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Back for the Future — The Saudi Founding Day and the Forging of a New National Identity

by Nikola Zukalová

For the first time, the Saudi Founding Day is being celebrated on 22 February 2022 to mark the ascension of Muhammad bin Saud Al Muqrin, the founder of the First Saudi State (Emirate of Diriyah), in 1727 in the small town of Diriyah in central Arabia. This mirrors the ongoing wave of change in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that aim to modernise the country. Creating a narrative defined by nationalist, rather than religious, imagery Founding Day is a clear step towards reinforcing a common sense of national destiny.

 

Previously, the founding of the First Saudi State and the essence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been identified with a strong, ultra-conservative religious line, stemming from the long, tight-knit partnership between the religious establishment that has defined the Al Saud rule since Muhammad bin Saud’s pact with the Islamic purist cleric, Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, made in 1744. Shifting the beginning of the First Saudi State from 1744 to 1727 signifies an effort to distance the political and social origins of Saudi Arabia from the religious.

 

Over the past years, Saudi Arabia — under the leadership of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud — has been redefining the relationship with the religious establishment and curbing the power of religious institutions including, for instance, by abolishing the religious police (Mutawa), introducing social reforms and sidelining ultra-conservative clerics opposed to reforms who were in conflict with the country’s socio-economic and political goals. Building a national narrative — and reflective identity — beyond Islam is a crucial step for transforming the country and achieving Saudi Vision 2030.

 

Apart from the future development goals of Saudi Arabia, creating a national identity will be key for overcoming sectarian and ethnic tensions and for denying extremists sway because it offers individuals a more tangible identity, closer to home, and eases people away from more destructive transnational identities and creating a deeper sense of belonging to their home country. At the same time, it seeks to unite the country and boost the centricity of the state over tribal affiliations. Given the rapid pace external challenges gather and given the nature of the region Saudi Arabia is located in, there is a clear need to create a rally around the flag effect. In this case, Saudi Arabia prioritises the nationalist flag rather than the flag of transnationalism.

 

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The above discussion should not be taken to imply that Saudi Arabia is heading towards secularism or departing from its traditions. Islam will always remain a key element of the country’s identity and not only because of its status as custodian of the two holiest sites of Islam, Mecca and Medina, and its relatively religiously homogenous society. Rather, religion will be promoted in moderate forms as one of many cultural elements of the Saudi identity as the country embarks on a journey to open up to the world, welcoming tourists and showcasing national heritage, while its citizens have more opportunities to travel freely around the world, all becoming ambassadors of their country. In this way, building a new national identity also serves to reverse some of the negative effects of globalisation: Saudi Arabia is signalling to the world that it is serious about its transformation, is reremembering its past and is ready to chart a new path for the future generations. The Saudi Founding Day and the centring of the day around the achievements of Muhammad bin Saud Al Muqrin is a step in that direction.

22 February 2022