How Saudi’s Emergent Hyper-Nationalism is Making the Kingdom more Militant

Published June 26th, 2019 - 08:14 GMT
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Saudi soldiers (AFP/FILE edited by Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)

 

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, historically a conservative Islamic society and state, is quickly turning away from religion as the primary means to define itself.


In Islam’s stead, a newfound hyper-nationalism is taking shape, and it’s rapid growth is emboldening the country’s leadership to act more unilaterally than ever, enabling them to simultaneously enact radical domestic reforms while becoming more militant in their foreign policy. 

A new report written by Saudi-born researcher Eman Alhussein for the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), lays out how this hyper-nationalism grew in Saudi and how it is changing Saudi in profound yet subtle ways.

Saudi nationalism, Elhussein explains, is a grassroots movement that is being channeled and bolstered by the country’s current de facto ruler, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS as is he more commonly known.

With the help of this newfound nationalism, MbS has been able to slash the influence of traditional religious councils that previously played a substantial role in shaping Saudi’s laws and social practices. He’s also neutered Saudi’s once-feared religious police. In fomenting this type of hyper-nationalism, which places the Saudi state at the forefront, MbS has been able to personalize Saudi’s regime apparatus around him as a political strongman rather than a religious figure.

This nationalism has helped MbS maintain his staling war effort in Yemen, get closer to Israel, confront Iran more aggressively and even pick diplomatic fights with countries like Canada.

But there’s a danger to relying on nationalism as a way to generate support for a political agenda: if MbS’ reform efforts fail, his reputation as the best figure to lead Saudi into the 21st century could be imperiled. Such a danger is compounded by the fact that he’s quietly dismantling the one thing that Saudi has long-relied on to maintain stability: its welfare state.

 

The Rise of Saudi Nationalism

(Rami Khoury/Bawaba)

For most of Saudi’s history, the royal Saud family has wielded religion as the primary means of consolidating domestic support and ruling.

As the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” the Saudi King long privileged Islamic scholars and clerics to draft vast portions of Saudi’s domestic laws to ensure they are aligned with Islamic tenants.

But according to Elhussein, a visiting scholar for ECFR, the rise of nationalism in Saudi has been a rapid new development.

“Undergoing national projects is not uncommon, especially in the Gulf region. In the last few years, Gulf countries have faced common concerns that triggered an interest in fostering national belonging.” she says.

“What makes the situation of Saudi Arabia unique is that the promotion of this new nationalism coincided with a new leadership that is not only young, but actively trying to change regional dynamics and set new domestic rules and policies,” she adds. Saudi’s population too, is overwhelmingly young and increasingly detached from the religious institutions that once laid the foundation of the Saudi state.

At the head of this new leadership stands Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi’s 33-year old crown prince who muscled his way to the top of the Saudi line of ascension and instituted a vast set of domestic and foreign policy reforms. Elhussein further notes that this “‘New’ Saudi Arabia” under MbS has been celebrated by Saudi-national news outlets and social media alike, which has in turn normalized this new political order.

“The new leadership sees nationalism as a winning card as it explains the new domestic political and economic order and reaffirms its active role in the region.”

In other words, a feedback loop has formed, whereby a nationalist sentiment in Saudi’s young population is publicly championed by news outlets and leadership, who then frame their policy moves in explicitly nationalist terms. As a result, grassroots support for nationalism grows and becomes increasingly important as a fixture of Saudi’s state power.

“The new leadership sees nationalism as a winning card as it explains the new domestic political and economic order and reaffirms its active role in the region,” Elhussein says.

The new nationalism emphasizes the Saudi state as a defender of the country’s interests. In her report, Elhussein finds that “the online nationalist front appears to include the same voices that belonged to conservative factions and attacked calls for greater mobilisation for women in 2012.”

“The defamation campaign in 2018 allowed these nationalist accounts to resume their attacks on women’s rights activists, but they used the nationalist term ‘traitor’ rather than religiously inspired accusations such as ‘Westernisation,’ she writes.

One prominent example of this newfound nationalism is the rise of the ‘Saudi First’ slogan, remixing nationalist U.S. President Donald Trump’s infamous ‘America First’ phrase.

The ‘Saudi First’ hashtag regularly features in tweets proudly defending MbS’ myriad policies and Saudi’s various regional confrontations. Another trending hashtag was “٥٠٠٠ ريال لأفضل ٥ تغريدات وطنية.” or “5000 riyals for best 5 patriotic tweets.” 

(Twitter)

How it Empowers MbS in the Short-Term

By shaping and championing Saudi’s hyper-nationalism, MbS has a quick and effective way to generate domestic support for his reform efforts and aggressive foreign policy, bypassing the traditional means of drafting and enforcing public policy, which included myriad religious councils and ministries.

Image result for saudi vision 2030

In April 2016, MbS unveiled his ambitious “Saudi Vision 2030,” an overarching policy platform calling for Saudi to open itself up to foreign investors, diversify its sources of revenue away from oil and disempower traditional religious authorities. This platform quickly became, “the symbol of Mohammed bin Salman’s domestic ambitions and his bid to address young people’s concerns about the sustainability of an oil-dependent economy,” as Elhussein writes.

With the support of Saudi’s youth, MbS aggressively made the case for his ascension to the throne, and has used his quick rise to power as a sign his mandate lies with Saudi’s young hyper-nationalist base.

MbS’ sudden purge of Saudi’s elites and royal family came as a shock to the world, but his so-called ‘anti-corruption investigation’ was justified not by an appeal to Islam, but the narrative that the country’s super-wealthy had been pillaging the nation’s wealth and jeopardizing the state’s abiltiy to effectively institute reforms. From the wake of the purge, it became clear MbS had quickly become one of Saudi’s most powerful figures.

When it comes to executing foreign policy, MbS can wield hyper-nationalist sentiment to act more aggressively. “The centralization of power thus far has allowed a more unified stance on foreign policy issues,” Elhussein told Al Bawaba, nothing that previously, a series of ministries led by various royals restrained decision making and often delayed the state’s reaction to geopolitical events. 

From the old system, Saudi attained a reputation for being a tortoise-like in its speed and caution.

Hyper-nationalist appeals have also allowed MbS to feud with openly feud with allies that critique his domestic policy.

Riding the wave of hyper-nationalism, MbS ordered Saudi’s intervention into Yemen on March 2015, and justified the action as a form of self-defense against anti-Saudi Houthis that were quickly capturing land inside Yemen.

Analysts with Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, notes that this emergent nationalism has further given Saudi the ability to align more openly with Israel; an act that “once-unthinkable,” as the country’s old religious establishment universally considered Israel to be a regional menace. With these leaders disempowered, Stratfor writes, the Saudi state has one less challenge to their rule.

Hyper-nationalist appeals have also allowed MbS to feud with openly feud with allies that critique his domestic policy.
On August 5, 2018, Canada urged Saudi via Tweet to release two human rights activists from detention. In response, a flurry of anti-Canada tweets flooded Twitter berating the Western country for interfering in Saudi’s domestic affairs.

One official Saudi government account even tweeted a picture showing an Air Canada plane headed towards the skyline of Toronto.

The diplomatic spat demonstrated that Saudi’s shell, which was once made of religious hardliners using the country’s claim to Islam as a shield, had been replaced by a young, active and online population utilizing nationalist rhetoric to defend the state’s policy prerogatives against criticism.

 

A Long-Term Challenge to MbS’ Rule

Mohammed bin Salman (AFP/FILE)


Just because MbS is the benefactor to Saudi’s emergent hyper-nationalism doesn’t mean he has a source of virtually unlimited power and support.

The guidebook for Saudi rule may have been quietly re-written, but the basics remain the same: if MbS fails to deliver on his promises, then those who have defend his goals may consider him a national failure.

“But in its new, aggressive guise, the nationalist approach may not be sustainable in the long run, especially if the leadership fails to fulfil its economic promises,” Elhussein writes in her report. Without the religious establishment as a buffer or scapegoat for the failures, MbS would find himself in the limelight, and could be held more directly accountable.

Without the promise of economic stability to quiet protesters, the state may be unable to control future waves of skepticism to MbS’ rule.

A further problem for this new approach lies with its unwriting of the old Saudi social contract. For much of its history, Saudi has limited the political and civil rights of its citizens in return for access to economic stability and a strong welfare state.

The model is widely known as the Gulf, or GCC, Social Contract. The model has ensured that Saudi’s citizens remain quiet, obedient and comfortable enough not to risk a political upheaval. During the Arab Spring, when neighboring countries were experiencing profound revolts, Saudi turbo-charged its welfare state with a $37 billion stimulus in the hopes of appeasing its people.

But MbS’ reforms simultaneously impose austerity on the public sector while further limiting freedom of speech and association.

By locking up, torturing and executing prominent moderate clerics and famous human rights activists, MbS sends the messages that Saudi will be less tolerant of dissent than ever. Meanwhile, he is defunding the primary safety valve Saudi has had to deflate domestic tension, the welfare state and public sector. 

Without the promise of economic stability to quiet protesters, the state may be unable to control future waves of skepticism to MbS’ rule, especially if his efforts to open the economy fall short.
 


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