I promised you, and it is much too interesting, I think, to be supplanted by other, worse current events. Here’s the freshly pimped history of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its royal family, as Saudi Arabia is the only country named after its royal family. The Netherlands isn’t called Oranjeland, is it? Although you would think that with national football.
If you live in Saudi Arabia, you must have noticed the celebration of the very first Foundation Day on February 22, trending on Twitter as #the-day-of-our-beginning (and then in Arabic). A completely new holiday, in addition to the existing national holiday on September 23, which celebrates the proclamation of the current kingdom in 1932.
So 1932 is not “our beginning”. No, the beginning is 1727, the establishment of the first Saudi state by Mohammed bin (son of) Saud. And read along, because that is very important.
The interesting thing is that so far that history began seventeen years later, in 1744, with the same brave warlord Mohammed bin Saud, but then still in apparently unbreakable marriage to the cleric Mohammed ibn (also son of) Abdel-Wahhab. Yes, the Wahhab of ultra-puritan Sunni Islam, which until recently left its heavy mark on Saudi society. That Wahhabism that separated men from women and banned music and movies.
Mohammed bin Saud ruled in Al-Diriyah, near present-day Riad, and the previous, now superseded genesis story began with his hospitable reception of that Ibn Wahhab. He had been chased from his hometown thirty kilometers away after having a woman stoned to death for adultery in his passion to purge Islam of entrenched superstitions. The two struck a deal: Ibn Wahhab was given responsibility for religious matters, Mohammed bin Saud for the rest. Clergy and royal family reinforced each other.
But in the story of 1727, Ibn Wahhab is no longer there! According to the new reading from Saudi historians, Arab News, it was Mohammed bin Saud single-handedly working to “bring peace and unity to the Arabian Peninsula” from the city-state of Al-Diriyah. Ibn Wahhab does not come until 1744, playing first no and then a minor role. On Foundation Day, there was also no mention of Ibn Wahhab or the role of the clergy in the government of the country.
What you see here is the official record of what had been going on insidiously for a while but which has picked up speed since the arrival of King Salman and his mighty son Mohammed in 2015: the banishment of the clergy and their strict Islam to the second level. . Mohammed bin Salman is modernizing the country, and he doesn’t want the nagging of a Puritan clergy (or criticism from anyone for that matter). “In Islamic law, the head of the Islamic order is the wali al-amr, the ruler,” he himself emphasizes in his recent, long, captivating interview with The Atlantic under the appropriate headline Absolute Power†
The three-day (!) Feast of the Day of the Foundation was celebrated in a new style, I read. Military parades, dressing up in the style of the first Saudi state and a big music show in Riad, with the Operetta of the Foundation† What do the clergy think of this, you want to know. He has this choice: participate or go to prison.
Caroline Roelants is a Middle East expert and separates the facts from the hype here every week.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of March 21, 2022
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