The History of Saudi Arabia
by Alexei Vassiliev
Trans. P. A. Seslavin. London: Saqi, 1998. 576 pp. $69.95.
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
The bookshelves reveals a surprise: no one (with the only slight exception of Harry St. John Philby)1 has until now attempted a comprehensive overview of Saudi history going back to the eighteenth century. Vassiliev, a Russian scholar and ranking foreign policy official, has updated his original Russian-language edition,2 and the result is enormously impressive. Relying on Arabic manuscripts (yes, Arabia was so backward that well into the twentieth century, scholars wrote medieval-style chronicles by hand) and Russian sources as well as the more usual Western authors (and even here, he uncovers forgotten but essential sources, such as the French historian Félix Mengin), he paints a picture of Saudi Arabia from its founder Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab to the aftermath of the Kuwait war. The author has a solid grasp of everything from eighteenth-century theology to the international oil market. Need to brush up on the conquest of Mecca or the murder of King Faysal? Here's the place. More broadly, his great accomplishment is to make a hitherto fractured history whole. If you read or own just one book on Saudi Arabia, make sure it is this one.
For a flavor, here are noteworthy points concerning the early period: Vassiliev establishes that the Saudi state "attained a might and a size that had been unknown [in Arabia] since the birth of Islam," then shows the radicalism and near-totalitarianism of the Wahhabi doctrine ("it advised people how they should laugh, sneeze, yawn, joke, embrace and shake hands when meeting a friend and so on"). He explains the political and material advantages for tribal leaders in adopting Wahhabism and, more controversially, how it became "the banner of the Arab national movement against the Turkish influence in Arabia." Despite its radicalism, he argues, "Wahhabism did not change the social structure of Arabia," except in such fairly limited areas as taxation and the organizing of power.
1 H. St. J. B. Philby, Arabia (London: Ernest Benn, 1930).
2 Istoriya Saudovskoy Aravii (1745-1973) (Moscow: Nauka, 1982).
Related Topics: History, Saudi Arabia | Daniel Pipes | March 1999 MEQ
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