Sat, Mar 09, 2019 - Page 9 News List

‘Traitor’ is the new ‘infidel’ as nationalism grips Saudi Arabia

The rhetoric has turned divisive as the kingdom pursues an identity makeover, with some worried that the trend might destroy the social fabric

by Vivian Nereim  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Muna AbuSulayman was relaxing in bed last month when her phone pinged with news that the Grand Mufti, Saudi Arabia’s religious leader, had died.

After checking that the alert appeared to originate from an official source, the former talk show host shared it with 544,000 Twitter followers. It was a fateful misjudgement that pitched her deep into an ugly struggle over what it means to be Saudi Arabian as the kingdom forges a new identity under its young crown prince.

The story about the mufti was fake. AbuSulayman deleted her post and apologized, but the damage was done.

Over several sleepless nights, she watched as tweet after tweet branded her “scum,” “impure” — she is from the ethnically diverse western region — and a foreign-funded “traitor” who should be stripped of her citizenship.

Just as notably, the abuse did not include what has long been the insult of choice in the conservative Islamic kingdom: infidel. After all, as one of the few high-profile women to appear on TV with her face uncovered during less lenient times, the vivacious 45-year-old challenged gender conventions upheld by hardline clerics.

It was not an oversight. Saudi Arabia is undergoing an aggressive nationalist rebranding, downplaying an austere religious doctrine associated abroad with terrorism and promoting veneration of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as he pursues an economic overhaul. Amid efforts to maintain domestic support while redesigning the contract between state and citizen, traitors — not infidels — are the enemy.

Many Saudi Arabians seem to have taken their lead from official rhetoric. Accusations of betrayal are lobbed online, printed on threatening notes and trumpeted in red letters on newspaper front pages. Anyone perceived as showing the kingdom in a bad light can be targeted, even comedians poking fun at its idiosyncrasies.

“If a person is neutral or stands with the enemy against this country, it’s our right to call him a traitor,” Abdullah al-Fozan, a member of the consultative council, said in a televised diatribe that went viral late last year.

The risk is that baiting people to turn on fellow citizens under the guise of patriotism might rupture a society already under strain from the costs imposed by the crown prince’s “Vision 2030” reforms, and deter the foreign investors and visitors he wants to attract.

“The government needs to step in with a lot of might and make sure these hateful campaigns don’t end up destroying the fabric of society,” AbuSulayman said at her villa in Riyadh.

The abuse risks sullying changes she is proud of.

For now, officials are not hurrying to squash the spiteful mood — a “with us or against us” mindset seen by some Saudi Arabians as needed to steer the country through a tough transition.

Under his plan for life after oil, the 33-year-old son of King Salman is ending an era of cheap utilities, tax-free shopping and plentiful government jobs. He has also relaxed social restrictions, lifting bans on cinemas and women driving. However, simultaneously, authorities have arrested dozens of dissenters in a political crackdown.

A top aide to the crown prince began stoking the conviction that Saudi Arabia is menaced by foes at home and abroad in 2017.

Saud al-Qahtani, since removed from his role as an adviser to the prince and media czar, created a “blacklist” hashtag on social media urging Saudi Arabians to name and shame “mercenaries” who had taken Qatar’s side in a Gulf feud.

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