. Historicizing these practices helps us rethink the nature of modern archival formation and statecraft and call into question scholarly assumptions about the cohesiveness of authoritarian states and of states in general. From the mundane lifeworlds of historical documents and the spaces that house them in Riyadh to the spectacular commercial megaprojects that dot the once-familiar landscape in Mecca, such infrastructural sites of power are rarely folded into discussions of the state because we tend to think of archiving, memorializing, and urban planning as distinct and separate. The domains of history making and urban planning are, in fact, mutually constitutive; to make history is to (re)make space, and like all archival formations, both are ongoing and contested material practices of state formation.

In Saudi Arabia, as elsewhere, these struggles were (and are) complex, multisited, and ridden with tensions, contradictions, and contingencies. They involved intraregime rivalries in which high-ranking members of the ruling family and of the government competed with one another over power, capital, and the Saudi state form. Historically, power has been diffused among regional and institutional fiefdoms, each dominated by a different member of Al Saud. The king himself could not act unilaterally and had to account for the different power centers. The archive wars mapped onto these competing zones of political authority, which one can think of as islands of sovereignty. They also entailed battles between ruling elites—both secular and religious—and the nonruling classes, which included low-ranking government employees, nonstate clerics, document dealers, archivists, historians, urban planners, and contractors. Motivated by different material and ideological interests, these figures and the organizations they oversaw or worked in—the Darah, in Salman’s case—inadvertently heightened existing rivalries in Saudi Arabia’s archiving and other state institutions.

At times of heightened crisis, Saudi rulers relied on religion as the first resort to (re)shape the national idea and confront threats to their rule. A case in point is the ways they instrumentalized religion to pacify post–Gulf War popular contestation and shifted the basis of state legitimation to secular historical memorialization, political commemoration, and urban redevelopment. Archive Wars centers on these top-down yet understudied material practices to explore the nature of state power and its imbrication with archive formation. It does so with the understanding that statecraft, even in authoritarian regimes, evolves diachronically in response to a multiplicity of challenges, not least of which is popular opposition. The extent to which such strategies were successful, if at all, is beyond the purview of this study. Suffice it to say that the diversity of religious and political views among decision makers, religious institutions, and society writ large casts doubt on the efficacy of these approaches. This rings truer in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when Saudis lost what trust they had in state institutions and sought political, economic, and religious sources of authority outside of state structures. The state’s response to these developments is instructive. That the project of archival centralization in Saudi Arabia is ongoing makes it a good example from which to study statecraft, in its messiness, contradictions, and flexibilities. Using the challenges that the Gulf War posed as the “problem space”—to borrow from David Scott—Archive Wars ultimately shows how the state’s postwar response centered at once on historicizing a national space, territorializing a national history, and refracting both of those through new modes of capital accumulation.