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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
July 2022
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Book description

In this innovative study of everyday charity practices in Jeddah, Nora Derbal employs a 'bottom-up' approach to challenge dominant narratives about state-society relations in Saudi Arabia. Exploring charity organizations in Jeddah, this book both offers a rich ethnography of associational life and counters Riyadh-centric studies which focus on oil, the royal family, and the religious establishment. It closely follows those who work on the ground to provide charity to the local poor and needy, documenting their achievements, struggles and daily negotiations. The lens of charity offers rare insights into the religiosity of ordinary Saudis, showing that Islam offers Saudi activists a language, a moral frame, and a worldly guide to confronting inequality. With a view to the many forms of local community activism in Saudi Arabia, this book examines perspectives that are too often ignored or neglected, opening new theoretical debates about civil society and civic activism in the Gulf.


Winner, 2023 Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines - Researcher Category

Winner, 2023 Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines - Researcher Category


‘Nora Derbal presents a fascinating study of civil society in the authoritarian context of Saudi Arabia - a topic that is very much under-researched. It's highly original, impressively written and meticulously detailed. This is truly a piece of social science at its absolute best.’

Paul Aarts - University of Amsterdam

‘A ground-breaking study of Saudi charity organizations interwoven with history, contemporary developments, and gender analysis. Comprehensively and holistically researched, rich in statistics and personal lived experience, it is a compelling read for anyone interested in the inner workings of Saudi society and the economy outside of official institutions and narratives.’

Natana Delong-Bas - Boston College

‘Nora Derbal’s book is timely, well-written and based on extensive fieldwork in Saudi Arabia. It is a welcome addition to the literature that places civil society initiatives in Saudi Arabia, especially in the Hijaz, in a wider socio-political context and problematises simplistic notions of state-society relations and authoritarian rule.’

Toby Matthiesen - Ca’ Foscari University

‘a penetrating addition to the research literature on charity'

Jonathan Benthall Source: Books of the Year 2022, Times Literary Supplement

‘An impressive bibliography, which interestingly leaves much space for works in Arabic by Saudi historians as well as interpretations by Saudi activists themselves… Its ethnographic dimension is precious at a time when the conditions for independent research are increasingly difficult for all. It can thus serve as a guidebook for graduate students.’

Laurent Bonnefoy Source: Arabian Humanities

‘Derbal has written a brilliant, innovative and ground-breaking book on aspects of charity and civil society in Saudi Arabia and how it is faring under the authoritarian regime of MbS. The book is packed with her detailed and perceptive field work and research in the Hejaz from 2009 to 2020. It makes a huge contribution to the academic study of charitable work in Saudi Arabia.’

Caroline Montagu Source: Arab Digest

‘Derbal hits out effectively against the “culturalist exceptionalism” that still mars some popular descriptions of the Arab world. As a contribution to the understanding of the Gulf region, she provides a “bottom-up” ethnographic corrective to a research corpus that has been more concerned with relationships among elites. But students of philanthropy as a universal human phenomenon will find in her book fresh twists to themes that are familiar in Euro-American debates. … Derbal shows a surefooted sensitivity, questioning stereotypes of Saudi social life without glossing over the inhumanity that its current leadership is capable of.’

Jonathan Benthall Source: The Middle East Journal 76/4

‘… a fascinating volume, well written and easy to read. It addresses aspects of today’s Saudi Arabia which are rarely examined but which are extremely important to understand the social dynamics of the country.’

Helen Lackner Source: Asian Affairs

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