The description is submitted to:


Session R5886 (Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia), 2020
"Archive Wars" follows the battles to erase, remake, and monumentalize Saudi Arabia’s official history through archives and the built environment. The revisionist project was part of the Saudi regime’s battle to reconfigure state power following the 1991 Gulf War and the political, social, religious, and economic challenges the war created. At times of heightened crisis, Saudi rulers relied on religion as the first resort to (re)shape the national idea and confront threats to their rule. They instrumentalized religion to pacify post–Gulf War popular contestation, all the while shifting the basis of state legitimation to secular historical memorialization, political commemoration, and urban redevelopment. Each chapter in Archive Wars historicizes a different aspect of these top-down yet understudied practices, tracing their development since the 1950s. The book details various phases of the co-constitutive erasure and destruction, of narratives and spaces respectively, beginning with the history of late-Ottoman Mecca as one among many pasts that were foreclosed with the advent of the modern Saudi state.

To pay attention to the lifeworlds of the built urban environment is to read physical geographies along and against the grain and how they lend themselves to state power. It is to understand the truths that erasure mobilizes, materializes, and normalizes in the service of state formation. The elision and destruction of historical artifacts and spaces are pillars of modern statecraft and sovereignty. These bureaucratized, everyday forms of violence are not particular to certain types of states. They are structural even to those states hailed as the most modern, secular, and liberal. What varies from place to place is the precise political-economic stakes in the struggle over knowledge production and state form. In late twentieth-century Saudi Arabia, the struggle—what I call archive wars—revolved around the production of history, the reordering of space, and the repurposing of valuable real estate as a means to diversify the petroleum economy. Historicizing these practices helps us rethink the nature of modern archival formation and statecraft and call into question scholarly assumptions about the cohesiveness of authoritarian states, and of states in general.