Thursday, September 23, 2010

Saudi Arabia's National Day 2010--80th Anniversary!

September 23, 2010 is Saudi Arabia's 80th anniversary (counting from the establishment of the Kingdom of Najd and Hijaz as Saudi officials have been) as a nation. Messages have emphasized Saudi's progress and the progessive leadership of King Abdullah. 2 examples of both are the creation of KAUST, as highlighted in last year's post,
September 23-Saudi National Day/Inauguration of KAUST
; and the sponsorship of Routes d'Arabie-- which not only shows Saudi in a new light to outsiders, but preserves its pre-Islamic heritage for the Saudi National Museum. Arab News makes special mention of the impact of Routes d'Arabie, which I was particularly excited about in both English and French.

Like others, I have been struck by the article, Saudi national day reflects monarchy's growing clout by Souhail Karam which points out Saudi's progress as a nation, and within that as a political entity. Though the nation was created in 1932 (as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the 3rd Saudi state), the national statutory holiday only dates from 2005. This represents a shift in direction, or at least a reinforcement of the monarchy's role in statehood against elements of the religious clerical establishment who would restrict all celebrations only to the 2 Eids. Indeed, the article points out that the celebrations themselves are becoming more elaborate and diverse. They now include plays, parades, and a car rally.

The article also inspired me to think further about what it means to be a nation, and national identity, with particular reference to Saudi Arabia. Nationhood and national identity are something of a national neurosis for Canadians, struggling to keep a sense of identity independent from the USA, and to keep 2 national peoples--English and French--together in a state built on the land of other national peoples, the First Nations(>630 Indian bands), Métis, and Inuit.

Perhaps then this inspiration to think about the meaning of nationhood for Saudi Arabia was enhanced by this Canadian national neurosis. Or perhaps it was facilitated by studies I have done on Quebec, Latin America, and Africa, on colonization, decolonization, and Post-Colonialism (with its companion neo-colonialism. Or perhaps it goes back to a Grade 12 political geography course on what constitutes a nation. The premise was that a country must fulfil 3 requirements to be a nation state: economic self-sufficiency, a delineated territory, and a cohesive cultural identity.

Saudi Arabia would easily fulfil the first 2 of those. The discovery of oil in 1938 ensured not only economic self-sufficiency but a prosperous one. The boundaries have been set since 1932 with some adjustments since, but are largely the same over time, and settled. A cohesive cultural identity is a more elusive thing for any country or nation state. A nation state is different than a national people, which  is usually united by language, culture, ethnicity, and religion, or beliefs within a religion. A national people may or may not be self-governing, and may or may not want to be.

A nation state may be comprised of more than one national people, as is the case for Canada described above. Yet Canada is hardly alone in this. Switzerland famously combines French, German, and Italian regions. Belgium comprises the Flemish and the French (Walloons), Italy still has strong regional identities, and at 139 years old faces separatist movements from some of its centuries old national peoples, the Lombards most prominently. Spain has granted autonomy to 17 national and historical communities, including the quite nationally distinctive Catalunya, Basque Country, and Galicia, all "historical nationalities" with a unique language and culture.

Nationhood itself, as opposed to domains, fiefdoms, principalities, kingdoms, and even empires of provinces, is a rather recent phenomenon. The idea of national territories, with firm boundaries, and cultural cohesion is an 18th and 19th century Western one, which was exported with European empires to African and the Middle East. Most countries in both those places are very young--in their 50's or 60's, as they achieved independence from colonial powers mid-20th century. Yet the national peoples, or groups, comprising them are much older entities.

Examples would include the 3 different Berber groups within Morocco and its Arab population, or Libya's Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripolitania provinces. In the Moroccan case there are distinct Berber languages and cultures as well as a difference between Berber and Arab cultures. The Alaouite dynasty and its politico-religious leadership are arguably a dominant Fassi tribal configuration. The 3 areas which became Libya are also culturally distinct, historically separate, and experiencing different schools of Islam, with the Senussi predominant in Cyrenaica, for example.

The same is true of Saudi Arabia, which became a nation state in 1932 under the government formed by King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, uniting historically distinct geographical regions--Al Hasa, Hijaz, and Najd (broadly, and in alphabetical order)--with their own cultures, customs, dialects, and religious adherences within Islam, in a new territory or country.

In that sense, Saudi Arabia's National Day is a celebration of a growing sense of a national identity along with a regional one, particularly among the young who dominate the demographic. Its political nature, that is, its creation and promotion by the monarchy, builds on those notions of nationhood distinct from, though politically and culturally tied to, a specific religious perspective within Islam--not so different than other MENA countries.

Saudi children in traditional dress at the 2009 Saudi National Day Party at the Embassy in Washington, DC


Related Posts:

September 23-Saudi National Day/Inauguration of KAUST

September 23-Saudi National Day/Inauguration of KAUST: Update
Remembrance and Family Heritage in Bicultural Saudi/non-Saudi Families
Roads of Arabia - Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the Louvre from 07-14-2010 to 09-27-2010
Routes d'Arabie: Archéologie et histoire du royaume d'Arabie saoudite au Musée du Louvre du 14-07-2010 au 27-09-2010
Royal Saudi/non-Saudi Marriages and Their Children: Introduction
Royal Saudi/non-Saudi Marriages and Their Children: Reflections

How will you/ did you celebrate Saudi National Day?
What meaning does it have for you?
How do you see your own country in light of the ideas above about nation states and national peoples?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

1 comment:

Majed said...

I do not usually scrimp ,or even try to be gentle when criticizing the wrongs I see in Saudi Arabia, but it is never out of hatred malignity.
The truth is that people like me, who, come to Saudi Arabia for work, Umrah or Hajj, come with our own imaginations ,expectations and fantasies about the people who live here,we think very high of them and how they might be just like Sahabas and early muslims we read and hear tales about, once here, most of us are shocked, the more innocent and naive of us are the more shocked and those with little sense accept the reality, that, they are just human beings like us so why should we expect them to be different.
But for the first time ever of my 13 years in living in Saudi Arabia I attended a public-occasion celebrations, actually, I was made curious to, by all that fuss I hear about (The Change) Al-tagier, and decided to go out and see for myself the extent of this change.
to my surprise, I went out at 9 pm after it cooled down a bit, hoping to return in a couple of hours I never stay out after 12 night as am usually asleep by then.
But, to my surprise I hardly manage to return at 3 morning,thank God it was friday the next day, frankly, it really was worth burning the midnight oil, I did not expect it to get so crowded, people walking and riding pushed and creeped their way to the corniche, which is common gathering place in Jeddah for fun and recreation many hanging from car windows and sunroofs carrying flags and king `s photoes and youngsters mostly young men singing and dancing in groups others setting off fire crackers with signs of happiness quite apparent on countenances,there were many factors that made this national day remarkable :
1- The first and foremost and best thing was the de facto absence of the religious police (Hai'a).
2- And the second thing is that even though police force existed heavily and was highly organized yet they kept very low profile and avoided necessarily harrassing people less they might spoil their joy and merriment and were very polite in their approach which is something I never thought they will ever be capable of.
3-The third thing considering the immensity of gathering, people demonstrated high level of civility and good manners than they are usually given credit for , may be it was because of low to non alcohol consumption and the mimosa presence of the other toxicant which is female gender among the celebrating crowds as many sufficed themselves by watching through screened car windows and some with little courage through open car windows only hiding behind their veils and silently testing the efficacy of their pheromones as if still skeptical and not believing of (the change) and in very rare cases some quite being themselves.
Sure it was not like the Brazilian Carnavals, but it was wonderful and concluded in peace and calm and was not marred by any unpleasant incidents.


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