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Madawi Al-Rasheed

May 5th, 2020

The New Populist Nationalism in Saudi Arabia: Imagined Utopia by Royal Decree

1 comment | 53 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Madawi Al-Rasheed

May 5th, 2020

The New Populist Nationalism in Saudi Arabia: Imagined Utopia by Royal Decree

1 comment | 53 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

by Madawi Al-Rasheed

A poster detailing the Saudi crown prince’s focus on ‘developing the human mind’ at the Misk Foundation, Riyadh. Source: @sebusher, Twitter

Like all national narratives, Saudi Arabia’s has changed its focus since the creation of the state and had various elements added to it, but three phases can be identified over time. First, religious nationalism initially dominated the country immediately after the creation of the state in 1932. Second, beginning in the 1960s a pan-Islamic transnational identity was promoted in the context of the Cold War. And third, under the leadership of Muhammad ibn Salman (better known as MBS) there has been a retreat into a narrow Saudi nationalism, with an emphasis on developing a strong local national identity, represented in online campaigns and hashtags such as ‘Saudi Arabia for Saudis’ and ‘Saudi Arabia is Great’. This recent imagining of the nation is at odds with the prince’s other stated project of turning Saudi Arabia into a global centre for economic prosperity to benefit the whole world. This Saudi nationalism sits uncomfortably with promoting a new capitalist liberal economy in which state assets are sold and floated in international markets. Equally, the prince’s urgent and incessant quest to draw both international capital and high-profile investors to make Saudi Arabia their home seems to undermine the rhetoric that that ‘Saudi Arabia is for Saudis’. These three phases of nation building occasionally coincided and sometime overlapped, but they are distinguished by their specific focus and rhetoric.

When MBS was appointed crown prince in 2017, the country was described as undergoing ‘aggressive nationalist rebranding’,  a ‘national revival’ and even singing a ‘nationalist tune’. This revival ‘has also inspired a patriotic zeal among some citizens who attempt to define national identity in increasingly confrontational terms’. This amounts to a mix of boasting about an eternal Saudi national identity, the promise of ‘greatness’, the prospect of national rejuvenation, new economic projects and technological innovations in a post-oil era. The state controlled media publicise what is dubbed as hyper-nationalism. While the centrality of the crown prince is obvious in this new wave, the national narrative celebrates the new Saudi citizen, who is committed to the development of his country economically, rather than the previously cherished pious Saudi who memorised the Qur’an, spread Islam around the globe and supported Muslim causes. He is also the citizen informer or the citizen policeman, who helps the regime and its security agencies identify ‘traitors’, ‘transgressors’ and ‘subversive persons’ of the new policies domestically, regionally and internationally.

The newly celebrated citizen is no longer the one who obeys the religious clerics and is rewarded by the distribution of state sponsored prizes for religious observance and zeal, but the eclectic and creative young entrepreneur and propagandist for the regime. He is expected to not only celebrate and swear allegiance to the crown prince, but also rush to buy newly issued shares in the oil company Aramco.

According to the new narrative, national glory resides in reinvented geographies, other than (or perhaps in addition to) the historical Islamic Mecca and Madina. The ancient archaeological sites like Madain Saleh and Al-Ula – previously ignored and neglected as they were considered icons of blasphemy in a pre-Islamic era – are now the source of new national pride. Their importance in the new national narrative is reflected in the establishment of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula in 2017, which aims to develop the site for local and global tourism. The development of tourism in the sites of ancient civilisations across the country is now seen as part and parcel of the new Saudi national project. At the time when both religious nationalism and pan-Islamism were dominant, such archaeological heritage was not only ignored but also condemned as a reminder of an ancient age of paganism. With the exception of Deriyya, the first Saudi capital in the eighteenth century which was restored and glorified under the patronage of King Salman, even before he became king, other historical sites were simply ignored. In 2019 a project to reinvent the old capital, called the Gate of Deriyya, was launched at a cost of $64 billion. While Deriyya was previously imagined as a place of worship, site of authentic Islam, and the meeting point of the pious Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, today it is reimagined as the first capital, the centre of the Al Saud glory. Historical amnesia over Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab is encouraged while festivities, dancing and concerts replace the old religious imagery of the capital. Saudis are expected to be proud of their pre-Islamic heritage, which is incorporated in their new national narrative, and they take pride in the listing of some of these ancient sites as UNESCO world heritage.

The crown prince now champions the construction of a new kingdom and a new Saudi nation. Western management companies have been enlisted to create a modern Saudi nationalism, without regard for any lack of experience in political endeavours and projects that often go far beyond their financial and economic expertise. While tourism may bring much-needed revenues under the pressure of decreasing oil prices, this industry’s development coupled with the promotion of archaeological sites also serves as a pillar of national narratives and pride. The crown prince is gradually abandoning previous Saudi rhetoric about the state’s commitment to promote Wahhabi Islam at home and export it abroad, as his ancestors had done throughout the twentieth century. MBS promotes a new national narrative, overtly focused on domestic interests, and projected abroad to be consumed by global audiences, especially investors, financial groups and foreign tourists.

The national narrative is populist. The previously promised Islamic Utopia at home and abroad is now gradually giving way to the promotion of a local Saudi entrepreneurial utopia. The crown prince features at the centre of these projects and has become a cult figure, with domestic and global worshippers, apologists and disciples. All are engaged in redefining heritage and, above all, loyalty to the prince.

The current imagined Saudi utopia is guided by the country’s allegedly original tolerant Islam, to be achieved by royal decree as MBS has announced his intention to revive such an Islamic tradition and reclaim Saudi Arabia’s original Islamic heritage before it was hijacked and corrupted by Islamists and countries such as Iran. In an interview in the Western press, he announced his plan to root out radicalism and replace it with Saudi moderation. He propagates the myth that Saudi Arabia was an island of tolerance before 1979, the year of the Iranian Islamic revolution and the siege of the Mecca Mosque, which in his opinion caused Saudi radicalism. Notwithstanding the historical and sociological accuracy of such a claim, the crown prince is keen to absolve Saudi Arabia of any responsibility for radicalism, the export of which was regarded as a Western request during the cold war. Both its previous religious nationalism and pan-Islamism attest to the fact that the country had been an active supporter of spreading radical interpretations of Islam. Furthermore, its history attests to how these radical interpretations were at the heart of the foundation of the kingdom. But the prince is not interested in historical accuracy or sociological facts. His main objective is a demagogy that ushers the re-birth of a Saudi nation, an act of restoration to an original glory and tolerance before the onset of radicalism in 1979.  This includes a determination to uproot terrorism and promote a moderate Islam. Like all constructed national narratives, the new Saudi one is not concerned with accurate historical facts; its main objective is to remember and forget at the same time.

The prince is determined to turn young Saudis into champions of the new nationalism. The slogans of this trend is represented in Twitter hashtags such as ‘Saudi Arabia for Saudis’, ‘Make Saudi Arabia Great’, and ‘Saudi Arabia first’. The state communication officers are directly responsible for the online campaigns of the ‘new’ Saudi nationalism. It is clear that they reflect an official endorsement of the themes embodied in such propaganda slogans. The slogans echo a global phenomenon associated with far-right nationalist and populist politics in the West and elsewhere in the world. But in Saudi Arabia the new national narrative is closely linked to the increasing atmosphere of securitisation. All these slogans have been prominent in the discourse of writers enlisted in the Saudi state-owned press and social media. The new nationalist narrative is not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement but a state-led initiative under the auspices of the crown prince, with obvious controversial undertones and mixed outcomes.

For the crown prince, the Saudi nation is primarily those under twenty-five years old, amounting to almost 51 percent of the population. Always reminding his audience of the young age of his subjects, he presents himself as a role model to be emulated if Saudis are to be counted among the modern nations. His ‘youthfulness’ is symbolised by a carefree handling of the self and body and the excessive use of media and modern communication gadgets. This came to the forefront when he presented himself a champion of car races on camera. The youth and modernity of the prince should be emulated by the new young nation, according to this message. He plays on the needs and aspirations of young Saudis to foster a new sense of belonging to the nation and consolidate his cult as the future monarch. As the youth are his priority, he expects them to make Saudi Arabia theirs and pledge undisputed loyalty to him. In return, he promises them greater employment opportunities, a flourishing national heritage industry, new global popular cultural entertainment, an increasing connectedness with the outside world, and the illusion of future liberal modernisation. In short, the crown prince offers the Saudi nation ‘bread and circuses’. But the remaining 49 percent of the population seem to be forgotten. This cohort must include all Saudis above the age of twenty-five years old, amongst them many old government employees awaiting retirement or already retired while leaving on meagre pensions, and insufficient benefits to maintain the promised new lifestyle and enjoy the new entertainment utopia.

By constructing the youth as a homogenous national category, the crown prince defines their needs, dissolves their differences, and promises to provide opportunities for their rising aspirations. The new so-called nationalism offers the youth a break from past economic stagnation, religious zeal, and social conservatism. It is only after the destruction of the old ways of doing things, the new nation will be reborn. The first step to root out and destroy the old forces, held responsible for immersing Saudi Arabia in religious zeal and social conservatism, is to launch a repressive detention campaign against religious scholars and Islamist activists who are considered a potential subversive force against the crown prince’s social reforms. While not many detainees would have objected to for example granting women the right to drive or the introduction of the entertainment industry, many religious scholars and Islamist intellectuals were detained in 2017 on the pretext that they are radicals and many amongst them are terrorists. Other religious scholars who so far escaped detention exercise self-censorship while others reverse their opinions and fatwas to embrace the new social changes, especially members of the official religious scholars’ council. Fear of detention after criticising any regime policy is paramount.

Nationalism by royal decree needs media hype to amplify the ‘essence’ of the Saudi nation. This new trend has been accompanied by a wave of pervasive arrests launched against those who are dubbed ‘traitors’, ‘stooges of enemy governments’, ‘mujanasin’ (naturalised Saudis) such as Hadrami merchants and other inhabitants of the Hijaz), and Saudi feminists. It has also led to justifying both the murder of Khashoggi as he was described as ‘enemy of the state’, and the imprisonment and alleged torture of feminists Loujain al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousif, both described on the front pages of the Saudi press as traitors. The language of treason has become a weapon in the hands of the crown prince and his many young aides to silent dissent and launch nationalism by royal decree.

This is part of a series emerging from a workshop on ‘Heritage and National Identity Construction in the Gulf’ held at LSE on 5–6 December 2019. Read the introduction here, and see the other pieces below.


In this series:

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About the author

Madawi Al-Rasheed

Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the LSE Middle East Centre. She has written extensively on the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender issues. Follow her on Twitter at @MadawiDr

Posted In: Conferences | Saudi

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