Archive Wars
The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia
Rosie Bsheer



On September 6, 2004, Saudi Arabia’s defense minister Sultan ibn Abdulaziz responded to media pundits with a most peculiar comment: “The Saudi government is committed to cooperating with the United States in the global war on terrorism. We have altered 7 percent of the content of our religious textbooks and removed all the objectionable material deemed offensive to other religions. We will continue to cooperate with the international community, but be advised . . . we will never touch our history textbooks. The consequences of doing so are too grave.”1 In the years following the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on the United States, the US, European, and Israeli governments, and several of their think tanks, pressured the Saudi rulers to reform the country’s religious education.2 Religious textbooks, they charged, had produced violent subjects capable of committing heinous crimes. While they demanded the removal of the “bigoted content” from the religious textbooks, they made no mention of the country’s official history; it remained outside the purview of international scrutiny. Yet the late Prince Sultan (d. 2011) felt the need to publicly draw a red line at disciplinary history, warning of the gravity of altering the historical narrative and not the ostensibly more salient religious one.

Even though the relationship between secular and religious powers in Saudi Arabia was often contentious, dissonance between the two was rarely publicized in such a manner, let alone to the detriment of religious discourse. I wondered what had compelled one of the most powerful rulers of the self-proclaimed Islamic Saudi state—a religious conservative by all measures—to pronounce the regime’s willingness to negotiate the official religious discourse—regardless of whether it eventually did or not—and not the historical one. Why was history suddenly so important? Surely the decision to make the Saudi Arabian national day, celebrated on September 23, an official public holiday a mere three months after Sultan’s comments was no coincidence.3 In the past, state clerics had opposed the move, as well as the official recognition of nonreligious events. This time, the royal order passed without incident, despite the unfamiliar fanfare and street celebrations that marked the event’s first official commemoration in 2005. The order was one of many that subsequently countered conventional religious sensibilities in Saudi Arabia. Coupled with the defense minister’s statement, the measures were striking. They privileged secular history and curbed the authority of the religious establishment. The measures also came on the heels of a major expansion project in the holy city of Mecca that saw the mass destruction of Islamic heritage. If history came to publicly matter in the opening years of the twenty-first century, clearly some histories mattered more than others.

I came across the defense minister’s statement in 2005, while conducting research on the politics of historical production in Saudi Arabia. Initially, I traced shifts and elisions in the state-sanctioned historical discourse by exploring the different editions of Saudi Arabian history textbooks that the Ministry of Education had issued since the centralization of education in 1970. These shifts largely reflected developments in the political economy and the attendant requirements of Saudi Arabian subject formation. They also spoke to the protracted power struggles over the Ministry of Education, which state clerics had largely commanded. While oil, remarkably, is barely mentioned in history textbooks, and then only in the context of being a sign of God’s blessing (niʿma) on Al Saud, religion appeared to be a central unifying force. This remained the case throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. In subsequent decades, however, the importance of religion to the making of the Saudi state and its citizens became less and less important. This challenged most of what I had read about Saudi Arabia until then, which prepared me even less for the realities I encountered on the ground when I moved there a few years later.

Navigating an unfamiliar research terrain as I traveled from the capital, Riyadh, to Mecca and Medina in the west and Qatif and Dhahran in the east impressed upon me just how present the past was in people’s everyday lives. This was most visible in Riyadh, where a heritage industry—museums, archives, and historical sites—was well on its way, if still in the making, by the late 2000s. But it was also palpable in the hours-long discussions I had with the hundreds of Saudi Arabians who readily welcomed me into their homes and offices. No matter the topic or the interlocutor’s political dispositions, the conversation always involved some discussion of the politics of the past. History, it seemed, was on everybody’s minds, and many were eager to talk about it. My discussions with ordinary Saudi Arabians, intellectuals, activists, and journalists featured two interrelated issues that stood out as especially odd.

The first was a refrain that recurred regardless of one’s class, profession, or political persuasion: “They,” referring to Al Saud, “have no history.” Even a high-ranking Saudi diplomat, surprised at my desire to conduct research in Saudi Arabia, asked: “What is there to study in Saudi Arabia?” Not waiting for an answer, he remarked, “We have no history.” He was alluding to the idea that with one sanctioned historical narrative, there was nothing else to research. It was a futile endeavor. More often than not, the tone and intended meaning of the statement varied according to one’s politics and view of the past. At times, the claim served to rationalize the state’s grandiose investments in the production of historical artifacts and spaces in Riyadh. Accordingly, doing so necessitated and thus justified demolishing historical sites elsewhere. At other times, the charge was critical and disparaging of the violent politics of erasure that aimed to enshrine a singular history out of many.

If the politics surrounding Al Saud’s history was the first issue, violence was the second. Indeed, violence was inseparable from any talk of history. Those who supported the regime and the state-sanctioned historical narrative regularly acknowledged the violence of forcing all Saudi Arabians to submit to one historical narrative. But after all, as those advocates were prone to point out, history is written by the victors, Al Saud, who were responsible for building a nation. Others were not as sympathetic to the project of constructing, let alone enshrining, a singular national history based solely on that of the monarchy. They framed their experiences of belonging to the Saudi nation, or lack thereof, through the lens of both history and violence. Jarring was the ease and regularity with which conversations about history slipped into testimonials about state violence, in its myriad forms. Muhammad, an eighty-year-old intellectual and longtime resident of Riyadh, gave me a tour of Medina, where he was born and came of age. His family was displaced twice as a result of the expansion of the Prophet’s Mosque. Stories of dispossession such as that of Muhammad abound in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where space was limited and proximity to the main mosques was in high demand. But they were also common in once sparsely populated cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah.

Describing a life of struggle, Muhammad pointed to two hotel buildings across from the mosque, not far from each other, where the small apartments he lived in once stood: “They have taken away everything: our land, our livelihoods, our history. But we will never forget. At least they cannot take our memories away from us. Talk to families here and you will see. Our history is preserved right here,” pointing to his head. Although oral traditions persisted throughout Arabia, people still attempted to safeguard their memories in more material ways. Muhammad, in fact, introduced me to two private archives where families had actually safeguarded their parents’ and grandparents’ records and artifacts. To preserve forbidden memories and occluded pasts, individuals and community neighborhoods elsewhere in the country also formed their own private archives. Most remained secret, indexing as they did unsanctioned histories of Arabia.

Encountering stories of loss and injustice became part of my research landscape on the making of history. Unsurprisingly, such stories dominated my conversations with over a few dozen former political prisoners I spoke with over the years. Without exception, they moved seamlessly between discussing history, historicity, and the preservation and destruction of historical sites, on the one hand, and political struggle and violence, on the other. Nassir recounted how, after sessions of electric shock and before daily interrogations started, his jailers made him say, “Al Saud are the crown of my head” (Al Saud taj rasi), followed by “I am garbage” (ana huthala). He once pointed out to them the irony of the combined phrases, which earned him a punch in the face. Nassir and his immediate family members were placed under house arrest and forbidden to leave the country years after his release. Two of his cousins were not as lucky; they remained in prison for joining a protest, their sentences extended more than once over the years. Nassir, bitter but hopeful, was invested in distancing himself from the regime. He retorted: “We are civilized people. We are not terrorists like the perpetrators of September 11, and we are not savages like those who rule the country. We have history. We do not need to spend millions on building historical spaces to prove to the world that we do.” Maha’s story ran along similar lines: “In prison, they tortured me. They humiliated me. They did everything but rape me, thank God for that. That’s the only thing that got me through this ordeal. They call themselves Muslim! They are nothing. At least we have history. What do they have?”

It was impossible for many activists and intellectuals to disentangle the politics of historical production from sociopolitical struggle, past and present, and the violence they had endured. Where the physical violence had ceased, it was the symbolic violence they had to contend with, that of being in a place they increasingly felt alienated from. To be sure, understandings of history and its politics varied. But Saudi Arabians who dared fight for a different future largely agreed that historical production was one front in the broader war with those in power. They invariably found that not only were their presents devastated but also their pasts, their political struggles erased from the pages of history and the archives that contained them. During moments of great despair, when all was either lost or broken, the past was the only thing that many could still hold on to. But even in times of peace, it was their lifeline and their pride, what differentiated them from a regime that, in their eyes, had no history and had to pay in order to create one.

Even the most ardent regime supporters concurred, noting that Al Saud’s was a “young monarchy” that needed to invest in mechanisms of historical legitimation. Little did they all know, at least then, the extent to which the regime went to commemorate, monumentalize, and commercialize the historical narrative the regime sanctioned. Archive Wars narrates the state’s top-down material efforts to do exactly that while examining the role of material politics in both statecraft and the nature of power. Understanding the symbolic politics of writing official Saudi history as well as counternarratives to that history is necessary and important, and scholars have compellingly done that.4 Yet archival, ethnographic, and oral history research in Saudi Arabia foregrounded the centrality of materiality—of documents, artifacts, buildings, and spaces—to the state’s history-making project. Surely there was more to an Islamic state that actively destroyed ancient Islamic history and yet preserved that of a ruling family.

For three years, I followed the lifeworlds of historical documents. I traced the processes through which they were discovered; how they ended up in basements in several of Riyadh’s archives, never to see the light of day; and how some were slated for preservation, digitization, and cataloging. I also conducted research in these very same archives, spending months at a time at the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives (Darah), the Institute of Public Administration, and the King Fahd National Library. I mapped the collections at these institutions as well as the logic of how they were organized and made accessible to researchers, regularly interviewing archivists, historians, and those in charge of digitizing these collections. I perused the collections at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, the Arriyadh Development Authority, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (now the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage), the Mecca Development Authority, and the Custodian of Holy Shrines Institute for Hajj Research at Umm al-Qura University in Mecca. Through oral history interviews, I became closely acquainted with employees of these institutions and their storied careers.

In addition to tracking the evolution of historical records, I traced the making and unmaking of some of the most renowned spaces in Saudi Arabia. Concurrent with my research on archives, I shadowed planners, architects, engineers, and archeologists who worked on the redevelopment of historical sites in Riyadh as well as those who oversaw the complete overhaul of the Central District of Mecca. At the same time, I spent some time following community organizers and the struggles they fought with the state to renovate historical sites in their towns or cities, all of which had ended in failure. The ethnographies and oral histories I did were crucial for supplementing the official view and written documentation. They provided unique and critical insights into social, cultural, urban, and popular political life outside the purview of the state and its institutions. Combined, these methodologies have allowed me to pose new questions about Arabian history and politics since the late nineteenth century. They made it possible to critically probe the symbolic and material production of the state-sanctioned historical narrative and how it was being enshrined in the urban built environment.

I arrived in Saudi Arabia in the fall of 2009, a period of relative openness often referred to as infitah. As part of the Saudi state’s attempt to improve its image abroad, some foreign researchers were permitted to enter the country. Saudi Arabian researchers continued to face the same severe limitations to conducting their research and accessing local archives—both of which were already circumscribed by academic advisers as per university rules. To my surprise, the institutions I worked with were more welcoming and supportive than many of those I had dealt with elsewhere in the world. I understood much later on that they had assumed I was a US citizen, indeed one with the “right” Ivy League credentials. In a country with a circumspect national, racial, gender, and class hierarchy, being a particular kind of “North American” was a privileged category. This is what many still refer to colloquially as the foreigner complex, or ʿiqdat al-ajnabi, which benefited certain non–Saudi Arabians over everyone else, citizens included. For a time, it seemed that this exclusionary system applied to archival access.

I also arrived in the country at a time when the struggle over the collection of archival documents was at its height. As a result, and because I was not affiliated as a researcher with a local institution, I found myself witness to a bidding war in which archivists reluctantly but competitively allowed me to observe the processes of collection, preservation, digitization, and, rarely, categorization. Along the way, I read uncategorized documents from the personal archives of former Saudi kings, crown princes, other ruling members of Al Saud, and state dignitaries. The records being digitized also included newspapers and a plethora of nonstate sources: pamphlets, letters, photographs, diaries, and other documents. In mid-2011, the challenges to accessing state archives reemerged. The Arab uprisings, and their local reverberations, had put state institutions on alert. Many archive employees became defensive and, in many cases, rightfully scared. They worried that they would be implicated in facilitating the work of researchers who might be critical of the regime. My sense at the time was that archival research would be foreclosed for the near future.

Archive Wars began as an exploration of questions of historical production and memorialization. In the final outcome, it is a window into the nature of power in Saudi Arabia and the continual practices of state formation. The sociopolitical mobilizations that Saudi Arabians have organized since the mid-twentieth century have informed the writing of the book, even if they do not factor in systematically. In many ways, Archive Wars is a history of the present, one that is all the more urgent given the heightened state of oppression that the country has experienced since Salman ibn Abdulaziz assumed the throne in 2015. While the research herein spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the opening decade of the twenty-first, it only touches on developments in the archival and urban planning industries after 2015. Yet without intending to do so, the book explains Salman’s rise to power and historicizes the vision he has long held for the country.

The Saudi state is authoritarian. But with each regime, the boundaries of what is permissible and what is not—what one can say or do, and not—shift and change. Under Salman’s reign, restrictions on speech have reached levels not experienced since the 1960s. Saudi Arabian intellectuals, journalists, clerics, and activists are punished not simply for being critical of the regime but also for not actively showing support for the rulers. Silence itself has been criminalized. I have therefore anonymized the names of many interlocutors when discussing topics that may jeopardize their safety, even when the discussions we had were on the record. I have not done so where the gist of what is being said is already in the public domain and/or when those involved are in powerful positions in the current regime. Now more than ever, in the face of heightened repression coupled with historical revisionism, the imperative to remember, record, and document is urgent. Historicizing Saudi Arabia’s archive wars is an effort to do exactly that.


1. Okaz (Saudi Arabia), September 6, 2004, emphasis mine.

2. Charles M. Sennott, “Saudi Schools Fuel Anti-US Anger,” Boston Globe, March 4, 2002,
part2.shtml; Steven Stalinsky, “Preliminary Overview—Saudi Arabia’s Education System,” Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI), Special Report No. 12, December 20, 2002,; Vicky O’Hara, “Saudi Textbooks Still Teach Hate, Group Says,” National Public Radio, May 24, 2006,; and “ADL Analysis Finds Saudi School Textbooks Still Teach Anti-Semitic Incitement and Hatred,” ADL, November 19, 2018,

3. Record 49365, Royal Order, No. MB/1600/7, Presidency of Council of Ministers, December 14, 2004, Institute of Public Administration (IPA) Archives, Riyadh.

4. Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (London: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Jörg Matthias Determann, Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014).