Nationalism is taking on a new meaning in Saudi

Although the idea of nationalism is not new in Saudi Arabia, it has become especially important now, writes Theodore Karasik

is Saudi nationalism facing a new threat to its harmony and unifying narrative? Mohammed Al Shaikh / AFP
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Saudi nationalism can be defined as the 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.”

Hijaz, Najd and the Eastern Province serve as basic geographical divisions and Najd is regarded as the birthplace of Saudi nationalism because it has never been subject to foreign conquest.

At the micro level, of course, Saudi subjects are divided not only by town and city but by tribe. What unifies them is the idealism and motifs of being “Saudi”. This features in everything, from television to sermons, to the passion for football. Saudisation in itself is another, more recent unifying mechanism. Under King Salman, the creation of a super education ministry is part of the plan to instil, nurture and promote the Saudi identity.

At this point of time, when the kingdom faces different threats, including from Houthi reprisals in the south to ISIL attacks in the east, nationalism is taking on new meaning.

Ever since the Saudi-led coalition launched operations in Yemen in late March, the kingdom’s Grand Mufti, Abdel Aziz Al Sheikh, has called for national support and conscription. This is significant as it is the Al Sheikh family, the official interpreter of Wahabism, that provides the religious foundation for Saudi nationalism.

ISIL attacks against Shiites in the Eastern Province make national unity even more important. But Shiites and Ismailis are not seen as part of society’s Wahabi-base. Nor are Salafist extremists. And some Saudi clerics have been known to publicly question whether the Shiites as truly Muslim. Some social media users have lumped Saudi Shiites with Iran by repeated and interchangeable use of “Safavid”, one of Persia’s important ruling dynasties. Often, these clerics and social media commentatorsseek to “purify” Saudi nationalism of the Majus, a pejorative term for Persians.

So with the recent attacks on Shiite mosques, is Saudi nationalism facing a new threat to its harmony and unifying narrative?

The biggest shocks, which sorely challenged unity and identity, go back 60 years. First, came the Muslim Brotherhood and its Arab nationalism. Then, came the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Juhayman Al Oteibi and his 400-plus apocalyptic warriors. The kingdom suffered the after effects for years. Next came the Al Sahwa Al Islamiyya or Islamic Awakening, which shook the country to the core, only to be quashed or co-opted. In 2003, Al Qaeda embarked on violence and assassination attempts. In every case, Al Saud rulers used their power and prestige to boost nationalism.

Festivals became a good way to do this. For example, the Janadriya Festival, which was started under King Abdullah in 1985 by the Saudi Arabian National Guard to showcase tribal identities through heritage, sword dances and camel and horse races. Janadriya was undoubtedly an opportunity to feel Saudi, enforcing a sense of religious, national and social unity. It has become an annual celebration now and together with National Day, which began to be marked in 2005, it is a time to celebrate culture and heritage, with cities decorated in green and white.

It is significant that ISIL, 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. It was a direct challenge to Al Saud's authority and thereby, a direct threat to what constitutes Saudi nationalism and identity. ISIL probably knows that by claiming to control Najd, they can begin to remove Al Saud from Saudi Arabia. This is the reason it says it plans to occupy the northern part of the kingdom by 2019.

Some might say that ISIL is using what might be called a virtual governorate to usurp Najd and the very basis of Saudi nationalism, which is rooted in its original Najdi base. That’s a dangerous and challenging development by the social media- savvy extremist group because such acts could boost recruitment and lone wolf activity within the kingdom’s borders.

Even so, ISIL may find its plan harder going than it thought. In the wake of the Eastern Province bombings, a harmonious response regardless of creed appears to have coalesced. Shiites and others seem to be working together to guard against further attack.

To the south, a rallying point can also be seen in the Saudi response to Houthi cross-border attacks including the Scud missiles that target the southern provinces and specific military targets including the Khamis Mushayt airbase. The response has been the proliferation of official leadership portraits and other motifs of national identity and solidarity in Najran, Jizan and Asir provinces.

Though the idea of nationalism is not new, it has become especially important now. The King and his proclaimed successors – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – will surely be pushing the nationalist agenda.

Dr Theodore Karasik is a Dubai-based analyst on the Gulf with a specific focus on Saudi Arabia