Category Archives: Nationalism and Identity

“Al Liwan” and the Construction of the National Narrative

Television programs are an important part of Ramadan across the Arab world. Every year, different shows compete against each other to win the loyalty of viewers, promising daily doses of entertainment for thirty consecutive days. This Ramadan, however, television programs have been tainted by the political climate in the region. Some shows went the extra mile by satirically portraying regional rivals, asserting through humor the need to recognize and support national interests.

One television program, Al Liwan, is generating much debate this Ramadan. The host, Abdullah Al-Mudaifir, has been interviewing different guests from across the social and intellectual spectrum. The idea of Al Liwan is to allow guests to narrate and re-evaluate their own stories of success and failure. Al-Modaifir usually directs questions, some considered sensitive in the current climate, to his guests who are prepared to provide fast and abrupt answers. There seems to be an understanding between the host and the guests of the program’s direction. Some themes keep recurring in different episodes which allows guests to provide their own accounts on issues such as Sahwa, feminism, extremism and regional hostilities. Therefore, guests are not only narrating their own individual stories, but are also reaffirming and contributing to the emerging national narrative. As Ramadan is coming to an end, reflecting on some of these interviews could give a clearer picture of how the national narrative is being shaped.

Sahwa as the culprit

The first episode, and the one that generated the most debate, was the interview with Sheikh Aidh Al-Qarni. A pioneer of Sahwa movement, Al-Qarni caught viewers off guard when he apologized to the Saudi population for the Sahwa era. During his interview, Al-Qarni spoke extensively of Sahwa and considered it the real culprit behind decades of social oppression and regression.

Ali Al-Faqasi and Adel Al-Labbad were interviewed from prison to narrate their own personal accounts of extremism. Al-Faqasi talked about his role as a member of Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and how he was sent back to Saudi Arabia to carry attacks against foreign interests. Al-Labbad, a Shia poet who was active during the protests in the Eastern Province following the Arab Spring, talked about his time in Iran and his activities with the Organization for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Faqasi and Al-Labbad both blamed Sahwa for their violence and extremist views. When Al-Mudaifir asked Al-Faqasi to name the scholars who contributed to his extremist views, Al-Faqasi mentioned Safar Al-Hawali, Salman Al-Odah, Saad Al-Buraik and Aidh Al-Qarni (the scholar who apologized earlier for Sahwa). He said that the religious discourse exaggerated “sins and punishments” which eventually allowed a buildup of resentment and anger towards the state.

Al-Labbad also blames Sahwa and named a few scholars, including Nasser Al-Omar, for alienating the Shia community which also led to resentment towards the state. However, he also argued that the state was “probably hijacked” by the Salafi influence which contributed to the atmosphere of hate against other religious minorities. Al-Labbad said “if you want to promote any idea, just wrap it with religion.” The General Department for Counter Extremism tweeted two detailed lists of the most important remarks by both Al-Faqasi and Al-Labbad following their interviews.

Feminist as “psychologically unstable”

Kawthar Al-Arbash, member of Shura Council, talked mostly about the situation of the Shia community in Saudi Arabia. However, as the only female interviewed so far, her views on feminism were discussed widely on social media. She argued that those who adopt feminist views in the Arab world have “psychological problems.” She also said that feminism at its core is “an opposition movement” that aims to clash with the state, making it similar to the mindset of terrorist organizations such as Daesh. Al-Arbash said that “there seems to be a relationship between demanding for rights and losing one’s senses.” She also named some women’s rights activists whom, she argued, approached her to take a stance against the ban on driving in 2011. She said that she declined to join the driving campaign because she did not agree on the methods campaigners were following, even though she believed in their cause.

Al-Arbash’s views were reaffirmed by another guest, psychiatric Abdullah Al-Subaie, when asked about the situation of women in Saudi Arabia. When Al-Mudaifir showed Al-Subaie a tweet he published in 2016 regarding the deteriorating situation of women, the latter explained that he was solely referring to women who are denied seeing their children or not allowed to pursue their education, arguing that he sees such cases frequently in his clinic. However, he then argued that his tweet was taken out of context and used “against the nation.” Al-Subaie said that his tweet should not be understood as supportive of dropping the guardianship law, arguing that feminism has become “exaggerated” and perhaps is manipulated by foreign powers. Women who follow the feminist trend, he said, and demand more rights are “most of the time psychologically unstable.”

Dissidents and hostility to the state

Kassab Al-Otaibi, a former Saudi dissident who spent years in the UK before returning to Saudi Arabia in 2014, discussed in detail the situation of Saudi dissidents in diaspora. He argued that their work is often disorganized and are easily manipulated and used by foreign powers and regional rivals.

Al-Arbash also contributed to this discussion during her interview, arguing that she represents the nationalist Shia voice that many in her community are “afraid of.” She said that she encourages her community to turn away from Iran and Khomeini by adopting a nationalist stance. However, she argued that her efforts have only unleashed continuous attacks against her in an attempt to eliminate “the voice of moderation and the voice of nationalism” that she represents.

Al-Qarni also discussed extensively the issue of regional rivals and hostility against the Kingdom. He stressed the importance of three red lines “moderate Islam, the nation and the leadership” that Saudis should maintain to protect themselves from mounting regional tensions. Al-Qarni repeatedly emphasized that “there is no grey zone” calling himself “the sward of the nation” in the face of “Erdogan, Al-Ikhwan and Iran.” Al-Qarni also emphasized the importance of not being neutral and considered doing so “an act of treason.” He also said that any Saudi who does not defend the nation “has no dignity and no conscious.”

Reaction to the Show

Al-Liwan is perhaps one of the few shows that generated much debate. However, skepticism over the genuineness of the show were often expressed. This is perhaps triggered by the readiness of guests to provide answers that do not clash with the current narrative, making the show predictable and monotonous. Some have even criticized the choice of guests and considered them “radicals of thought” that many Saudis do not relate to. Nevertheless, talk shows have always been an important tool to emphasize certain themes or test the population’s reaction to different ideas or potential plans. However, the growing lack of trust in intellectuals and narrowing the space for debate on social media can render these tools ineffective.

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.

Filling the Void (2): Nationalism

Earlier this year, I wrote a post on the declining influence of religious figures in Saudi Arabia and how this could leave a void ready to be filled with something else. Within a few months, a growing nationalist sentiment swept social media and became the new body to fill this void.

For decades, tribalism and regional differences stood in the way of developing a sense of national identity in Saudi Arabia. After the first clash with Sahwa figures in the 1990s followed by the attacks of 9/11, the lack of nationalism was seen as the real culprit responsible for pan-Islamism and extremism. To salvage the situation, and in an attempt to counter pan-Islamism, ‘nationalism’ was introduced as a subject to be taught in school, but only to male students.

One of the memorably daring attempts at establishing a sense of nationalism was witnessed during the era of the late King Abdallah as he made the National Day a public holiday in 2005. This was considered a milestone since celebrating non-Islamic holidays was long opposed and referred to as bida. At that time, conservatives disapproved of the celebration and considered it an alien practice.

Saudi National Day preparations in 2017. (Arab News)

A number of aspiring Saudi writers and thinkers challenged the notion of nationalism in favor of Arabism. Their book Fi Ma’na Al Urouba was published after the events of the Arab Spring which revived the idea of Arabism that had been dismissed since the 1970s. As the Arab Spring turned into an Arab Winter, the regained interest in Arabism soon died down and nationalism across the Arab world, and especially in the Gulf, began to gain momentum.

For the past two years, the nationalistic discourse has reached an all time high. Nationalism is no longer only celebrated on the 23th of September; it is an every day ritual that can be witnessed on the streets, in shops and even influences how social media users define themselves. This year, the celebration of the National Day began on the 19th of September and will continue for four days. The General Entertainment Authority’s calendar has more than 100 activists and events to celebrate the event throughout the Kingdom.

Girls celebrating the National Day. (Reuters via Al-Arabiya)

The Sahwa era and it’s figures were long blamed for stifling modernization. For the past few years, the anti-Sahwa discourse gave birth to the word ‘sahwanji’  which was used to denounce the movement and its followers. The suffix –nji transforms the term into a pejorative one, and adds a negative connotation to the action. Such labels became more relevant recently as the growing sentiment against Ikhwan became more visible and soon Ikhwanji was used to denounce the Ikhwan and their sympathizers. Ironically, the term watanji is now considered the newest addition to the Saudi social media lexicon as it is used to express dismay with those who exhibit hyper nationalism.

In early 2000s, the clash between liberals and conservatives reached an all time high. The political atmosphere at the beginning of the millennium provided greater space for free expression as debates between those calling for change and those opposing it were witnessed daily in national newspapers. However, nationalism today has become the only label for the modernization project. Therefore, liberals and conservatives alike have jumped on the bandwagon of nationalism. It seems that regardless of one’s view, nationalism should always be at the forefront. The strong emphasis on nationalism seems to have succeeded in enforcing a sense of national unity to counter ideologies that have been daunting policy-makers in Saudi Arabia.


The Fight Against the Muslim Brotherhood in the Education Sector

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood has been a turbulent one. Formally listed in 2014 as a terrorist organization, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood began to be actively challenged. However, their power over the education sector is considered the most problematic. Ahmed Al-Issa, Minister of Education, expressed in March that “the invasion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the education system is an indisputable fact.”

The Sahwa and the Muslim Brotherhood 

Parallel to its fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia is also engaged in another fight against Sahwa thinking. Sahwa is believed to have adopted and promoted the ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood and is considered the reason for religious extremism in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, is seen as a political and ideological movement with aspirations inside the country and the whole region. In September 2017, the arrest of a number of Saudis considered sympathizers with the Muslim Brotherhood sent a clear message of the country’s firm stance.

The Sahwa Conference 

The campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood caused a strain on the education sector that soon had to demonstrate its allegiance and support to the government. The University of Al-Qassim, a city that fostered and promoted Sahwa figures and thinking for decades, hosted its first conference on Sahwa earlier this week. The opening video of the conference is a four-minute documentary on the rise of Sahwa, and how it “gave birth to extremism”.

The papers presented in the conference dealt with issues related to Sahwa’s origin, aspirations, implications and flaws. One of the papers presented in the conference was by Dr. Hisham Al-Alsheikh, professor at al-Imam University. Al-Alsheikh attempted to provide an alternative religious framework to Sahwa by highlighting its differences with Salafism. Al-Alsheikh pointed out a number of Salafi principles that contradict with Sahwa thinking, such as use of the Quran and Sunnah as the only religious references and the obligation of obedience to the ruler. He argued that “true Salafism is not a movement” but a “lifestyle followed by the majority of Muslim”.

The Sahwa conference hosted by Al-Qassim University

The conference was criticized by a number of Saudis on social media, arguing that it is still largely influenced by Sahwa figures. The Saudi writer, Abduallah Al-Alweet, argued that the conference must point out the flaws of Salafism that gave birth to Sahwa. Others saw the attack on Salafism as a proof of Saudi liberals “continuous fight against Islam”.

The Muslim Brotherhood Dilemma 

Launched in 2015, the “Faten” program meant to protect students from extremist views. However, the program’s head was dismissed last year, as reports suggest that Muslim Brotherhood influences led to the decision. In September last year, Suleiman Aba Alkhail, director of the Imam Muhammed bin Saud Islamic University, recommended not to renew work contracts of faculty members considered sympathizers with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In March 2018, the Riyadh International Book Fair banned books that deals with issues related to the Muslim Brotherhood. Also in March, Al-Issa stated that the ministry is working on revamping school curriculum and eliminating any references to the Muslim Brotherhood. In April, the Ministry of Education decided to end all contracts of faculty members considered followers of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Alternative? 

In light of all the changes affecting the education sector, one wonders what will replace themes and ideas that were promoted in textbooks for years. The trans-nationalism of the Muslim Brotherhood might be replaced with more Saudi nationalism. Relaxing social restrictions and introducing more social reforms will eventually weaken the conservative structure, especially since the majority of youth is supportive of reforms.

The decision by Ahmed Al-Issa to include Ghazi Al-Gosaibi’s book A Life in Management as a textbook in high school is a positive step. The late former Minister of Labor was a constant victim of harassment by conservatives who criticized his views, writings and work. Introducing his books in school is an important step towards acknowledging figures who strive to modernize regardless of the criticism they face.

Haya Al-Awad, Deputy Minister of Education, at the International Exhibition and Forum for Education

Earlier this week, Haya Al-Awad, Deputy Minister of Education, attended the International Exhibition and Forum for Education without wearing her face veil. Al-Awad’s decision caused a wide backlash among Saudis on social media who were critical of her action. Supporters considered it a “personal choice”, and hoped that this will allow a more lenient dress code for Saudi female students who are required to cover their faces by some universities. Al-Awad can be seen as setting a positive example, as the highest female official in the education sector, to other female students in the country.




How Genuine are Reforms Targeting Women in Saudi Arabia? A Comparison between Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Reforms targeting women in Saudi Arabia have generated mixed reactions. Some expressed optimism with reforms introduced thus far in comparison to the slow pace experienced over the past years which was meant to accommodate the conservative faction of society. The “shock therapy” technique followed by the new leadership emphasizes the importance of introducing reforms with full force regardless of the backlash this might create.

Others have expressed lack of enthusiasm, arguing that the reforms are superficial and cosmetic. They call for total abolishing of the guardianship system because it imposes restrictions on women’s movement, discriminate against them and does not give them their full rights as Saudi citizens. The demands for abolishing the guardianship system can be heard daily on social media. In an unprecedented move earlier this week, two female members of the Shura Council presented a recommendation to limit the male guardianship system.

However, there are those who question the genuineness of reforms targeting women, especially that they coincided with the government’s plan to modernize the country as part of Saudi Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia’s alley and close friend in the region, the United Arab Emirates, has been compared to the recent modernization efforts since the UAE created its national identity based on modernity and women’s empowerment.

Traditional, Modern and National Identity 

Hissa Al Dhaheri’s analysis of “Women and Nation Building: The Case of the United Arab Emirates” can give some insight into the similarities and differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding women’s empowerment and national identity. Al Dhaheri argues that, “Because the status of women represents how ‘modern’ a nation is, then the role of women is an important marker for a country and its progress.” (287) As a result, women have been portrayed as “traditional and authentic” yet “modern” as part of the country’s construction of its national identity that seems women as “both representative of change and carriers of tradition.” (288)

A Saudi initiative launched in February 2018 to highlight achievements by Saudi women (@SheSaudiArabia) represents some striking resemblance with the depiction of UAE women as both traditional and modern. In the coming video, an unveiled woman is seen talking about her achievements. She says “I’m traditional, I’m modern, I’m a career woman and I’m a mother.” The woman is seen, then, taking off a wig to show her actual veil which is meant to demonstrate the negative attitudes towards successful veiled women and the refusal to acknowledge their achievements. In any case, one wonders if being “modern” yet “traditional” will be of importance in the new Saudi Arabia that has formed its identity in the past around being religious and conservative. 

The Case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE

In the UAE, women’s empowerment was one of the “tools” that was used to construct the national identity. As the country required vast numbers of expatriate workers to develop its infrastructure, the creation of a national identity was vital to “define themselves against the ‘others.'” (275) Indigenous Emiratis needed the “authentic” dimension to set them apart from foreigners, whereas the “modern” dimension of the national identity was meant “to send a message that the UAE is a stable state in the middle of a politically volatile region.” (276)

Saudi Arabia did not have an overwhelming number of foreign workers, however, it did construct its national identity based on the challenges experienced in the country and the region. Religion has always been important, and even more so after the siege of Mecca in 1979. In the late 1990s, nationalism was introduced as a subject to be taught in school for boys and not for girls. For two years, there were no textbook for the subject as teachers were responsible for teaching the subject the way they saw suitable.

In the UAE, women constituted an important paradigm in national identity formation. Emirati women, “create and carry the culture with their bodies, appearance and performativity.” (289) In Saudi Arabia, the sahwa era limited the participation of women in different sectors in the country. When the decision to allow women to work in shops was announced in 2012, many conservatives fought aggressively against it.

Emirati women have been given high posts in different sectors across the country. In 2007, nine women wore sworn in as members of the UAE Federal National Council. In 2008, “Kholoud Ahmed Juwan Al Dhahiri was appointed as the first woman judge in the country” (286). In 2016, Ohood bint Khalfan Roumi was named as the Minister of Happiness, a position that was created that year. Shamma Al-Mazrui was appointed Youth Minister, making her the world’s youngest minister at the age of 22.

Minister of Happniess Ohood bint Khalfan Roumi (Reem Mohammed via The National)

The Challenges of Reforms in Saudi Arabia 

In the past few months, Saudi women were allowed to enter football stadiums, drive their own cars and to apply for jobs in airports and land border-crossings.  Women can also serve as soldiers in the country’s internal security forces. Reema bint Bandar is the first woman to head the Saudi Sports Federation and Tamadur Al Ramah is the first to be appointed as Deputy Labour Minister.

Women in the UAE have been integrated into the workforce and have occupied high positions in government and in various sectors across the country.  On the hand, women in Saudi Arabia had limited job prospects for decades. Now, the government is trying to infiltrate women into a dominantly male-only job environment. Saudi women on social media create an added dimension to the debate as they constantly voice their concerns regarding the male guardianship system as it stands in their way of employment. Modernization efforts and reforms targeting women are constantly challenged by the restrictiveness of this system.

Now, more and more Saudis are distancing themselves from the sahwa religious identity of the past. Instead of portraying themselves as conservative and religious, Saudis are increasingly aware of their “Saudi” identity. This trend is mostly relevant among the youth and those who do not consider themselves as conservative. On the other hand, conservative Saudis use the religious national identity of the past to further reject reforms targeting women. To them, what constitutes a true Saudi woman is being religious and conservative. Will Saudi Arabia try to create a new national identity that accepts and allow more integration of women in society as the UAE did? And how will they construct a new identity without deconstructing the old one?