The roles we play in society, who we choose to represent and what we believe we stand for all contribute to how we see and place ourselves in our community and the world. When it comes to choosing who we are, we would like to think that we are in control of who we choose to be, but that is not always the case especially when it comes to finding ourselves within our own nation and the boundaries we are born into. When you walk around the streets of Saudi Arabia on national day [on September 23], you see young Saudis cheering and dancing anywhere they can set their foot. But why do these festivals and celebrations bring so much joy? Are the youth dancing on the streets celebrating the unification of the Kingdom? What is it exactly that makes them proud to be Saudi citizens? What does having loyalty to the country mean you have to do? If you ask these questions to the older generation, you would get a different answer than from today’s generation or even tomorrow’s. But all members of society need to be able to answer these questions to show that they truly understand what it means to be Saudi.
As a relatively new nation, the Saudi state has relied heavily on traditional forms of governance to promote its legitimacy. The narrative of our formation projects an image of tribal unity and allegiance to the founding figure of the Kingdom; King Abdul Aziz. This image is integral to the collective imagining of our past. As such, our history is dominated by one narrative that has evolved towards defining the Saudi identity, rarely questioned or disputed. For many of us, there is no need to dispute our past because we understand the miraculous effort that brought forth an entity that withstood great turbulence for over 80 years now. We do not question our unity, because our rentier mentality convinces us that the choice of belonging is a rewarding one, or so goes the argument
Saudi identity continues to be an exclusive identity dominated by one region and one discourse. The state controls who is included and excluded, and how hierarchies are laid out in order to maintain the regime’s stability. What is needed today is a shared identity that brings all the different sub-identities within the regions together, so that a Hejazi can speak with pride about Najd, and a citizen from Qatif can retell the Hejazi culture as if it is part of his/her own. The foundation for a cohesive identity is equality. A shared identity can be obtained if equal opportunities are provided for everyone to contribute to a shared culture. That cannot happen without first recognizing the existence of the different norms and traditions of the regions in the Kingdom.
Instead what we observe are attempts to destroy historically and culturally valuable sites in Medina and Mecca, and the demonization of the Shi’a and the ridiculing of southerners’ traditions. Many as a result are discouraged by the dominance of one culture over others; we see members of communities fully involved while others silently watch. Sentiments such as self worth are vital for encouraging individuals to contribute to society and care for their country.
The basis of a strong identity that ties individuals to their nation is a state that provides a sense of security and stability to its people and in return the people give their loyalty and commitment to their country.[i] Security is an important factor in forming identity. Physical security eventually transfers into the emotional; therefore a secure ‘home’ is where identity can flourish. Security is not only physical; today the concept of security has been broadened to include economic and social security, or what is known as human security. It is not possible to provide human security without providing equal opportunities and economic development. However, the state is not the only force responsible for change. Human security is essential for the socialization process[ii] where people begin to put their communities ahead of themselves due to attachments and bonds.
This process is missing in Saudi Arabia, where the current identity needs to shift from tribal/regional to national. In other words an upward shift[iii] from the clan to the central system needs to take place, where individuals can see themselves as part of and therefore responsible for larger communities. Currently, loyalty is not to the nation, but to individuals, families and clans, simply because security can be found in the tribe rather than the state. Only when loyalty to religion and the royal family comes to include loyalty to the nation can we speak of a cohesive national identity.
The Unfinished Business of State Building
As a rentier state, the Saudi state has demonstrated across the years an extraordinary ability to distribute wealth amongst the majority of its population. At our current rate of population growth the country is expected to be one of the 30 most populated countries in the world by 2050,[iv] and by then the state’s distribution power is expected to have eroded significantly. The rentier state theory reduces the Saudi individual, and indeed the inhabitants of the neighbouring Gulf States, to self-interested rentier societies, limiting the scope of our aspirations to the reception of rent and the maximization of wealth. Accordingly, the assumption that is continuously being reaffirmed under this theory is that political and social change is not desirable by the masses, and is unlikely to occur.
What is most disturbing about the assumptions underlying the rentier state theory is the total disregard to our distinctions, traits, characteristics, specifics, and our growing complexity as a nation that happens to inhabit an oil-rich land. What is even more disturbing is how many of us, including our intellectuals, accept this shallow narrative and view us through it, restricting our vision of a cohesive nation. On the other hand, we only know the state as a rentier one. We are being misled by the incessant negligence involved in the process of identity building.
This is further complicated by the huge leaps towards modernity taken by the Saudi state in the last few decades, including developing state structures and the introduction of new reforms. The accelerated speed of many of these developments have made it difficult to identify the state itself. Attempting to address or alter the discourse that this country was based on remains a very sensitive task for the state as it involves addressing the basis of its legitimacy. The nature of many of these dramatic changes is also problematic. For example, institutions such as the Advisory Council or even the recent creation of the municipal councils, are not yet functioning to a satisfactory level and are in need of further galvanization. These are also changes that were not accompanied by public discussions and did not lead to the development of channels for public participation.
Institutional changes were not accounted for in the religious discourse, which has been dominating the country’s intellectual scene. In many instances, it seems that the religious discourse stands in opposition to reform especially when it comes to the issue of women’s empowerment. The education system was also not utilized by the state to interpret many of the changes and reforms in order to instill a sense of identity, leaving many questions unanswered. Therefore, the top-down, managed and ambiguous process of identity building remains unsatisfactory. The reality is that the unfinished business of identity building is accompanied by the unfinished business of state building.
Strategies for Building a National Identity
Education is key in reproducing national identity. This means going beyond studying religion and state history to show the youth what their country has to offer and what they as individuals can collectively offer their country. The education system should address responsibility to the community and loyalty to our people. Our education system should also introduce the different cultures and belief systems to the country. There needs to be a clear image of the real world for the youth and a scheme that helps them find their place in it as Saudis.
Addressing the public, whether written, spoken, online, on television or in the newspapers, are the strongest force behind shaping national identity, and those tools are available in Saudi Arabia. What is missing in Saudi society is a strong engine that motivates the formation of Saudi identity itself. We do not have enough public figures that emphasize the positive features of the country and society. What we have is unconstructive criticism of current social trends and institutions, which socialisers tend to fuel, or disingenuous and over the top praise of state figures, a phenomenon that is jokingly referred to as the ‘act of drumming’. We do not have enough individuals that the youth can look up, individuals that one can boast about and hope to become like one day or stand beside in the service of the country.
The Saudi media does from time to time project a notion of Saudi identity with inspiring and moving words and images of unity and loyalty. This could be a hint that there is willingness among the people to form a cohesive identity. But those images and words only carry entertainment value. There is no content behind them that reflects the reality that citizens face within the nation. Efforts should focus on simple things that if taken advantage of ,such as the National Dialogue’s ‘Temken’ project, could foster a better sense of identity. The Temken project calls on the nation’s youth to participate in other programs to express their ideas and engage in dialogue with different sectors, in the hopes of benefiting their communities. More of this type of encouragement and inclusion of the youth in building and developing the nation is needed as it does help foster national identity. The private sector and businessmen have the capabilities to create ample opportunities to gain from rising young minds, to include them in building the economy and the country. That is their responsibility as Saudi individuals.
A positive example of forming a national identity is the UAE. Even though the UAE is a different case with several different factors, its successes are worth considering. If one were to look back six years ago to the UAE, one would not know what it meant to be an Emirati, especially given that expatriates compose 80% of the population. Today, however, after working hard to highlight and promote Emirati identity, no one living in the country would disagree that the sense of Emirati identity today is stronger than it was six or seven years ago. The state has done an excellent job in attempting to foster a sense of belonging among its people, using unity to forge national identity.
One example is the UAE’s initiative to create a brand logo that represents the country internationally. This logo will serve as the nations ID abroad, and the state has asked its nationals to choose the logo they prefer.[v] Another example is the UAE’s national day, which is not a one-day celebration, but rather an organized national festival. Each year one part of the nation is chosen as that year’s national day theme. The media, school, universities, and the private and public sector participate in branding and promoting the day. The end result is not only increased enjoyment of these well-organized festivities and entertainment, but enlightenment about the nation and enhancement of its identity.
Dissent as a Positive Contribution to Saudi Identity
Nothing puts the rentier state theory under question more than the phenomenon of dissent in the Kingdom. Opposition to the state has been described as marginal and unpopular in Saudi history. However, dissent seems to have been present from the very beginning, since the formation of the state. Instances of dissent are enough to dismiss the notion of the Saudi people’s historical passivity and submissiveness.
The struggle between the elites and the different opposition groups-as insignificant as they may seem- has inadvertently contributed to Saudi identity formation. In 1990, for example, the Sahawis rose against the government because of what they deemed as a Saudi alliance with “atheist” foreign troops following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In 1992, a Memorandum of Advice was signed by 400 religious intellectuals demanding the rule of law, political participation as set by shari’a, and the strengthening of the religious establishment. Following this wave of dissent, the Kingdom carried out new reform measures including the inauguration of the Advisory Council and the introduction of the Basic Law of Governance outlining the duties of the government and the responsibilities of citizens. The Basic Law was a major step forward introducing the concept of citizenship for the first time. These developments serve as an example of the indirect effect that Saudi opposition groups have had on setting the legal contours for a Saudi national identity.
In 2003 Saudi Arabia was struck by a series of terrorist attacks carried out by Saudi members of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This is when we witnessed the emergence of what could be described as a national discourse by the Saudi government, emphasizing the unity of all Saudis under the banner of the state (i.e. rallying around the flag). We also witnessed an increase of what came to be known as ‘petition lobbying’, with different groups of intellectuals and reformers writing demand letters to the Saudi monarch.
This was also a period of notable cooperation between liberals and Islamists under the Islamo-liberal alliance, which in January 2003 brought forth a petition titled “A Vision of the Present and the Future of the Homeland.” The petition called for the establishment of constitutional institutions, national unity, political participation, and social justice.[vi] At the time, Crown Prince Abdullah met with the signatories and showed his interest in the proposed reforms. The emergence of a national discourse and rhetoric was imminent in 2005 with the start of King Abdullah’s reigns. New reform measures were introduced including the establishment of national dialogues, the holding of municipal elections, and the formation of the National Society for Human Rights (2004).
In 2005, Saudis were allowed for the first time to celebrate their national day, a practice frowned upon in the past by the religious establishment as an irreligious innovation or bida’.The establishment of national dialogues is important because for the first time these sessions brought together Saudi men and women from different religious backgrounds and political orientations to discuss national issues and national concerns.[vii] Although many of the recommendations that came out of these dialogues were not fully embraced or implemented, they did create an understanding of Saudi society as heterogeneous rather than unitary, a step toward establishing a national, inclusive identity. This step alone is not, however, enough, and the dialogues remain unpopular and dominated by members of the elite.