The Wahhabi Roots of Saudi Nationalism and the Persistence of Religious Nationalism

In January, 2022, Saudi Arabia announced that the following month, on February 22nd, 2022, the kingdom would begin celebrating a new national holiday. This celebration, termed “Founding Day,” pushed back the inception of the nation almost three decades prior to the fateful meeting in 1744 between Muhammad Ibn Saud, the then head of the small Saudi clan, and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the religious reformer convinced that most Muslims had become idol-worshipers. The new celebration presents an alternative account, which removes the Wahhabis from the founding narrative of the nation, a further indication that nationalism is replacing Wahhabism as the legitimizing ideology of the kingdom. This observation reflects the history of ideological tension between nationalism and Wahhabism. Has that relationship, however, always been confrontational?

Nationalist ideology was long considered irrelevant in Saudi Arabia, due to seemingly two opposing forces, the country’s tribal fragmentation, which precluded a sense of national unity, and to the prominence of religion, which promoted a sense of brotherhood that transcended national boundaries.

Nationalist ideology was long considered irrelevant in Saudi Arabia, due to seemingly two opposing forces, the country’s tribal fragmentation, which precluded a sense of national unity, and to the prominence of religion, which promoted a sense of brotherhood that transcended national boundaries. Saudi ulama have regarded nationalism as an expression of atheism. In the midst of the Cold War, Saudi Arabia spearheaded an ideological battle against Arab Nationalism, and King Faysal (d. 1975), aided by the ulama, emerged as the celebrated leader of a competing form of mobilization, known as Pan-Islamism. When King Abdullah (d. 2015) first recognized the Saudi National Day in 2005, and later declared it a National Holiday, he did so against the verdict of the ulama. In this context, the state promoted nationalism in an attempt to curb the power of religion in society. Taking place in the backdrop of the Islamist opposition movement of the 1990s, known as the Sahwa, the celebration of the National Day, together with major educational and cultural projects were part of a larger state policy aimed at what Rosie Bsheer has depicted as a de-centering of religion from the public sphere and from its historical role as the ideological backbone of the kingdom.[1] The contemporary state promotion of nationalism aims to dramatically reduce the role of religion, and bring the focus of loyalty to the Royal Family, especially the Crown Prince, MBS.

One of my visits to Saudi Arabia in September 2021 coincided with the celebration of the Saudi National Day. The iconography I encountered supported the observations of several contemporary analysts writing on Saudi nationalism. The main official poster sought to depict a core legitimizing narrative of the state: modernization. The visibility and centrality of the female presence emerges parallel to the male counterpart, positioned against the backdrop of highspeed trains, wind power plants, space satellites, high rise buildings, and theme parks. The symbols of post-oil era modernity are depicted as rising from traditional, oasis-like, lower dwellings surrounded by palm trees – a celebration of origins centered on the secular history of the Saud ancestral home in Dirʿiyya, rather than in the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. The nation’s flag had center stage, framed by a rising sun.

One of my visits to Saudi Arabia in September 2021 coincided with the celebration of the Saudi National Day. The iconography I encountered supported the observations of several contemporary analysts writing on Saudi nationalism.

The main slogan of the celebrations was “A Home for Us,” found written on the Saudi map, with its letters almost demarcating the regions of the kingdom, in perhaps a positive recognition of the kingdom’s regionalism, which has often been otherwise depicted as a source of tension and division. Another poster marking the occasion embodied a nationalist ethos with the words, “Oh! My Homeland, the only one that I love, I would sacrifice my life and all that I have [for you].” These words served as the base for the iconic pictures of the founding King, Abd al-Aziz (1953), the current King, Salman, and the Crown Prince, MBS. Absent from this imagery is the presence of religious symbols in a country which houses the holy sites of Islam, whose King bears the official title of ‘Custodian of the Holy Mosques’ and whose founding narrative has previously been intertwined with a mission to spread the pure faith. The absence is even more noticeable when considering the traditional prevalence of religious symbols in the country’s historical imagery. Only a few years back in 2017, in the height of the war in Yemen, the last image for departing travelers from King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah was that of King Salman saluting the troops, against the backdrop of the Holy Ka’ba. This current shift has been described by Madawi al-Rasheed as a form of hyper-nationalism:

When MBS was appointed crown prince in 2017, the country was described as undergoing ‘aggressive nationalist rebranding’,  a ‘national revival’ and even singing a ‘nationalist tune’. This revival ‘has also inspired a patriotic zeal among some citizens who attempt to define national identity in increasingly confrontational terms’. This amounts to a mix of boasting about an eternal Saudi national identity, the promise of ‘greatness’, the prospect of national rejuvenation, new economic projects and technological innovations in a post-oil era. The state controlled media publicize what is dubbed as hyper-nationalism. While the centrality of the crown prince is obvious in this new wave, the national narrative celebrates the new Saudi citizen, who is committed to the development of his country economically, rather than the previously cherished pious Saudi who memorized the Qur’an, spread Islam around the globe and supported Muslim causes.[2]

According to the exiled political activist, Abdullah Alaoudh, the new nationalist wave (watanji) is pushed by a minority within the Saudi society, which is well-connected to the central power, and shares the ideological worldview of other right-wing, nationalist movements elsewhere in the world. They are capitalist-oriented, but oppose political participation and representation. They display racist attitudes towards minorities, and aggressive animosity towards both what Alaoudh calls Islamic and non-Islamic popular movements. They are tied in a Catholic marriage to the rule of MBS.[3]

Not long ago, Ahmed Dailami argued that the current Saudi rulers are ‘putting Islam out of use’.[4] Writing about the new “Founding Day”, Sultan Alamer has argued that it marks “the death of Wahhabim”.[5]  Looking back at the massive triumvirate image of the founding, current, and successor Kings – a common referential genealogical vision of the current rule – it points additionally at what Nadav Samin has identified as a crucial aspect of contemporary Saudi nationalism, namely ‘kinship nationalism’:

The structuring of politics around genealogical ideas and mechanisms accentuates the patriarchy, ageism, and state paternalism that constitute the dominant modes of Saudi social and political life. Yet genealogical politics also produces the foundation for an authentically Arabian concept of nationhood, one that works to bind Saudis together around a sense of shared destiny. I call this latter phenomenon kinship nationalism, …one that draws heavily from pre- modern conceptions of clan and tribe, yet repurposes them for the contemporary political space. Genealogy is thus the distinctive quality of Saudi domination, at once a resonant nationalist discourse and a technology of power, raising people up while cutting them down.[6]

Samin positions kinship nationalism in contradistinction to the animosity it aroused among followers of the Islamic State Organization (ISIS), which drew its ideological worldview from the same theological fountain as the Saudi clergy: Wahhabism. Samin analyzed the call of a Saudi ISIS commander to kill relatives serving in the Saudi security forces as both religious, but also as derivative of the deeper resentments towards this politics of genealogy, which forms the basis for the idiom of nationalism. After all, as the image bluntly shows, the Royal Genealogy is the Nation.

Predictably, one would expect the scholars of a universalist religion to oppose expressions of nationalism. The former Saudi Mufti of the Kingdom, Bin Baz (d. 1999), one of the most influential Wahhabi scholars of the 20th century, rejected both wataniyya (local nationalism) and Arab nationalism. He described Arab nationalism as a poisonous idea and an anti-Islamic “call for atheism and ignorance aimed at fighting against Islam, and departing from its law.” Its perpetrators, he declared, deserve hell, even if they pray and fast the month of Ramadan, and even if they pretend to be Muslims. Another Wahhabi scholar, Sheikh Bishr Fahad Albishr, considered solidarities to a tribe, homeland or territory, as well as nationalism to be a promotion of jahiliyya, the state of pre-revelation ignorance. The well-known Islamist ideologue, and now imprisoned activist, shaykh Safar al-Hawali, has argued that both Arab nationalism and wataniyya aim at dividing Muslims. Both were produced and exported from the West to prevent the unity of Islam. He has accused promoters of nationalism of waging war against Islam and against those who call for an exclusively Islamic belonging.[7] The apparent conflict between religion and nationalism in the Saudi context notwithstanding, I would argue that the ideological relationship between Wahhabism and nationalism is more complex than these statements show.

Wahhabi opposition to both Arab Nationalism and wataniyya has been reflective not simply of universalist/particularistic contradistinctions, but also, and perhaps most importantly, of the fact that Arab Nationalism and wataniyya have been historically articulated by secular, anti-religious groups and intellectuals. Nabil Mouline has shown how the Saudi – Wahhabi relationship has been forged historically as a partnership characterized by a division of power.[8] The First Saudi State (1745-1811) emerged as a direct result of Wahhabi proselytizing, but the homogenization of the Wahhabi movement would not have been possible without the support of Saudi political power. The relationship was extended to the foundation of the (current) Third Saudi State in the 20th century. In exchange for guaranteeing them religious dominance, Wahhabi scholars have granted the House of Saud legitimacy.

All Saudi kings have affirmed the religious [Wahhabi] nature of the state. “Indeed, I am a Salafī…” declared King ʿAbd al-ʿAziz.[9] The current King Salman affirmed that, “The Saudi State was established… following the model of that first Islamic State.”[10] On the other hand, ulama like Bin Baz, have sacralized the state:  “The Saudi state is a blessed state. God aided the truth through it. It was established upon the Salafi methodology (manhaj) implementing it in the society. So the enemies of the Saudi state are enemies of the truth and enemies of monotheism (tawhid).”[11]

Whereas kings declared their Wahhabi credentials, ulama have linked the country with the doctrine of monotheism and by extension to salvation, sacralizing the territoriality, the polity, and the history of the kingdom. I would argue that opposition to terms like ‘nationalism,’ or against the celebration of the National Day are manifestations of contested forms of nationalism, not a rejection of nationalism itself. Eric Hobsbawm has pointed to the seemingly paradoxical role a universalist religion can play in the formation of nationalism, as in Pakistan or Ireland, where Muslims and Catholics are surrounded by other religious communities.[12] Saudi Arabia emerged as a political entity surrounded by fellow Muslims often from the same tribal communities. Wahhabism, however, emerged as a revivalist movement that excommunicated other Muslims, considering them members of communities that had to be converted or fought. Wahhabi salvific exclusivism created the differentiation, and the unifying paradigm that would result in the formation of Saudi Nationalism. The leading historian of the early Wahhabi movement described the Muslims at the time in this fashion:

…most Muslims had returned to the pre-Islamic darkness. Ignorant, at the mercy of potentates gone astray, deprived of the light of good guidance, they turned their backs on the book of God, thus imitating the custom of their ancestors. So they worshipped marabouts, living and dead, they venerated trees and substituted new idols for God. . . . Such was the situation in Najd . . . , in the holy places . . . in Yemen . . . , in Egypt . . . and in Iraq.[13]

Paradoxically, while Wahhabis address the global Muslim community, historically, what they have meant by ‘Muslims’ were only the followers of their particular doctrine. During the Pan-Islamic phase of the kingdom, they were pressured to moderate to some extent their theological exclusivism, but they have never truly addressed the theological underpinnings of their exclusivist theology.

To the best of my knowledge, Madawi Al-Rasheed is the only scholar of Saudi Arabia who has depicted, correctly in my view, the Saudi – Wahhabi state formation as a manifestation of ‘religious nationalism.’ She writes:

First, religious nationalism initially dominated the country immediately after the creation of the state in 1932. Second, beginning in the 1960s, a pan-Islamic transnational identity was promoted in the context of the Cold War. And third, under the leadership of Muhammad ibn Salman (better known as MBS) there has been a retreat into a narrow Saudi nationalism, with an emphasis on developing a strong local national identity, represented in online campaigns and hashtags such as ‘Saudi Arabia for Saudis’ and ‘Saudi Arabia is Great.’ [14]

The stages Al-Rasheed describes, however, did not necessarily abrogate each other. While different periods in Saudi history have seen the dominance of one form of nationalism over the others, they have nevertheless, perhaps paradoxically, complimented each other. How so?

Stephane Lacroix has noted that Saudi society displays a fragmentation by design, characterized by different fields of state legitimization.[15] These various fields may manifest contradictory ideological elements, and have been engaged in various episodes of culture wars. However, in a fragmented field, the Wahhabi clerics, who provide religious legitimization, exist together with the “clerics of modernity,” the intellectuals that have supported the state promotion of modernity and progress. Some of these intellectuals have been known to promote a secular notion of nationalism, coming from non-Wahhabi religious backgrounds. The ability of each group to influence society has shifted in various directions in the past half a century. The Islamist insurrection of the 1990s, building on the values and aspirations of the Islamist Awakening Movement, sought, as Lacroix has shown, to challenge precisely this societal fragmentation. If Saudi Arabia identifies itself as a Muslim society, they argued, that should be done comprehensively. Hence one of the key concepts of the movement was shumuliyya, or comprehensiveness. One of the leading intellectuals of the movement, the now imprisoned Shaykh Salman al-Ouda, wrote that, “If the state has missed the goal of maintaining Islam and applying sharia, it will be missing the reason for its existence…”[16]

The suppression of the Islamist opposition movement, or the Sahwa in the 1990s represented among other concerns a reaffirmation of the fragmented model, where the different legitimizing ideological components operate in a semi-autonomous field. The de-centering of religion from the centrality of the ideological legitimization of the kingdom, the process that began in the mid 1990s, as Rosie Bsheer has described,[17] was a process that promoted a nationalist vision centered around the Royal Family. However, it never sought to totally abrogate religious nationalism, or for that matter even Pan-Islamic nationalism, which continue to operate in this fragmented field. As Andrew Hammond has argued, “MBS is defanging Wahhabism, not dethroning it.”[18] Despite suffering damages to its image as the center of the Muslim World, especially as it indicates recognition of its existing relationship with Israel, the Kingdom has continued to organize large-scale events with the participation of leading Muslim personalities. Contrary to the notion that these ideologically-conflicting forms of nationalism represent solely different historical stages, I would argue that what we see is a model of continuous presence, with shifting degrees of dominance in the self-identification of the state.

The presence of competing forms of nationalism, it can be argued, suffers from structural contradictions. Key among them is that Wahhabi religious nationalism excludes by default other religious communities in the country.

The presence of competing forms of nationalism, it can be argued, suffers from structural contradictions. Key among them is that Wahhabi religious nationalism excludes by default other religious communities in the country. An attenuated form of Wahhabi nationalism, and a wataniyya form of dominant secularism, as it was promoted since the mid-1990s until the death in 2015 of former King Abdullah, showed the potential to incorporate long-marginalized religious and regional communities. The invitation and the recognition of leaders of non-Wahhabi religious communities to the 2003 National Dialogue serves as a leading example of that tendency, its limitations notwithstanding. There are signs, however, that key features of that model are being reversed by MBS, and the significance of its current manifestation will require further research and analysis.

Writing before the latest wave of nationalist promotion in the Kingdom, Nadav Samin was nevertheless correct in arguing that, “Despite nearly a century of policy prescription and experimentation, Saudi national identity remains deeply in flux.”[19] It can be attributed, he argued, to the lingering informality that continues to characterize Saudi political life. In the early days of the state, for example, national holidays such as Accession Day could be migrated down the calendar when a new king took power; some sixty years later, holidays were still being declared at a moment’s notice. The announcement of the “Founding Day” seems to confirm that pattern. In part, it is the personalized and seemingly arbitrary exercise of power that obscures the process by which Saudi national identity has come into being. Yet the challenge in defining Saudi national identity, Samin argues, has also to do with the relatively weak attraction of impersonal ties and the central place of ascriptive ones, genealogies, in the Saudi social imagination. Semantically, he reminds us, “Saudi” refers to a lineage and not an ethnic, territorial, religious, or linguistic group, the traditional root collectives out of which national identities have been constituted in the modern age. It is to this distinctive nature of the building block of nationhood that he seeks to draw attention to.

In the present as in the past, Saudi nationalism represents a coalescing of distinctive and competing forms of nationalism, including Wahhabi Nationalism, Pan-Islamic Nationalism, and a right-wing wataniyya grounded on kinship nationalism.

In the present as in the past, Saudi nationalism represents a coalescing of distinctive and competing forms of nationalism, including Wahhabi Nationalism, Pan-Islamic Nationalism, and a right-wing wataniyya grounded on kinship nationalism. The last form of nationalism has lately become particularly dominant, and yet, it exists in a fragmented society, where competing forms of nationalism are also evoked.

Besnik Sinani is the author of the forthcoming monograph “Sufism in Saudi Arabia Since 1979: the Politics of Orthodoxy in Contemporary Islam” to be published by Brill in 2024. He is an AIWG fellow at the Center for Muslim Theology, Tübingen University. A version of this article was first presented in “The Religious Dimensions of Nationalism” Conference, at the Cini Foundation in Venice in 2021.

[1] Rosie Bsheer, Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020, 18.

[2] Madawi Al-Rasheed, “The New Populist Nationalism in Saudi Arabia: Imagined Utopia by Royal Decree”, LSE Middle East Center Blog, May 5, 2020. (Accessed on February 28, 2024).

[3] Abdullah Alaoudh, “Al-yamīn al-waṭanjī al-mutaṭarif fī-l-Saʿūdiyya”, TRT Arabic, May 3, 2019, (Accessed on February 29, 2024).

[4] Ahmed Dailami, “Putting Islam Out of Use”, Los Angeles Review of Books, August 28 2018, (Accessed on February 28, 2024).

[5] Sultan Alamer, “The Saudi “Founding Day” and the Death of Wahhabism”, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, February 23, 2022, (Accessed on February 28, 2024).

[6] Nadav Samin, “Parricide in the Kingdom: Genealogy, Nationalism, and the Islamic State Challenge, in Madawi Al-Rasheed ed., Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, 198.

[7] Hamzah Al-Hassan, “The Role of Religion in Building National Identity: Case Study: Saudi Arabia,” unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Westminster, April, 2006, 146-148.

[8] Nabil Mouline, The Clerics of Islam: Religious Authority and Religious Power in Saudi Arabia, New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2011, 119-145.

[9] Muḥyī al-Din al-Qābsī, Al-muṣḥaf wa al-sayf: majmūʿ khiṭābāt wa kālimāt wa aḥādīth wa madhkurāt al-maghfūr jalāla al-malik ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Saʿūd, Riyadh: Al-Naṣr, ny, 135.

[10] Cole Bunzel, “The Kingdom and the Caliphate: Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State”, in Frederic Wehrey ed. Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East, London: Hurst, 2017, 241.

[11] ʿAbd al-ʿAziz b. Baz, “Al-durur al-baziyya fi-l-difāʿ al-dawla al-saʿūdiyya li-l-imām Bin Bāz,” (Accessed on November 15, 2018).

[12] Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth Reality, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 67-68.

[13] Nabil Mouline, ibid, 46.

[14] Madawi Al-Rasheed, ibid.

[15] Stephane Lacroix, Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2011, 1-36.

[16] Quoted in Mansoor Jassem Alshamsi, Islam and Political Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Quest for Political Change and Reform, New York: Routledge, 2011, 83.

[17] Bsheer, ibid.

[18] Andrew Hammond, “Reordering Religion: MBS is Defanging Wahhabism, not Dethroning it,” Maydan, September 20, 2021, (Accessed on February 28, 2024).

[19] Nadav Samin, Of Sand or Soil: Genealogy and Tribal Belonging in Saudi Arabia, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015, 14.