Kingdom Without Borders: Saudi Arabia's Political, Religious, and Media Frontiers; Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism and the State

In This Review

Kingdom Without Borders: Saudi Arabia's Political, Religious, and Media Frontiers
By Madawi Al-Rasheed, ed.
Columbia University Press, 2009
320 pp. $40.00
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Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism and the State
By Mohammed Ayoob and Hasan Kosebalaban, eds.
Lynne Rienner, 2008
189 pp. $49.95
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Those seeking a neat periodization in Middle Eastern diplomatic history could well single out the year 1979, which brought the unforgettable Islamic Revolution in Iran and also the less well-remembered storming of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by messianic religious radicals bent on overthrowing the Saudi regime. In the roughly three decades before 1979, a region dominated by secular nationalism (or, perhaps better, etatism) viewed Saudi Arabia as an anomaly and as far from dominant. Since 1979, both religion and Saudi Arabia have loomed ever larger in Middle Eastern politics (a development beginning even earlier, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war discredited Nasserism). Now, 30 years after 1979, is a good time to take the measure of these developments.
The major themes in these two books are, first, the Saudi ties with the ulama (Islamic clergy, and in this case both the "establishment" Wahhabi clerics and those Salafis beyond Saudi reach) and, second, the transnational Saudi efforts in education and the media (quantitatively impressive but of more questionable influence). Of equal interest are the several short case studies treating the Saudi or the Wahhabi impact on such countries as Indonesia, Lebanon, and Yemen. Chapters in both books also address different aspects of U.S.-Saudi relations. Most of the contributors offer a tough appraisal of the Saudi dynasty and of Wahhabism. A few seem too charitable. The emerging picture is of a now-strong, now-weak regime (an "oiligarchy" with limited military clout) that is little loved and facing domestic and foreign opponents from both the left and the right.