This is the second Angry Arab interview in the series. More will follow. Here are the answers by comrade Madawi Al-Rasheed:
“Dear Madawi: I have been travelling. Here are the questions. you may answer at your convenience: 1) what are some of the challenges of studying Saudi Arabia (from the scholarly point of view, and the political point of view, and in the East and the West)
I started studying Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. I was surprised to find the country hasn’t attracted sufficient academic attention. with the exception of the work of Fred Halliday and Helen Lackner, I came across travel and journalistic accounts written from the perspective of those who were granted access because of their special relationship with the various King’s of Saudi Arabia.
At the time I was interested in nineteenth century Arabian history and Binder’s work on this period was extremely useful. In general I found books on Saudi Arabia superficial not going beyond descriptions of Bedouin culture, tribes, and warfare, all were seen as a prelude to the great achievement of the Saudi state as it was successful in the unification of people who were often described as savages, unruly and resistant to unification.
As my research interests moved to the twentieth century, I found the same story repeated again and again. I wanted to write a social and political history that go beyond stereotypical images of the country and its people or the heroic narrative and cult of personality that surrounds scholarly work on the Saudi Arabia.
My work has drawn on theoretical achievement in many disciplines ranging from history to anthropology and I found Saudi Arabia is really part of world history. It is neither unique nor idiosyncratic. I think the main challenges facing researchers is access.
Saudi Arabia is heavily censored and access to the country is controlled by gatekeepers whose interest lies in glorifying the achievement of the regime at the expense of understanding and interpretation. I see Saudi Arabia suffering from the same upheaval, disjunctures, and historical breaks of other post-colonial states in the region. Its oil only added to its problem, although it lifted the country from poverty and underdevelopment.
In addition to political restrictions on academic freedom, oil meant that Saudi Arabia will always be important for its resources and this has tarnished some academic work published since the 1970s. If someone writes an alternative narrative about the so-called Saudi success story, they will not be granted access in the country. Critical academic voices are not tolerated.
2) Being known as a Saudi dissident, does that make it difficult for you to speak and write about Saudi Arabia?
I think I have managed well given that I am denied access to Saudi Arabia. Since the late 1990s and with new communication technology, I was able to lik with Saudis. Many send me information and stories that enrich my accounts and academic work. Being a dissident in my academic work meant that many see me as a voice who can communicate their ideas, struggles and their own dissent. Interviewing someone in Riyadh may not result in the kind of opinions I receive by email.
The videos that are sent to me, and the documents that are posted offer me a new perspective on Saudi Arabia that my not be possible if I was based in the country. In London, I am free to write and debate, both may not be possible for a social scientist who doers not take the official state narrative at face value. Of course, if I have access to the country and can do research freely, I will produce a different kind of literature. I will be able to live the experience of others in all its joy and sorrow and will write about it in a different way.
3) What are the different stereotypes that you feel you dispel in the East and West, when you speak and write about Saudi Arabia?
The history of the country is dominated by what I call the Bedouin and tribal narrative and the centrality of the wahhabi movement. I studied both and offered interpretations that many in Saudi Arabia do not like. I tried to deconstruct these images in my work and I think I succeeded in replacing some of the common wisdom on Saudi Arabia, its state, religion and society.
I am currently working on politics and gender, which would offer me an opportunity to revisit the construction of gender as a function of tribal conservatism and religious dogma. I hope I will be able to go beyond simple interpretations of the status of women and introduce in my analysis new variables that better explain gender relations in the country especially in the contemporary period.
4) What is your assessment of the Saudi control of Arab media, publishing, and think tanks?
I occasionally write in al-Quds al-Arabi in London and it is the only newspaper that tolerates my critical opinion. Other media is totally dominated by petrodollar and is shut to any critical evaluation of current affairs. Saudi control of the media was the subject of a book I edited. In Kingdom without Borders, I focused on the new Saudi control of the media and explored its impact on public opinion in the Arab world.
The interests of the West and Saudi Arabia are connected and this meant that even Western Academic circles, the media and think tanks are now careful not to criticise Saudi regime or write about the country in a way that implicates the regime.
The West sees Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally, a source of oil and investment, and a regime that can be trusted to shape the Arab and Muslim world. As a result, criticising Saudi Arabia amounts to undermining Western interests. But this does not bother me as there is always an opportunity in the West to voice a dissident opinion that is not silenced by Saudi Arabia.
5) What is your opinion of the sudden Western interest in Saudi Arabia in the wake of Sep. 11?
Saudi Arabia became a security issue and most academic world published after 9/11 deals with radicalisation and whether Saudi Arabia is capable to controlling its ‘inner demons’ to use Roel Meijeir terms. Today werstern scholars are not interested in studying poverty in Saudi Arabia, unemployment, corruption, and many other embarrassing aspects of the richest country in the Arab world and beyond.
6) In teaching about Saudi Arabia in the West, what are some of the biggest misconceptions that you have encountered?
Students often come to class with negative images about a world of tribes, veiled women, radical religious scholars and benevolent leaders and see Saudi Arabia as unique in the world. To teach them, I need to deconstruct many images. To be taught by a Saudi women about Saudi Arabia is often seen as an exceptional phenomena. But there are other Saudi academics who teach about Saudi Arabia in Western institutions, for example Dr Soraya al-Torki who teaches at the American university of Cairo.
I try to teach them that Saudi Arabia is like any other country in the region. There is nothing unique about it. There are common structures, common religion, and common oppression that it shares with other Arab countries. I try to explain that it is part of the post-colonial heritage, although Saudi Arabia did not experience direct colonialism. Its oil resources drew it into the world capitalist system and more recently into globalisation, both led to outcomes that are common in the region and among other oil producing countries.
I hope that in my teaching I succeeded in de-essentialising Saudi Arabia, its relgion, and political development.” Posted by As’ad