Archive Wars
The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia
Rosie Bsheer




IN LATE 2010, BULLDOZERS WERE DEMOLISHING CENTURIES-OLD Ottoman-era architectural structures on the edges of the Grand Mosque in Mecca when the deafening scrape of metal on metal brought everything to a sudden halt. The South Asian laborers operating the heavy machinery were clearing ground as part of a multibillion-dollar mosque expansion. To the workers’ surprise, they had unearthed twelve metal boxes holding sheaves of old documents and manuscripts.1 The laborers scrambled to grab as many of the dusty records as they could. Within days, some of the rare materials turned up in the old markets of Jeddah, where a local collector purchased them. Many more appeared months later in the Cairo offices of a well-known document trader, who then traveled to Riyadh to sell the papers to state and private archives with which he had conducted business for more than ten years.

The highest bidders, who secured the bulk of the treasure trove, were the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives—better known as the Darah—and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.2 A few records made it to the King Fahd National Library. Competition between these and other state and private archives, coupled with a thriving black market in historical documents, authentic and forged, inflated the price of the documents and manuscripts. Each institution acquired what it could afford, often discovering several forgeries after the fact.3 What these repositories did not purchase ended up in smaller private collections across Saudi Arabia.

The initial inspection of the recovered materials revealed a random assortment of documents mostly related to Egyptian pilgrimage caravans to Mecca. Mixed into the collection, however, were documents concerning Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the eighteenth-century Islamic movement that, along with the Al Saud clan, first conquered parts of the Arabian Peninsula in 1744.4 The Wahhabi movement was the progenitor of the Muslim clergy who have backed Al Saud since the clan established its rule across the peninsula again in 1932.5 It also inspired some of the Sunni Islamists who have been the ruling family’s most caustic domestic critics. The Wahhabi movement’s role in state formation is incontrovertible. Official pronouncements, school curricula, and state-sanctioned history acknowledge as much. Yet the collection about Ibn Abd al-Wahhab soon became a bone of contention. The Darah was holding an exhibition titled Rare Manuscript Exhibition on Saudi Arabia. The curators decided to showcase some of the newly purchased items but to exclude those about the original Wahhabi.6 Word of this suppression circulated among visitors at the exhibition. The Darah, some suggested, was up to its old tricks: deliberately concealing manuscripts that shed light on Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s role in the making of Al Saud’s eighteenth-century emirate. They accused the Darah of rewriting history to the benefit of the ruling family alone. A brawl ensued at the exhibition between followers of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab who wanted his role shown prominently and Darah employees and supporters. Security personnel intervened to end it.

The embarrassment of this fracas notwithstanding, the documents’ exhibition was an ironic success for the Darah. Under the tutelage of its chairman, Prince Salman ibn Abdulaziz, who was governor of Riyadh from 1954 to 2015, when he became king, the Darah had been consolidating its archival power. It capitalized on the rivalries between Riyadh’s main archiving institutions to expedite the centralization of historical records on Saudi Arabia, scattered as they were across the country and the world. It had sponsored several countrywide marketing campaigns in the first decade of the twenty-first century to raise awareness of the importance of historical documents. This awareness had obviously filtered down from Saudi Arabia’s political and intellectual elites to the construction workers in Mecca. As South Asians lacking citizenship, these workers were some of the kingdom’s poorest and most vulnerable residents. They risked their livelihoods and deportation to sell the historical documents. Indeed, when news of the confrontation at the exhibition reached the contractor responsible for the expansion of the Grand Mosque, the company fired or disciplined everyone who had been working at the site that day.

As news of the incident spread, the politics of making Saudi Arabian history became a topic of debate in Riyadh’s intellectual salons. A few conversations touched on the fledgling National Museum and other newly developed historical sites that were gradually becoming part of Riyadh’s urban landscape. The state was spending millions to rehabilitate sites that were little more than ruins in order to bolster Al Saud’s past. Many thought it was offensive, not to mention a waste of money. Yet the concomitant destruction of historical and religious spaces in and around Mecca’s Grand Mosque did not elicit as much public condemnation as the Darah incident. The material life of Islamic heritage was hardly ever the main topic of discussion and debate in these salons.

The demolition at the mosque—disguised as expansion—was part of an enormous remaking of the city’s built environment. Ancient markets and coffee houses, Ottoman-era forts, Shiʿi and Sufi shrines, houses said to have belonged to descendants of the Prophet Muhammad—all would crumble beneath the bulldozers’ blades. Historic Mecca would become a thing of the past. King Fahd and, after him, King Abdullah commissioned the Saudi Binladin Group—the global contracting company of their main local allies, the Binladin family—with overseeing redevelopment works in Mecca. Together, they claimed that the destruction of neighborhoods in Central Mecca was necessary to accommodate a ballooning Muslim population. The destruction, they said, would also prevent sites that were significant to Islam’s early beginnings from becoming shrines for visitation, which Wahhabis consider heretical and an innovation in Islamic belief and practice (bidʿa). Despite the wholesale destruction of the city’s historical districts, there was little talk of Mecca’s urban transformations beyond those immediately affected by it. The scale of destruction in Mecca remained largely visible only to those who had lived in or visited the holy city.7 As late as 2010, media coverage was still scant. When local media covered the urban redevelopment, they did so in a positive light and hailed the state’s modernizing accomplishments. The global mainstream media did not emphasize the topic for another three years. Saudi Arabians—experts and nonexperts alike—who were critical of the nature of urban redevelopment simply did not connect what was happening in the Darah and other archives to the reordering of the built environment, whether in Riyadh, Mecca, or elsewhere in the country.


This book shows how the battles to erase and remake history through archives and the built environment, and the commodification of historical artifacts and space, were part of the same state project to erase and remake the country’s discursive and material history. Rooted in Riyadh and Mecca, the project was in turn part of the regime’s battle to reconfigure Saudi state power following the Gulf War (August 2, 1990–February 28, 1991) and the political, social, religious, and economic crises the war created.8 As the underpinnings of history writing, documents and artifacts hold great value for historians as well as rulers, even when they are marginal to people’s daily experiences and how they relate to the past. The built environment, in contrast, reveals centuries, if not millennia, of human history and is ever present in everyday lived experience. It structures people’s lives, the ways they inhabit or challenge their surroundings, and how they view the past.9 The built environment, and space more generally, also reflects the ideological, affective, and material tendencies of those in power and how they aim to use the past to shape the future.

Historical documents, archives, commemorative spaces, and the built environment are types of archives designed to tell a certain story about the past as well as about futures that are in the making. As forms of political communication that knit across state and society, such technologies of knowledge production are evidentiary networks through which official historical knowledge moves and becomes visible, “set[ting] the stage for future historical narratives.”10 But they are more than just spectacles whose salience lies in the symbolic power they hold.11 The very materiality of these archives—the overabundance of records, limitations on space, deteriorated sites of heritage, private property ownership, and financial constraints—sets the conditions of possibility for these spaces of memory making. It brings historical narratives to life and makes them into monuments in their own right.12 These monuments are also sites of capital accumulation that, in postwar Saudi Arabia, responded to looming economic and financial crises. They are central to the state’s material politics and are constitutive of the political economy of state making.

Importantly, archives and built environments structure what is preserved and what is not. The production of history as well as the state is in fact premised on and necessitates the selective erasure of some pasts and these records, objects, and spaces that stand witness to them. The singling out of Riyadh and Mecca for the state’s post–Gulf War cultural, economic, and political reengineering projects indeed reflects that.13 To pay attention to the lifeworlds of the built urban environment—the production and destruction of cities as archives—is to read physical geographies along and against the grain and how they lend themselves to state power.14 It is to understand the truths that erasure mobilizes, materializes, and normalizes in the service of state formation.15 Erasure is not simply a countermeasure to the making of history: it is History. From the hiding or purging of documents and artifacts to the demolition of monuments and buildings, destruction is a requisite for the making of History and, as we will see, of the state.

Understanding this fact is key to understanding history and modern state making everywhere. Contrary to popular and academic belief, the elision and destruction of historical artifacts and spaces are not particular to certain types of states: authoritarian, religious, “nonmodern.” These bureaucratized, everyday forms of violence, which Chiara De Cesari describes as “cultural governmentality,” are pillars of modern statecraft and sovereignty.16 They are structural even to those states hailed as the most modern, secular, and liberal, such as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.17 What varies from place to place is the precise political-economic stakes in the struggle over knowledge production and state form. In late twentieth-century Saudi Arabia, the struggle—what I call archive wars—revolved around the production of history, the reordering of space, and the repurposing of valuable real estate as a means to diversify the petroleum economy. It aimed to reshape modern Saudi power, society, culture, and economy. Historicizing these practices helps us rethink the nature of modern archival formation and statecraft and call into question scholarly assumptions about the cohesiveness of authoritarian states and of states in general. From the mundane lifeworlds of historical documents and the spaces that house them in Riyadh to the spectacular commercial megaprojects that dot the once-familiar landscape in Mecca, such infrastructural sites of power are rarely folded into discussions of the state because we tend to think of archiving, memorializing, and urban planning as distinct and separate. The domains of history making and urban planning are, in fact, mutually constitutive; to make history is to (re)make space, and like all archival formations, both are ongoing and contested material practices of state formation.

In Saudi Arabia, as elsewhere, these struggles were (and are) complex, multisited, and ridden with tensions, contradictions, and contingencies. They involved intraregime rivalries in which high-ranking members of the ruling family and of the government competed with one another over power, capital, and the Saudi state form. Historically, power has been diffused among regional and institutional fiefdoms, each dominated by a different member of Al Saud.18 The king himself could not act unilaterally and had to account for the different power centers. The archive wars mapped onto these competing zones of political authority, which one can think of as islands of sovereignty. They also entailed battles between ruling elites—both secular and religious—and the nonruling classes, which included low-ranking government employees, nonstate clerics, document dealers, archivists, historians, urban planners, and contractors. Motivated by different material and ideological interests, these figures and the organizations they oversaw or worked in—the Darah, in Salman’s case—inadvertently heightened existing rivalries in Saudi Arabia’s archiving and other state institutions.

At times of heightened crisis, Saudi rulers relied on religion as the first resort to (re)shape the national idea and confront threats to their rule. A case in point is the ways they instrumentalized religion to pacify post–Gulf War popular contestation and shifted the basis of state legitimation to secular historical memorialization, political commemoration, and urban redevelopment.19 Archive Wars centers on these top-down yet understudied material practices to explore the nature of state power and its imbrication with archive formation. It does so with the understanding that statecraft, even in authoritarian regimes, evolves diachronically in response to a multiplicity of challenges, not least of which is popular opposition.20 The extent to which such strategies were successful, if at all, is beyond the purview of this study. Suffice it to say that the diversity of religious and political views among decision makers, religious institutions, and society writ large casts doubt on the efficacy of these approaches. This rings truer in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when Saudis lost what trust they had in state institutions and sought political, economic, and religious sources of authority outside of state structures. The state’s response to these developments is instructive. That the project of archival centralization in Saudi Arabia is ongoing makes it a good example from which to study statecraft, in its messiness, contradictions, and flexibilities. Using the challenges that the Gulf War posed as the “problem space”—to borrow from David Scott—Archive Wars ultimately shows how the state’s postwar response centered at once on historicizing a national space, territorializing a national history, and refracting both of those through new modes of capital accumulation.21


1. News of this incident circulated in Saudi Arabia’s archive industry the next day, and Saudi Arabian and Egyptian document traders who bought some of these documents confirmed the story. I traveled to Mecca and conducted interviews with Saudi Binladin Group site managers of the Grand Mosque Expansion Project (Mashruʿ Tawsiʿat al-Haram) on January 17–25, 2011.

2. Yahya ibn Junaydh (director of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies until 2016), interview with author, Riyadh, March 21, 2011; and Salih al-ʿUbudi (archive and manuscripts director at the King Fahd National Library), interview with author, Riyadh, February 27, 2011.

3. Author interviews with archive managers in Riyadh, January 2010–June 2011. Also see “Darat al-malik Abdulaziz taktashif wathaʾiq wa makhtutat muzawarra” [The Darah discovers forged documents and manuscripts], Wathaʾiq al-Khalij (May 2008), 6.

4. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born in the Arabian town of al-ʿUyayna in 1703. He moved to Dirʿiyya—some forty kilometers to the southeast—in 1744, only after the town rejected the religious discourse he was preaching. He was thereafter welcomed by Al Saud (House of Saud) and took up residence in Dirʿiyya.

5. Wahhabism is the Saudi variant of revivalist Islam and is concerned primarily with the purification of religious practice and the application of sharia. Although it draws on sources from the Hanbali school of law, Wahhabism is a product of the historical and political contexts of the Arabian Peninsula since the mid-eighteenth century. This orthodox Islamic tradition evolved in response to Al Saud’s political power. While Wahhabism’s followers refer to themselves as al-muwahhidun or ahl al-tawhid (monotheists), it has become common to refer to them as Wahhabis, a term I retain in this book. For a brief explanation of employing the term, see Guido Steinberg, Religion und Staat in Saudi Arabien: Die wahhabitischen Gelehrten (1902–1953) (Würzburg, Germany: Ergon, 2002), 28–32; Nabil Mouline, The Clerics of Islam: Religious Authority and Political Power in Saudi Arabia, trans. Ethan S. Rundell (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 8–11; and Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Education, and the Wahhabi Mission (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017), 7.

6. Author interviews with the exhibition curators as well as several archivists at the Darah, Riyadh, January–February 2011.

7. Some Saudi Arabians who hailed from regions far beyond Mecca and who went there on pilgrimage sometimes shared their concerns and disillusionment with the nature of urban development in online forums. For an example, see Nazih al-Uthmani’s blog post “Worship in Mecca between Spirituality and Capitalist Values,” Nazih al-Uthmani’s Blog, September 8, 2010, as well as the comments section,

8. Gulf War refers to the mobilizations that underpinned the 1991 US-led war on Iraq, otherwise known as Operation Desert Shield (August 2, 1990–January 17, 1991) and Operation Desert Storm (January 17, 1991–February 28, 1991). The operations, which were in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, involved the deployment of US troops inside Saudi Arabia and the setting up of a US military base there. For more on the war, see Andre Gunder Frank, “Third World War: A Political Economy of the Gulf War and the New World Order,” Third World Quarterly 13, no. 2 (1992): 267–82.

9. See Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) and his The Logic of Practice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

10. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 29.

11. Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); and Lina Khatib, Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2012).

12. There has been an attempt to move away from studying documents and artifacts as “texts” and “representations,” instead focusing on their materiality and the processes that they engender. See Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); “What Is Iconoclash: Or Is There a World beyond the Image Wars?” in Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 14–37; and Daniel Miller, ed., Materiality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005). As Matthew Hull points out, “Documents are not simply instruments of bureaucratic organization but rather are constitutive of bureaucratic rules, ideologies, knowledge, practices, subjectivities, objects, outcomes, and even the organizations themselves.” It is the very materiality of documents that determines their lifeworlds and allows for the types of slippages that we see taking place, exemplified by the emergence of a black market in historical documents in Saudi Arabia. Matthew S. Hull, “Documents and Bureaucracy,” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 253.

13. Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 48–49. For recent debates and conversations about archives and historical production in Middle East studies, see Omnia El Shakry, “‘History Without Documents’: The Vexed Archives of Decolonization in the Middle East,” American Historical Review 120, no. 3 (June 1, 2015): 920–34; and Seth Anziska, Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

14. Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

15. Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse of Language (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972).

16. Chiara De Cesari, “Heritage Between Resistance and Government in Palestine,” in “Forced Displacement and Refugees,” special issue, International Journal of Middle East Studies 49, no. 4 (November 2017): 747–51. See also Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (October 2013): 327–43; Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2011); and Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

17. The French national archive is often held up as the exemplary modern archive, but it, too, is marred with the destruction of records. See Ralph Kingston, “The French Revolution and the Materiality of the Modern Archive,” Libraries and the Cultural Record 46, no. 1 (2011): 1–25. In the United Kingdom, Operation Legacy, which took place between the 1950s and 1970s, entailed the purging of thousands of British imperial records and the secret hiding of many more. Ian Cobain, Owen Bowcott, and Richard Norton-Taylor, “Britain Destroyed Records of Colonial Crimes: Review Finds Thousands of Papers Detailing Shameful Acts Were Culled, While Others Were Kept Secret Illegally,” Guardian, April 18, 2012. Also see Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2005). According to several archivists I spoke with at one of the United Kingdom’s main state archives, the purging of “sensitive” records is not a thing of the past and has continued at the archive under the guise of “limited space” or “historically nonvaluable.” Similar practices are also recorded in the United States, the most notorious of which is the documentation of Operation TPAJAX, the codename for the Central Intelligence Agency–led coup in Iran in 1953. See “CIA Confirms Role in 1953 Iran Coup,” National Security Archive, August 19, 2013,; James R. Jacobs, “Holes in History: The Dept of Interior Request to Destroy Records,” Free Government Information, October 29, 2018,; and Allya Sternstein, “CIA Plans to Destroy Some of Its Old Leak Files,” Daily Beast, July 18, 2017,

18. Steffen Hertog, Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010).

19. Political commemoration is common to all regimes. In “The French Revolution,” Kingston notes how “the modern archive developed not as a result of the ‘Restoration’ or in the political reinvention of ‘National Heritage’ during the 1830s and 1840s but through the revolutionary administration’s desire to document their own legacy” (18).

20. Rosie Bsheer, “A Counter-Revolutionary State: Popular Movements and the Making of Saudi Arabia,” Past and Present 238, no. 1 (February 2018): 233–77; and Ziad Abu-Rish, “Conflict and Institution Building in Lebanon, 1946–1955” (PhD diss., University of California–Los Angeles, 2014).

21. David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).