MESA Banner
Scripting Change in Saudi Arabia: Narratives and Narrators, Policies and Policymakers

Session IV-13, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
The past half-decade has witnessed major policy shifts and political recalculations in Saudi Arabia: a more circumscribed clerical establishment in the “Country of the Two Holy Mosques,” smaller and more selective benefits from the Kingdom’s welfare programs, a greater role for popular entertainment and Saudi women after decades of policies that sought to suppress them from the public sphere. While these changes have garnered considerable media attention, scholars have only begun to unpack the mechanisms of change as well as critical antecedents for this apparent “critical juncture” in Saudi politics and society. The papers in this panel join a growing body of scholarship that aims to do so by focusing on specific aspects of “the new Saudi Arabia,” including the changing role of the religious establishment, class (re)formation, populist policy narratives, and the (re)incorporation of regional identities into a new Saudi nationalism. Together, they complicate the narrative of sudden, dramatic change in Saudi Arabia by placing new Saudi narratives and policies in the context of similar developments in the remaining Gulf monarchies, the current global historical moment, and the Kingdom’s own history. In doing so, they bring policy changes into conversation with past transformations in state-society relations throughout the Middle East and North Africa, while highlighting the role played by identity entrepreneurs, policy innovators, education officials and international consultants in structuring present-day change in Saudi Arabia.
Political Science
  • Thirty years ago, when the constitutional Basic Law was announced, King Fahad gave a speech which epitomized the official narrative of Saudi state history. “In modern history,” he said, “the First Saudi state emerged…when a covenant was made between two men: Imam Mohammed bin Saud and Shiekh Muhammed bin Abdulwahhab.” The former was the ancestor of the al-Saud dynasty, and the latter was the founder of the Wahhabi religious movement. On January 27, 2022, Fahad’s brother king Salman issued a royal decree designating the 22nd of February to be a national holiday called the “Foundation Day.” According to the decree, this day commemorates “the beginning of the reign of Imam Mohammed bin Saud and his foundation of the First Saudi state.” What was erased in this new sanctioned narrative was Muhammed bin Abdulwahhab and his movement. Indeed, this decision is the culmination of a steady process of separation between the Saudi state and the Wahhabi movement. The significance of this shift in the relationship between the state and religion stems from the fact that Saudi Arabia is the place of the two holy cities of Islam and its role in the global dissemination of Wahhabism, financing of Muslim institutions around the world, and its hegemonic influence on Islam as a religion in the past half a century. How might we explain this shift? Why would a state break with its main source of legitimacy and adopt a risky approach of introducing a new national narrative that centers a transformed relationship with religion? In answering these questions, this paper goes beyond explaining the shift as either a regime survival strategy or an inevitable secularized byproduct of modernization. Relying on methods of discourse analysis and process tracing, this paper argues that this shift was a result of an intellectual movement known domestically as “Tanwīrīs,” or the enlightened ones, which sought to democratize and secularize the Saudi state. This movement dominated the political and cultural scene in Saudi Arabia from the late 1990s to the early 2010s. Although the Tanwīrīs were crushed and its democratization efforts failed with the rise of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, its criticism of Wahhabism and the alternative vision it offered for the country was its legacy. By highlighting the movement’s impact, this paper challenges the modernist/traditionalist binary through which the Saudi history is often told and complicates our understanding of the role of religion in politics.
  • Saudi Arabia's shura council has for a good deal of its history been a technocratic body with a notably narrow regional and social representation. Its composition reflected the dominance of educated elites from the Western and Central regions of Saudi Arabia. Though, this dominance started to weaken starting with the council's era under the late King Abdullah, the council's representation has seen a significant shift since the ascent of King Salam to power. This change in the composition of the council in many ways exemplifies the changing demographics of Saudi Arabia as well as the more inclusive new identity the Saudi state aims to foster. The council effectively shifted from a regional narrow technocratic body to one whose Vice Speaker, General Secretary, and Assistant Speaker are women and members of under represented tribes.
  • Gulf monarchies are not immune to the global rise in populist movements, despite their wealth and generous welfare systems. The adoption of austerity measures alongside the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of political and business elites is fueling a populist response, visible on social media and in Gulf parliaments. To counter these challenges and to advance their own ruling agendas, ruling family-led governments have adopted different tactics, including suppression, cooptation, and the adoption of populist rhetoric. This paper will analyze the Saudi government's strategy of adopting populist rhetoric, and to some degree populist policies, as a means to insulate the leadership from populist backlash. This state rhetoric deploys all the characteristics of populist discourse, weaving together: 1) praise for the people as inherently virtuous and dutiful or disadvantaged; 2) a powerful dose of opposition to the establishment; and 3) a direct appeal to nationalistic or native pride. This rhetorical strategy has enabled the mobilization of popular support to take on entrenched state functionaries and to condemn political rivals. And perhaps most surprisingly, it has taken on a distinct anti-Islamist zeal in defiance of standing and previously state-enforced norms. Theoretically, this paper will aim to situate this case study within the broader populist literature as a revealing example of "populism from above," working through specific topics - anti-corruption campaigns/regime consolidation; gender/women's empowerment; nativism/foreign workers - to understand its inherent contradictions. It will draw upon primary sources in state-affiliated media, political speeches, and state policies. Select bibliography Rovira Kaltwasser, Cristobal, Paul A. Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Pierre Ostiguy, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Populism (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017). B. Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2016.) Valentine Moghadam and Gizem Kaftam, "Right-wing Populisms North and South: Varieties and Gender Dynamics," Women Studies International Forum, Vol. 75 (July-August 2019). Gilbert Ramsay and Sumayah Fatani, “The New Saudi Nationalism of the New Saudi Media,” in Mellor and Rinnawi, eds, Political Islam and Global Media: The Boundaries of Religious Identity (New York: Routledge, 2016): 187-203.
  • This paper's central question is how the shift in class (re)formation suits the new nationalism constructed under Saudi vision 2030? What are the strategies, practices, and aims behind pushing a discourse of socio-economic reforms on citizen-making processes? Moreover, what role of technical expertise and politics is shaping the common national sentiment around this ambitious project? New paradigms around citizens began to emerge in the context of modernization, citizen making, and nation-building. As a result, the Saudi state started to depend on international and local experts with managerial mindset and toolkit to shape its policies and approaches towards its young, ambitious nation. It is suited as part of a marketing campaign to depict Saudi nation as "relevant and modern" to the western gaze, global capital, and its subjects, repositioning its global image its imagined futures. The campaign has its intellectual base of technical experts and social media influencers asserting loyalty to the leadership and, most importantly, social reforms and economic reasons as the primary motive people choose their allegiances instead of identifying with a community based on shared political rights. They produce a national discourse aligned with the vision's strategic policies that maintain epistemological hegemony about the new nation's peoples, places, and events. As an outcome, we see an emerging class molded with an entrepreneurial attitude prepared for the global competitive market, an information-based economy that is responsive to the needs of the private sector, and a strong sense of belonging that helps align individual objectives with collective goals. Moreover, the process of citizen-making to harness Saudi subjects is visualized as a space and a byproduct of antagonistic struggle over reclaiming national and political rights. I argue that the Vison’s project and its intellectual base produce a social and economic reform discourse to rebrand the nation and its narration as means of depoliticization and class-formation of disciplinary citizens. Moreover, these technical experts and influencers substituting intellectuals in the national projects act as laboratories of public relations within the state and non-state apparatus for the social engineering nation-building project as central for legitimacy and maintenance of authoritarian rule. The paper aims to propose a framework for understanding the reconfiguration of sociopolitical space within the Saudi national discourse.This paper sheds light on Gulf studies drawing on the historical and political science theories of development, nationalism, and social engineering in Saudi Arabia and reverent experiences in the Global South.
  • In 2019, the Saudi Ministry of Education issued a series of changes to its educational curriculum. Consequently, Saudi textbooks now feature a new Saudi national history, one that highlights the country’s pre-Islamic past and adopts an anti-Ottoman stance to Ottoman history in the Arabian Peninsula. Many popular commentators explained this shift as “Turkophobia,” a symptom of a newly racialized Saudi nationalism, or political retribution after heightened Saudi-Turkey tensions following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Others point to ideological trends in the “new” Saudi Arabia, namely, its move away from religious nationalism, which necessitates sidelining its Islamic histories – both Wahhabī and Ottoman. In contrast, scholars of Saudi Arabia question the novelty of anti-Ottomanism and, instead, find its origins in Wahhabism or Sharifite Arab nationalism. Both popular and scholarly perspectives on anti-Ottomanism in Saudi Arabia do not sufficiently explain the current changes to Saudi textbooks. This paper will present two alternate arguments: first, it will show that the “new” Saudi national history relies on “old” narratives crafted and maintained locally for generations. These local narratives developed beyond the Saudi state and remained peripheral or absent from its national history. Furthermore, unlike the anti-Ottomanism in Hashemī Arab nationalism and Wahhabism, these local narratives reveal a more complex history of local-Ottoman encounters and contestations recorded in local social memory. To illustrate this, the paper will turn to local archives, memoirs, poetry collections, oral histories, and religious texts of one Najdī town: al-Russ of the al-Qassim region. Historically located along a main trade route, al-Russ was often the first of its neighboring towns to face various political incursions over time. Notably, al-Russ’ early histories and collective memory narrate a city-centric communal identity that emphasizes al-Russ’ heroic encounters with the Ottoman campaign of 1817-1818, when Ibrahim Paşa reached al-Qassim on his path to al-Dar’iyyah to end the “first” Saudi state. Second, this paper will argue that the Ministry of Education’s decision to feature local anti-Ottomanism in Saudi textbooks is part of a larger historical revisionist project: the “Saudization” of local memory and city or regional historical plurality. Differing from previous Saudi national projects, this project relies equally on recovery as it does erasure. While this is most evident in the increase in regional heritage projects, this paper showcases that it is also apparent in the “new” national historical record, where the official recovery of “forgotten,” local histories occurs simultaneously with their “remembrance” as Saudi local phenomena.