Saudi Arabia’s struggle to define national identity

Even as it allows women to drive, the regime arrests those who championed such reform. The contradiction reflects a deeper need for a unifying identity based on universal civic values.

AP Photo/Loujain al-Hathloul/file
A 2014 image made from video released by Loujain al-Hathloul shows her driving before her arrest in Saudi Arabia. Rights activists, including women who pushed for the right to drive, have been detained since May 15, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who was previously arrested in 2014 for more than 70 days for criticizing the government online and pushing for the right to drive.

Most nations allow at least some public debate over issues, such as economic policy or the role of social media. In Saudi Arabia, the debate is even more basic: Are the Saudi people even a nation, one with a clear national identity?

That question has become more central lately as the monarchy – which is based on the ruling Al Saud family – has begun to make rapid reforms aimed at altering the way Saudis perceive themselves. 

The difficulty of this identity-shaping task is reflected in the government announcing last year that women would be allowed to drive starting June 24 but then deciding last week to arrest about a dozen people who had campaigned for this liberty. The reason for the arrests remains unclear. Perhaps the regime wants to take credit for the new policy or to send a signal that reform must be from the top down, not driven by dissidents.

The move reflects a wider struggle between the introduction of new values such as gender equality and the old authoritarianism, especially the strength of the conservative Muslim clergy. It also shows a people trying to define a universal civic identity beyond one based on traditional Arab customs and a strict interpretation of Islam.

The lyrics of the national anthem, written in 1984, mainly serve to glorify the king and Islam. Only in 2005 did the government introduce a “National Day.” And schools now include “national education.” Since 2016, a new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman, has begun radical change to wean the economy off oil revenues and ensure jobs for the nearly half of the population under 25 years old. To achieve that, he needs foreign investment and, to some degree, more social freedoms and an attractive national identity.

“Saudis don’t want to lose their identity but we want to be part of the global culture. We want to merge our culture with global identity,” the crown prince, who effectively rules day to day, told The Atlantic in an interview.

More Saudis may now see themselves as citizens of a state and not subjects of a monarchy. A 2016 survey of Saudi youth, for example, found 90 percent believe women have equal civil rights. Many want to assert individual rights as a check on centralized power. So far, however, the crown prince has shown little interest in political rights. He has arrested almost anyone who challenges the regime, including liberal intellectuals, outspoken clerics, and nearly 400 princes and businessmen accused of corruption.

Countries that are reaching for a more expansive identity must eventually settle on the governing virtues that best reflect the values of the people. Monarchies are usually not good in either defining those values or giving up power. Eventually, Saudi Arabia may be an exception, if it allows the people, including female dissidents, the freedom to define a national identity.

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