What Reframing Of History Tells Us About Fast-Changing Saudi Arabia

Saudi ruling family’s ties with revivalist theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab conferred legitimacy on its rule but they are increasingly being underplayed with an acceleration of change in Saudi Arabia

Diriyah has hosted American rapper-singer Pitbull and Swedish House Mafia’s concerts. Reuters

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When a restored 18th-century palace will be opened to the public for the first time later this year in Diriyah, it is expected to be among the major attractions in Saudi Arabia as it opens up to the world. The monument near the Saudi capital Riyadh is a key landmark in the country’s history. The ruling al Saud family signed its pivotal pact with revivalist theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who advocated a narrow and literal interpretation of the Quran, at the mud and straw palace in 1744. 

The pact would have the Sauds take charge of politics and military and Salafi clerics, pejoratively known as Wahhabis, monopolise legal, religious, and social affairs. It helped Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, to establish a viable state by the early 20th century after the family’s attempts to do so were frustrated twice. Aziz declared himself king in 1932 six years before oil was discovered and helped transform the kingdom with two of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, into one of the world’s richest nations. 

Al Saud’s ties with Wahhab conferred legitimacy on his family’s rule. But they are increasingly being underplayed with an acceleration of change in Saudi Arabia since its de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, was elevated as the Crown Prince in 2017. MBS has championed modernisation. His calls for a more moderate Islam, an end to ban on women from driving, sidelining of religious authorities, reopening of cinemas, etc have been seen as part of efforts to undermine the al Saud’s pact with the religious establishment. There is more in-your-face evidence of this in Diriyah, where the place Wahhab lived opposite the palace has been transformed into a dining district. 

In a report in June, the news agency AFP noted a restored version of Wahhab’s mosque is open on the site but a research centre, built about seven years ago and devoted to his branch of Islam, Salafism, is not. The agency cited analysts and said they say the palace’s opening is part of MBS’s larger effort of stoking Saudi nationalism and reframing its history. It noted exhibits dotting the palace spotlight the al Saud family’s achievements with no mention of its partnership with Wahhab. 

For Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Diriyah encapsulates the new Saudi nationalism, putting the al Sauds as the primary authors of Saudi history and architects of its unity while erasing Wahhab from the national narrative. She told AFP that MBS’s father King Salman preserved a place, albeit reduced, to commemorate Wahhab when he first showed interest in redeveloping Diriyah in the 1970s. Diwan added MBS sees Diriyah, which also now features attractions such as fine dining, art galleries, and a Formula-E race track in line with his vision, as a global attraction. Wahhabism does not easily co-exist in MBS’s programme of art biennales, world wrestling, and raves, said Diwan.

American entertainment executive Jerry Inzerillo, who has been hired to transform Diriyah, told AFP that MBS approves every rendering of Diriyah and spent up to 30 hours painstakingly reviewing its street layout. For Inzerillo, Diriyah could be for Saudis what the Acropolis is for Greeks and the Colosseum is for Italians even as he dismissed the idea that Wahhab is being written out of history. Yet music, which Wahhab’s teachings saw as an abomination, has made a strong comeback in Saudi Arabia as well as his backyard—Diriyah, which has hosted American rapper-singer Pitbull and Swedish House Mafia’s concerts.

Heritage and entertainment are key elements to the transformation of Saudi Arabia and Diriyah, where music virtually disappeared 300 years back with Wahhab’s rise, as part of efforts to revamp the Saudi economy. Limiting the clerical power over the affairs of the state has emerged as an important aspect of the transformative change. In 2017, MBS told global investors that they were returning to being a country of moderate Islam open to all religions and to the world. 

Saudi Arabia has been promoting entertainment and leisure as part of a drive to create jobs and end the country’s dependence on oil. In 2016, it created a new General Entertainment Authority (GEA), which aims to double household spending on entertainment to 6% percent by 2030. Music was not always taboo in Saudi Arabia, where summer festivals in cities such as Jeddah featured concerts before public musical education was confined to military academies for training bands for official marches. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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