Saudi Arabia is a desert country encompassing most of the Arabian Peninsula, with Red Sea and Persian (Arabian) Gulf coastlines. Known as the birthplace of Islam, it’s home to the religion’s 2 most sacred mosques: Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, destination of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, and Medina’s Masjid an-Nabawi, burial site of the prophet Muhammad. Riyadh, the capital, is a skyscraper-filled metropolis.

Saudi Arabia is a vast country, home to a diverse population of tribal, sectarian, ethnic, and regional groups. These groups’ differing identities have always posed a challenge to central government attempts to form a unified sense of national belonging. In the past, the leadership has sought to use religion to this end. 

In 1744 the founder of the first Saudi state, Mohammed Ibn Saud, and religious leader Mohammed Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab agreed on an alliance that effectively gave the political sphere to the ruler while the latter maintained his influence over religious issues (and, subsequently, his offspring’s influence too). This pact remained more or less in place until, and following, the founding of the third Saudi state in 1932. 

Before the oil boom that boosted Saudi Arabia to global prominence, religion remained important to the Saudi population, although various interpretations existed along regional and sectarian lines. Oil revenues brought better school systems, helping forge a more coherent religious identity that began to flourish in the 1970s and 1980s with both the rise of the Sahwa (Islamic Awakening) movement and the blessing of the state. 

As a result, religion moulded an overarching identity that also served to legitimise the ruling family. Islam was the identity of the population, strengthened by the importance of Saudi Arabia as the birthplace of the religion and the host of its two most holy sites.

Importantly, the religious establishment served as something of a buffer for the political establishment: it was formally responsible for some of the constraints in the country. Over time, therefore, Saudis became used to the idea that the state was in charge of the politics and the religious establishment took care of the culture, society, and religion. This shielded the state, which was able to point to the religious establishment to explain the lack of reforms.

Still, with a growing diversity of views within the Saudi population in recent decades, this stance became increasingly challenging to maintain. The Saudi leadership sought to strike a balance between conservatives on the one hand and liberal calls for social reform on the other. This also allowed it to monitor both sides while occasionally tilting in favour of one or the other. What the political establishment did provide to the population was embodied by the social contract, which acted as an implicit but powerful reference point for the responsibilities of the state to Saudi citizens, and vice versa. 

There was a strong economic element to this. Under the social contract, citizens accessed privileges such as subsidised water, energy, and other services, while the state levied no personal income tax on them. In exchange, citizens would be loyal to the state and refrain from requesting political representation.

In this period, the state also abstained from direct involvement in confrontations in the Middle East, maintaining a similar middle-ground stance in dealing with neighbours and foreign partners. This balancing approach further minimised domestic unrest and regional risks, ensuring stability and continuity for the Saudi state both at home and abroad. The country was an important regional player, but fairly passively so at times. Its focus was on fostering Islamic identity and emphasising the importance of Arab unity.

The new nationalism that has arisen in Saudi Arabia today did not spring from nowhere: the era of King Abdullah (2005-2015) provided the foundation on which the ideology flourished. He implemented policies that the current leadership has strengthened. For instance, in an attempt to ease some social restrictions and limit the dominant religious influence, King Abdullah made the national day a public holiday in 2005, in the face of opposition from religious figures who considered such celebration to be alien to Islamic traditions. 

At the same time, limited social reforms slowly progressed, which increased the power struggle between conservatives and liberals. The state still played its established role of balancing the two: it curbed some of the religious police’s powers while also briefly detaining women who campaigned to lift the ban on driving. In addition, the state initiated a crackdown on reformers and critics, took up the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, and embarked on early confrontations with Yemen and Qatar. King Abdullah’s actions were an early herald of today’s nationalist approach. But he was also careful to maintain the long-standing nature of the social contract, facilitated by an increase in oil prices in the final years of his reign.

In this respect, in the wake of the Arab uprisings, King Abdullah identified $37 billion in benefits to hand out, giving the social contract system a further boost to prevent domestic unrest. But the uprisings forced the government to re-examine its sustaining narrative: as their fallout continued across the Arab world, the state worried about the potential power of transnational Islamic networks in Syria and Iraq. 

A strengthened Saudi nationalism was, in part, an antidote to these new conditions. Moreover, as oil prices began to fall, the state reassessed the viability of the social contract and the country’s wider economic model. As a result, since 2015, the new leadership has promoted a more overt form of nationalism to address its regional worries and to help justify economic measures designed to end the draining rentier social contract system.

One interesting aspect of the current nationalist mobilisation is its striking similarity to the state-sponsored religious mobilisation of the 1980s, which eventually backfired. In those days, the population became sandwiched between a top-down religious narrative sponsored by the official religious establishment and a grassroots mobilisation that the state allowed to flourish under the supervision of Sahwa leaders. But the process of allowing the Sahwa to gain prominence became difficult to maintain, as it created a religious counter-narrative that was more appealing to the population than the official religious establishment’s benign discourse. 

The establishment’s approach did not answer citizens’ persistent and timely questions about political and cultural changes. Given that the period was difficult for Saudis because it saw the first austerity measures since the oil boom of the 1970s, the mobilisation and strengthening of religious forces may have been an attempt to prevent the population from expressing frustration – by pressing religion upon them instead.

The same cycle risks repeating itself now: Saudi Arabia is experiencing a top-down nationalist mobilisation alongside the rapid growth of grassroots nationalism, both permitted by the state during a period of austerity. This could strengthen nationalists when they encounter policies they do not approve of, even those promoted by the newly nationalist state. In a similar fashion, Sahwa leaders confronted the state when it allowed American troops to deploy on Saudi soil following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

To understand the potential impact of these changes, it is important to comprehend the purpose of them and the form they take. The core purpose of the nationalist drive is to corral support around Mohammed bin Salman; the form it takes is a heightened demand for adherence to the Saudi state over any religious affiliation.