Champion, an independent scholar with a doctorate from the Australian National University and a contributor to media in the Middle East, writes about a political crisis that has yet to assume definitive shape. He puts forth his views, outlining why Saudi Arabia faces upheaval, and detailing fairly predictable sociological, economic, and demographic issues widely described in global media. But his view of opposition and dissidence within the kingdom is myopic and based on the presumption that, in effect, no liberalizing trend or even sympathy exists among the majority of Saudi subjects.
If, as he suggests, the unavoidable change impending in Saudi society remains within the limits of the country's existing traditions and structures, his book will remain valuable. But if the masses of Saudi subjects finally prove unwilling to suffer continued tyranny by the House of Saud and religious suppression by the Wahhabi clerics, and take the road of significant protest, his book will be superseded by events.
His very treatment of the term Wahhabi is, in itself, an indicator of Champion's conviction that Saudi society will remain much the same into the future. He tells us, "I have attempted to avoid the term ‘Wahhabi' since it is regarded by many Saudi citizens as insulting." Champion prefers the term muwahiddun, which may be translated as "Unitarians." Yet not all Saudi subjects so identify with the cult of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab as to consider calling the Wahhabis by that name an insult. This is roughly like a volume on Germany that eschews the term Nazi out of sensitivity for the feelings of Germans; or, more to the point, avoidance of Wahhabi recalls how seldom the word Stalinism appears in contemporary scholarship. The Saudi state and the former communist empire both inspire a tendency to avoid sharp criticism by Western academics.
The analogy goes deeper. Champion dismisses the prospect of radical change in Saudi Arabia taking place via Islamic pluralism, a written constitution, and other freedoms as something far from the minds of Saudi dissidents, much as Western academics once saw change in communism as minor and gradual. Indeed, to the degree he accepts that a turbulent and unpredictable outcome may be approaching, he is inclined to blame it on increased U.S. hegemony in the Arabian Gulf, following September 11, 2001. The many Saudi reformers who favor a rapid move toward a Western model, rather than subordination to bin Laden's ultra-Wahhabi fantasies, play no role in Champion's analysis.
Likewise, although the Islamic spiritual tradition known as Sufism has recently come back into the open in the kingdom in a limited way, the word Sufi does not appear in his narrative. Nor do references to the Shafi‘i or Maliki madhhabs (schools of Islamic jurisprudence), whose representatives, long forced underground, have lately begun to express themselves. In Champion's view, Saudi dissidence is restricted to anti-Western radicalism exemplified by the ultra-Wahhabi trend, led by London-based groups such as the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia and the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights.
Champion's book may one day be a useful guide to how foreigners saw Saudi Arabia before its transformation began—that is, as a quaint curiosity. To face the real transition to normality impending in the country, greater intellectual courage is needed, both within and without.