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7 March, 2018 00:00 00 AM

Saudi foreign policy: emphasising the Arab identity

Pieter-Jan Dockx

Since the rise of Saudi Arabia’s new de-facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), there have been subtle yet important changes in the Kingdom’s foreign policy. The traditional Salafist discourse has partly made space for increased references to ‘Arabness’. Although support for Syrian opposition groups during the Syrian war was legitimised based on religion, MbS has framed the current Saudi intervention in Yemen as an Arab matter. When Ali Abdullah Saleh, the assassinated Iran-aligned Yemeni president had called for talks with Saudi Arabia, Riyadh welcomed him “back to the Arab fold.”

Based on this Arab discourse, the Kingdom has also begun engaging Shia Arabs rather than only Sunnis. This is most visible in Riyadh’s Iraq policy. In 2017, former Shia hardliner Moqtada al-Sadr visited the Kingdom; Riyadh invited Ammar al-Hakim, another former hardliner; And Saudi Arabia’s King Salman received Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is part of the Iran-aligned Shia Islamist Da’wa party.

The scale and scope of the reforms has been unprecedented in the country’s modern history and concerns remain that a deeply conservative base will oppose what is effectively a cultural revolution – and that the kingdom lacks the capacity to follow through on its economic ambitions.

The new economic zone is to be established on 470km of the Red Sea coast, in a tourist area that has already been earmarked as a liberal hub akin to Dubai, where male and female bathers are free to mingle.

It has been unveiled as the centrepiece of efforts to turn the kingdom away from a near total dependence on oil and into a diverse open economy. Obstacles remain: an entrenched poor work ethic, a crippling regulatory environment and a general reluctance to change.

“Economic transformation is important but equally essential is social transformation,” said one of the country’s leading businessmen. “You cannot achieve one without the other. The speed of social transformation is key. It has to be manageable.”

Alcohol, cinemas and theatres are still banned in the kingdom and mingling between unrelated men and women remains frowned upon. However Saudi Arabia – an absolute monarchy – has clipped the wings of the once-feared religious police, who no longer have powers to arrest and are seen to be falling in line with the new regime.

Economically Saudi Arabia will need huge resources if it is to succeed in putting its economy on a new footing and its leadership believes it will fail to generate strategic investments if it does not also table broad social reforms.

Prince Mohammed had repeatedly insisted that without establishing a new social contract between citizen and state, economic rehabilitation would fail. “This is about giving kids a social life,” said a senior Saudi royal figure. “Entertainment needs to be an option for them. They are bored and resentful. A woman needs to be able to drive herself to work. Without that we are all doomed. Everyone knows that – except the people in small towns. But they will learn.”

The role of religion as a source of legitimacy for the Saudi regime has also been investigated by various scholars. This article focuses on another aspect related to these issues: the use of religion by the royal family to consolidate a Saudi national identity, which in turn will constitute an additional attribute for the legitimacy of the ruling dynasty. In the absence of political participation in the secular Western sense, religion has provided a major and almost exclusive source of legitimacy for the rule of the Saudi royal family (the other, secondary one is tribal allegiance).

For this reason the regime has considered it essential to elicit additional sources. The article argues that the promotion of national identity has been an official as well as a practical policy, reflecting the regime's endeavour to enhance its position and legitimacy. This sought identity is based primarily on strict observance of Islam and, of course, on loyalty to the House of Saud. The painstaking effort to expand its basis of legitimacy is the Saudi way of coping with whatever threatens the ruling dynasty, be it ambitious neighbours or radical ideologies from the outside, or domestic oppositions: 'revolutionary', anti-royalist, or religious fundamentalist. By employing religion for this purpose, the Saudi monarchy has actually availed itself of Islam to change the situation in which religion constitutes the predominant provider of the regime's legitimacy.

Religion and national identity in Saudi Arabia. Available from: [accessed Mar 04 2018].

Eurasia Review



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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