Saudisation: “An Invented Nationalism”

The current form of Saudi Arabia as a state began with its foundation in 1932 by Abdul-Aziz Al Saud allied with the Wahhabis clan. The tribal rulers controlled the Arabian Desert for much of the region’s history. Al Saud family emerged from Al Najd region in central Arabia. During the mid-18th century, the Wahhabi Islamic-tribal movement filled with religious zeal allied with Al Saud family conquered most of the Arabian Desert (Saudi Arabia nowadays and parts of other gulf countries). The Ottoman Empire and their allies in the Arabian Desert prevented Al Saudi- Wahhabi alliance to remain in power for a long time. However, Abdul Aziz carried a series of wars of conquest between 1902 resulting in the establishment the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The social contract between Al Saud family and the Islamic Wahhabist clan didn’t prevent the Saudi state from getting influenced by different nationalistic movements in the region.

What are the different nationalistic movements that emerged in the 19th and 20th century? How Al Saud family did protect themselves from the nationalistic movements and their internal allies in KSA? Did Al Saud family use any of these nationalistic movements to increase their power in the region? Can the “Saudi nationalism” be the magical mixture that will protect Al Saud family before the end of the oil era?

In studying the geographical divisions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is noticed that the lifestyle, culture, history, and social factors differ from one province to another. The Najd region (Riyadh), Al Qasim, and the northern borders represented the Bedouin and tribal lifestyle based on conventional agriculture. The historical competition between Al Saud family and Al Rashid tribe can be marked as the clearest example to the political role of the tribes in these provinces. Moreover, the internal migrations or “Al Hujar” of the Bedouins from the Najdi desert to cities like Riyadh teaching them the Wahhabi doctrine was a major political, military and religious factor in the formation of the Saudi Arabian state (Al-Rasheed, 2002). However, the emergence of the Kingdom in Najd region wasn’t an easy matter to the rest of the provinces. The Arabs of the cosmopolitan Mecca (Sunni, Shia, Ismaili, and Yazidis sects) and the first degree religious family of Al Ashraf (descendants of Prophet Muhammad) had a different vision for their future and another way of lifestyle than the deserted heart of KSA. Moving to the eastern province, the conflicts and wars between the Bedouins Ikhwan (empowered and trained by Wahabbis and Al Saud) and the Shiite eastern majority didn’t end until the formation of Saudi Arabia (Commins, 2006). A huge difference was also present in culture was present between the heart of KSA and the Eastern Arabs of Saudi Arabia. Eastern Arabian’s Gulf Arabs were historically oriented toward the sea where their livelihoods have traditionally based on the marine industries before the discovery of oil (McCoy, 2008). The exploration of oil especially with the huge reserves in the East boosted the presence of huge companies like Aramco. Therefore, the social factors in the Eastern province led to the rise of working classes where they will play an important future role.

In summary, it is difficult to consider the Arabian citizens in what is now considered as the Kingdom Saudi Arabia as one nation of a group of people sharing the same characteristics and planning for the same future. Sectarian and cultural characteristics differentiate the “Saudi citizens” from each other.

Al Saud united the tribes either by force or by buying in their potential opponents. The rentier state adding to it the social contract (1932) had come to define the national politics. Al Saud princes were able to reduce the role of the Saudi merchant classes to rent-seekers rather than state funders and the taxes coming from the pilgrimage in Mecca became a less important income to the state (Hertog, 2012).

A Threat from the Neighbors: “Arab Nationalism”

The changing economic dynamics and the transition of the economy from one based on agriculture to one based on oil exports helped in the growing of the middle class. The internal changes were moving in parallel to the regional developments especially with the overthrow of King Farouk in Egypt by the Revolutionary Command Council. The nationalism that emerged throughout Europe and Turkey reached the Arabian countries and were spread by the educated class in the Arab world. The Arab Nationalism was the first result for the development of the nationalism in the Middle East and North Africa (Nehme, 2016). Arab nationalism can be defined as an ideology calling for the political union in the Arab world and celebrating the glories of Arab civilization (language and literature). One of the primary goals of this nationalism is to end the Western influence in the Arab world  (Dawisha, 2003). The vacuum occurred from the defeat of the Ottoman Empire reawaked the Arab nationalistic feelings in many of the Arab countries. The tripartite war against Abdel Nasser in Egypt boosted his leadership which was based on the Arab nationalism nostalgia. Moreover, the rise of Arab nationalism in Egypt that affected most of the Arabian counties adding to it the emergence of the Saudi middle class were enough factors to shake the “religious social contract” between Al Saud family and Al Wahhab religious clerics and family. Saud, who became King following his father Ibn Saud, was inexperienced to face these new dynamics. His own in addition to his unclear international policy affected negatively his position in KSA and the region. After his adoption of the Eisenhower doctrine, Saud became worried about the rise of Arab nationalism and Nasserism due to the propaganda of the military revolutionaries in Egypt calling for the destruction of the monarchies. (Nehme, 2016)

The importation of foreign labour mostly from other Arab states highly influenced the Saudi citizens exposed to new values. The ARAMCO strikes by the workers highlighted a new concept in the Saudi Arabian politics. The Kingdom was not used to the concept of strikes nor freedom of expression. The demonstrations by the leftist working class was a complementary to the nationalistic feelings of the Saudi citizens. The inability of Saud to handle the political crisis within his family and state gave King Faissal the chance to be crowned as the King of Saudi Arabia. The newly crowned King harshly faced the threat of Arab nationalism (Al-Rasheed, 2002). The danger wasn’t exclusive to the working class in Aramco but included few princess and a group of young air officers. Prince Talal bin AbdulAziz Al Saud founded the “free princess movement” idealized around the ideas of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his pan-Arab nationalism. The movement was supported by Talal’s brothers, Nawwaf, Fawwaz and Badr. Another brother, Prince Abdul Muhsin vocally supported the movement and suggested a constitutional monarchy (Kechichian, 2001). Furthermore, King Saud had to combat the rising danger on his southern borders in the Yemeni civil war (Henderson, 2009). The Egyptian interference using the Arab Nationalistic nostalgia became a real risk on the future of Al Saud family and required an opposing nationalism to contain the threat.

Islam versus Arab Nationalism: “The Weapon of Al Saud”

King Faisal continued the alliance that his father had built with USA and relied on its power to face his opponents allied with the communist Soviet Union. King Faissal concluded that “Islam” would be the weapon against the nationalistic and leftist Arab governments (Southern Yemen, Egypt etc…). Moreover, Faissal sought to promote pan- Islamism to compete with nationalism in the region supported by Abdel Nasser and the Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq. For this reason, he advocated for the establishment of the Organization of the Islamic Conference after visiting several Muslim countries. His support for the monarchist and conservative movements was clear in Yemen where he engaged in a proxy war with Egypt. Furthermore, King Faissal supported the first enemy for Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Baathist regimes in the region which were the Muslim brotherhood branches (Kechichian, 2001).

The loss of the 6 days war and the death of Abdul Nasser decreased the tension between KSA and Egypt. Although the threat of Arab Nationalism decreased in the 1970’s till nowadays, King Khaled continued using the power of Islam and the increasing income of oil as a tool to combat communism and its allies in the region. The support of the “Arab Afghans” to resist the communist expansion in Afghanistan was a dual project between the Pakistani and Saudi. The Islamic nationalism was a double edged sword for Al Saud. What was used as a toll for influence in the region transformed into the main threat in the near future.

Islamic Nationalism: “An Enemy from Within”

As mentioned earlier, the historical alliance between Al Saud and Al Wahhab played an essential role in the formation of the Saudi state. The doctrine of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab which is based on the strict implementation of Sunni practices (for example the veneration of saints, the seeking of their intercession, and the visiting of their tombs) all of which were practiced all over the Islamic world, he considered idolatry and innovations in Islam (Bid’ah). The “contract” between Muhammad bin Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was based on offering Al Saud leaders the Islamic legitimacy and the political obedience in return for their protection of the two holy cities (Mecca and Medina) as a land of Islam (Bunzel, 2016). Although the Saudi Kings supported the Islamic political movements (Al Islam Al Haraki) to combat communism, Nasserism, and Baathist regimes, however, the allies of yesterday will become the future enemies of Al Saud family. Islamic nationalism ideologues seeking to form an Islamic state joining all Muslims around the world with a constitution based on the holy Qur’an became a real danger for the future of Saudi Arabia as a state led by Al Saud family. In 1979, extremist insurgents calling for the overthrow of the House of Saud took over Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. For nearly two weeks, Saudi Special Forces assisted by Pakistani and French commandos fought pitch battles to reclaim the compound.  Besides, the presence of US troops on the Saudi soil in order to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion significantly deteriorated the relations between Saudi Arabia and the Islam nationalistic movements (Muslim brotherhood, Al Qaeda…) (Saab, 2008). These political and jihadist movements considered Al Saud family as traitors in protecting the Western devil (USA) (Bunzel, 2016). Moreover, another threat to Saudi Arabia emerged by the rise of the Islamic revolution in Iran. The unity of the “Saudi people” in one nation came in question after the uprisings in the Shiite Eastern province in Saudi Arabia during Ashura on the 28th of November 1979 (Wehrey, 2013). The current rise of ISIS with its franchise groups in the world adding to the increasing power of the Iranian revolutionary guards are putting the security of Saudi Arabia at stake. IS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi threatened in 2016 to carry out multiple attacks in Saudi Arabia targeting their security services and members of Al Saud royal family. ISIS attacked mosques and security officials in Saudi Arabia. (RT, 2016). The princes of Saudi Arabia tried by their support for Islamic charity groups and their role in protecting the pilgrimage in Mecca and Medina (alliance to Wahhabis) to ensure legitimacy as protectors of Islam in the world. Their “Islamic role” was basically used as a tool to face the Islamic nationalistic threats by Iran and the Sunni fundamentalist groups.

The Saudi nationalism and the “national unity” was severely challenged by the Islam riots using the “clash of civilizations” perspective to delegitimize the power of Al Saud leaders. In his different speeches, Bin Laden repeated his statements by considering that there is a war by the crusade (America) against the Islamic nations. For this reason, he insisted that the Muslims should unite and defend themselves from this existential threat. Moreover, he argued that Muslims should find a leader to unite them and establish “a pious caliphate that would be governed by Islamic law and follow Islamic principles of finance and social conduct (Blanchard, 2004). In addition to the violent Jihadists movements willing to unite the “Muslim nation” under one leadership and government by force, a democratic version of the Islamic nationalism also challenged Al Saud leadership. The Arab Spring in 2011 gave the chance to the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen to lead their governments using democratic means. The rising power of Muslim movements in the different Arab governments revived the dreams of a Muslim nationalism that would lead the Gulf countries rather than the conservative monarchs.

The Arab Spring didn’t only put Al Saud family in danger by the Sunni jihadist and political Islamic groups but also encouraged the Islamic Shiite nationalists dreaming of the “Wilayat Al Fakih” to strengthen their position in the Arab world and also in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian and Hezbollah support for the Shiite groups in Bahrain and the Zaydi militias (Houthis) in Yemen became more obvious after 2011 (Wehrey, 2013). The historical relations between the Shiites in Saudi Arabian Eastern province and the Shiites in Bahrain may shook the united Kingdom and boos the Shiite nationalism in the Gulf region supported by Iran. For this reason, Saudi Arabia made a pre-emptive attack by sending its troops to interfere against the Shiite uprising in Bahrain. In short, Shiite nationalism and the Islamic nationalism will both remain a nightmare for Al Saud family willing to protect the current statu quo.

Internal Dialogue and the Inclusive Policy

The Saud princes realized that the emergence of identity politics in their country and the reemergence of nationalism movements in their country every decade need to be tackled in depth. During the war with Iraq, the Saudi Arabian extremist preachers attacked the monarchs and considered them as “infidels” ruling Islam’s holy land (Saab, 2008).

King Fahed recognized the dangers threatening his control over his Kingdom and tried to open the door for dialogue to decrease the internal and external pressures. The 1993 dialogue between King Fahed and the underground Shiite groups led them to end all their operations in KSA and abroad while getting promise by the King to return the politically exiled without getting harassed (Mathiesen, 2014). King Abdullah played the same role after 10 years. The September 11 attacks and the internal threat of Al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia encouraged King Abdullah to reinitiate the internal dialogue especially with the Shiites and liberals to balance the pressure.

It is impossible to neglect the intelligent role of the Saudi leaders in trying to create a type of nationalism to keep their people unified and prevent them from getting influenced by other nationalistic movements. Al Saud family succeeded to face the Arab nationalist movements and win the battle. Buying alliances by using the big revenue of oil will be difficult to be maintained in the future. Moreover, the usage of the Wahhabis Islamic legitimacy is also at stake. The Saudi leaders realized that the only way to face the remaining threat of Shiite nationalism or at least the Shiite movements in addition to the Islamic Sunni nationalism will be in creating a “Saudi Nationalism”.

The first indicator of this new type of nationalism was realized during the Yemeni war after the Houthi coup. The big military interference of the Saudi forces in the war of Yemen wasn’t only aimed at containing Iran and protecting the Saudi southern borders. Moreover, it is the first time that the Saudi Arabian military interfered and led a war in a neighboring state. The Saudi army’s sacrifices in Yemen unified the Saudi people around their leaders and created an idea of a single identity that acts as the social glue across the divisions within the kingdom. The Saudi historian Abd Allah Al Uthayman said it best: “In the first circle, I am a son of the Arabian peninsula. The regions of the peninsula were united under the kingdom. Hence, I am a Saudi (Karasik, 2015).” Although the war of Yemen to yet to end and prove to be a success, however, it embarked again the Saudisation or the Saudi nationalism.

King Abdullah tried through culture to promote these nationalistic feelings. For example, the Janadriya Festival that showcase the tribal identities was a tool to enforce a sense of social unity.  It has become an annual celebration now and together with National Day, with cities decorated in green and white.

The cultural innovations and the constructed ideas for nationalism can be difficult to work out and present the Saudi state in a danger reason. In addition, buying alliances using oil revenues or protecting the Saudi Kingdom using the Wahhabis support may become difficult in the future. The Saudisation plan and the 2030 plan initiated by Deputy crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman may have better chances of success. To lessen the dependence on oil and encourage the Saudi human capital to develop economically the country would possibly create more nationalistic feelings than innovating cultural and educational programs. Offering the Shiites in the Eastern province their basic rights through dialogue may ease the tensions but will not solve the issue of Saudi nationalism. Mohammad Bin Salman is possibly trying to play the role of a nationalistic liberal leader protecting his Kingdom from threats coming from ISIS and the Houthis supported by Iran. However, ISIS played an important card by reawakening the historical differences between the Saudi regions and sects. It is significant that ISIS, when taking responsibility for the suicide attacks on Shiite mosques in Qatif and Dammam, used the term “Najd Vilayet”, which suggests that it is in control of Najd. ISIS statements are challenging Al Saud’s authority and threatening the Saudi nationalism and identity in its heart and showing the differences between different Saudi provinces and regions (Karasik, 2015).

Until today, Al Saud clan survived different threats emerging from nationalistic movements. Although many states in the region felt into the hands of these nationalistic movements (Arab nationalism in Syria and Iraq, Islamic nationalism with Iran and ISIS), however, Al Saud family was able to contain these dangers and kept their kingdom somehow secure and stable. The plan initiated by Mohammad Bin Salman and its correct implementation may be the only way to strengthen the Saudi nationalism with shared values between its people. However, this vision may raise questions about the political representation of the Saudi people due to the government’s willingness to raise taxes from its citizens. The failure of the plan and the decreasing role of oil may lead to the reemergence of the Shiite Islamic nationalism supported by the Islamic state of Iran. Saudisation projects can be the figured out as the main title for all the future projects for the Kingdom especially in the private sector.

The upcoming days will show whether this plan will succeed or fail and whether the Saudi nationalism is an invented concept.


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