Yamani, Mai (1957–)

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Yamani, Mai

A social anthropologist and researcher, Mai (May) Yamani is the first woman from Saudi Arabia to earn a Ph.D. from Oxford University. Her calls for reform in Saudi Arabia have resulted in her being banned from the country of her birth, where her books are also banned. She lives in London, England, where she is a research fellow at Chatham House.


Yamani, who was born in 1957 in Saudi Arabia, is the daughter of Shaykh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who served as Saudi Arabia's minister of oil and mineral resources from 1962 to 1986 and as a minister in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for twenty-five years. Mai Yamani has two full siblings—a younger sister and brother—and five half-siblings from her father's second marriage.

Yamani received her A.B. degree in anthropology in 1979 from Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia, graduating with highest honors. She studied social anthropology at Oxford University, becoming the first woman from Saudi Arabia to receive a doctoral degree from Oxford. Following graduation, Yamani continued to study the cultural identity of Saudi Arabia, notably the changing social dynamics related to the influence of younger Arabs, the changing role of women, and the history of the culturally distinct Hijazi Arabs. She works in London at Chatham House (formerly the Royal Institute of Affairs) as a social anthropologist and research fellow.


During her time at Oxford, Yamani returned to Saudi Arabia to become the first woman to lecture at King Abd al-Aziz University—albeit to women only within the women's department. She told the audience of the 2005 annual conference of Forum 2000 Foundation: "I arrived with overflowing enthusiasm to introduce ideas of respect and cultural diversity…. Although so many of my female students responded to these exciting, exotic concepts, official censorship was stifling and the compulsory veil became heavier and heavier, both physically and emotionally" ("Our Global Co-Existence," 2005). Ultimately she returned to London to pursue her research, free from the constraints of censorship and the limitations placed on women in her country of birth.


Name: Mai Yamani (May Yamani)

Birth: 1957, Saudi Arabia

Family: Daughter of Shaykh Ahmed Zaki Yamani

Nationality: Saudi Arabian

Education: A.B., Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, 1979; Ph.D. Oxford University


  • 1970s–present: Social anthropologist; research fellow, Chatham House, London
  • 1996: Edits Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives
  • 2000: Writes Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia; coedits (with Eugene Cotran), The Rule of Law in the Middle East and the Islamic World: Human Rights and the Judicial Process
  • 2004: Writes Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity

Yamani's first book, Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia, was published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 2000. Changed Identities is based on a series of seventy interviews Yamani conducted over a span of two years with Saudis between the ages of fifteen and thirty. Although her interviewees came from all regions of the state, most were from the middle class, with a few from the royal family or other politically and economically powerful families. According to Yamani, the new generation of younger Saudis now makes up a majority of the country's population and thus is a political and economic force with which to be reckoned.

New opportunities and increased engagement in the outside world through growing access to education, travel, and technological advances have shaped this new generation. "Their views of the world they inhabit," Yamani writes in the book's introduction, "show the notions of tradition and modernity have become contested with no single definition holding common currency. The future of Saudi Arabia will, to a large degree, be decided by which definition triumphs."

In her second book, Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity, published in 2004, Yamani provides a detailed account of the social and political study of the Hijazi identity within Saudi Arabia. In 1924 the kingdom of Hijaz, which includes the religiously important cities of Mecca and Medina, was conquered by the Najdi tribe of the central region of Arabia and incorporated into what became Saudi Arabia in 1932. Yamani discusses the continuing tensions caused by the state's attempts to assimilate the Hijazi. She argues that the Hijazi's distinct identity has been deliberately suppressed by the state. According to Michael Rubin's 2005 review in Middle East Quarterly, "Yamani constructs a convincing argument that the Saudis' 80-year effort to eradicate Hijazi culture and society has failed. Hijazi retain a strong identity, often catalyzed by [the government's] 'saudification' policies."

Yamani has served as editor of several works, including Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives, published in 1996, and The Rule of Law in the Middle East and the Islamic World: Human Rights and the Judicial Process, published in 2000 and coedited by Eugene Cotran.


Yamani's criticism of her country's government and religious leadership and her ardent calls for reform led her books to be banned from Saudi Arabia, and Yamani herself is prohibited from entering the country. She is also highly critical of British and U.S. policy in the Middle East. In an article appearing in the Guardian (Manchester, U.K.) in February 2007, Yamani blasted the U.S. leadership's overuse of the word moderate to describe Middle East rulers: "The concept of moderate is merely the latest attempt to market a failed policy, while offering a facile hedge against accusations of Islamophobia and anti-Islamic policies" (p. 28)


As a highly respected researcher from Saudi Arabia, Yamani has already achieved recognition for her work. As a woman who offers an insider's view into the often opaque world of Saudi women, she provides a unique and welcomed perspective to the discussion of the future of Saudi Arabia. Whether the changes for which she hopes—a more open society, advancements in women's rights, and increased democracy—are realized remains to be determined by history.


"Our Global Co-Existence: Challenges and Hopes for the 21st Century. Panel 2: Concepts of Co-Existence and Community." Forum 2000 Foundation. Updated October 2005. Available from http://www.forum2000.cz/transcripts/test.

"Propping Up the House of Saud: A Saudi Dissident Speaks." Democracy Now. Updated 24 June 2004. Available from http://www.democracynow.org.

Rubin, Michael. Review of Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity. Middle East Quarterly 12, no. 3 (2005). Available from http://www.meforum.org/article/810.

"Saudi Time Bomb? Interview with Mai Yamani." PBS Frontline. Updated 5 November 2001. Available from http://www.pbs.org/.

Yamani, Mai. Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2000.

――――――. "One More Step on the Road to Collapse." Independent (London) (2 August 2005). Available from http://comment.independent.co.uk.

――――――. "These Moderates Are in Fact Fanatics, Torturers and Killers." Guardian (6 February 2007): 28.

                                                Alisa Larson