Current Institutional Affiliation
Assistant Professor of History, History, Harvard University

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2010
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
History, Columbia University
Making History: Petro-Capitalism and Spatial Transformations in Saudi Arabia

This dissertation project is both a historical study of how requirements of oil development shaped the production of the Saudi state form and its physical geography, and an anthropological account of how the Saudi modern has been imagined and reproduced through material practices: from acts of political commemoration and spatial reconstruction, to the production of mobile history exhibits and the national archive(s). Explaining the contradictions that animate these everyday practices elucidates the conjuncture of forces that produced a distinctive Saudi petro-modernity, one that brings together religious lineage with Al Saud’s dynastic rule. It also allows us to gauge how this petro-modernity has effected broad-ranging transformations of self, sociality, and of the material infrastructure of everyday life that followed. My research takes up the peculiar convergence of oil and theocracy that stands at the origin of the Saudi state in two ways: First, through a study of the institutionalization of the “official” Saudi historical narrative and popular reactions to it. The belated commemoration of the nation highlights the role of various state and non-state actors in privileging a particular interpretation of the Saudi past. It also speaks to a greater increase of political competition, and opposition to a hegemonic “Saudi” identity, expressed through new communication technology and global media. Second, I study spatial transformations characteristic of Saudi Arabia’s petro-modernity by looking at the development plans of two cities: Riyadh and Mecca. The divergent visions of modernity that inform the urban plans and cultural policies for the political and religious capitals, respectively, reveal the centrality of the project of Saudi history making to the physical redevelopment of both cities, with major implications to social, religious and economic life. Studying these transformations at a time of increased challenges to state authority reveals the centrality of space more particularly, and of transformations of popular political culture, more broadly, to the project of Saudi modernity.