The Saudi challenge remains one of Washington's greatest. While nominally a U.S. ally, Saudi princes regularly donate to Al-Qaeda, Hamas, and other terrorist groups. Saudi schools promote Wahhabism, the radical and intolerant interpretation of Islam embraced by Osama bin Laden and the 9-11 hijackers.
Despite this, many of those who watch the kingdom maintain that any U.S. government decrease in support for the Saudi royal family would backfire. They say that the Saud are the lesser of two evils: no matter how corrupt and unhelpful King Fahd and his family may be, the even more Islamist Ikhwan, fiercely conservative tribal Bedouin, would be worse.
Yamani, a Saudi scholar resident at London's Royal Institute for International Affairs, has another idea. In Cradle of Islam, she provides a detailed study of the Hijazi identity, a taboo subject inside the kingdom today. She begins with a brief account of how, in 1924, Abdul Aziz Saud and tribesmen from Najd, the conservative central region of Arabia, overran the more cosmopolitan kingdom of Hijaz, home to such cities as Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah. The conquest of Hijaz was easier than its digestion. It would be eight years before the Saudi family would feel secure enough in their control to abolish Hijaz and announce the formation of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi state was not able to eradicate regional feeling despite sometimes violent attempts to stifle dissent. The reasons are multifold: tribal Najdis continue to resist assimilation of the urban Hijazis, forcing Hijazis to rally around their own. Traditional families of Mecca and Medina, meanwhile, resent the Najdi takeover of the lucrative pilgrimage trade. While Najdi religious clerics imposed Wahhabism upon their Hijazi brethren, they distrust the sincerity of the conversion. Many Hijazis prefer a more liberal approach to religion. As a result, Saudi history is punctuated by occasional purges of Hijazi elites from positions of influence.
Yamani details the interactions of elite Hijazi families as a window into the survival of Hijazi identity. The meat of her study is anthropological. By examining everything from customs of birth, marriage, death, and life events in between, Yamani constructs a convincing argument that the Saudis' 80-year effort to eradicate Hijazi culture and society has failed. Hijazi retain a strong identity, often catalyzed by Riyadh's "Saudification" policies.
So where goes Hijaz? Yamani suggests that it will play an intermediary role between the Saudi orthodoxy to which it remains economically connected and the more cosmopolitan Arab world with which it identifies culturally. With an identity too strong for Riyadh to eradicate, Hijaz might be a moderating influence within the Saudi state. At the very least, a better understanding of Saudi regionalism bypasses the old argument that Western governments should support the Saudi royal family only because the Ikhwan are worse. That might be true, but bolstering relations with regional elites might provide a way to withdrawal some support from the Saudi royal family without necessarily empowering even more Islamist elements.