Why Saudi Arabia Is Embracing a New Nationalism
Saudi Press Agency via AP
Why Saudi Arabia Is Embracing a New Nationalism
Saudi Press Agency via AP
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  • Saudi Arabia is changing its restrictions on how some expatriates can practice Christianity as part of its strategy to weaken hard-line Islam's defining role in Saudi identity.
  • In doing so, Riyadh increases the space for Saudi nationalism to take root, but an ascendant Saudi nationalism will also eventually challenge the monarchy's role in managing the state.
  • Nationalism will increasingly color Saudi relations with other states and become a new check on the monarchy's power.

Saudi Arabia, long known for a society, culture and government steeped in conservative Islamist policies, has begun introducing a new nationalism that allows limited expressions of other faiths. The monarchy is hoping that by encouraging a broader nationalism, it can create space for modernization-focused social and economic reforms, which are a key element of the country's broader Vision 2030 plan. But while reducing hard-line Islam's role in the kingdom would have its benefits, establishing a more secular atmosphere also risks inviting a nationalist resistance to domestic government policies and imposing constraints on Saudi foreign policy

The Limits of a Unifying Hard-line Islamism in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's policy of hard-line Islam has traditionally been so strong that the government expelled or suppressed all other religions. Since the kingdom's foundation in 1932, a combination of tribal connections, kinship and, most powerfully, religious ideology has formed the foundation for the relationship between Saudi rulers and subjects, nullifying challenges from the disparate regions, sects and ethnic groups that Riyadh had conquered.

For much of the 20th century, the Saudi government saw a philosophy like nationalism, which prioritizes loyalty to and identification with a nation-state rather than a religion, as a major threat. In the 1950s and 1960s, Riyadh feared nationalism's connections with rival Egypt and the pan-Arab nationalism espoused by its president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, which often targeted monarchies. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the grand mosque siege in Mecca the same year fed the Saudi royal family's fears of overthrow, this time at the hands of hard-line Islamists. So, to head off any Islamist challenge, they gave special privileges to conservative Islamic clerics in exchange for ensuring the loyalty of the populations over which they had such strong influence.

But by the early 2000s, hard-line Islam's strategic benefits began to reach their limit — especially after Saudi Arabia garnered criticism for encouraging fundamentalism within its educational system following the 9/11 attacks. Under King Abdullah, the kingdom introduced policies designed to build a new strain of Saudi nationalism — one still linked to the House of Saud but emphasizing Saudi-specific history, symbols and rituals rather than purely Islamic ones. This brand of Saudi nationalism was also designed as a new way to unite the disparate tribes and sects of the kingdom, erasing the pre-existing differences that religion has largely frozen in place.

Now, the kingdom has been making subtle gestures of tolerance for practitioners of other faiths, expanding its nationalism even further. Saudi leaders have met with Roman Catholic, Orthodox and U.S. evangelical leaders throughout 2018. In May, Riyadh signed an agreement to allow the Roman Catholic Church to eventually build churches in Saudi Arabia. In November, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took a high-profile meeting with U.S. evangelicals in Riyadh. Finally, in December, for the first time ever, Riyadh allowed an Orthodox Egyptian service to take place. It was held at an Egyptian expatriate's home. These combined developments signal the lessening of the power of hard-line Islamists who previously had been able to suppress Christian practice in Saudi Arabia and prevent Riyadh's official relationships with Christian churches. 

Why Nationalism?

At this point in its history, nationalism has stronger benefits to the Saudi state than religious conservatism. Tying identity to a specific place weakens the power of non-Saudi Islamists at home, for example; in a nationalist culture, verbal attacks by Turkish, Egyptian and Iranian Islamists would not represent salient criticisms from fellow Muslims, but rather unwelcome foreign interferences in domestic affairs. Moreover, shifting the Saudi mindset away from the tradition-bound reverence of religion toward the immediacy and secularity of a geographically defined space also opens up the potential for innovation and new ideas — key ingredients for bringing Vision 2030 to fruition. 

Critically, nationalism allows royals to limit domestic policy challenges based on religious opinions, conveniently weakening a check on their power as they embrace unprecedented behavior such as considering once-unthinkable ties with Israel. This also undercuts the ability of the conservative clerics to object to some of the kingdom's social reforms, like gender mixing, encouraging women to work and drive, and encouraging previously banned forms of art and entertainment.

For Saudi Arabia's foreign policy goals, nationalism is a similarly useful tool, particularly when it comes to Riyadh's desire to more assertively reshape the Middle East in its favor. Rather than leaning on tribal loyalty or financial handouts, the Saudi government can use national pride to motivate citizens to follow its policies. And propaganda from rivals, such as messages coming from sources in Turkey or Iran urging Saudis to reject or undermine their rulers' policies, can be easily rejected as foreign manipulation.

While the contrast between Saudi Islamism and the Christian religious community in the United States has long been a complicating element of U.S.-Saudi ties, Prince Mohammed's meeting with Christian leaders illustrated a more relaxed attitude toward Christianity, which the kingdom hopes will improve relations with the United States. And any stories about non-Islamic worship being permitted publicly in Saudi Arabia, even if just for expatriates, weakens the image of a Saudi culture defined by hard-liners and encourages nationalist thought to expand in schools, media and art.

From a historical perspective, a narrative that emphasizes the kingdom's geographic (and thus Arabian) identity rather than its purely Muslim one would, in some ways, be a return to form. Before the coming of Islam in the seventh century, Christian communities dotted the western province of the Hejaz, as did monasteries along the eastern coast of Arabia. The Saudi government has sealed away one Christian archaeological site, discovered in 1986 outside of Jubail, for decades. If Saudi Arabia continues to decrease its restrictions on Christianity, it may more openly acknowledge this history, establishing deeper roots for national identity.

But Nationalism Will Complicate National Matters

Though Saudi leaders are hoping that a swell of nationalism will reduce checks on royal power, nationalist thought itself — especially once regular citizens have fully embraced it — could replace those checks and even eclipse their power. Former Saudi kings saw nationalist thought as a danger to royal unilateralism, preferring the hierarchical and relatively predictable hard-line Islamists to the more rowdy and innovative nationalists of the 20th century. A new push for Saudi nationalism may challenge the monarchy in exactly the way that its 20th century rulers wanted to avoid.

Identifying with a nation, after all, is far different than identifying with the ruling house of the nation's government. Asking Saudis for loyalty to national interests invites increasing citizen engagement with what, exactly, the national interests are — a question that until recently has been answered only by the royal family. As nationalism ascends, Saudi public opinion stands to grow more complex and less easily motivated by the tools of old, including handouts and religious scruples.

Additionally, if nationalism is equated with the traditions of Najd province, where Riyadh is located, rather than being pan-Arabian, nominally suppressed or sidelined local identities may experience a resurgence. Places like Shiite-dominated Qatif in the Eastern province, Asir in the southwest and the Hejaz, which hosts the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, all have local identities that may be empowered by nationalism and may bristle against the state's imposition of Najdi symbols, rituals and culture.

What More Nationalism Means For Saudi Arabia's Future

Growing nationalism would leave Riyadh with a new, potentially more complex check on its power: citizens with diverse and sophisticated opinions who will be less transactional in their relationship with their government. Whereas now Saudi Arabia can use subsidies to buy loyalty, future Saudi leaders will find that traditional handouts will not be enough to motivate Saudis to go against what they might see as national interests. The public may support greater action against traditional foes like Iran, and it could also demand action against countries perceived as insulting national pride, even if that means risking longtime alliances.

Ultimately, an emergence of Saudi nationalism will not produce a society where the monarchy enjoys unchecked power and privilege, but rather one with a whole new set of priorities and interests.