Saudi identity change is in full swing ahead of Ramadan travel

The symbolism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s latest megaproject for Saudi Arabia is greater than its dimensions.

The new facade, called the “New Cube”, will be 400 meters (1,320 ft) high, 400 meters wide and 400 meters long. Inside will hold entertainment options, hotels and restaurants.

Although the cost remains unknown, construction is set to begin soon, and is scheduled for completion in 2030.

The new cube resembles Saudi Arabia’s most important landmark, the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site in Mecca.

Muslims around the world pray at the Kaaba or travel there during the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage and during Ramadan.

“Culture is replacing religion in the Saudi public sphere,” Bruno Schmidt-Feuerhardt, a political analyst at the University of Cambridge, told DW. He said the cube-shaped architecture was not unique to the Kaaba.

Saudi national change

The plan for a commercial Kaaba is not only a step toward a new national identity no longer tied to religion.

In 2022, February 22 was introduced as a holiday to celebrate the foundation day of the first Saudi kingdom, per the royal decree of the crown prince’s father, King Salman. Until then, the country’s National Day was celebrated on September 23. In February, Saudi Arabia celebrated its second founding day over a four-day weekend with events and fireworks across the country.

“February 22 is an arbitrary date that has no historical basis, and the motive behind it is a nationalist push to celebrate one’s own, non-religious holidays,” Schmidt-Feuerheerd said.

In 2022, the crown prince announced that the founding date of the country was changed from 1744 to 1727.

Until then, the founding date was linked to an agreement between the ruling Saud family and the cleric Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab in 1744, which inspired the term Wahhabi Islam, or Wahhabism, which is influential in central-Saudi Arabia. 18th century.

The Saud family promised to fund Wahhabism and give the movement authority over education and public morality, and in turn Al-Wahhab promised to legitimize the rule of the Saudi family from a religious perspective.

In 1727, however, Mohammed bin Saud rose to power as the founder of the first Saudi state after seizing the emirate of Diriyah, north of Riyadh.

“The new interpretation of the birth of the state clearly diminishes the role of religion,” Schmidt-Feuerheerd said.

This month, National Flag Day was declared as a holiday on March 11.

“The value of the national flag spans throughout the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its establishment in 1139 A.H. [on the Islamic lunar calendar] -1727 AD,” reported Saudi Arabia’s national news agency SPA – highlighting the new founding year.

‘Criminalizing’ Activism

None of these introductions has caused a major outcry from the Saudi population of about 36 million. Schmidt-Feuerheerd said there were several explanations for the high level of acceptance.

Tens of thousands of Saudis have studied abroad, supported by fully funded King Abdullah Scholarships. “When they returned, they were somewhat culturally overwhelmed by the modernization of the country,” Schmidt-Feuerhardt said.

Education and job creation for the demographically young Saudi population have been priorities for the kingdom, and are part of a major economic reform dubbed Vision 2030, which was introduced by the Crown Prince in 2016. A wide set of reforms seeks to diversify. To modernize the Saudi economy and the country from oil.

Since then, more rights have been granted to women, cinemas have reopened, and the Commission for the Prevention of Virtue and Misbehavior, known as the Mutawa or Moral Police, has been abolished. In turn, mixed audiences and public dating have become possible, even common.

“At the same time, while there are many social liberties, the state wants to remain only an agent of change,” Schmidt-Feuerheerd said. “Political activism of any kind is discouraged, and the new language portrays critics as traitors to the nation,” he added.

There are plenty of examples of disagreements or calls for reform followed by consequences.

Women’s activist Loujain al-Hathloul spent three years in prison after advocating for the right to drive in 2018, and remained there long after women were officially allowed to take the wheel. In 2022, 34-year-old Salma al-Shahab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for liking human rights tweets on Twitter, and Noorah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years in prison, the longest term. Still such a crime.

Ramadan rules clipped

This week, the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs announced major changes to the rules for Ramadan, which begins on March 22.

For analyst Sami Hamdi, this is another step towards a new Saudi identity without Islam as a key pillar. “MBS continues to drive Islam out of the public sphere,” he said on Twitter.

As of this year, donations to mosques are banned, as are iftars after sunset, or meals to break the fast in mosques. Furthermore, prayers must be kept short, children are prohibited from praying in mosques, and believers must bring their identity cards. In all but the two main mosques in Mecca and Medina, the volume must be kept low, and broadcast prayers are banned.

DW has contacted Saudi authorities for comment but had not received a reply by the time of publication.

Edited by: M. Gagnon

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