In This Review

Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia
Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia
By Rosie Bsheer
Stanford University Press, 2021, 416 pp

This book is an intelligent, subtle, and learned treatment of the efforts by the Saudi Arabian monarchy to construct and disseminate a historical narrative that will legitimize its rule. Bsheer precisely and elegantly describes the regime’s attempts, across the reigns of several kings, to both collect and suppress documentation about the country’s past. But the book is about more than archives. Ever since the Saudi royal family faced damaging criticism for its cooperation with non-Muslim powers in the 1990–91 Gulf War, the monarchy has systematically pivoted away from reliance on the Wahhabi religious establishment, which had been its staunchest ally, and has constructed a secular nationalist narrative placing itself at the center of the story. Doing so, Bsheer reveals, has involved a variety of revisionist steps, from trying to obliterate evidence of the lively and varied political debates of the late Ottoman era to seizing property and destroying old neighborhoods in order to transform Mecca and Medina from pilgrimage sites into tourist destinations. Much of the work of this “historic preservation”—consolidating national archives, creating national museums, developing the historic birthplace of the Saud family, north of Riyadh, as a heritage site—was overseen by the current king, Salman, during his decades as the governor of Riyadh, and it has been embraced and accelerated under the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.