Saudi Arabia is, for most Westerners, a mysterious place. It’s home to one of the most conservative forms of Islam around and ruled by...

Saudi Arabia is, for most Westerners, a mysterious place. It’s home to one of the most conservative forms of Islam around and ruled by one of the least democratic regimes in the world. Yet it’s a great friend of the liberal, democratic Western powers, the United States in particular. That’s odd. As J. Matthias Determann shows in his fascinating book Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East (Tauris, 2014), Saudi Arabia is something of a mysterious–or at least contested–place for many Saudi Arabian historians. Somewhat surprisingly, Saudi Arabian historians have enjoyed a relatively free hand in depicting the country’s past. That past, as Determann explains, is at once tribal, regional, religious, dynastic, national, and even global, depending on how you look at it. Saudi Arabian historians–and the royal family that ultimately supports them all–have looked at Saudi history through all these lenses. In their work, the seemingly monolithic country (from the Western perspective, at least) emerges as something of a pastiche of inter-penetrating historical identities. Listen in.

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