Last Wednesday was the 79th National Day of Saudi Arabia. Most of what has been said, written, and sung, focused on celebrating what has been achieved over the relatively short life of this country. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in what we have accomplished, and we certainly have many things to be proud of. But what I’m proud of the most are the people, the citizens who put their country first, those who their pride won’t stop them from seeing the shortcomings and work to rectify them. I salute those who live by the ideals of this nation, and find the courage in themselves to stop, think and reflect, and then say: we can do better than this, we must do better that this, we are better than this.
That’s why when I read that groups of young men in different parts of the country decided to celebrate the National Day by acting like hooligans, I was disturbed but not surprised or shocked. As Qusay said, we can probably attribute this behaviour to many reasons, including the lack of discipline. But the fact that these terrible acts happened on this day in particular raises some troubling questions: have we failed to instill any sense of national belonging in our youth? What does it mean for those boys to be Saudi and how can they express that? Although we have a great country, we are yet to construct a plural identity and make those boys realize that what they were vandalizing is actually theirs. Our national identity has been tied to individuals, tribes and religion among other things, but never to the country which we all should belong.
Talking about nationalism is easy, but at least some of us know that it takes much more than a bland weekly tarbiya wataniya class and a few songs to produce upright citizens. People belong to the country only when their rights are protected. People belong to the country only when they have a say in how it is run. People belong to the country only when they know they can dream and that their dreams may someday come true.
At the very same moments when the hooligans were destroying storefronts in Riyadh and Khobar, a dream of our King was coming true in Thuwal. The $100m inauguration of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, aka KAUST, was attended by more than 3,000 guests, including world leaders, prominent Saudis, and Nobel laureates. The launch of KAUST promises a new dawn for Saudi Arabia, the beginning of a future based on knowledge and enlightenment. That’s the promise, but will we ever come to realize it or even just come near it? How can we make sure that KAUST will not end up, in the words of Rasheed Aboulsamh, as a west coast Aramco enclave, where freedom and progressive thinking prevail while the rest of the country remains hostage to a religious dogma controlled by a select few?
The celebrations of the National Day, the opening of KAUST, the acts of vandalism, and everything else that happened over the course of this past year left me with many conflicted feelings: aspiration and disappointment, hope and despair. But more than anything, this 23rd of September left me with many questions, and no answers.