The Saudi Enigma: A History is a thorough and insightful academic analysis of Saudi Arabia. It is not, however, without enigmas of its own. The oriental mystique of the title belies a rigorous sociological approach. As ‘a history’, the book is less a narrative of past events than a self-conscious guide to understanding the country’s current state. And that current state – the enigma for Western observers – is hardly ‘Saudi’. The ruling family do not feature prominently at all.
The first two chapters aggressively set about debunking existing stereotypes about Saudi Arabia: that it is a land of Bedouins, Wahhabism and the nouveaux riches. The chapters provide a timely corrective for academic or lay observers. This is supported by an evident command of detail acquired through time spent living in Saudi Arabia, but it is worn lightly and without detracting from the flow of his argument.
Relying on the same detailed local knowledge Ménouret acquired during his time living in Saudi Arabia, and used so effectively in his critique of the Saudi stereotype, he proceeds to reconstruct a ‘key’ to understanding contemporary Saudi society. Bedouin, Wahhabism and nouveaux riches are replaced by the less prosaic urbanization, atomization of family life and pauperization, bringing Saudi society much closer to the experience of the Western reader. Within this, Ménouret demonstrates a particular affinity for the development of women’s and liberal Islamist groups.
However, The Saudi Enigma never quite breaks away from the stereotypes it seeks to dispel. In some cases, they remain the key structural reference point for the book. The attacks of 9/11 open both the introduction and the conclusion and are the main reason given for taking a closer look at Saudi Arabia. The beginning of the oil boom in 1973 divides the third and fourth chapters. The reader is always conscious of what Ménouret is defining himself against.
Furthermore, at times Ménouret’s analysis can be less distinguished than his command of factual detail or ability to evoke the state of society in Saudi Arabia. He is eager to demonstrate that ‘correct’ Islam permits greater gender equality or social liberalism and that ‘culture’ is distinct and has been the prohibitive influence, failing to interrogate in a useful way the relationship between the two. He also adopts the controversial line that the War on Terror is the latest stage of the anti-colonial struggle. Whilst not without merit within a certain worldview, he far overstates his case, for instance, contending that in the 1920s and 1930s great power competition ‘led Washington to launch a policy of conquest in the Middle East as explicit as that which the European powers had conducted in the previous century’. This will strike anyone with a schoolboy knowledge of ‘Gordon of Khartoum’ as absurd. Fortunately, Ménouret’s international analysis is largely distinct from his much stronger analysis of domestic Saudi Arabian society.
The Saudi Enigma is also notable for what it is not: it is not an essay of Riyadhology or court politics. In the wake of the Saudi succession, that may disappoint some, but the book is all the more illuminating for it. Ménouret presents Saudi Arabia as a complex society governed by distinct but recognizable social forces, stripped of both glamour and mystique but conveyed with clarity and authority.
Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Programme, RUSI