Saudi Arabia's most important task revitalizing its national identity
    Opinion by David Reaboi

    WORLD  01 April 2023 - 04:03

    David Reaboi, a fellow at the Claremont Institute, has written a piece for Newsweek arguing that Saudi Arabia is far more likely to succeed since it seems to see the value in reviving its national identity. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    Saudi Arabia has long been a forbidding place for Westerners: austere fundamentalism, lavish oil wealth, and—most confusing of all—the fact that Saudis have been both perpetrators and scourges of Islamist terrorism.

    While millions of Muslims have always made the hajj to Mecca, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was never interested in becoming a spot for vacationers, and neglected to issue tourist visas. The expat workers and soldiers who did spend time there lived in their own sealed universes, in military bases or luxury hotels and compounds, detached from the experience of typical Saudi life.

    Since the ascent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ("MBS") in 2016, however, the walls separating Westerners and Saudis have been coming down. Sightseeing tourists from Europe and the United States are, for the first time, beginning to trickle into the Kingdom and, due to the recent reforms of religious laws, foreigners are now integrating into life in its cities.

    When I traveled to Riyadh last month, Saudis and expats alike enthusiastically attested to how much things have changed—and are still changing, rapidly.

    Perhaps the most visible changes involve the integration of women into Saudi life. Saudis now routinely attend mixed-gender events; women can drive, go to the gym, and do business without the approval of a male guardian. The sight of the modern Saudi woman—often without the full covering of a traditional niqāb—comes as a surprise for those who recall the religious police enforcing strict Islamic behavioral and dress codes on men and women in public and private places.

    Saudis of both sexes are still ecstatic about the disappearance of this harsh gender segregation, which allows for a great deal of social freedom, even if that freedom remains circumscribed by conservative conceptions of propriety and modesty. But the Kingdom understood that authentic social reforms were impossible while the threat of Islamist intimidation hung over its citizens—very much including the menacing physical presence of Islamists in their communities.

    Since 2017, the young crown prince has been increasingly firm in public statements about the Kingdom's opposition to Islamism. "Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under 30, and honestly we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas," he said in 2017. "We will destroy them today, and at once."

    These words were soon backed by swift action, as the Kingdom's counterterrorism efforts aggressively targeted every type of Islamist—not just violent jihadist cells, but the clerics who inspired them, and the Muslim Brotherhood financiers and journalists who once provided them cover.

    Islamists have become reviled in the Kingdom. In sharp contrast to the gangs of long-bearded Salafis now ubiquitous in many other countries, most Saudi men today are loath to take on any of the physical or sartorial characteristics of an extremist; rather, they are well-dressed in impeccably clean thobes and ghutras, and sport tightly trimmed beards.

    These changes are more than just aesthetic; a half-decade after MBS assumed de facto power, the level of security outside Saudi hotels and other buildings seems non-existent. Just as importantly, though, women now have little to fear from retribution for their choice to expose their hair or face. Western observers have missed the extent to which Saudi Arabia's counterterror operations and anti-Islamist policies made MBS's social reforms possible.

    The Kingdom's reforms seemed to reflect MBS's determination to forge what he called "a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions, and people around the globe." But this is, after all, Saudi Arabia; disempowering the clerics and religious police in order to create space for that moderate Islam creates a vacuum in the traditional Saudi national identity, which has been so intimately tied to strict Islam since its inception.

    To address this, the Kingdom has embarked on a public education project to bolster a robust national identity—one that is not divorced from religion, but is nevertheless distinct from it. Saudis today are encouraged to see their part in a vibrant national story that stretches from the early history of Arabia—including, very significantly, pre-Islamic culture—to the modern Saudi state governed by the Al Saud dynasty.

    That national story is commemorated in a new national holiday on February 22. In only its second year, Saudi Founding Day looks back to Muhammad bin Saud's ascendancy to power in 1744, and focuses as well on the role his dynasty has played in the history of Arabia. Remarkably, this new national holiday is only the second secular holiday in the Kingdom's history. It serves to draw citizens closer to the unfolding history and character of the Saudi regime itself—from its roots in ancient Arabian culture to its contemporary monarchs.

    Riyadh was filled with didactic festivities throughout the week I was there, recreating scenes from Arabia in the 18th century through the turn of the 20th. In the giant atrium of the nearby mall, crowds gathered in front of a Dior kiosk to witness a dozen men perform traditional Arabian music and dance; coffee shops and stores advertised Founding Day specials; in hotels and museums, visitors experienced recreations of bedouin tents' ornate interiors, with colorful rugs and pillows; artisans explained how Saudi coffee was made in ancient times, mixing crushed and roasted beans with cardamom and saffron.

    Even more ambitiously, the Kingdom has lately announced gargantuan mega-projects that seek to stuff modern living into a single structure. The Line is an immense, linear "smart city" that would house nine million residents in a reflective, mirrored edifice sweeping 110 miles through the desert. The recently announced Mukaab is a perfectly cube-shaped structure the size of 20 Empire State Buildings which bills itself as "the world's largest modern downtown." The Mukaab's clear symbolism of a secular Ka'ba—not in Mecca, but in the Kingdom's most cosmopolitan city—is certainly intentional. It is an unmistakable, provocative marker in a Saudi Arabia that is changing fast.

    Today, the Kingdom is attempting to navigate the technological and economic advances of 21st century life while maintaining a measure of its distinct history and culture against a technocrat-led, homogeneous Western monoculture that seems to bring with it so much ideologically progressive baggage.

    As the Kingdom changes, the question of the inevitability of liberalism necessarily leading to vice and libertinism is in the back of people's minds. Saudis of all backgrounds—from shopkeepers, students, and housewives to government officials and educated professionals—wanted to speak with me about the woke race and gender obsession that has engulfed America in recent years.

    Their tone wasn't one of judgmental disgust, but of horrific shock. Is this, they might ask, the price of modernity and freedom?

    Resisting this tide is a matter of a durable and secure national and cultural identity, rather than individuals' morals. What is required is an identity that is at once strong enough to withstand the onslaught of smartphone-delivered decadence, but also appealing and realistic enough to engage millions of its citizens who don't want to abandon all the advantages and comforts of the outside world.

    This is the great challenge for many countries, especially in the West, as they navigate a modernity that oftentimes seems determined to self-destruct. Almost uniquely, however, Saudi Arabia seems to grasp the importance of revitalizing its national identity. For that reason, it is far better positioned to succeed.


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