A nation is an invention, a useful invention as it brings people of various backgrounds together. It gives them a set of interests common to all of them. But because it is an invention it has to be reasserted continuously.
What the nation is, what it is not, its legitimate right to exist, how it came about to exist, the physical territorial space it controls, the state that embodies it and its achievements across time have to be repeated regularly. Sometimes they have to be modified.
As I said a nation is an invention, and the only relatively stable thing about a nation are its borders, everything thing can change, and should change, even its history. Of course, the facts of the past will not change but which of those facts are selected to represent the story of the nation can and sometimes must change. A nation is an idea and national days are an important vehicle to mass communicate, reiterate, and develop that idea year after year.
Resisting a Saudi nation
Saudi Arabia has built a state, but like many other young states it is still in the process of creating a nation; a nation that becomes a priority – if not the priority - in the consciousness of its citizens. If I want to be accurate I would say that it has barely started the process of creating a nation.
Since its inception, the Saudi state was not able to initiate a nation building project because of two important and significant challenges. The first: religious zealots. They believe that Islam is the only nation to which Saudis ought to give allegiance. Over decades they have resisted the idea of a “Saudi nation” on religious grounds, thus creating a sense of guilt among Saudis who wanted to feel that they were “Saudis” first and foremost.
Every year on the occasion of national day celebrations Saudis are showered with fatwas by those who consider the idea of a national day as an extreme and deviant sin punishable by hell. Many Saudis ignore those fatwas, others seek the fatwas of other scholars who consider it permissible to celebrate national day. The point I want to make is that religion has resisted the creation of a Saudi nation.
The second challenge is pan-Arab nationalists. They have and still are calling for an Arab nation, and they consider that local nationalities are failed projects which deprive the Arab people from the potentials that lie within the Arab Nation. Make no mistake Arab nationalists in Saudi Arabia are an intellectual force to be reckoned with, particularly because the Saudi state has not yet initiated its own nation-building process and thus has not provided a narrative that counters the Arab nationalist narrative. All of this makes a national day for Saudi Arabia all the more critical. It is not just a day for communicating the idea of a Saudi nation, it is also a day for contesting the idea itself.
Celebrating national days
National days are celebrated in many different ways in different countries. The central messages that governments convey in their national day differs from one country to another; even from one epoch to another. The style of celebration is also different. Some emphasize military parades; others may focus on more civil celebrations. The way the population responds to national days is also very different within a country.
There are the patriots who passionately celebrate the day, there are the cynics who look at the failures of their governments, there are the cosmopolitans whose sense of belonging is globalized and thus do not feel a strong sense of belonging to a nation, there are those who want to have a good time and then there are those who use the opportunity to stay at home and relax from work.
National day in Saudi Arabia is also celebrated in different ways. The government focuses on achievements. Its sometimes becomes a statistical testimonial full of numbers. It also sponsors various events around the country. On the other hand, Saudis have a different idea of celebrating this day. Many of them travel and those who can’t afford to travel go wild.
The government loosens its restrictions on youth behavior and allows young men and even women to publicly act in ways which are normally prohibited. It is not uncommon to see men and women celebrating National day in the streets together. This is something you will never see on any other day of the year in a gender-segregated country. Between those who travel and those who go wild you have the religious zealots who complain, the cynics who counter each achievement the government counts with a failure it overlooks, the tired who wake up late, the Arab nationalists who remind us that the only nation is the Arab nation and the patriots who sincerely, passionately and peacefully celebrate the day.
Carving out ‘Saudi-ness’
But, through all of this, something important is taking place; a Saudi nation is being carved out. Its contours are not clear at this point but the process has started and is already reaping success. According to a survey published in 2006, 17% of Saudis define themselves as Saudis first and Muslims second. This is almost a fifth of the population who believe in a concept that is antithetical to a basic modern Muslim understanding that Islamic identity comes first. This tells us that there is a desire in the population to resolve the identity crisis and to start thinking locally. Being a Saudi first means that Saudi issues matter more than issues that exist outside the border.
This is sure to be a long term process. Mindsets need to be changed and political concessions need to be made; and both are very difficult to achieve. Most people still think of Saudi Arabia as a state and not as a nation with a state. This is why most of the focus of government officials and of patriots is always on counting achievements which are the end of the analysis administrative successes. They are supposed to be part of the story but not the main component of the story. Moreover, participatory politics is still not recognized as a necessary component of nation building.
Being a citizen of Saudi Arabia is still about what the government hands out to Saudis and how the government decides what makes a Saudi citizen. We have to reach a point where being a Saudi is about how Saudi citizens participate in building the state and defining the nation.
Worse still there are those who believe that building a Saudi nation necessitates erasing all local cultures and histories. This is disastrous as it associates the idea of a Saudi nation with cultural violence.
These are difficult issues indeed, but the process has started and the debate is ongoing. Ten years ago such a discussion was not conceivable, now Saudis are talking. That’s the first important step towards creating a nation: talking.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1SHOW MORE