Pascal Ménoret is one of only a handful of academic "experts" on Saudi Arabia who has actually lived in the country for more than a few months. In the first chapter he raises a fundamental question that his book attempts to address: "Why are the frameworks used in the West for analysis of the Kingdom so remote from its social, economic and political reality?" Ménoret commences his book by quoting Egyptian writer Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid who set his novel in Tabuk, in the Arabian northwest, and says that the writer "...perceives minute differences and imperceptible nuances. Gradations and variations are everywhere..." and it is in the same spirit that Ménoret, eschewing "black and white, absolute good vs. absolute evil," attempts to address the actual social and political forces that have formed the modern country that is Saudi Arabia.
The author provides a fresh perspective on the Kingdom, making a number of relevant and at times novel points about the forces that created and govern the country. For example, he says that the "Saudis do not call themselves Wahhabbis"; rather they consider the term somewhat blasphemous, preferring "salafiyun." He stresses the point that the founding alliance of the Kingdom was between the Hijaz merchants and the Sauds. I think this is an overstatement, since he would never have reached those merchants if it was not for his Ikhwan warriors. He also asserts, and it is jarring for an American reader, that "Saudi Islamism should be seen not as an upsurge of obscurantism but as a revolt of reason." How can this possibly be? The author makes a reasonable case, as it were, to support this, mainly by saying that those who opposed the pell-mell "modernization" in the `80's, and the rejection of traditional values, did so by using the idiom of their religion, much like an American might have to frame arguments in terms of "market forces" when the underlying issues do not relate directly to either, but essentially involve values that we hold most dear. Another fascinating concept that he observed, unlike the "one week in country" journalists, is what he called the "eroticization" of the veil - a delightful section on page 179. The author developed an understanding of what is involved with Islamic feminism. The author's French, and by extension, European perspective is valuable for the American reader. Numerous references are cited, for example, quoting Montesquieu that "the natural effect of commerce is to spread peace." He also says that the Nedj is the Prussia of Arabia! The lack of an American perspective does produce deficiencies in analysis however, for example on p 140 where he discusses the defects of Saudi agricultural policies, particularly vis-à-vis water, and does not make a similar point about the madness of American agricultural policies, particularly in the West.
Regrettably the book often adopts stilted academic prose, which may, in part, be the fault of the translator. For example: "irenic political history" and "essentially involves a recovery of the heuristic power of Islamic concepts beneath the coating of accumulated tradition and political intervention." Whew! And by far, the most overworked word in the book is "endogenous." The style is a shame, because Ménoret has some valuable insights that need to reach a general reader.
I did find several statements that I would consider errors, and it is ironic in a book that so many times uses "endogenous." Part of the problem seems to be that neither standard English language account on the creation of the Kingdom, Lacey's or Holden and Johns' are listed in the Bibliography. Furthermore Trofimov's excellent "The Siege of Mecca" was published two years after this work, so he could not cite his research. But the author repeatedly asserts the contribution of outside forces at key junctions in Saudi history when others do not. For example: "In 1902 Abdelaziz bin Abd al-Rahman Al Saud retook Riyadh with the help of the same British who..." (p 78) What help? As Nestor Sander says in his biography of the king, "Ibn Saud," when the treaty was signed in 1915 between Britain and Ibn Saud it was the result of 12 years efforts on his part to attract the attention of Britain. At the Battle of Sibila, when Abdul Aziz defeated Ikhwan forces, the author says: "The last Ikhwan were finally overcome in December 1929, when they were pushed south by British machine guns and encircled by British forces and the troops of Abdelaziz." (p 90) What British forces? No one else has ever mentioned them. Concerning the siege of Mecca in 1979, the author says: "The action was eventually terminated only with the help of a French rapid deployment force (the GIGN)..." (p110) Is this the three men who stayed in a hotel room in Taif that Trofimov describes? "The Saudi state cracked down on jihadist circles with the help of the American FBI." (Yes, I saw the movie `The Kingdom' too, and it was only a movie, and a bad one at that.) I also had problems with some other assertions, for example: "In 2003, at the end of twenty years of economic decline..." (p144) What decline? "...for defense against the imperialism of Bedouin tribes..."(p 158) Surely a poor translation. "...polygamy became a common practice in the course of economic growth and social modernization." (p 162) Surely not "common." Ménerot routinely quotes economic and demographic statistics without the slightest caveat. As with such easily manipulated numbers as the US unemployment rate, some healthy skepticism is in order when dealing with official numbers in the Kingdom, including, certainly, the number of books published!
Overall though, the good far outweighs the bad, and the author's outlook and experience in the Kingdom are valuable for the American, and other Western readers. In his conclusion, he reinforces one of his points about the futility, and counter-productivity, of Western efforts to force the Kingdom to "reform." The Saudis know they have numerous problems in their society, like virtually all countries, and they will formulate their own solutions, ones that will be, dare I say it, "endogenous"?