Saudi identity makeover is in full swing before Ramadan
A commercial Kaaba-style building, new national holidays and a strict new set of Ramadan rules point toward a national identity less anchored to religion. Observers say Saudis won't likely resist the changes.
tThe symbolism of the latest megaproject for Saudi Arabia sought by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is even grander than its dimensions.
The New Mukaab, which translates to "New Cube," will be 400 meters (1,320 feet) high, 400 meters wide and 400 meters long. The inside will hold entertainment options, hotels and restaurants.
Though the costs remain undisclosed, construction is set to start soon, and completion is scheduled for 2030.
The new cube resembles the most important landmark in Saudi Arabia, the Kaaba, Islam's most sacred site in Mecca.
Muslims around the world pray toward the Kaaba or travel there during Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages and during Ramadan.
Bruno Schmidt-Feuerheerd, a political analyst at the University of Cambridge, told DW that "in the Saudi public sphere, religion is increasingly replaced by culture." He said the cube-shaped architecture was not unique to the Kaaba.
Saudi national makeover
The plan for the commercial Kaaba is not the only step toward a new national identity no longer so tied to religion.
According to a royal decree by the crown prince's father, King Salman, in 2022, February 22 was introduced as a holiday to celebrate the foundation of the first Saudi state. Up 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 intention behind this is a nationalist push to celebrate its own, nonreligious holidays," Schmidt-Feuerheerd said.
In 2022, the crown prince announced that the founding date of the country had been changed from 1744 to 1727.
Until then, the founding date had been linked to an agreement in 1744 between the ruling Saud family and the cleric Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who inspired the term Wahhabi Islam, or Wahhabism, which has been dominant in Saudi Arabia since the mid-18th century.
The Saud family had promised to fund Wahhabism and grant 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 point of view.
In 1727, though, Mohammed bin Saud rose to power as the founder of the first Saudi state after taking over the emirate of Diriyah, which is north of Riyadh.
"The new interpretation of the state's birth clearly downplays the role of religion," Schmidt-Feuerheerd said.
This month, a National Flag day was announced as holiday for March 11.
"The value of the national flag extends throughout the history of the Saudi state, since its founding in 1139 AH [on the Islamic lunar calendar] -1727 AD," Saudi Arabia's national news agency SPA reported — highlighting the new founding year.
Activism 'is criminalized'
None of these introductions have led to 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 the fully funded King Abdallah Scholarship. "Upon their return, they were anything but culturally overwhelmed by the country's modernization," Schmidt-Feuerheerd said.
Education and the creation of jobs for the demographically young Saudi population has become a priority for the kingdom, and is part of the major economic overhaul dubbed Vision 2030, which was introduced by the crown prince in 2016. The wide set of reforms seek to diversify the Saudi economy from oil and to modernize the country.
Since then, women were granted more rights, cinemas have reopened, and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, known as mutawa or morality police, was abolished. In turn, mixed audiences and dating in public have become possible, even normal.
"At the same time, while there are more social liberties, the state wants to remain the only agent of change," Schmidt-Feuerheerd said. "Any form of political activism is discouraged, and a new language depicts critics as traitors of the nation," he added.
There are enough examples of repercussions after dissent or calls for reform.
The 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 permitted to take the wheel. In 2022, 34-year-old Salma al-Shahab was sentenced to 34 years in jail for liking human rights tweets on Twitter and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani received a sentence of 45 years in prison for the same reason, the longest term for such an offense yet.
Clipped Ramadan rules
This week, the Saudi Islamic Affairs Ministry announced a major change of rules for Ramadan, which starts on March 22.
For analyst Sami Hamdi, this marks the next step towards a new Saudi identity without Islam as major pillar. He said on Twitter that "MBS continues to drive Islam out of the public sphere."
As of this year, donations for mosques are banned, as is the after-sunset iftar, or meal to break the fast, in mosques. Furthermore, prayers have to be kept short, children are forbidden to pray in mosques, and believers have to bring their IDs. In all but the main two mosques in Mecca and Medina, volume has to be kept low, and prayers are banned from broadcast.
DW has reached out to the Saudi authorities for comment but hasn't received a reply by the time of the publication.
Edited by: M. Gagnon