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Archive wars and making the modern history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The production of history depends on the selective erasure of some parts of the past and the monuments that bear witness to it, by removing archival documents and demolishing some archaeological sites in exchange for taking care of alternative antiquities that serve a narrative that the authorities wish to promote.

In her recent book, “Archives Wars: Politics in the History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Rosie Bashir, a researcher specializing in the modern history of the Middle East, sheds light on the systematic way in which the modern Saudi state worked to hide the cultural diversity in the country at the end of the Ottoman era.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the author says, the kingdom’s political elites pursued dual projects to commemorate the historical memory and shape the state with greater enthusiasm to impose their post-war vision of the state, nation and economy. Since Islamist movements are the main threat to state power, they sought to separate religion from educational, cultural and spatial policies, as the book puts it.

The book explores what is called “the increasing secularization of the Saudi state after the war and how it was embodied in the compilation of a national archive and the rearrangement of urban space in Riyadh and Makkah.”

Shifting archive and history

In her article published by the British Middle East Eye website, the same researcher says that the idea of ​​the book emerged several years ago, when she was traveling in late 2009 between Riyadh and Makkah to prepare a study on the Kingdom’s history in the twentieth century, based on archival and oral records.

She recalls that through her tours over the next three years in Mecca, she began observing, through pictures and video clips, the transformations taking place in the downtown districts, and “I admired the rich history of their neighborhoods, their multi-lingual and ethnic residents, and the distinctive architecture of the buildings.”

The author adds that during one of the photography tours in the city, she was attracted by a banner to a school she had seen years ago, which is the Soultian school about which little was written in the Arab press, as she described it.

In fact, the school was founded by the Indian cleric, Rahmat Allah al-Kirwani, who was known for his opposition to the British occupation and his great role in sparking the revolution against the British in India, before his money and property were confiscated and he emigrated to Makkah around 1861 AD.

The author asserts that her research led to the identification of more forgotten or overlooked histories, and prominent figures from South Asia, Indonesia, and various non-Arab races, who left a great impact on the social, cultural, intellectual and civic life of Makkah at the end of the Ottoman era.

She believes that the graduates of the Sawlaty school and other Meccan schools founded by Asians and Africans, played a pivotal role in the history of the region during the Arab Renaissance, and then later in building the modern state after the First World War, as they established some of the most famous schools, newspapers and political parties in the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the century Twenty, and they left clear imprints in social and political life during the following decades.

But all this history did not find any echo – according to the author – in the official version adopted by the state about the country’s history, which focuses only on the central role of the Arab element and the ruling authorities.

Treated selectively

The researcher says that her book focuses at its beginning on the most important aspects of social, political and cultural life in Makkah at the end of the Ottoman era, in order to present a new narration that reveals the truth about what this historical era witnessed.

She adds that she reveals through the book the methods that the state has followed since 1932 to conceal the features of that historical stage, through its absence from school curricula, museums, and archive records.

The book also shows how the obliteration of historical facts gained new impetus after the Gulf War in the 1990s, according to the author, as the history of the region at that stage became a means of invoking cultural, political and economic legitimacy among the ruling elites in the Kingdom, or between the elites and the rest of the people.

According to the author, after the Gulf War, the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia worked to promote a new, more moderate historical narrative to market their image as rulers closer to secularism, and this was evident in Riyadh, as they spent millions of dollars to establish museums, records and historical sites.

The post-war plan also focused on demolishing and neglecting historical sites that do not serve the story of the ruling authorities, most of which were outside the capital, especially in Mecca, and this is evident – as the author says – through the demolitions in the central neighborhoods of Mecca.

Change the landmarks of Makkah

The author confirms that the authorities began, since the beginning of the 21st century, an acceleration of the pace of demolishing historical sites in the center of Makkah, and replacing them with modern buildings and skyscrapers.

By the end of the first decade of the current century, the central region of Makkah appeared to be a large construction workshop, as dozens of projects and buildings were under construction around the Grand Mosque, and urban and environmental chaos reigned, and pollution stifled millions of visitors to the sanctuary, according to the Harvard University Academy.

Construction sites and heavy excavation equipment became part of the (holy) city life, and accessing the Grand Mosque became an arduous task through a network of paths and roads crowded with pedestrians, cars and buses.

The clock tower project, which cost huge sums, also blocked the sun from the Grand Mosque in Mecca from the south-west side, while on the northern side there was a hole a kilometer deep, extending over an area of ​​3 square kilometers, and it replaced the original Soulty school, according to the book published in a series Stanford on Middle Eastern Islamic Societies and Cultures.

The writer says that all these projects in Makkah Al-Mukarramah forced tens of thousands of residents of various social and economic classes to leave their homes, in exchange for meager compensation, and without the right to resort to the law.

Some of them were moved to new areas on the outskirts of Mecca, and many of them ended up residing in poor neighborhoods under the skyscrapers surrounding the Grand Mosque, and the brilliant promises – according to the writer’s expression – ended with uprooting and dismantling the social and urban fabric of the (holy) city.

In 2010, the author continues, after many neighborhoods in the central region of Mecca were demolished, the region’s governor, Khalid bin Faisal, decided to Arabize all non-Arab street names and buildings in the Holy City.

According to the author, those non-Arab names were a living witness to the history that was to be hidden, and the narrative published by the state refutes the reality of the region’s conditions at the end of the Ottoman era, as the prevailing narrative in official circles considers that the peninsula was living in a state of backwardness before it was established. The ruling elites to develop and modernize it.

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