Nora Derbal

Nora Derbal

Islamic Studies
Middle East Studies

Orientalism, History of Oriental Studies,
Travel Writing, Colonial/ Postcolonial History,
Muslim Humanitarianism,
Philanthropy and Civil Society in the Modern Middle East


Current Projects: 

My current project investigates knowledge production about Islam and Muslim societies in the German-speaking 19th century, through the life and works of the German Orientalist and traveler Heinrich Freiherr von Maltzan (1826–74). The research opens a new perspective on the disciplinary history of Oriental Studies in Germany, and the role of the research traveler in the process of knowledge transfer and production.

My first book Charity in Saudi Arabia - Civil Society under Authoritarianism was published in 2022 in the Middle East Studies Series of Cambridge University Press. Charity offers a rare view on everyday practices of religion and religiosity of ordinary Saudis. The research demonstrates that under the umbrella of charity, Saudis and non-Saudis in Saudi Arabia have found one of the few legal avenues for collective activism. Through the lens of charity, the monograph offers a rich ethnography of associational practices in Jeddah. The research thus presents a rare bottom-up perspective on state-society relations in the kingdom, which opens new theoretical debates about civil society and socio-political reform in the Gulf.

Curriculum Vita


2017: Dr. phil. Freie Universität Berlin

2011: Magister Artium, double major at Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin

Fellowships and Grants

  • 2020 January: Visiting Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

  • 2020: HUSSLab Writing Fellowship for the spring semester 2020, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the American University in Cairo

  • 2019: Faculty Research Support Grant of the American University in Cairo, for fieldwork in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 2020

  • 2018-2020: Visiting Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Core Curriculum, American University in Cairo, Egypt

  • 2015-2016: Orient Institut Beirut, Cairo Office, Egypt, research associate

  • 2011-2015: German Research Foundation (DFG), Ph.D. scholarship

  • 2011-2017: Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, doctoral student

  • 2012-2013: Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, visiting researcher


  • 2018: The German Dissertation Prize (second rank), Koerber Foundation

  • 2018: Emerging Scholar Dissertation Award of Merit, International Society for Third- Sector Research (ISTR)

  • 2019: Winner of the Core Course Competition, with a syllbus for the course “Arab Society” (SOC2005), at the American University in Cairo

Publications (selected)


Peer-Reviewed Articles

  • 2020: “Electronic Dance Music Festivals in Riyadh: Pop Culture as a Space of Cooptation and Contestation ,” Arabian Humanities 14,

  • 2020: "Exercising the Body, Exercising Citizenship: On the History of Scouting in Saudi Arabia," in special issue "The Rise of Sports and Art on the Arabian Peninsula," Sports, Ethics and Philosophy, 14:3, 303-319.  

  • 2014: “Zwischen Reformversprechen und Status quo: Frauen in Saudi-Arabien,” Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (APuZ) 46, 19–24.

  • 2012: “Private Charity for Public Welfare? The Renaissance of Benevolent Engagement in Saudi Arabia against the Background of an Overburdened Welfare State,” Orient 5, 54–59.


  • 2022: “Islamic Charity and Relief Organizations in Global Saudi Daʿwa?,” Peter Mandaville (ed.), Wahhabism and the World: Understanding Saudi Arabia's Global Influence on Islam, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 114–134.

  • 2020: "Humanitarian Service in the Name of Social Development: The Historic Origins of Women's Welfare Associations in Saudi Arabia," Esther Möller, Johannes Paulmann and Katharina Stornig eds., Gendering Humanitarianism: Politics, Practices, and Empowerment during the Twentieth Century, Palgrave Macmillan Transnational History Series, London: Palgrave Macmillan 2020, 167–192.

  • 2019: “Die Provinzstadt Tayma, Saudi-Arabien. Vorarbeiten zu einer interdisziplinären historischen Betrachtung (The Provincial Town Tayma, Saudi Arabia. Preliminary Investigations for an Interdisciplinary Historical Study),” with Ibrahim Salman and Arnulf Hausleiter, in Martin Gussone, Katharina Lange, Anne Mollenhauer eds., Archäologisches Erbe und soziale Praxis. Reflexionen aus Archäologie, Bauforschung und Ethnologie, Berlin: Reimer, 31–50.

  • 2015: “In the Shadow of the ‘Arab Spring’ – Youth Networks, Benevolent Activism and Counterrevolution in Saudi Arabia,” Omar Bortolazzi ed., Youth Networks, Informal Society and Social Entrepreneurship. Case Studies in the Post-Revolutionary Arab World, Bologna: Bologna University Press, 23–42.

  • 2014: “Domestic, Religious, Civic? Notes on Institutionalized Charity in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,” Robert Lacey and Jonathan Benthall eds., Gulf Charities Today. Arab Islamic Philanthropy in the ‘Age of Terror’ and Beyond, Berlin: Gerlach Press, 145– 167.

Edited Reports

In the Media & other Publications

  • 2020: "Saudi-Arabien: Ein Land im Wandel," in BpB: Bundeszentrale Politische Bildung, Kinofenster,

  • 2019: “Künstlerinnen und Intellektuelle üben den Spagat (Artists and Intellectuals in a Balancing Act),“ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 8th, 2019, no. 155, p. 12.

  • 2019: “Saudi Arabia, Humanitarian Aid and Knowledge Production: What do we really know?” in Muslim Humanitarianism #MUHU, Allegra Lab, July 5th, 2019, at

  • 2018: “‘Stille Revolution‘ oder Reform ‚von oben‘? Zur aktuellen Lage von Frauen in Saudi-Arabien (“Silent Revolution” or “Top Down” Reform? On the Current State of Women in Saudi Arabia,”  FriedensForum. Network of the German Peace Movement 4, 48–49.

  • 2018: “Zivilgesellschaft in Saudi-Arabien? (Civil Society in Saudi Arabia?),” WeltTrends 135 (2018), 30–35.

Presentations (selection)

  • Dec 2019: Islamic Charity and Relief Organizations in Global Saudi Daʿwa?, book workshop, Wahhabism in the World: Understanding the Global Impact of Saudi Religious Influence, Washington University (USA).

  • May 2019 : Saudi Arabia, Humanitarian Aid and Knowledge Production: What Do we Really Know?,Muslim Humanitarianism, The Graduate Institute Geneva (Switzerland).

  • Oct. 2018: Jews, “Turcos” and the French in North Africa: Heinrich Freiherr von Maltzan’s not so Disinterested Writings in the Magazin für die Literatur des Auslands (1870–73), “Islam” as an Epistemic Field: Imperial Entanglements and Orientalism in the German-Speaking World since 1870, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin (Germany).

  • Oct. 2018: Zakat and the Politics of Benevolence in Saudi Arabia, Symposium on Muslim Philanthropy and Civil Society, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University –Purdue University Indianapolis (USA).

  • July 2018: Exercising the Body, Exercising Citizenship: An Investigation into the Origins of Scouting on the Arabian Peninsula, Gulf Research Meeting (GRM), Gulf Research Center Cambridge, Cambridge (UK).

  • June 2018: Civil Society in Saudi Arabia Revisited: Charity, Volunteering and Associational Life in Jeddah, British Society for Middle Eastern Studies Conference (BRISMES), King’s College, London (UK).

  • Nov. 2017: Zakat in Saudi Arabia: A Case Study, Muslim Faith-based Organizations and the Provision of  Social Welfare in Contemporary Africa, Bayreuth University, Bayreuth (Germany).

  • July 2017: Humanitarian Service in the Name of Social Development: Women’s Welfare Associations in Saudi Arabia, Gender & Humanitarianism. (Dis-)Empowering Women and Men in the Twentieth Century, Institute for European History, Mainz (Germany).

  • Dec. 2015: Die Provinzstadt Tayma, Saudi-Arabien: Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf ihre moderne Geschichte (The Provincial Town Tayma, Saudi Arabia: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on its  Modern History), with Ulrike Freitag, Arnulf Hausleiter, and Ibrahim Salman, Begegnungen – Archäologie und Ethnologie im Dialog. Erfahrungen und Reflexionen aus der Praxis in Vorder- und Zentralasien und Nordafrika, Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Technische University Berlin, Tuebingen University SFB 1070 and the Archeological Institute Vienna, Berlin (Germany).

  • Mar. 2015: Charitable Approaches to Social Inequality in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Questioning Social Inequality and Difference in the Arab Region, Arab Council for Social Sciences (ACSS),  Beirut (Lebanon).

  • Oct. 2013: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Islamic Charitable Practices, thematic conversation with Amy Singer, Mona Ati and Benoit Challand, Middle East Studies Association Annual Meeting (MESA), New Orleans (USA). 


The American University in Cairo

Arab Society

Social Constructions of Difference: Race, Class, Gender

Social Problems of the Middle East: From Charity to Social Change?

Arab Youth: Hopes, Realities, Future?

Development Agencies

Civil Society Revisited: Studying Community Organizations, Charities and NGOs in the Arab World

Freie Universität Berlin

Von Almosengabe bis Entwicklungszusammenarbeit – Wohltätigkeit von Muslimen aus Islamwissenschaftlicher Perspektive (From Alms to Development – Studying Benevolent Practices of Muslims)

Entwürfe und Gegenentwürfe von Herrschaft in den arabischen Golfmonarchien (Narratives and Counternarratives of Hegemony and Sovereignty in the Arab Gulf Monarchies), graduate tutorial

 Islam and the West: Transcending the Dichotomy, seminar assistant