Najd al-ʿArdah: Saudi Arabia and Dancing with Swords, 1932-1952

By Chris Kirkpatrick
Submitted to Session P4689 (Saudi Arabia: Swords, Slavery, and Origins of ISIS, 2016 Annual Meeting
Saudi Arabia;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world still ruled by the same family it was named after. Perhaps due to the long shadow of the Saudi family role in the state, how and why nascent practices, processes, and relationships coalesced in the Kingdom are poorly understood. State formation historiography tends to focus on how the Saudis moved towards co-opting tribal organization and religious fervor to build a state in the first decades of the twentieth century. But internal rebellions and British reticence suggest that there might be a different narrative. What if the Saudis were also moving away from these mechanisms in order to build a state that could endure fractious politics and ensure a Saudi dynasty; a project focused on building a military and other institutions that were manifestations of new ways to exercise control over the populace? Only in the last fifteen years have scholars sought different approaches to engage with the formation of Saudi Arabia, but the 1932-1952 period is often only cursorily discussed.
The contribution of this paper, then, is to scrutinize this period in greater detail, using the military as a vehicle to explore early Saudi experiments in the art of governing. Using a synthesis of Saudi proclamations in public media, secret wireless communications within the administration, private corporations’ dealings with the new Kingdom, and British sources, this new military history approach seeks to explicate the relationship between royal authority and military power. Specifically, this project seeks to examine how the military domain was reimagined in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after 1932: considering internal threats to power, externally generated crises, the commodification of oil, and regional realpolitik maneuvering. In the process, how was conduct shaped and governance made into an embodied experience in Saudi Arabia, a source of identity and civil-military cooperation that endures today? Rather than seeing the Kingdom as a product of external forces, how did an internal understanding of and appreciation for a ‘state monopoly on violence’ shape the military and its use? This paper challenges the dominant method of applying ‘Western’ civil-military models and explaining how the Middle East diverges. Instead, this paper will show how and why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s solution was uniquely local and successful in the given socio-political context.