Of Sand or Soil: Genealogy and Tribal Belonging in Saudi Arabia

Publication Year



Nadav Samin, Ph.D. 2013.

Why do tribal genealogies matter in modern-day Saudi Arabia? What compels the strivers and climbers of the new Saudi Arabia to want to prove their authentic descent from one or another prestigious Arabian tribe? Of Sand or Soil looks at how genealogy and tribal belonging have informed the lives of past and present inhabitants of Saudi Arabia and how the Saudi government’s tacit glorification of tribal origins has shaped the powerful development of the kingdom’s genealogical culture.

Nadav Samin presents the first extended biographical exploration of the major twentieth-century Saudi scholar Ḥamad al-Jāsir, whose genealogical studies frame the story about belonging and identity in the modern kingdom. Samin examines the interplay between al-Jāsir’s genealogical project and his many hundreds of petitioners, mostly Saudis of nontribal or lower status origin who sought validation of their tribal roots in his genealogical texts. Investigating the Saudi relationship to this opaque, orally inscribed historical tradition, Samin considers the consequences of modern Saudi genealogical politics and how the most intimate anxieties of nontribal Saudis today are amplified by the governing strategies and kinship ideology of the Saudi state.

Challenging the impression that Saudi culture is determined by puritanical religiosity or rentier economic principles, Of Sand or Soil shows how the exploration and establishment of tribal genealogies have become influential phenomena in contemporary Saudi society. Beyond Saudi Arabia, this book casts important new light on the interplay between kinship ideas, oral narrative, and state formation in rapidly changing societies.




"Nadav Samin offers the most in-depth and serious work on the politics of history and identity in Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most opaque country in the Arab world. Samin’s framing of the issues is deeply learned and relies on personal and public archival documents as well as on fieldwork interviews with a wide range of Saudi individuals. The net effect is truly revelatory and sets a high bar for the study of the Middle East. This book is a must-read for all who are interested in the intertwining of history with ethnography, the dominant role the modern state plays in defining the politics of belonging and exclusion, and the various forms of cultural resistance to a government’s agenda."--Bernard Haykel, Princeton University

"This significant book explains why tribal genealogies are important in contemporary Saudi Arabia. Samin draws on a wide range of theoretical approaches and argues that tribal genealogies remain resilient as a result of social and political changes related to such factors as the Saudi state, urbanization, and migration."--Madawi Al-Rasheed, London School of Economics and Political Science

"While there have long been studies published on the social and political significance of Middle Eastern genealogies, nothing has yet been written about people’s preoccupations with them within the context of state consolidation in Saudi Arabia. Based on meticulous research, this book is innovative and original."--Gabriele vom Bruck, SOAS, University of London




List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
Note on Transliteration xiii
Introduction 1
Chapter One Ḥamad al-Jāsir: A Life in Context 19
Chapter Two The Dark Matter of Tribal Belonging 53
Chapter Three The Oracle of al-Wurūd: Ḥamad al-Jāsir’s Genealogical Correspondence 79
Chapter Four Marriage and Lineal Authentication 115
Chapter Five Parallel Migrations, Divergent Destinations 136
Chapter Six Toward a Genealogical Rule of Governance 165
Conclusion 201
Notes 205
Bibliography 255
Index 271

Princeton University Press
Princeton, NJ
ISSN Number