Institut d’études politiques de Paris
This paper was prepared for “Political Sociology of the Contemporary Arab State,” taught
by Professor Stéphane LACROIX of the Paris School of International Affairs
SECURITY & IDENTITY IN SAUDI ARABIA
By: Faisal Abdullah Abulhassan
The name “Saudi Arabia” accurately describes the nation’s reigning dynasty and geographic location, but falls short of properly create a correct image of the Saudi people. This is due to the lack of a national identity in the Kingdom amongst its homogeneous population. A union of vastly different regions and peoples, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has thus far come to naught in securing its fifth border - the identity of its citizens. In a world where conflict is no longer limited to the land, sea and sky the formulation of an enduring “Saudi” national identity is essential to the stability, continuity and unity of the Saudi State. By reviewing the historical composition and diverse populations that make up the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, this essay seeks to highlight the bonds that have held the various peoples that are Saudis together. It also seeks to analyse the bonds that have failed. While the Kingdom’s four natural borders in the north, south, east and west are thoroughly protected militarily; it is increasingly vulnerable to internal conflict over who exactly is “Saudi,” as well as to the creation of fifth columns. Therefore, this essay argues it is the Royal Family institutionalised that holds the key to creating, strengthening, and stabilising a national identity for the Saudi people.
Citizenship, identity, national security, Saudi, society
The Fifth Border: Securing a National Identity in Saudi Arabia
What’s in a name? A nation covering over 80% of the Arabian Peninsula founded and ruled by the Al Saud dynasty, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a most appropriately yet vaguely named nation-state. The name denotes its geography and reigning dynasty and connotes either the birthplace of Islam and Muslims, or the fossil fuel industry and oil, or both. Yet both its denotation and connotation fail to describe its inhabitants ash-sha’ab as-sa’udi, the Saudi people. Neither all members of the reigning dynasty nor all members of the Arabian tribes; the idea of who is “Saudi” and what it means to be Saudi is not understood even by Saudis themselves. This lack of definition and malleability leads not only to internal socio-political debates, but leaves room for manipulation from not only those outside the societal mainstream, such as by fundamentalist groups, but also by those outside the Kingdom itself. Bordered by the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf in the west and east; by the Nafud Desert and Empty Quarter in the north and south; the lack of a national identity of Saudis poses a penetrable fifth border. The formulation of an enduring “Saudi” national identity is essential to the stability, continuity and unity of the Saudi State.
Historical Composition of the Saudi State
The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the result of the third and most recent attempt of the Al Saud dynasty to establish an Islamic monarchy over the Arabian Peninsula. Declared on the 23rd of September 1932, its origins date back to the Pact of Diriyyah between the Emir of Al-Dirriyah, Mohammed bin Saud and the religious reformer and puritan scholar Mohammed bin Abdulwahab (eponym of “Wahhabism”) in c. 1156 anno hegiræ, 1744 AD 1 Thus was born ad-dowlah assa’udiyyah al awlah, or the First Saudi State. After temporarily annexing the Hejaz with the holy places of Makkah and Madinah, and significantly sacking the Shia shrines of Ali and Hussein in Karbala^2, it was ended and crushed by an Egyptianmanned Ottoman army in 1818. It was succeeded by a much smaller Second Saudi State centered on Najd in central Arabia, which eventually collapsed due to political infighting between Al Saud heirs in 1891, allowing the Ottoman sultan as caliph and nominal suzerain to recognise another dynasty, the Al Rasheed, as kaymakam or governors-general of central Arabia.3 The Third Saudi State, the contemporary kingdom, is the result of a 30-year process (c. 1902-1932) by Abdulaziz “Ibn Saud” bin Abdulrahman Al Saud during what is now known as tawhid al mamlakah, the unification of the kingdom.
Far from being a homogeneous state with alike populations, the creation of Saudi Arabia was truly the unification of four historic regions: the Hejaz in the west, Najd in the center, Al Hasa in the east, and ‘Asir in the southwest. Moreover, each region itself contained heterogeneous populations: distinct central and southern tribes dominating in Najd and ‘Asir respectively, while maintaining an important presence in non-urban regions of the Hejaz and Al Hasa. The Hejaz contained three historic mercantile urban centres in Jeddah and the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, while urban populations were also found in Qassim in Najd and Al Hasa and Qatif in the East. Finally, while puritan interpretations of Islam (erroneously known as “Wahhabism”) held sway over Najdi populations and their dependencies; the majority of the east in Al Hasa and Qatif were Shia; while the Hejaz was home to a majority Shafi’i population, with Turkish administrators and some others adhering of the official Ottoman Hanafi school of jurisprudence.
Bonds that Unite
The call, or message of Abdulaziz “Ibn Saud” Al Saud (c. 1876 – 1953), the founder of the modern kingdom, was that of Islam: in light of the collapse and mismanagement of the Ottoman caliphate in Arabia and its brief successors in the Hejaz, the Hashemites, the resurgent Al Saud proposed an all-encompassing identity. It was an identity based on the shared Muslim (albeit the puritan Najdi ulama’s interpretation of Islam) identity of the various populations and acceptance of the leadership of the ruler and his dynasty. Through over 20 unions and around 40 sons, King Abdulaziz was able to gain bay’ah, or “allegiance” of the tribes of Arabia. Lack of a tribal society and severe differences in Islamic interpretations, however proved more difficult to reconcile, and other forms at creating adhesion would prove necessary in bonding the Hejaz and Al Hasa to the State.
Co-opting the Merchants of the Hejaz
Al Saud rule in the Hejaz has followed the traditional pattern observed by Ibn Khaldun in his c. 779 anno hegiræ, 1377 AD, Muqaddimah: an outside, traditional force establishing themselves as rulers after assumed temporalisation had led to the weakening and eventual and fall of the previous administration. In the Hejaz, the withdrawal of the Ottomans was followed by a brief and unpopular Hashemite administration, which particularly ignored and alienated the merchant elite of the port city of Jeddah and the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Abdulaziz conquered the Hejaz in December 1925 while still Sultan of Najd. In a nod to the wishes of the religiously distinct and urban Hejazi populations, Abdulaziz took the title of “King of Najd and the Hejaz” as opposed to his previous sultanic style, to please his newfound Hejazi subjects. A major factor of Al Saud legitimacy in the Hejaz was their success at providing safe passages to al haramayn, the Two Holy Mosques.7 While bay’ah of sheikhs was easily gained and guaranteed loyalty of entire tribes, urban Hejazi society lacked cohesive allinclusive
leaders. The merchant elite would fill this void. For them, the Al Saud secured monopolies and an expanded market throughout the peninsula. The Ottoman and consequently Hashemite mayor of Jeddah, Al-Hajj Abdullah Alireza, was asked to stay on as governor in a gesture that implied the Hejaz still belonged to the Hejazis. Alireza and the merchants of the Hejaz lent to Abdulaziz the money necessary to maintain his government in the Hejaz after they surrendered it from Hashemite rule. Hejazi merchant families arose from the merger with prestige.
Later, when internal problems erupted between King Saud (r. 1953-1964) and his Crown Prince, later King Faisal; it was Mohammed Abdullah Alireza and the Hejazi merchant class again, who organised a mahrajan, a traditional gathering to swear loyalty to a leader, in downtown Jeddah, symbolically presenting Prince Faisal with a golden key to the city, guaranteeing to Faisal the loyalty of the Hejaz to the monarchy under his leadership. Co-option of elites, along with allegiance, became the bond of the Hejaz to the monarchy.
Despite the presence of many radicalised Hejazis who rejected the monarchy and embraced fundamentalism during as-sahwa al-islamiyyah, or the “Islamic awakening” between the 1970’s and 1990’s the bonds of the Hejaz to the State are contemporarily strong. The bonds of the Hejaz to this day to the monarchy are particularly externalised by Al Faisal princes who reside in Jeddah and who employ in their fiefdom, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the majority of the civil servants of Hejazi extraction. The division of the historic Hejaz into separate provinces with separate centres is interesting to note and may be of some relevance to that region’s populations’ current bonds to the State.
Coercing the East: The Subdual of the Shia
Unlike the Hejaz, the bonds tying the east to the Kingdom would be in the form of coercement. The official puritan theology of the state left no space for Shia rituals. With the discovery of oil, the region received an influx of Sunni immigrants from both Najd and the Hejaz in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It would face another massive immigration, this time from the Sunni tribal population of ‘Asir in the 1990’s after the implementation of Saudisation. The suppression of Shia rituals until the 1993 entente between Shia exiles and then-King Fahad has left an unpleasant idea of being Saudi in the minds of native Saudi Shia of the Eastern Province. The bonds of the Shia to the State are the newest and weakest contemporarily. Shia critics have historically criticised that the monarchy disrupted the historic interdependence of the Hejaz, Najd and Al Hasa reducing the regions to reliance on Najd.
The subjugation of Shia populations to more discriminatory measures is believed to have be a modern response to failed uprisings of Saudi Shia following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the politicisation of Shia worldwide. Aside from the 2003 National Dialogue, when Sunni and Shia clerics met and discussed religion with one another for the first time at the behest of the Royal Government; the ascension of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz as king in 2005 marked a turning point in the relation of Shia citizens to the State. King Abdullah is seen as a champion of reform, not only for enfranchising Saudi women and liberalising the education system, but also for his relation to the Shia community. Many Shia leaders went to Riyadh at his ascension to make bay’ah. Allegiance pledges from Shia clerics have continued throughout King Abdullah’s reign, however, two issues have strained the nascent relationship of the Saudi State to its Shia citizens: the nuclear proliferation of Iran and the Saudi-Iranian detente and the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council intervention against the majority-Shia unrest in Bahrain in the spring of 2011.
John Teitelbaum (2010) describes the situation of Saudi Shia clearly in an article for Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, stating, “There are two important political elements that constantly impact the fate of Saudi Shiites. One is internal—the Wahhabi ulama and their rank-and-file followers. The other is external—Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main political and religious rival across the Gulf.” The weak bonds of the Shia to the State not only cause concern for national unity, it also highlights the frailty of the Saudi identity in general and the national security concerns of influence from abroad and the potential for the creation of fifth-columns caused by such weaknesses. Despite a tumultuous past, Saudi Shia are proud of their historic presence in the Arabian Peninsula. The past two decades especially have seen Shia intellectuals in the Kingdom embracing civil society discourse, and speaking of a kingdom of all its citizens.The remedy, therefore, is the securing of an enduring “Saudi” national identity: the Kingdom’s fifth border.
National Security Threats
Warfare and conflict are no longer solely to the realm of states, and are no longer limited to land, sea and sky. They are also in the minds of populations. A strategic military alliance with the United States and a generous military expenditure secure the Kingdom’s physical borders. It’s fifth border, however, is the identity of Saudis themselves. This frontier is the most critical in the globalised world of the 21st century, and no military alliance or weapons purchase can rescue the Kingdom from penetration and attack on this front. Since 1946, of the over 350 military conflicts, only 44 have been formalised wars between nationstates. Many modern conflicts are once again ideologically based, and the world may be seeing a return to the ideological conflicts of the early 20th century. As ideologically based irregular warfare becomes increasingly a norm, it behooves the Saudi state to take proactive measures to guarantee the stability and continuity of the nation. A more inclusive and abstract approach to national security is critical. The development of a national identity and national solidarity of and for Saudis, therefore is paramount to the interest of the State. If the people are the center of gravity of the security of a nation; it could even be defeated militarily and yet still prevail. This is the sort of continuity the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ought to strive for.
Identity and Energy Security in the Eastern Province
In particular, formulation of an enduring “Saudi” national identity, inclusive of the Shia, would prevent the development of an Iranian-supported Shiite vilayat-i faqih-esque fifth column. Not only does the alienation of the Saudi Shia pose a threat to the continuity stability, and unity of the Saudi state; it also poses a risk to the energy sector and its security. Shia populations are overwhelmingly found in the Eastern Province, home to the nation’s oil fields. The lack of a national identity is a severe vulnerability of the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have thus far been immune to the general trend of states affected by the “resource curse.” It is worth noting, however, that oil tends to be associated with separatist conflicts, and has historically cause groups in oil producing regions of larger-states tend to feel sidelined and marginalised. If a disillusioned minority develops an ideology of the mineral wealth rightfully belonging to them, separatist conflict breaks out. It is therefore not unbelievable to imagine an assertive Shia separatist movement in the Eastern Province, especially given their estrangement from the State. Here it is worth noting two minor, but noteworthy events in the Saudi Eastern Province: Qatifi protesters in June 2012 carried banner reading “This is the Republic of Al Hasa and Al Qatif and not the Wahhabi Kingdom of Al Saud.” There also exists a groupuscule calling itself “Eastern Province Revolution,” openly seeking the fall of the Al Saud dynasty.
While inclusion of the Kingdom’s Shia populations into mainstream Saudi society should be at the forefront of the discussion on national identity, there exists an equally important issue to be highlighted, which is the definition of what is meant by the term al asl as-sa’udi, or “Saudi origins.” There seems to be no doubt as to whether a member of any tribe of Najd is of “real” Saudi asl. Hejazis in particular, and other regions of the kingdom have less solid socially accepted claims to being “original” Saudis. During his infamous blasphemy case in 2012, Jeddah-native Hamzah Kashgari was denounced as being “not originally Saudi,” because of his family’s Turkmen ancestry, not only by many Saudis on Twitter25, but even by a prominent Najdi cleric. The “Saudi” noun and adjective created at the union of the Hejaz, Najd and their dependencies, has somehow evolved to be the exclusive domain of Najdis who solely can claim to be “originally” Saudi and hence the “Najdification” of mainstream society. In entrenching itself the State portrays the nation as a megatribe, with the citizens as members of the tribe and with the monarchy as its sheikh. The tribal discourse being externalised in Articles IX and X of the 1992 Basic Law declaring the family as the nucleus of society and that the state shall promote familial bonds. There is one issue, however: the large portion of Saudi citizens who do not come from tribal backgrounds. Worth mentioning as well is the existence in Najd of an indigenous non-tribal population, the khedeiris.Their misfortune, however, is seen as a social taboo not to be discussed. Furthermore, glorification of a tribal identity impedes the dignity of Saudis of nontribal origins. People feel a sense of humiliation when their dignity is violated. Justice and dignity of all Saudis is of foremost concern for the continuity, security and stability of the Saudi state. While the Hejazi population remains unlikely to pose a threat to the national security of the Kingdom as the Shia population may, it does preventing internal national unity. The self-exiled Hejazi Mai Yamani views Hejazis’ emphasis on their regional heritage, food, dress and dialects as evidence of vitality of diversity in response to the “Najdification” of mainstream Saudi society. When the autumn 2012 ban on shisha cafes was implemented in Jeddah, another self-exiled Saudi, Ebtihal Mubarak, wrote on the “Najdification effort by the government that has been going on for decades.” While both Yamani and Mubarak represent acute minority opinions, the mainstream acceptance of “Najdi” as the standard for what is “Saudi” does appear to be factual. When Abdullah Ahmed Zainal Alireza was appointed Minister of Commerce in 2008, articles began to appear detailing the Alireza family, widely known to have immigrated from Persia in the early 19th century, and their supposed descent from the Al Quraish tribe, migration to Iran during the early years of Islam and return to the peninsula in the early 1800’s. Discussion of the family’s supposed tribal origins (more probably lack thereof) must have been irrelevant in the early era of the nation during their service to the Kingdom in its early years, as it was never mentioned in the appointments of various members of the family to government positions. It would seem as though the initial concept of being “Saudi” was more inclusive than the Najdo-tribal image assumed today. Crippling Hejazi ascendancy in the Saudi society will only create contempt for the Saudi state and everything it stands for. The Hejaz was a founding member of Saudi Arabia, a constituent country of sorts. Its culture, lexicon, and most importantly, its people, are and should rightly be viewed as really, originally Saudis.
The Royal Family and National Identity
At the core of the Saudi identity is the reigning Al Saud dynasty, and rightly so. Not only does the Royal Family represent the sole commonality between the regions’ varied history (the only times that the Hejaz, Najd, Al Hasa and ‘Asir have been politically united, aside from the early Caliphate, has been under the AlSaud but the very name of the nation and its citizen derive from them: Saudi Arabia, Saudis, Al Saud. The nation is not only eponymously named for its reigning dynasty, the dynasty itself is at the very center of Saudi society and as such occupies a unique and arbitrary role as broker: between the tribes, between the religious establishment and the laity, between the landed Hejazi business elites and the Najdi nouveau-riche entrepreneurial class, between the previous generation and the roughly 60% of the population under the age of 30. It has the potential to be the broker between its own Shia subjects and greater Saudi society as well.
Princes as Social Brokers
Individuals are linked to the State in Saudi Arabia vertically through various top-bottom relationships, ending at a prince. Not only has this prevented class structures from emerging as a source of conflict and strife, it has allowed for the indigenous concept of shura, or consultation to develop. Princes have direct access to various areas of Saudi society, giving them an opportune and unique role to play in fostering a national identity centered on the monarchy. As the rule of the AlSaud dynasty is collective (and not as a single absolute monarch,) it acts as a social group (being thousands of members strong.) The Al Saud dynasty can thus allow for its own institutionalisation as the basis of an enduring Saudi national identity. The development of a strong national identity, patriotism and civic duty centered on Islam and the Royal Family would greatly stabilise and unify Saudis.
The formulation of a coherent national identity would protect the State and stabilise it for the long-term. The monarchy serves the nation so long as it manages the State well. The Saudi people in turn support the monarchy so long as it delivers. The Kingdom was founded in a unique moment in history, which has given it an unprecedented opportunity to develop a completely native history, narrative and form of government in a region plagued by imperialism and intervention. The Land of the Two Holy Mosques and Islam, the historic and unifying role of the Al Saud dynasty, the discovery of oil: all highlight and make up the narrative that is Saudi Arabia and foundations of a Saudi identity. An identity is needed now more than ever.
Although homogeneity is assumed, the truth is ash-sha’ab as-sa’udi, the Saudi people, are as diverse as the regions presenting compromising the Kingdom. A common history of unity under the monarchy, a common connection to the land of the various regions, and a common eagerness to live and prosper as Muslims does represent the aspiration and foundation of a common national identity for all Saudis. Not only will a strong national identity simmer internal socio-political debates, but it will leave little room for manipulation from not only those outside the societal mainstream, but also by those outside the Kingdom itself. Bordered by the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf in the west and east; and by the Nafud Desert and Empty Quarter in the north and south; a national identity of Saudis will serve as a reinforced and impenetrable fifth border. The formulation of an enduring “Saudi” national identity is essential to the stability, continuity and unity of the Saudi State.