Saudi National Identity

By Abdullah Hamidaddin

What is the Saudi national identity?

I will begin by stating what should not and cannot be a foundation for a Saudi national identity:

First, it is not nationality. One can be Saudi without a Saudi national identity; that is he would only carry official Saudi identification papers. By contrast, there are people who don’t have the nationality but they feel they are “Saudi.”

Second, it does not mean the willingness to sacrifice for Saudi Arabia, or patriotism. One can belong to a country and not sacrifice for it. Not because he does not believe in it, but rather because he believes it is forbidden to bear arms and kill, or because he is afraid for his life. One can even betray his country without that necessarily meaning he does not have a national identity. One can be a foreigner and be more nationalistic than the nationals. This is the case for many expatriates in Saudi Arabia who belong to this country and maybe even more patriotic when it comes to Saudi Arabia that those those who have a nationality. I am not trying to deemphasize the importance of sacrifice for the country or patriotism, but I just want to state that it is different from national identity.

Third, national identity is not based on sources of affinity or mutual understanding such as having a common language, culture and religion. For the following reasons:

Language —any language— cannot be the foundation of a political identity. Because sharing a language does not mean the existence of any common objective or vision. On the contrary making language a foundation of a political identity dilutes national identity, because it prioritizes belonging to language before belonging to country. And if Arabic was the foundation of political identities then a person would be an Arab first, and a Saudi second. Moreover, it may even render being Saudi useless.

Common culture also cannot be the foundation of a Saudi national identity. For national identity should be unifying, shared and identical factor among all. Whereas culture by nature is a differentiating, private and diverse among all. Attempting to make culture the foundation for national identity would make us lose both. You lose national identity because you try to build it on what is different from it by nature. And you lose culture because you have to cancel the basic properties of culture in order to make it the foundation for national identity. The nature of the national identity is that it is unifying. The nature of culture is that it is diverse. The result of building the unifying upon the diverse is that you lose both. This is what happened in Saudi Arabia to a large extent. The attempts to suppress some of the local cultures resulted in a cultural flattening, the loss of the power of diversity and a frail national identity.

Religion also cannot be the foundation of national identity. Religion is certainly a foundation for the life of individuals, and it shapes an important part of their social and political relationships. But Saudi Arabia is not unique from other countries in being “Muslim.” And Saudis are not unique from other peoples in being Muslims. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia are all Muslim countries with Muslims living in them. To say Islam is the identity of the country or a national identity means the loss of differentiation. And just because the Saudi state decided to make Islam its official religion does not mean that its identity is Islamic. It just means that some legislation would be based on Islam. I say “some” because most life aspects in Saudi Arabia are governed by political and financial principles that are not drawn from Islam, some of it like modern banking and foreign policy even contradicts with Islam according to the strict Salafi interpretation. Moreover, Saudi Arabia does not introduce itself before other countries as the Muslim state while other countries are non-Muslim states. When the Saudi representative at the United Nations sits amongst the Christian representative of Great Britain, the Buddhist representative of Thailand, and the Hindu representative of India, he does not introduce himself as the Muslim vis-à-vis the Christian vis-à-vis the Buddhist vis-à-vis the Hindu.

If we want to compare between a country with a religious identity and Saudi Arabia, we would choose Israel. It is no doubt a country with a religious national identity, and it introduces itself as “the Jewish” state. Any Jew has the right to be there and deserves to get its citizenship immediately. This is unlike Saudi Arabia, clearly. Saudi Arabia does not introduce itself as “the Islamic” state. The 1.5 billion Muslims around the world have no right in Saudi Arabia just because they are Muslims, and not any Muslim can get the Saudi citizenship. In the final analysis Saudis are Muslims, but it is not that which makes them unique or different from other Muslims and non-Muslims. It is identity which makes us unique, and it is identity that differentiates us, and because it is identity that warrants our existence as Saudis vis-à-vis the existence of others, we cannot consider religion as our national identity because that would mean diluting the Saudi national identity among the rest of Muslims. A national identity is what would differentiate a Saudi from others. Religion is a common between us and others.

Fourth, the national identity is not the shared historical memory, because there is no such thing as a shared historical memory for all Saudis. Each region has its own history, heroes, moments of glory and previous ‘states’. This is not a problem in itself as it diversifies the historical roots owned by the people of this country. Because some see shared memory as a foundation of national identity, there are ongoing attempts to suppress the diversity of such memory and even erase it altogether leading to negative responses and the crises in national identity that we witness today.

The previous four are not foundations for the national identity; any national identity. Regarding them as such has resulted in many problems when it comes to the development of the idea of a “nation” and the idea of “citizenship” in Saudi Arabia.

What can be a pillar for Saudi national identity is participation in building the Saudi nation and this is based on two concepts:

First, the concept that considers a country as a “shared land associated by an active and embodied will to the creation of a state,” i.e. the idea of a nation is based on the idea of a will to create a state within the borders of a specific area of land. Therefore, an individual belongs to the nation to the degree that is of that will. This belonging elevates the individual from being a mere beneficiary of the resources of a country to becoming a citizen; from being a subject to a participant in building the state and the nation. And this is the most important factor that would make a nation part of an individual’s cause and life project. There is a proportional relationship between Saudi national identity and the active participation of its citizens in building the Saudi nation. The more I, as a Saudi, feel that I participate in building the nation, the more I have a national identity. The less I feel that I participate in that process, the weaker my national identity becomes.

Second, is the concept of a “society of shared experience”, i.e: Saudi society is constructed by a common will, and the state which embodies and represents that will functions to encourage and empower its citizens to live a shared experience that becomes the foundation for building a common national discourse and a basis for national identity. To create this shared experience, the state opens up doors for public freedoms be it related to freedom of expression in all its forms, freedom of assembly, and freedom of establishing civil organizations and activities. Because it is those freedoms that will facilitate an overlapping public interaction between the Saudi public, and a space to construct a common political, social, economical, cultural and religious discourse that represents all members of society and constructive of the country they live in. Any constraints on such freedoms would stifle national identity.

What is happening in Saudi Arabia is the exact opposite of what I’m saying here. Things that are not foundational for national identity have been emphasized, and the foundations of national identity have been ignored. The individual in Saudi Arabia does not feel that he is participating in nation building. He does not feel that his will is part of the nation’s foundations. Therefore, he cannot accept the idea of a Saudi national identity. A Saudi feels he is benefiting from the resources of the country more than that he is a citizen. A Saudi feels he is a subject and not a partner in building a nation for all.

Building a “society of shared experience” has also been ignored. What happened in Saudi Arabia was actually the antithesis of it. The focus was on creating a “society of shared privileges”. Instead of trying to create a shared experience for Saudis, the state has worked to create privileges granted to Saudis in basic life necessities like education, healthcare, ownership and trade. The goal was to give them a shared sense of privilege in the hope that it would form a foundation for a national identity. Unfortunately, the result was racism, discrimination and abuse of others, with tragic human consequences and a damaged national identity. Even worse, racism and the negative sense of exceptionalism have developed to become basic elements of the Saudi psychology. It has created the Saudi as an exploiter of government resources and of the lives of expatriates. “I am Saudi” now implies the extent which I can take from the state and what are the opportunities of exploiting foreigners that I will have. In a way, what happened is that the “society of shared privileges” has created a shared experience between Saudis and their state but not among Saudis themselves.

This is why the national identity is weak and diluted to the point where there is almost a universal agreement between most Saudis that a common understanding of such identity does not exist.

Abdullah Hamidaddin is a political analyst. This article was first published in Arabic on his blog. Photo by Charles Roffey.