Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2015

Rosie Bsheer

Assistant Professor of History, Yale University

Crude Imaginations: Capitalism, Space, and the Politics of History in Saudi Arabia

The centennial celebration of the 1902 conquest of Riyadh by the founder of the modern Saudi state triggered major, ongoing initiatives to document the country’s nascent history. The attendant multi-billion dollar archives, museums, historical monuments, and urban redevelopment plans were among the many efforts to institutionalize and memorialize an officially sanctioned secular discourse based on Al Saud’s past. This belated turn to secular historiography and commemoration, and the creation of a heritage industry, centered on diluting the centrality of religion to Saudi state formation, political legitimation, and subject formation. In so doing, the regime aimed to reproduce the power of the state, shape temporality, and discipline Saudi citizens in ways that assuaged late twentieth-century political and economic challenges. However, the monumentalization of secular Saudi history in Riyadh and its focalization through sites of memorialization is all the more paradoxical given the Saudi regime’s active neglect of historical space outside the capital, and specifically, its wholesale destruction of historical and religious sites in Mecca.

I explore this dissonance through a genealogical reading of the material and spatial politics that have been central to Saudi modernity. I argue that these mundane urban practices—selective destruction specifically—are part and parcel of the reorganization of modern power and a shift in capital accumulation strategies. They are also global phenomena that have shaped everyday life in the last century and not a result of Wahhabi iconoclasm as is often argued. Indeed, the redevelopment of both Riyadh and Mecca, and the contradictions therein, are central to practices of statecraft and techniques of governance. The two cities are therefore sites where different social orders, time, and densities exist in the same social space and for different ideological goals. The erasure of alternative accounts of state formation through commemoration in Riyadh and destruction in Mecca is, at heart, a continuation of Al Saud’s state building project and the deep-seated violence to the everyday, the spiritual, and the temporal.

Rosie Bsheer is an assistant professor of modern Middle East history at Yale University. Her teaching and research interests center on Arab intellectual and social movements, petro-capitalism and state formation, and the production of historical knowledge and commemorative spaces. She is currently working on a book manuscript, provisionally entitled, Archive Wars: Materiality, Commemoration, and the Politics of History in Saudi Arabia. Rosie is also a co-editor of Jadaliyya E-zine, The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old Order?, and Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula, and is the associate producer of the 2007 Oscar-nominated film on Iraq, My Country, My Country.