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Xenophobia, tribalism and imagined enemies: Mohammed bin Salman's brand of Saudi nationalism

Being ‘Saudi’ rather than 'Arab' or 'Muslim' is now key to Saudi crown prince's plans to consolidate his power

It is debatable whether Saudi Arabia is a nation. But current Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, known as MBS, is determined to develop a new Saudi nationalism among the youth. The slogan of this trend is "Saudi Arabia for Saudis" and the Trump-like "Saudi Arabia first".

Both have been prominent in the discourse of writers enlisted in the state-owned press and social media. The new narrative is not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement but a state-led initiative under the auspices of the crown prince.  

MBS: A role model?

Always reminding his audiences of the young age of his subjects - Saudis under 25 years old represent almost 51 percent of the population - the crown prince presents himself as a role model to be emulated if Saudis are to be counted among the modern nations. He plays on their needs and aspirations to foster a new sense of belonging.

Since they are his priority, MBS expects them to make Saudi Arabia theirs. He promises them greater employment, a flourishing national heritage and culture, an increasing connectedness with the outside world, and the illusion of future liberal modernisation. But the remaining 50 percent of the population seem to be forgotten.

The new nationalism promises the youth a break from past economic stagnation, religious zeal and social conservatism

By constructing the youth as a homogenous category, MBS defines their needs, dissolves their differences and abolishes their diversity. The new nationalism promises the youth a break from past economic stagnation, religious zeal and social conservatism. It is only after the destruction of the old that the new nation will be born.

The new Saudi nationalism is a top-down initiative. Its purpose is to create a glue that binds young people to the monarchy. Like all nationalisms, this new Saudi template needs intellectuals, entrepreneurs and young advocates to spread it at the grassroots level.

Iron Man, Captain America and other members of Avengers, from Hollywood's Marvel studio, at the Comic-Con stage in Jeddah (AFP)
Being "Saudi" rather than "Arab" or "Muslim" is now key to MBS's plans for his own consolidation of power, the future outlook of Saudi Arabia and the success of his economic transformation - the three goals that underpin most of his policies.

MBS is a latecomer to the game of nationalism. His narrative about who Saudis are or should be, their destiny, responsibility and national characteristics suffer from the common contradictions of nationalism that has flourished elsewhere throughout the world.

Ultra masculine egos

The feminine and masculine sit uncomfortably together in the new Saudi nationalism. While there is a celebration of hyper-masculinity in the context of the Saudi military intervention in Yemen and the conflict with Iran, the young nation must be feminised to include women as avant garde economic contributors to the prosperity of the nation.

While women are drawn to become spectators of football matches in an all-masculine environment, they are also skilled workers whose expertise is needed to fulfil the promise of a post-oil economy. But the inflated national masculinity excludes the children of Saudi women married to foreigners. They remain non-Saudis.

Women can drive but they should seek the permission of their male guardians to travel abroad. They must also seek permission from their guardians to marry. When the husband is a foreigner, the Ministry of Interior should issue a licence.

Men are easily granted such licences but women have to seek permission from their guardians to marry a Saudi or a foreigner, thus incurring a double burden as a result of simply being women. 

Women can be football fans, attend concerts and watch circuses but if they dance in provocative ways or embrace their musical icon, they will certainly be detained for violating the masculine honour of the youth cohort that MBS needs to keep obedient and under control.

MBS avoids provoking the ultra-masculine egos while at the same time enlisting women into his new nationalist project of building a service economy less dependent on oil. MBS wants to fashion the new nation as young and hyper-modern, with gender equality as the symbol at the core of the brand.

Real and imaginary enemies

The new nationalism is also meant to draw the boundaries between Saudis and foreign residents, whose numbers are dwindling. Since he came to power in 2015, almost 700,000 foreigners have left the country. Compulsory Saudisation programmes - popular among the youth but not among owners of private businesses who are reluctant to incur the high cost of employing Saudis - accelerated the flight.

Female Saudi supporters of Al-Ahli attend their team's football match against Al-Batin in the Saudi Pro League at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah on 12 January 2018 (AFP)
Inflated visa and resident permits fees have also meant that the kingdom is no longer a lucrative place to stay for the majority of poorly paid Asian workers. The youth are happy as they hope jobs will be vacant for them to occupy. But the unemployment rate among the young is still high, standing at over 30 percent.

Moreover, the new nationalism strengthens the domestic front against real and imaginary enemies like Iran. The old justification behind conflict with Iran is no longer the heretic Shia faith of the Iranians but the imperial longings of the Persians, who once upon a time controlled substantial parts of the shores of the Arabian Peninsula.

Saudi nationalism is the mobilising force to keep the momentum of the rivalry with Iran alive among the youth.

Saudi homo economicus

Finally the new nationalism is seen as integral to creating the Saudi homo economicus. This new kind of Saudi is no longer the pious Muslim eager to defend the honour of his devout co-religionists, the recipient of lavish welfare benefits or the idle Bedouin who spends most of his time either herding camels or composing heroic poetry.

He is now expected to be the bearer of the knowledge economy, the vanguard of neoliberal services, the consumer of a wide range of products, and the risk-taking creative entrepreneur. Like MBS, he is the connected global ideal man, dressed in a white thawb, but with a smartphone rather than a now defunct old Nokia.

No doubt MBS has appealed to the youth by opening the social and cultural fields but the latter need more than football matches or rock concerts to turn them into entrepreneurial Saudi nationals

Women are no longer required to be draped in a black abaya but can drive to the shopping malls wearing colourful veils, symbols of their modernity, cosmopolitanism and new sophistication. Saudis are now asked to be both nationalists and internationalists, with the apparent contradictions surfacing even in government propaganda.

Tribal and regional conflicts

The contradictions become more troubled. Saudi nationalism is at odds with the deployment of tribalism in regional conflicts. This surfaced most clearly during the one-year-old dispute with Qatar when Saudi Arabia mobilised Saudi tribal groups against the emirate, composing derogatory Bedouin poetry that not only denounces the Qatari emir but also picks on his allegedly inauthentic genealogy.

Saudi PR campaign during MBS visit to London earlier this year (Twitter)
The Wahhabi mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Al-Shaykh, together with 200 members of this family issued a statement claiming that Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, does not belong to their family. The statement was published in Okaz, an official Saudi newspaper. Both the emir of Qatar and the Al-Shaykh family claim decent from the Banu Tamim central Arabian tribe.

This is the tribe that produced none other than the founder of the Wahhabi tradition, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab whose 18th-century alliance with the Al-Saud created the kingdom. To negate the tribal origins of the Qatari emir amounts to a serious insult in Arabia whose population and royalty are proud to flaunt their nobility and tribal ancestry.

While all nationalism is a construction, the current Saudi variant does not seem to stand on solid grounds

Tribal festivals mocking the Qatari emir were quick to be held across the Saudi border with Qatar with the opposite side returning the insult. All this exposes the contradictions of the all-encompassing nationalistic agenda to create new Saudi citizens out of tribal fragments that are deployed more effectively to fight a media war with Qatar.

In the effervescence of tribal wars and poetry, both nationalism and diplomacy sink into oblivion.  

A contradictory illusion

The novelty of MBS's social engineering project of nation-building is a contradictory illusion, like all past and present nationalist projects. A mild form of patriotism is appreciated to mobilise citizens into action, but xenophobia, tribalism and superficial cosmopolitanism are hardly consistent with a neo-liberal project to transform Saudi Arabia into a productive economy, a tolerant country and open society.

While all nationalism is a construction, the current Saudi variant does not seem to stand on solid ground. No doubt MBS has appealed to the youth by opening the social and cultural fields but the latter need more than football matches or rock concerts to turn them into entrepreneurial Saudi nationals.

MBS cannot only sell the youth words, symbols and promises. He needs to make nationalism yield concrete benefits such as jobs, low inflation, and security. He cannot be at the head of all decisions and expect the nation to have a stake in the success of his projects.

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As long as the youth remain an excluded category in decision-making and in government, they will entertain themselves with waving flags at each football match and cheer their national players.

But political exclusion such as that experienced in Saudi Arabia among all citizens will make the nation a fragile construction that will wither and collapse as an ideal. It can only produce counter productive xenophobia and bigotry.

The national Saudi dream will be gasping for air should it remain a mere government project unsubstantiated by concrete benefits to all citizens. 

To avoid the dark side of excessive nationalism, MBS needs to realise that exclusion is the enemy of sustainable nation-building. Nationalism built on exclusion is neither just nor sustainable. Nation-building is predicated on inclusion.

- Professor Madawi al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: MBS wants to brand the new Saudi nation as young and hyper-modern, with gender equality as the symbol at the core of the brand (AFP)

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