The Evolution of the Culture of Exclusion

Observers of the social media scene in Saudi Arabia may have noticed a growing sense of nationalism among its users. Expressing nationalist sentiments has become a ritual and an important part of the daily life of Saudis. The strong sense of nationalism coincided with the disappearance of any other critical voice. Has nationalism contributed to the evolution of the culture of exclusion, or is it the result of a genuine sense of pride among the young and aspiring Saudi population?

The Roots of Exclusion

Exclusion (or iqsaa in Arabic) has always found a solid ground in the Saudi culture dating back to its pre-Islamic history. The importance of tribal lineage and the need for classification and labeling maintained such behavior and reinforced it. However, as the Arab world was going through ideology testing and independence, some Saudis began getting familiar with new emerging notions. In the 1960s, pan-Arabsim received a modest share of admiration among a group of Saudi thinkers and writers. After the oil boom and rapid urbanization, the strong religious influence in the 1980s and the 1990s dominated the cultural scene. As a result, the culture of exclusion reached an all-time high. The strong religious influence ostracized those who did not adhered to the conservative lifestyle. A number of Saudis who preferred not to be ostracized by their extended families or society maintained their private lives away from the public eye. Living a double life, one that is conservative publicly and one that is less so in private, demonstrates the roots of the exclusion dilemma.

The Conservative vs. Liberal Debate 

In the early 2000s, the “liberal” camp gained more freedom and was able to voice its opinion in national newspapers. As a result, conservatives pushed back through writings and the use of religious platforms to counter the liberal narrative and condemn its thinkers. Such debates were witnessed daily in national newspapers and television channels. The intellectual exchange between liberals and conservatives tended to exclude and criticize the other, however, such discussions were important and demonstrated a healthy exchange of ideas that allowed the intellectual scene to mature and develop further.

A cartoon by Abdallah Jabir in Mekkah newspaper.

In 2011, when prominent women’s rights activists began a campaign to end the ban on driving, the hashtag #لن_تسوقي (you will not drive) became widely used to ridicule and bully activists. However, after curbing the powers of the religious police in 2016 and the detention of sahwa figures in 2017, the hashtag #لن_تعودي (you [sahwa] will not come back) became commonly used to silence conservatives and religious voices. As sahwa and its figures were pushed out, nationalism was pulled in to fill the void and to become the only identity for Saudis.

Watani or Watanji? 

In the past two years, nationalism took over social media platforms. As a result, voicing any kind of criticism is not tolerated and is often attacked. Labels such as “traitor”, “ikhwan sympthizer” and “agents” are casually thrown at anyone who questions or voices different views. Therefore, some attempted to draw a distinction between patriotism (watani) and nationalism (watanji) to demonstrate that constructive criticism does not make someone unpatriotic. Nevertheless, such attempts often lead to negative and harsh consequences.

It is no wonder, then, that the hashtags #الوطن_غالي_فلاحياد and #الوطن_خط_احمر (the nation is a red line) start trending at the wake of any internal or external crisis. Expressing strong nationalist sentiments is immediately displayed regardless of what the issue is. Some justify their stance by arguing that there are attempts to jeopardize and hinder the reform process, hence one must aggressively defend any kind of criticism. Others argue that adopting nationalism is the only way to prevent the religious influence from finding its way back in. Some even argue that being nationalistic is vital to ensure the unification of the Saudi front in the face of its regional and international rivals and enemies.

The nationalism dilemma can be seen is the case of the Saudi writer Ziad Aldrees who recently wrote a coloumn in Al-Hayat that was soon deleted on the newspaper’s website. In the article, Aldrees mentions “electronic flies” in reference to social media users who attack any opposing voices. Such reference was strongly criticized and the hashtag #الدريس_يسيء_لمغردي_الوطن (Aldrees attacks Saudi Twitter users) began trending. As a result, Aldrees was referred to as an “ikhwan sympthizer” while others circulated a short video of him to question his views and beliefs.

Expressing nationalist sentiments is not only a Saudi phenomenon. The nationalist rhetoric has been on the rise in the West since 2016. Donald Trump’s “America First” is now used among Saudi social media users with the hashtag #السعودية_اولا (Saudi first). In the past, opening the door for dialogue and discussion made Twitter important for Saudis as it was the only platform available for them to exchange and voice their opinions and views. Now, Twitter has become the platform to express one opinion and one view.

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