Today, September 23, marks Saudi National Day – the day when King Abdul Aziz declared Saudi Arabia a kingdom in 1923. Once again, the streets of Riyadh are filled with an excessive number of Saudi flags. Students in schools throughout the Kingdom have had class parties and dressed up in green “I love Saudi” shirts while eating cupcakes with King Abdullah’s face on them. Taking advantage of the day off, many Saudis are planning long weekend escapes from the country – ironically, many cannot bear to remain inside Saudi Arabia when given the chance to take a vacation.
For many Saudis, this holiday is a day of national pride; for others it is just an extra day off. For a few it is an embarrassment and a shame.
The Saudi government’s official stance on all holidays, besides Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha, (which are two celebrations that have their roots in the Quran) is that they are haram, or forbidden in Islam. When I was a lecturer at a government university in Saudi, we were told to punish students who dared to celebrate birthdays, and to skip over and rip pages out of any texts that mention non-Islamic holidays. While all non-eid celebrations remain proscribed, a few years ago the government decided to create one hypocritical halal, or Islamically permitted, exception: Saudi National Day. After all, what absolute monarchy could resist having its own subjects dedicate an entire day to celebrating the regime?
History books often portray the founders of their countries as immaculate heroes, idolizing them despite their very lose moral practices. King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, is no exception to the phenomenon of “idolized historical heroes.” He is described in Saudi textbooks as the “unifier” of the tribes of Arabia, a character adjective that certainly excludes the fact that he heartlessly slaughtered his competitors, and took their women and possessions. Since murder and theft are quite opposed to the character of a “unifier,” King Abdul Aziz would be better described as a “conqueror” of the various tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, which is now referred to as the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” It is the only country in the world where its citizens are called by the ruling regime’s family name “Saud.”
Many Saudis pride themselves on not having been colonized by Europeans. While this is technically true, they have been colonized by one of their own. When various European powers went around colonizing, oppressing and slaughtering local populations, they justified their inhumane actions by describing their victims as savage and uncivilized heathens. By dehumanizing local populations they perceived to be different from them, they were able to believe in their mission as a righteous one. King Abdul Aziz, by contrast, killed people who spoke his language, shared many of his own cultural practices, and adhered to the same Islamic faith. In my view, this makes him a much more brutal conqueror than any outsider could ever be.
Saudi Arabia has not even reached its centenary, with the year 2014 representing its 84th National Day. While many try to argue we have come a long way in a short amount of time, all it takes is a simple hop across the border into the neighboring countries of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or Kuwait to get some perspective on just “how far we’ve come.”
All of these nations are younger than Saudi Arabia. All of them generate significantly less in oil revenues than the Kingdom. All of them have substantially less tourism (thanks alone to Mecca and Medina). Yet all of them have out-performed Saudi Arabia. Though none of these nations is perfect, their citizens enjoy (comparatively) less corruption, better infrastructure, more social benefits, and greater freedoms than Saudi nationals do, and they have achieved all these things with much less than we have.
But, Saudi Arabia has also managed to outperform many other nations in several different arenas. It has topped the charts as the world’s most obese country, most repressive society, most unjust country for women, and least welcoming state for foreigners.
As people wave their flags on this National Day, I cannot help but think of the Saudis of whom I am incredibly proud. Many of the people I believe have the potential to move this nation forward are sitting in prison cells as criminals, for advocating on behalf of freedom and human rights for their fellow countrymen. Others have been intimidated into silence by the state, placed under house arrest, currently live in exile, have been stripped of their nationality, or killed.
While you wave your flag, I will remember my father-in-law who almost died while being tortured in prison, and my husband and daughter would never have made it into this world if the Saudi government had it their way.
While you wave your flag, I will remember the family of Ali Hassan Al-Mahrous, a teenager and innocent bystander who was killed by Saudi security forces last summer in Qatif. When his family went to press charges, the Saudi security forces refused to return the slain boy’s body to the family unless they dropped all charges.
While you wave your flag, I will remember the members of the Saudi Political and Civil Rights Association, whose members are sitting in prison cells for recording human rights abuses that have occurred within the Kingdom and calling for more political freedoms.
While you wave your flag, I will remember this is the government that beheads people for possession of pills, calls for the death penalty against individuals whose Islam does not fit the state’s limited conception , and lets a man who murders and rapes his five-year old daughter off on a light sentence.
While you wave your flag, I will remember all the foreign laborers who are treated like garbage without any recognizable rights, in a corrupt Kafala system (making them essentially paid slaves), which is upheld and supported by our own government.
While you wave your flag, I will remember all the qualified and deserving citizens who were not granted their rights, or given a job they deserved because they were not from the “right tribe,” or did not have the “right wasta,” or the “right Islamic sect.” etc.
While you wave your flag, I will remember that I am in the only country in the world where I cannot drive a car, and cannot make many significant decisions without the approval of my male guardian. All because I was not born the “right gender.”
Happy National Day, Saudi Arabia. You will not see me waving a Saudi flag with anything but shame until this government ceases to commit severe human rights violations against its people.