‘Saudi First’ is changing the contours of West Asia


Saudi women jog in the streets of Jeddah’s historic al-Balad district on March 8, 2018(AFP)

Can nationalism ever be a good thing? It depends. The lack of response by Arab states to the Israeli military’s recent attack on Palestinian protestors illustrates the regional changes that have come with a ‘Saudi First’ nationalist philosophy. Even though it was the worst violence in Gaza since the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel, Saudi Arabia stayed silent.

This is hardly the first time in recent months that Saudi nationalism has trumped pan-Islamist concerns. After United States President Donald Trump’s unilateral declaration on Jerusalem’s status on December 6, Riyadh largely ignored the stateless Palestinians’ pleas for solidarity.

It was part of the ‘Firstism’ agenda, a militant unilateralism that Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud shares with Trump.

The year began with nationalism being presented in three wildly contrasting ways.

At Davos 2018, India’s Narendra Modi, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel warned against the false satiety induced by anti-globalisation. There was Trump’s well-larded defence of ‘America First’ and national sovereignty. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister told Davos there are “two visions” in the region, “one of light … the other of darkness and sectarianism.” Iran, he said, was the “darkness”.

That bold declaration of muscular Saudi nationalism against Iran was significant, because the new nationalist narrative is markedly more aggressive than before. It is unafraid to pick fights and openly identifies enemies against which Saudi citizens can rally.

The new mood may be especially significant in its elevation of an aspirational feel-good nationalism over Wahhabi Islamism.

Consider Vision 2030, the crown prince’s agenda for reform. It has downgraded the authority of the Wahhabi establishment, loosened social controls based on Saudi interpretations of Sunni Islam, embraced a more secular nationalism for the 21st century, and launched a vicious war of words against Shia Iran.

In the context of Saudi Wahhabism, the government is seeking to support indigenous visual imagination. The new government focus on the arts and culture includes the promotion of contemporary Saudi artists.

This is the softer side of ‘Firstism’, but the hard core is the battle for regional dominance. It led Saudi Arabia late last year to make extraordinary attempts to build an alliance with its traditional adversary Israel against Iran.

There is another impetus too for enhanced Saudi nationalism. Islamism has proved to be a dangerously unmanageable force. At times, the more extremist iterations of the ideology threatened the autocratic status quo.

Nationalism is hardly a new idea for Saudi Arabia. For decades, Saudi citizens have been reminded of nationhood by the usual symbols of a shared identity. The Janadriya Festival, started by King Abdullah in 1985, is a good example. Under the current king, the education ministry is working overtime to instil, nurture and promote Saudi identity.

But Saudi nationalism circa 2018 is different. It is unabashedly ‘Saudi First’. It is an extension of the so-called Salman Doctrine that became evident in early 2015, within weeks of the elderly Salman’s accession and the rise to prominence of the son. That was when the ruinous Saudi military campaign in Yemen began. It was followed in 2017 by other bold interventionist moves, not least the blockade against Qatar and the attempted ouster of Lebanon’s prime minister. None of these have gone well.

But the campaign against Iran is different. America First has aligned itself with Saudi First. The clarion call to nationalism appears to be drowning out everything else, including Islamism. This would be good news for India and the rest of the world if it weren’t accompanied by the drumbeat of war.