From thesis to bookshop shelf


Toby Matthiesen’s latest book, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism, received its official UK launch at the Cambridge University Press book shop in late February.

The book is based on Toby’s PhD thesis, which won the 2012 Aaron Wildavsky Award for the Best Dissertation on Religion and Politics from the American Political Science Association. In the foreword to the book, Toby describes it as ‘the product of countless conversations, extensive fieldwork and a close reading of textual sources’.

IMG_1829Toby started to study Middle Eastern history and politics at the University of Bern in Switzerland. As part of his degree, he went to the Levant and Iran to study Arabic and Persian. These experiences led him to become interested in the history of sects in Islam and the causes of the sectarian politics of the Middle East.

In 2007, Toby then began to investigate the role of sectarianism in Middle Eastern politics for a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Despite the fact that many thought it would be impossible for him to find enough sources to substantiate his research, Toby was determined. He conducted fieldwork and gained the trust of key contacts, as well as hunting for further material in libraries, bookshops and private archives across the world. The result was an award-winning thesis, which he hoped to one day publish. His studies in the area and his fieldwork across the region, including in Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, formed the content of Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t. Published in 2013, it tells the story of how the Arab Spring affected Gulf countries and, in turn, the global political atmosphere.

Now, his original thesis has become The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism, a book that explores ‘the stigmatisation of Shia Muslims as Saudi Arabia’s internal other’. It traces the Shia’s socio-political history from the time of Ottoman rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before describing the impact of the oil industry in the 1950s, the rise of Islamist movements in the 1970s, the exile of Saudi Shia opposition activists in the 1980s and their return in the 1990s. Finally, the book looks at the marginal recognition of the Shia under King Abdullah, before concluding with a consideration of recent protests. This is a work of historical scholarship in itself, but also stands as a case study of why it is that people identify themselves, or become identified with, certain groups rather than others.

At the book’s launch Charles Tripp, who both supervised Toby’s thesis and edits the series in which the book appeared, said: ‘Toby should be praised for successfully carrying out research in a country that is not particularly friendly to social scientists of a critical disposition asking awkward questions about difficult power relations. He also mastered the somewhat difficult art of transforming a PhD thesis into a very readable, accessible and well-written book.’

File 23-03-2015 12 35 45Toby himself said: ‘Over the last couple of years that I have spent here in Cambridge as a research fellow I sometimes walked past and wondered what it would feel like to see my book in this shop. Now I can confirm that it is actually quite nice, although the prominent window display is a bit frightening!’

Toby is a Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College. Of his time at the College so far, he added: ‘I have to thank Pembroke College for giving me the space and the time to work on this book and my other projects. It has truly been a very productive time and I suppose I will later look back on this time with great nostalgia. The intellectual environment here has been truly stimulating and if work becomes too overwhelming you can always stop and head out to Grantchester or to this little bookshop to be inspired by all the great books that have been published here in the past.’

Following on from his previous research, Toby is now working on a book about the role of the Gulf states in the Global Cold War.

For more information about The Other Saudis, see the Cambridge University Press website.

This article first appeared on the Pembroke College, Cambridge, website on 24 March 2015