Recent high-level U.S. diplomatic activity seems aimed at addressing a sense of grievance Gulf capitals harbor.
On January 27, King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued a royal decree designating February 22 as a national holiday called the “Founding Day.” This day commemorates “the beginning of the reign of Imam Mohammed ibn Saud and his foundation of the first Saudi state,” which took place, according to the decree, in February 1727. A few days after the announcement, a logo for the event was launched with the slogan “The Day We Started.” At the center is a man carrying a banner surrounded by four symbols. The first is the symbol of dates, which signifies life, growth, and generosity. The second is a symbol of a majlis council, which signifies unity as well as social and cultural harmony. The third, an Arabian horse, is a symbol of the chivalry and bravery shown by the state’s princes and heroes. The last symbol is for a market, which signifies economic activity, openness, and diversity.
The event has substantial political significance as it signifies a radical break with the Wahhabi political influence that had legitimized the Saudi political projects since 1744. This can be discerned from the logo itself. Whereas the Islamic Shahadah phrase, “There is no deity but God, and Muhammed is the messenger of God,” is inscribed on the Saudi national flag, the banner in the middle of the logo is surprisingly blank. Moreover, while the symbols refer to history, culture, economy, and life – religion is strikingly left without a symbol. But the bluntest move that indicates the break with the powerful Wahhabi political narrative, or myth, that previously twinned with the story of the Al Sauds was the selection of the beginning of the reign of Mohammed ibn Saud, the great ancestor of the Al Saud dynasty, as the foundational moment of the first Saudi state. Selecting 1727 instead of 1744 as the country’s founding year does not only signify a break with the Wahhabi political myth but also reveals the founding of a new political myth.
The Saudi State and the Wahhabi Political Myth
Political myths refer to narratives that are constructed and promoted by the political leadership to legitimize either the political entity or its policies. Both myths and histories are the products of engagement with the past. However, they differ in that history aims to understand the past as accurately as possible whereas political myths serve political needs in the present. Calling them “myths” does not mean that they are necessarily fiction or fake. Most of the time, political myths contain elements of historical fact but are presented in a highly selective manner.
The Wahhabi political myth refers to the narrative that the first Saudi state was born out of a covenant made between Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab and Mohammed ibn Saud in 1744. The story often starts with a biography of Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab. It presents him as a religious reformer and his teachings as simply an attempt to restore Islam to the form it was during the Prophet Muhammad’s time. He went to several towns in eastern and central Arabia in search of political protection and support. After several futile attempts, he decided in 1744 to travel to Diriyah, which was then ruled by Mohammed ibn Saud. Upon their meeting, the two made the covenant wherein Mohammed ibn Saud would help Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab to spread his religious teachings, and, in return, the religious reformer would not leave him for his political rivals.
This political myth legitimizes the Saudi state by presenting it as an indispensable tool to apply, spread, and protect Wahhabi Islam. Although theoretically it puts the Saudi project in a subservient position in relation to the Wahhabi mission, it gives the state a divine mandate, while it also frees it from the historical responsibilities resulting from the agreements that the Saudi leadership made with different local elites during the state-formation period in the early 20th century. It also provides the state with a powerful theoretical arsenal to resist calls for power sharing and democratization. Historically, it gave King Abdulaziz al-Saud, the founder of contemporary Saudi Arabia, a competitive advantage against his rivals during the Saudi unification process. These rivals either belonged to powerful tribes, such as the Rashidis in Hail, or were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, such as the Sharifs in the Hijaz. Lacking both, King Abdulaziz legitimized his rule by presenting it as a political project in the service of Wahhabism, which he considered the purest form of Islam. In a speech in the newly incorporated Hijaz in 1929, King Abdulaziz rejected the label “Wahhabis,” saying, “They call us Wahhabis, this is a huge mistake … We did not come up with something new … Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab did not come up with something new … Our creed is the creed of the early generation of Muslims that is based on the Quran and Sunnah.”
Until recently, this Wahhabi myth was the sanctioned narrative continuously repeated by many members of the royal family. In 1992, King Fahd bin Abdulaziz issued a royal decree establishing the first constitutional document of the kingdom, the Basic Law, delivering a speech saying, “In modern history, the first Saudi state emerged … when a covenant was made between two men: Imam Mohammed ibn Saud and Sheikh Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab.” In March 2011, during the Arab Spring uprisings, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, then the governor of Riyadh, delivered the lecture “The Historical and Intellectual Origins of the Saudi State” at the Islamic University in Medina, which was established in the 1960s to promote Wahhabism globally. The lecture was later published in a book by the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives, the main archival institute in the country. In this lecture, King Salman reiterated the same story. “The historical agreement between Imam Mohammed ibn Saud and Sheikh Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab was concluded in accordance with sharia,” he told his audience of religious scholars, “until today, this agreement has been a fundamental pillar of the Saudi state.” Then he went on defending Wahhabism: “I encourage everyone to research the tradition of Sheikh Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab, and see if you can find anything that is contrary to the Quran and Sunnah.”
In addition to these royal statements, Saudi history textbooks taught this foundational myth for decades. Saudi students were first exposed to it in their sixth-grade history textbooks. For example, in a textbook published by the Ministry of Education in 2008, the story is introduced in the third chapter: “The Mission of Sheikh Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab.” It includes a biography of the religious scholar and a brief overview of his religious teachings. The textbook states that “when Sheikh Muhammed arrived Diriyah, he was welcomed by Emir Mohammed ibn Saud. The two made a covenant to support monotheism and declare jihad against its enemies … and thus the first Saudi state began.” The text included 1157 H (1744) as the founding year, which was emphasized with a true or false exercise at the end of the chapter to test that students knew the correct answer.
The Death of Wahhabism and the Birth of a New Myth
It is only after appreciating the significance of the Wahhabi myth in legitimizing the Saudi political authority that the radical break of the Founding Day’s decree becomes apparent. By selecting the beginning of the reign of Mohammed ibn Saud as the state’s foundational moment, it creates a new myth that leaves no room for Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab and his movement. To be sure, the Wahhabi myth has not been the only myth used by the Saudi state, but it was always a central one. Throughout its modern history, the Saudi state has also legitimized itself by drawing on elements from various competing ideologies, including Arab nationalism, modernist Salafism, Muslim Brotherhood, Developmentalism, and humanitarianism. Yet, throughout, the state continued to maintain its Wahhabi myth. Also, the role of Wahhabi networks and institutions in Saudi politics had ups and downs, but they were always present. At times they were particularly consequential, such as supporting King Faisal bin Abdulaziz’s overthrow of his brother, King Saud, in 1964 and legitimizing King Fahd’s decision to host U.S. forces during the Gulf War.
What is different now is the deliberate departure from this foundational narrative. The official erasure of Wahabism is an ongoing process and it is not restricted to national holidays and official narratives. The new history textbooks do not mention Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab. Institutionally, the General Presidency of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or the religious police, has been crippled and replaced with a more secular Public Decency Law. Similar developments are taking place within other institutions, such as the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Council of Senior Scholars, and Ministry of Education. When the four laws of Evidence, Civil Transactions, Personal Status, and the Penal Code for Discretionary Sanctions are issued this year as promised, the judiciary will likely cease to rely on Wahhabi religious tradition and its precedents.
The Saudi state is not exceptional in changing its political myths. It is part of the nature of political myths to be contested and reconstituted. Yet, out of all potential alternatives, the one that was selected to replace the Wahhabi myth is one that elevates the Saudi state from its subservient position relative to the Wahhabi mission to the forefront, and most importantly with no partner. On the same day of the Founding Day royal decree, the official Saudi News Agency unusually ran an op-ed explaining the new political myth. Its starting point is 200 years before Islam when the tribe of Banu Hanifah, to which the Al Saud family belongs, established a settlement in central Arabia. A millennium later, in 1446, Mani al-Muraidi, the 13th grandfather of current ruler King Salman, established the town of Diriyah. Like ancient Rome, Diriyah is described as a city-state that had slowly expanded over time. In 1727, Mohammed ibn Saud, a descendant of Mani al-Muraidi, founded the first Saudi state. From this moment, the second and third Saudi states are presented as episodes in three centuries of political continuity. According to the op-ed, this story shows “the extent of solidness and stability that the Saudi political system has enjoyed for three centuries.”
This new myth, however, is not without its problem. First, it is historically inaccurate. Since Mani al-Muraidi built Diriyah, his descendants inherited its rule. Hence, it was not surprising or unprecedented that Mohammed ibn Saud became the town’s ruler in 1727. In the first 18 years of his reign, he never tried to transform his town into an expansive state and challenge his regional neighbors and the Ottoman empire. This move only happened when Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab arrived in his town. Moreover, Diriyah was not Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab’s first destination in central Arabia. His first choice was his hometown Al Uyaynah, which was larger and more powerful. Only when he was expelled from there did he start considering Diriyah as a destination. When he did that, the first Saudi state came into being. Finally, and most important, the initial expansion efforts of this state were managed by Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab himself and not by Mohammed ibn Saud. When he told the events of 1157 H, Ibn Bishr, the 18th-century authoritative historian of the first Saudi state, described the political role of Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab. He stressed the fact that all the spoils of the military expansion wars of the first state and all extracted goods were paid to Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab, and “he spends it as he sees fit.” He continued that, neither the son of Muhammed ibn Saud, “Abdulaziz nor anyone else can take anything from them without his permission.” For he “has the power to take and give, and decide and rule … and no army can be sent nor an opinion can be voiced, neither by Muhammed nor by Abdulaziz without his permission.” Of course, by Muhammed here, Bishr meant Mohammed bin Saud.
Second, the new myth conveys a false sense of political continuity in the Arabian Peninsula from 1727 to 2022. The first Saudi state was defeated in 1818 by the troops of Muhammed Ali, the Ottoman viceroy in Egypt. Since then, the Al Saud dynasty had to wait more than a hundred years to be able to recapture most of the territories that were once ruled by the first Saudi state. It was only in 1934 that King Abdulaziz was able to unify the territories of the contemporary kingdom. The following table approximately shows how many years each administrative region of contemporary Saudi Arabia was ruled by the Al Saud dynasty between 1727 and 1934. As the table shows, only two regions out of 12 were ruled for more than half of this period by the Al Saud dynasty. Most of the regions were ruled by the Al Saud family less than 20% of the two centuries. This means that claiming that the history of the Saudi territory was continuous implies deleting most of the histories of each region.
The New Myth and Saudi Arabia’s Political Future
As mentioned, political myths are produced to serve political needs in the present. To understand what the new political myth offers for the political present and future of Saudi Arabia, it is instructive to consider how it differs from the Wahhabi myth in its political function. First, the new political myth is more socially inclusive than the Wahhabi one. It offers opportunities of belonging to many social groups that were excluded in the Wahhabi political myth, including Shias, Ismailis, Sufis, women, and also regional identities and secular groups. This social inclusion is reflected in the different assimilative policies that the state adopted toward these groups and its official recognition and celebration of social and regional diversity.
The second difference is that the new myth is more politically exclusionary than the Wahhabi myth. Granted, the Wahhabi myth was not a liberal Lockean social contract, but it was a covenant that creates limits on the political authority of the state albeit not democratic ones. The new political myth transforms the state to a full-fledged “mortal god … to which,” as Thomas Hobbes puts it in the “Leviathan,” “we owe … our peace and defence.” In this form of foundational political myth, justice is the will of the state and has no other meaning outside that.
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