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Beyond Royalty: 8 Books About the Real Saudi Arabia

Doubtless people will have heard that at the beginning of November the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ordered the arrest of government ministers and royal princes and that in a surprise announcement, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, whose political party is backed by Saudi Arabia, resigned. (Hariri's resignation was later refused by the Lebanese president and he remains Prime Minister.) Unless you've been reading about the political landscape in the area for quite some time, the complexities of regional foreign policies can be baffling. 

Unlike the wealthy United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven states with a population of 9,5 million of which 88% are immigrants, Saudi Arabia has a population of 30 million (and growing rapidly) of which only 30% are immigrants. Contrary to popular belief, not all citizens living under this absolute monarchy are wealthy.  Seventy percent of the population is under 30 years old and the government realizes that it cannot maintain the welfare state that has been in place so far. The younger generation gains information via social media, 10 million inhabitants use Twitter, for example, and this can produce individuals with radically opposed opinions to the regime which is itself being shaken up by a ruthless young Crown Prince. Not only is change inevitable within the country, as was demonstrated in November, but Saudi Arabia perceives threats to its security coming from both Iran as well as from politicized Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Trying to understand modern-day Saudi Arabia and its geo-political and social place in the region is no easy feat. The following reading list attempts to provide a little something for everyone, with a combination of historical and political books as well as fiction. 

Banner photo of Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016. Photo: Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz, US Dept of Defense

The Belt

This beautiful slim novel gives the reader a sense of what life was like before the reach of the royal dynasty. Ahmed grows up in a small Saudi village steeped in traditional tribal culture, local legends, family ties, history, and tribal songs. As he becomes a man, the cataclysmic changes of modernity spring up around him. Islam is imposing itself more and more strongly on tribal beliefs; moreover, the city begins to seem strangely attractive to his young mind. Ahmed struggles to come to terms with this newly unfolding world without forsaking his village, family or Hizam, the old man who comes to epitomise the traditional life itself.

Cities of Salt

Banned in Saudia Arabia, this 5-part novel is a blistering look at Arab and American hypocrisy following the discovery of oil in a poor oasis community in an unnamed country in the 1930s. The late Abdul-Rahman Mounif’s father was Saudi and his mother was from Iraq. He was an oil economist and well positioned to criticize the effects of the oil boom on a traditional Bedouin culture. The author was stripped of his Saudi nationality for his views.

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Awakening Islam

One of France's foremost academics on the Middle East, Stéphane Lacroix gives a penetrating look at the political dynamics of Saudi Arabia, one of the most opaque of Muslim countries and the place that gave birth to Osama bin Laden. The result is a history that has never been told before. Lacroix shows how thousands of Islamist militants from Egypt, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries, starting in the 1950s, escaped persecution and found refuge in Saudi Arabia, where they were integrated into the core of key state institutions and society. The transformative result was the Sahwa, or "Islamic Awakening," an indigenous social movement that blended political activism with local religious ideas. Awakening Islam offers a pioneering analysis of how the movement became an essential element of Saudi society, and why, in the late 1980s, it turned against the very state that had nurtured it. Though the "Sahwa Insurrection" failed, it has bequeathed the world two very different, and very determined, heirs: the Islamo-liberals, who seek an Islamic constitutional monarchy through peaceful activism, and the neo-jihadis, supporters of bin Laden's violent campaign. Awakening Islam is built upon seldom-seen documents in Arabic, numerous travels through the country, and interviews with an unprecedented number of Saudi Islamists across the ranks of today's movement. The result affords unique insight into a closed culture and its potent brand of Islam, which has been exported across the world and which remains dangerously misunderstood.

Inside the Kingdom

Saudi Arabia is a country defined by paradox: it sits atop some of the richest oil deposits in the world, and yet the country's roiling disaffection produced sixteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. It is a modern state, driven by contemporary technology, and yet its powerful religious establishment would have its customs and practices rolled back to match those of the Prophet Muhammed over a thousand years ago. In a world where events in the Middle East continue to have geopolitical consequences far beyond the region's boundaries, an understanding of this complex nation is essential. British journalist and author Robert Lacey gives a penetrating and insightful look at Saudi Arabia. 

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Daring to Drive

The only country in the world to ban women from driving, the King recently issued a decree allowing women to drive for the first time beginning June 2018. The activist Manal al-Sharif was born in Mecca the year fundamentalism took hold in Saudi Arabia. By the time she was twenty she was a computer security engineer. As she became older, the unequal way in which women are treated became too much for her to bear: she was branded a whore for talking to male colleagues at work; her school-age brother had to chaperone her on business trips and, while she kept a car in her garage, she was forbidden from driving down Saudi streets. Her personal rebellion began the day she got behind the wheel of a car: an act that ultimately led to her arrest and imprisonment. Al-Sharif's Women2Drive campaign inspired other women to take action.  Her memoir celebrates resilience, the power of education and the strength of female solidarity in the face of hardship.

The Dove's Necklace

Saudi writer Raja Alem, the first female author to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction shared the prize for this book with a Moroccan author. The Dove's Necklace explores Islam's holiest city, Mecca, and its poorest residents. When a dead woman is discovered in Abu Al Roos, one of the city's many alleys, no one will claim the body because they are ashamed by her nakedness. As the investigation of the case moves forward, the secret life of the holy city of Mecca is revealed. Raja Alem reveals a city and a civilisation at once beholden to brutal customs, and reckoning (uneasily) with new traditions. 

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Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats

In Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats, Steffen Hertog uncovers an untold history of how the elite rivalries and whims of half a century ago have shaped today's Saudi state and are reflected in its policies. Starting in the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia embarked on an ambitious reform campaign to remedy its long-term economic stagnation. The results have been puzzling for both area specialists and political economists: Saudi institutions have not failed across the board, as theorists of the "rentier state" would predict, nor have they achieved the all-encompassing modernization the regime has touted. Instead, the kingdom has witnessed a bewildering mélange of thorough failures and surprising successes. Hertog argues that it is traits peculiar to the Saudi state that make sense of its uneven capacities. Oil rents since World War II have shaped Saudi state institutions in ways that are far from uniform. Oil money has given regime elites unusual leeway for various institutional experiments in different parts of the state: in some cases creating massive rent-seeking networks deeply interwoven with local society; in others large but passive bureaucracies; in yet others insulated islands of remarkable efficiency. This process has fragmented the Saudi state into an uncoordinated set of vertically divided fiefdoms. Case studies of foreign investment reform, labor market nationalization and WTO accession reveal how this oil-funded apparatus enables swift and successful policy-making in some policy areas, but produces coordination and regulation failures in others.

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Saudi Arabia in Transition

Making sense of Saudi Arabia is crucially important today. The kingdom's western province contains the heart of Islam, and it is the United States' closest Arab ally and the largest producer of oil in the world. However, the country is undergoing rapid change: its aged leadership is ceding power to a new generation, and its society, dominated by young people, is restive. Saudi Arabia has long remained closed to foreign scholars, with a select few academics allowed into the kingdom over the past decade. This book presents the fruits of their research as well as those of the most prominent Saudi academics in the field. This volume focuses on different sectors of Saudi society and examines how the changes of the past few decades have affected each. It reflects new insights and provides the most up-to-date research on the country's social, cultural, economic and political dynamics.

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Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.