Nora Derbal, Charity in Saudi Arabia: Civil Society under Authoritarianism (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

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

Nora Derbal (ND): In February 2009, when I was an MA student in Islamic Studies in Berlin, I joined an excursion to Jeddah organized by Professor Ulrike Freitag. Jeddah was not at all what I had expected! I was so charmed by the place that I decided to return on my own six months later as a visiting student at King Abd al-Aziz University, Jeddah’s largest public university. My studies soon came to a halt, however, due to the “Jeddah floods.” After a day of rain on 25 November 2009, the city was drowning. 123 people died and thirty went missing in the devastation brought about by the water currents. Instead of going to class, I joined my fellow classmates to do relief work for the flood victims. Volunteering exposed me to a tremendous wave of mobilization, which all started with individual acts of charity. There, I decided to write my MA thesis about charity in Jeddah, documenting the diverse nature and variety of collective initiatives that gather under the umbrella of charity in Saudi Arabia.

In 2012-13, I returned to Jeddah for fieldwork for my PhD thesis. I decided to focus on those charities that targeted poverty and the poor. It was my aim to write a detailed, ethnographic account of the aid landscape of Jeddah. I realized then that my perspective contradicted much of the dominant literature on Saudi Arabia. The volunteers whom I interviewed between 2009 and 2013 identified themselves as part of a Saudi civil society, whereas the canon of works on the kingdom emphasized a lack of civil society. In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s first “NGO law” was enacted, which turned the charities that I had studied into “NGOs.” I was curious to see what the consequences of the legal changes were, so I returned for fieldwork in 2019 and 2020. At that time, I lived in Egypt and saw many parallels in phenomena like charity activism and youth culture, the dogma of development, the growing gap between rich and poor. Through my experience in Egypt, I felt the need for a more comparative view of civil society under authoritarianism.

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

ND: First, this is an account about Islamic charity—charity understood as an everyday practice of Islam. Much has been written about “Saudi Islam” as officially represented and enforced by the Saudi-Wahhabi project of the state. In marked contrast to this literature on “state Islam,” I document how ordinary Saudis and non-Saudis in Saudi Arabia do charity: how, why, when, and for whom they gather and spend donations. One of the findings of this research that I found most surprising was the limited role that the religious establishment plays in these questions. Instead of relying on the authority of religious scholars, volunteers and social workers legitimize their practices through selective recourse to religious scripture. In other words, everyday Islam is not necessarily mediated through religious authorities. Social workers find in charity a way to practice their Islam.

Less surprising was the fact that many social activists today in Saudi Arabia are highly critical of the idea of charity. Instead, they aspire to offer development to the poor. Many philanthropists and social workers actively engage with the global development paradigm, its literature, speakers, and practices. Ironically, much of their activism nevertheless continues to mobilize notions of Islamic charity. Islamic charity with its deep historic, socio-cultural, and religious roots proves most resilient in times of distress and hardship as during the 2009 Jeddah floods or the recent Covid pandemic.

Second, charity as a prism of state-society relations allows for a view on civil society “from the bottom-up.” I argue that instead of looking top-down for a certain shape or form of civil society, as it was developed by Western, liberal, male thinkers, we have to pay attention to the function(s) of local, civic practices. If we strip ourselves from the normative assumptions inherent in this literature, we see that civic activism is not necessarily pro-democratic and opposed to the authoritarian state. Given the high cost of political activism in authoritarian regimes, most groups that I studied in Saudi Arabia decidedly shied away from politics. And yet, their engagement often works towards social reform and thereby (re-)negotiates the limits set down by the authoritarian state. Civic activism is intimately tied to notions of citizenship that point beyond the state. Through the empirical account presented in the book, citizenship emerges as a social practice, a sense of belonging that comes from what one does with others. This challenges the dominant binary drawn between citizens of the Gulf and noncitizens.

Third, this book is about poverty and inequality, about social class difference and a growing sense of alienation between the wealthy and those less affluent in Saudi Arabia. The growing wealth gap challenges the rentier state paradigm, which has dominated much of the literature of state-society relations in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Through the efforts of those organizations that address Saudi Arabia’s poor, I explore how various structural processes and social policies have accelerated pauperization among specific groups in the kingdom. Yet this growing pauperization is increasingly framed by the same charities that seek to help the poor as an individual failure of the work-shy, unreliable, uneducated poor—thus resonating a global neoliberal belief system.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

ND: This book is the result of a ten-year thought process. Initially, when I wrote my MA thesis and published my first articles on related themes, I questioned in how far charity activism qualifies as civil society activism. I was particularly critical of fun-oriented youth practices like charity bazaars and flea markets, fundraising Halloween parties, or the idea of “hiking for charity,” because I questioned their sincerity and was uneasy with a morality in which fun activities are instigated in the name of poverty relief. When I met with some of my early interviewees in 2020, who described to me that Saudi Arabia had a civil society in 2009 to 2010, ten years later I found them disillusioned. In light of the growing repression towards activism, free speech, and criticism of the regime, they had turned their back on collective action. Yet, many of the charity organizations that I have been following, continue to do their work—outside of the spotlight.

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

ND: I hope that this book contributes to the nuanced discussion of Saudi society across academic disciplines—Islamic/Middle Eastern studies, political sciences, anthropology, history—a discussion that listens to and gives voice to ordinary Saudis, and takes into account the complexities of their everyday lives.

I would wish that those who form part of “global civil society,” those working with Amnesty International, Civicus, and Human Rights Watch, for example, find the time to read the book. Many Saudi civil society actors feel very much misrepresented and marginalized by these organizations. In 2020, for example, when Saudi Arabia hosted the G20, major organizations refrained from participating in the working group meetings of the civil society task force (C20) because it was headed by a Saudi princess.

I hope that by reading the book, undergraduate and graduate students get curious about Saudi Arabia. I would wish that more graduate and PhD students from Europe and the United States/Canada choose to spend a semester abroad in Saudi Arabia!

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ND: I am currently a postdoc at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I work on my second book project. In the book, I engage with the life and works of the German Orientalist and travel writer Heinrich von Maltzan (1826–1874), who visited Jeddah on the way to Aden in 1870–71. In my research, I use biography as method to shed light on the significant contribution of travelers and travel writing to the production of Islam knowledge and the emergence of an epistemic field of Islam in the German-speaking nineteenth century.

Since I am based in Jerusalem, I am also exploring materials for a project about Saudi-Palestinian relations in the first half of the twentieth century. I am particularly interested in notions of sacrifice and martyrdom, on the one hand, as well as conceptions of solidarity and the umma, the community of Muslim believers, on the other hand, and how these concepts have emerged and changed over the course of the twentieth century. This research is part of my broader interest in the question of how Palestine as a symbol of the umma has emerged and changed over time.

J: What advice would you give to graduate students and early career researchers planning to conduct fieldwork in Saudi Arabia?

ND: Spend as much time as possible in Saudi Arabia! Doing fieldwork in Saudi society requires creativity but above all, stamina to build human relations. In my experience, if we respect the importance of horizontal networks in Saudi life and culture, the snowball method can work wonders. Permits and well-meant official letters can cause a lot of suspicion. In light of the socio-political culture, recording interviews and asking for written, signed consent scares potential interviewees away. Be flexible and spontaneous, expect that meetings get postponed and plans change, and do not take this personally. Social life happens very late in the day/night, especially in summer and during Ramadan. Be prepared to stay up late!


Excerpt from the book (from chapter 5, “Negotiating Citizenship and Belonging: The Young Initiative Group,” pp. 197-199, 213-214)

“I found myself when I met the YIGis. They brought life into my life.” Maha Taher

During my fieldwork in Jeddah in 2012, the Young Initiative Group (YIG) enjoyed local celebrity status. Newspaper articles regularly reported about the activities of the group. Lifestyle magazines published photo essays with the group’s founders. They gave interviews in which they shared advice on how individuals could bring about “positive change” and on how to start a volunteering organization in Saudi Arabia. What explains the popularity of this informal group? Given the narrow legal framework governing associational life in the kingdom, how did the group coordinate its activities while navigating its extralegal status as a nonregistered, informal organization? Why did the community initiative cease to exist by 2016?

This chapter examines the relationship between volunteerism and religion, between youth activism and Islamic charity. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, during the reign of King ʿAbdallah, informal groups and initiatives that advocated volunteering (majmuʿat or mubadarat tatawwuʿ) flourished among youth in Saudi Arabia. Volunteering (tatawwuʿ) became a buzzword in Jeddah’s charity scene. Saudi “youth groups” and “youth initiatives” are terms that cover a wide spectrum of organizations with multiple trajectories, each with a unique relation to religion. The role of religion differs greatly among the youth initiatives, just as it does among Saudi welfare associations. The YIG embedded its volunteering practices within the religious obligation to alms and compassion for the needy. The group’s community approach was rooted in an Islamic ethics of care. This appeared to reflect both the personal religiosity of some of its founders and the strategic positioning of the organization vis-à-vis the authorities, given the initiative’s lack of legal status. Doing charity offered a kind of insurance that bestowed legitimacy on informal youth groups and was used by members to negotiate permission from parents to join group activities.

When discussing youth activism, youth culture, or youth issues here, I use the term “youth” to denote more than merely a certain age group. Youth is a socially constructed category, a life stage, which in the words of Asef Bayat “signifies particular habitus or behavioral and cognitive dis- positions that are associated with the fact of being ‘young’ – that is, a distinct social location between childhood and adulthood, where the youngster in a relative autonomy is neither totally dependent (on adults) nor independent, and is free from being responsible for others.” Most of the youth activists studied here were in their twenties; however, some (particularly women) started initiatives as teenagers in their late high school years. Others (particularly men) who, following Saudi customs, lived with their parents until marriage, continued a youth lifestyle of relative freedom and little responsibilities throughout their thirties. This chapter suggests that informal volunteering groups are important as spaces which allow for and accommodate the youth habitus of this generation. Testing the boundaries, seeking autonomy, experimenting with lifestyles, and sociability outside the family are integral to the life stage that characterizes youth in our day. Informal volunteering initiatives, including the YIG and the Hikers (see Chapter 5), enjoyed remarkable popularity because they provided a safe space for exactly this youth habitus.

The YIG advertised charity as an avenue for the personal development of youth volunteers and of the community at large. The YIG community – or in the words of its members “the YIG family” – was rooted in the local, urban context of Jeddah but extended beyond common markers of belonging such as citizenship, tribe, religion, or social class. Through an examination of orphan care initiatives and food banquets organized by the group, the case study highlights how the aid approach of the YIG challenged conventional forms of belonging, exclusion, and the stigmatization of unofficial migrants as “noncitizens.” The YIG aspired to recreate a community in which individuals come together “to grow” and “make a positive change.” The group philosophy as well as the biographies of the YIG’s cofounders invite us to reconsider citizenship and belonging not only as rights that one has (or lacks) but as what one does with others. In the lived reality of youth activism and charity, which this chapter describes, the legal and political boundaries drawn between Saudi citizens and non-Saudis are not as clear-cut as the politics of the Saudi state suggest. With their aspirations and struggles, the young volunteers of the YIG highlight the complexities of belonging in contemporary Saudi Arabia.

The YIG is an example of informal civil society in Saudi Arabia. With its unauthorized status, the YIG lacked a formal space like physical headquarters. Like many youth initiatives in Saudi Arabia, they adopted innovative strategies to cope with the spatial limitations and their status of “extralegality.” New forms of social media were key to these strategies. With the help of social media, the YIG was able to mobilize hundreds of volunteers within days and hours. Many activities promoted by the group were spontaneous and short-lived. Rather than considering their fluidity as weakness, I suggest that we should understand spontaneity and fluidity as the particular strength of such initiatives, which – despite numerous challenges – built strong group identities and networks that outlast the groups’ activism.


The YIG was not the only informal initiative catering to the poor in the month of Ramadan. In Saudi Arabia’s urban centers, iftar saʾim campaigns have become increasingly common during the month of fasting. In 2016, an informal and largely anonymous initiative that called itself “Half a Date” on Facebook went viral before it suddenly stopped. The group’s name refers to the hadith that advises “Save yourself from hellfire, even by giving half a date in charity.” The initiative began in 2013 with Facebook posts that praised charity, followed by irregular food distributions in Riyadh’s poor neighborhoods. Images and videos posted on Facebook suggest that the initiative’s iftar saʾim campaign during Ramadan in 2016 reached 3,750 men (posted June 5, 2016). The food distribution, organized in double lines serving food, lasted for “two hours straight.” Pictures of the nine cars, owned by the volunteers behind the campaign and filled with food for distribution, speak of the affluent background of the initiators. Facebook posts thanked the anonymous organizers of the Ramadan project and expressed appreciation for “our brothers from Saudi, India, and Pakistan.” The target group of the Ramadan project were South Asian laborers, who struggle to make ends meet and face often harsh working conditions. The last post on the Facebook group “Half a Date” shared a link to an article by the newspaper Saudi Gazette, which praised Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman for donating SR 23 million (EUR 5.6 million) from his own wealth to Riyadh’s poor. After that, however, the group seems no longer to exist.

In 2015, the widely noticed informal community initiative “Feed the Need” started placing fridges in poor neighborhoods of Riyadh and later around Jeddah. Through social media, the initiative mobilized donors to stock the fridges for the poor to help themselves. Other measures of “Feed the Need” included food baskets sent to poor communities in Ramadan, as well as food bags and warm meals distributed among workers and cleaners in Riyadh. After much popularity initially, the initiative disappeared and then reappeared in 2018 under the legal umbrella of the registered women’s welfare association Bunyan – today with a focus on Saudi nationals only.

Both “Half a Date” and “Feed the Need” initially resembled the YIG in their spontaneous character and in their message of sharing food with the needy while disregarding citizenship status. Both groups located themselves within the larger framework of Islamic charity. Yet both groups appear much more secretive in their online profiles than the YIG and other informal initiatives at the time of the YIG. Online, the founders behind “Half a Date” and “Feed the Need” have remained anonymous. On the one hand, the phenomenon of food banks (bunuk al-taʿam) has grown in Saudi Arabia in recent years, as we have seen in Chapter 2. On the other hand, informal practices of giving food to the needy no matter what their citizenship status – largely tolerated in the past – has become a sensitive issue, increasingly opposed by state authorities.

Charity in Saudi Arabia: Civil Society under Authoritarianism by Nora Derbal is available to buy online and through Cambridge Core.