Saudi flags all over the city, green trashy stuff in the stores… Saudi National Day 2014 is around the corner! Every year, Saudis celebrate the day that King Abdulaziz declared the Saudi Kingdom on September 23, 1932. Though, every year? Not really.
Celebrating the country’s unification – and patriotism in general – is a rather new phenomenon in the Kingdom. Up to a decade ago, the only two celebrations this country knew were the religious holidays, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. The first marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, while the latter is when pilgrims from all over the world come to Makkah for the Hajj, or pilgrimage.
A holiday to celebrate something secular was off limits, at least for the powerful religious authorities. Even the prophet’s birthday, thought to be on the 12th day of the third Islamic month, is celebrated by people secretly, as the country’s clerics are afraid an official celebration would lead to idolatry.
However, things have drastically changed following 9/11 and Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004, as well as with the new king, Abdullah, who inherited the crown in 2005. The authorities increasingly saw the importance of nationalism as a useful way to replace tribalism and increase loyalty to the country. In fact, one of King Abdullah’s first royal decrees was to make September 23 a holiday.
What started small has been growing year after year. Even in the four years I have been here I can see the difference. Today, the stores are full of green garlands, stickers, flags, wigs, and other plastic gadgets. All over the city, the green Saudi flag with on it a white Arabic inscription – the Shahada: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is God’s prophet” – underlined by a sword are waving in the wind.
For the authorities, Youm Al-Watani, Arabic for National Day, is a good reason to hail the country’s royal family, who gloriously unified the country, the prosperous state of the nation, and the progression it is making on all possible fields. This year in Jeddah, cherry on the cake of the National Day celebrations is the raising of the highest flag in the world. That the city is still lacking basic utilities such as sewage, sufficient hospital beds, and safe roads is something the authorities seem not so concerned about, though criticism is far from absent.
For most youngsters, the celebration is a good excuse to party in the streets and madly drive around the city – in other words, making as much noise as possible. The municipalities may have organized some festivities, including fireworks, the majority appears to be more interested in creating a lot of chaos on the roads all over the major cities. In that sense, the way Saudis celebrate their feelings of “patriotism” on their country’s national day isn’t all that different from, let’s say, the Dutch Queen’s (or currently King’s) Day and other independence day celebrations.