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On September 23, Saudi Arabia celebrates its National Day, marking the unification of the kingdom by King Abdulaziz al-Saud in 1932. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz made the day a public holiday in 2005. Ten years later, the growing hypernationalism that has characterized King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s reign began to transform the celebration. From a mere display of the flag, Saudi Arabia’s National Day has become a nationwide mobilization in recognition of the ruling family’s role in state formation. In February, the government announced an additional celebration – Founding Day – commemorating the founding of the first Saudi state in 1727. Such celebrations have become a crucial element in the ongoing construction of Saudi Arabia’s national narrative, highlighting the centrality of the ruling family and its legacy in the establishment of the state.
Over the years, Saudi leaders have made numerous attempts to celebrate national events. However, backlash from religious scholars, who felt such celebrations ran counter to Islamic tradition, has often hindered such efforts. In 1950, King Abdulaziz planned an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his capture of Riyadh, but the event was canceled due to objections from senior religious scholars. In January 1999, Saudi leaders announced plans for a celebration of the rule of King Abdulaziz, paying tribute to the reign of the “founding father,” especially his role in unifying the kingdom. However, religious scholars again voiced their disapproval, and they circulated fatwas against the celebration. Despite the government’s push to go ahead with the commemoration, the event was mostly limited to newspaper articles and publications by state institutions stressing the importance of the occasion in the absence of active nationwide participation.
The Saudi Arabian National Guard, under Abdullah’s command since 1963 (prior to his reign as king), hosted the inaugural Janadriyah Cultural and Heritage Festival in 1985. This annual two-week event located near Riyadh, aimed to celebrate and promote the diverse cultural fabric of the kingdom while highlighting King Abdulaziz’s role in state formation. Yet it was only during King Abdullah’s reign that the state embarked on a serious drive to promote nationalism, including actively encouraging citizens to participate in such events. King Abdullah made National Day a public holiday to engage citizens, especially youth, in the annual celebration. This was seen as particularly important after the country experienced a period of increased terrorist attacks. However, religious scholars continued to circulate fatwas and speak on television to contest the event and discourage participation. At the time, National Day lacked organization, a patriotic focus, and entertainment options to attract and focus crowds, so the annual celebrations often were chaotic and disruptive. The atmosphere during National Day and the behavior of Saudis celebrating infuriated clerics and the religious police. The free hand of the religious police up until 2016 allowed them to follow the events closely on the ground, leading to arrests and even fatal car accidents.
Under King Salman, the state’s clampdown on religious clerics allowed national celebrations to flourish without interference or contestation. State institutions and television channels promote nationalism on a daily basis rather than limiting expressions of patriotism to an annual day or series of events. Saudi leaders have extended the national narrative beyond the era and contributions of King Abdulaziz to emphasize the ruling family’s past and legacy. This was the reason for adopting an additional national celebration – Founding Day – on February 22. Following the announcement, Saudi news channels and newspapers explained that Founding Day did not replace National Day – while National Day remains focused on King Abdulaziz’s legacy as the founder of the modern Saudi state in 1932, Founding Day celebrates the early roots of state formation.
Founding Day designates 1727 as the beginning of the first Saudi state. The establishment of the kingdom had been considered 1744, springing from the alliance between Mohammed ibn Saud and Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab, which contributed to the expansion of the early state. Founding Day resets the narrative by diminishing the alliance as the point of departure. Saudi media has even argued that the focus on 1744 is a myth neglecting several important years of state formation. This new narrative solely credits Mohammed ibn Saud for his role, rather than emphasizing the expansion that was influenced by Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab’s ambitions as part of the alliance. Marking Founding Day also aims to distance the state from the negative scrutiny that resulted from the reported influence of Wahhabi teachings on violent transnational movements.
While Founding Day has been seen as an attempt by the state to disassociate itself from Wahhabism, this does not mean that the new narrative is moving away from the centrality of religion to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia still emphasizes the importance of upholding Islamic teachings, which is clear in the new Saudi textbooks introduced in 2019. In these texts, religious themes are used to emphasize the importance of allegiance to the leadership. However, Saudi Arabia’s history is projected backward beyond the Islamic era. This is in line with the kingdom’s new focus on pre-Islamic sites to promote tourism, while also fostering a state-led religious direction as part of its branding strategy to promote “moderate Islam.”
Founding Day also aims to highlight the history and traditions of the kingdom. The first celebration, in February, focused on displaying the kingdom’s heritage and diversity. Saudis played a part in the new narrative as they took to the streets and malls dressed in traditional clothes from different parts of the kingdom. The event shed special light on the costumes from the Najd region, home to Diriyah and the birthplace of the first Saudi state. Thus, the aim of the additional national day is to take the history of Saudi Arabia beyond the 20th-century unification and showcase the 300-year history of the kingdom.
Various state institutions’ contributions to Founding Day are strengthening this new national narrative. The recently established Commission of Fashion issued a guide of styles from the kingdom’s five main regions to provide guidelines for dress for those attending festivities. Additionally, the Ministry of Culture announced the launch of the Founding Day Research Grant program to support and foster academic research on the establishment of the first Saudi state.
As the kingdom is moving to diversify its economy away from oil, patriotic celebrations have become an opportunity for the government to generate revenue from both public and private sector employees while they are on holiday. Founding Day and National Day both play a role here. For this year’s National Day, the General Entertainment Authority released an extensive program of shows and activities across the kingdom. Al Ula – which is becoming one of the main destinations for tourism in the kingdom – is hosting a music festival showcasing local talent. In recent years, the retail sector has announced exclusive deals for National Day, turning the event into a commercial holiday as much as a historical commemoration.
Videos and advertisements released on the occasion of National Day highlight Saudis’ contributions to the country’s development. This is in line with Vision 2030, the kingdom’s roadmap for a post-oil economy, that aims to involve citizens more actively in the country’s transformation. State institutions and private companies alike are reinforcing the national narrative by promoting patriotic videos on social media. A widely circulated video by the Local Content and Government Procurement Authority focuses on how choosing local products impacts supply chains and boosts the national economy. The Tourism Authority released a video celebrating the transformation of the country and the role citizens have played in the process. Other videos by local retailers and restaurants highlight national achievements and the contributions from citizens in developing the country, as well as their pride in Saudi Arabia’s heritage and culture.
The kingdom’s recent moves are part of a trend in the Gulf region, where national day celebrations are key to state narratives. Several Gulf states observe more than one day of national celebration or commemoration. Unlike Saudi Arabia, however, Gulf national days often celebrate independence or commemorate the memory of a recent dramatic event. In February, Kuwait’s National Day celebrates the country’s independence from British rule in 1961 and the ascension of Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah to the throne in 1950. Liberation Day, also in February, marks the end of Iraqi occupation in 1991. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates celebrates its liberation from British rule every December. In 2015, the late President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan announced a Commemoration Day to be observed every November after 45 Emirati soldiers lost their lives as part of the military campaign in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia does not have a European colonial past similar to its neighbors from which to celebrate independence. Still, the leadership’s interest in marking national events is an important component in the country’s expansive transformation. The absolute centralization of the state, which has diminished the role of religious clerics and dramatically altered the socioeconomic foundation of the country, requires a strong national narrative to garner support and legitimacy from the population. National day celebrations have become an important occasion to reinforce the kingdom’s emerging narrative and increasingly strengthen nationalist sentiment.
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