Theses Doctoral

Making History, Remaking Place: Textbooks, Archives and Commemorative Spaces in Saudi Arabia

Bsheer, Rosie

Drawing attention to the material politics of the Saudi regime, this dissertation genealogically explores the ways in which the imperatives of the modern state and its oil economy came to structure the production of Arabia's history, social life, built urban environment and concepts of nationhood and religiosity. It examines cultural artifacts and commemorative spaces as evidentiary networks through which official historical knowledge moves and becomes visible. It does so first through a study of the construction and memorialization of "official" Saudi history via textbooks and archives, and of historical elisions therein. In order to discern how breaks with the past are configured within disciplinary history, the dissertation begins with a sociocultural history of late Ottoman Arabia on the eve of Al Sa`ud's territorial conquest. It reveals the ways in which early twentieth-century Arabia's shared transregional histories and emergent socio-intellectual and political worlds were transformed with the aim of developing Al Sa`ud's territorial empire into a petro-state. In the second venue of inquiry, I analyze spatial transformations characteristic of Saudi Arabia's oil modernity as central to practices of statecraft and capital accumulation by comparing the urban and cultural redevelopment plans of Riyadh and Mecca. The erasure of alternative accounts of state formation through commemoration in Riyadh and destruction in Mecca is, at heart, a continuation of Al Sa`ud's imperial project and its deep-seated violence to the everyday, the spiritual and the temporal.
This dissertation is a material and spatial reading of the regime's mechanisms of political legitimation, one that focuses on the infrastructure of Saudi petro-modernity and on sites that are rarely considered in discussions of the state, despite their centrality. From the mundane lifeworlds of archival and planning documents and the spaces that house them to the spectacular commercial and archeological megaprojects, these simultaneously constitute monuments to oil modernity and serve as pillars of political governance. The projects of historical memorialization and urban planning are material realizations of the regime's late twentieth-century strategies for political legitimation and economic diversification, especially following the crisis of the 1990 Gulf War. In highlighting everyday practices of state making, I suggest new sites and modes for reading the Saudi state as an unfinished, unstable work-in-progress. I argue that oil capitalization (which produced the theory of the rentier state) is being eclipsed, increasingly, by speculation, real estate and distinctive logics of built form.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Khalidi, Rashid
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014