Is Saudi Arabia really a homogeneous Wahhabi dominated state? In 1932 the Al Saud family incorporated the kingdom of Hijaz, once the cultural hub of the Arabian world, in to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The urban, cosmopolitan Hijazis were absorbed in to a new state whose codes of behavior and rules were determined by the Najdis, an ascetic desert people, from whom the Al Saud family came. But the Saudi rulers failed to fully integrate the Hijaz, which retains a distinctive identity to this day. In "Cradle of Islam", the product of years spent in Mecca, Medina, Jeddah and Taif, Mai Yamani traces the fortunes of the distinctive and resilient culture of the Hijazis, from the golden age of Hashemite Mecca to Saudi domination to its current resurgence. The Hijazis today emphasise their regional heritage in religious ritual, food, dress and language as a response to the 'Najdification' of everyday life. The Hijazi experience shows the vitality of cultural diversity in the face of political repression in the Arab world.
Mai Yamani is an author, broadcaster and lecturer on politics and society in Saudi Arabia and in the Middle East. Her other books include Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia and The Rule of Law in the Middle East and the Islamic World (Ed.). She has recently held research posts at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Beirut.