Riyadh celebrates the state’s founding, downplays the role of Wahhabi Islam

This date is complementary to the existing national holiday, 23 September. The new anniversary marks the day in 1727 when Muhammad bin Saud became the emir of Diriyah. The alliance with the religious leader Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab is downplayed. Celebrations included music and dancing, a new stage on bin Salman's process of reform.

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Saudi Arabia celebrated for the first time the founding of the first Saudi state almost 300 years ago with music, fireworks, drone shows and light effects and the participation of 3,500 performers with little reference to the country’s religious Wahhabi heritage.

The anniversary on 22 February marks the day in 1727 when Muhammad bin Saud Al Muqrin became the emir in Diriyah, a remote town that now lies on the northwest edge of the Saudi capital Riyadh.

The celebration is complementary and not an alternative to the existing national holiday, 23 September, which marks the victory of the al-Saud clan over the tribes in Hejaz that led to the conquest of the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah in 1925 and the consequent founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

The conservative Saudi daily Arab News gave yesterday’s celebrations a wide coverage. In a long article, it explains why it is appropriate to mark an event that occurred at a different time than the alliance that gave the country its deep Wahhabi imprint.

In a shift unthinkable only a few years ago, the paper writes that, “For generations, historians and writers have unwittingly perpetuated the myth that the First Saudi State, forerunner of the modern-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was founded in the year 1744. In fact, as a new reappraisal of the origins of the Kingdom reveals, they were 17 years out.”

The paper describes the meeting between Muhammed ibn Saud and the religious leader Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab 1744 as “hugely significant”; however, “over time the importance of that admittedly historic moment of common cause between state and faith came to obscure the far more complex and deeper-rooted origins of the First Saudi State.

“It is to correct this neglect of the Kingdom’s crucial embryonic years that Founding Day has been created, to celebrate 1727 as the true moment of birth and to give Saudis a deeper appreciation of a past far richer than many realize. 

“It was in 1727 that Imam Mohammed ibn Saud came to the throne, carrying with him the dream of transforming the city state founded by his forebears three centuries earlier into the capital of a nation which, at its height, would bring peace and stability to most of the Arabian Peninsula.”

This latest development is part of a process of reforms launched by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, that included limiting the powers of the religious police, allowing concerts and cinemas, lifting driving bans, and starting an entertainment industry.  Recently, it even meant celebrating Valentine's Day without calling it that way.

Such reforms are part of Vision 2030, a plan that involves liberalising social mores as well as the economy and trade to reduce the country’s dependence on oil. Still, this has been accompanied by a political crackdown.

In fact, however unthinkable such steps might have been not long ago, they are cosmetic; ultraconservative Islam and patriarchy remain well entrenched, including the male guardianship system.

Now the state’s founding will be celebrated every year as Founding Day to mark the start of “the reign of Imam Muhammad bin Saud” before his alliance with Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his ultraconservative doctrine.

For Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, “the new Saudi nationalism [. . .] celebrates the Al Saud – tying the people directly to the royal family – and downplays the pivotal role played by religion in the founding of the state”.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia's Shura Council, an influential advisory body to the government, last month approved a proposal to amend the law regulating the national flag and anthem. It is unclear if it will change the flag which includes the profession of Islamic faith.