Saudi Arabia’s revision of its history curriculum is politically motivated and a swipe at present-day Turkey.
One of the hallmarks of the reign of Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is the hyper-nationalistic discourse that has been injected into Saudi society. This nationalism on steroids seeks to foster not only a sense of national pride but also loyalty to the absolutist monarchy by manufacturing a historical narrative that paints them as saviours and guardians of the “Saudi people” – rather than solely serving the interests of the Al Saud royal family.
As part of this attempt at engendering a new national identity, Saudi education officials have taken to shamelessly attacking an old foe of theirs with a bid to alter their history curriculum to brand the Ottoman Empire as an “invasive and criminal state” and calling their sovereignty over the Arabian Peninsula as an “Ottoman occupation”.
An ugly marriage of nationalism and Turkophobia
The Saudi education ministry’s move to obfuscate history—praised by royals—and brainwash Saudi children is not only to “one-up” the Ottomans who put down successive revolts by the Al Saud until they sided with the British Empire, but to whip up Turkophobic sentiment amongst Saudi citizens due to Riyadh’s clear disdain for the Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
MBS has had egg on his face, not to mention blood all over his hands, ever since he and/or men loyal to him orchestrated the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi almost a year ago. Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where evidence indicates he was ambushed by a hit squad, suffocated to death, and then dismembered and had his remains either burnt or dissolved with acid.
Since then, Turkey has been at the forefront of the global campaign to bring the perpetrators of this grisly crime to justice, and MBS is not happy about that at all. While even the CIA believes that MBS and his coterie are behind Khashoggi’s assassination, the US is too big a shark to tussle with, and Saudi Arabia needs to stay in Washington’s good graces because it relies on American power to survive.
Riyadh has therefore directed its ire at regional power Turkey, lashing out with anti-Ottoman slurs as a way of cloaking its anti-Turkish sentiments that have been exacerbated by the Khashoggi case, Turkey’s support for embattled Qatar that has been blockaded by Saudi Arabian and its allies since 2017, and Ankara’s backing of pro-democracy movements throughout the Middle East.
As the Ottoman Empire was referred to in Saudi Arabia by its proper name for decades and viewed as part of the historical fabric of the region that had an immense influence on even social and cultural norms and customs, these recent changes can only be described as politically motivated.
Many across the Arab world equate Erdogan and his political movement as descendants of the Ottomans and, even though they are not “neo-Ottomans”, the perception exists. Saudi Arabia is, therefore, taking a stab at modern-day Turkey by slinging mud at the Ottomans.
Historical bitterness against the Ottomans
The Al Saud are also of course still bitter that their ancestor, Abdullah bin Saud, was captured in battle after Ottoman allied forces in 1818 defeated his rebellious statelet. The education ministry even released a statement, claiming Abdullah was “assassinated.” In fact, he was taken to the imperial capital of Istanbul where he was executed for his rebellion and other acts such as the sacking and raiding of towns and cities near his former emirate.
Funnily enough, the education ministry does not perceive their British imperial allies who helped them establish the modern Saudi state as invaders and criminals, despite their litany of crimes all over the Arab and Islamic world, a vast community that the Al Saud see themselves as leaders of.
It’s no secret as to why that is – without Britain’s support in the Great War, the Saudis would never have been successful against the Ottomans.
However, they succeeded, and due to their absolute loyalty to British designs, they did not even need to be occupied in a manner similar to, say, Iraq to the north of the newly founded state of Saudi Arabia where the British had to face rebellion after rebellion.
Ironically, the Saudi strategy is not too dissimilar from the Ottomanism attempted by Sultan Abdulhamid II, which tried to encourage an Ottoman sense of identity that trumped individual tribal, religious, and ethnic divisions.
Ultimately, the sultan’s plan failed, as the age of feudal loyalty to one particular family came to a close and was usurped by loyalty to national identity. Saudi Arabia’s attempt at nationalism will likely face similar failure, as many Saudis identify themselves as hailing from their individual regions and tribes, not by some vague connection with a monarch from a single ruling family.
While Saudi nationals may be attracted to the idea of loyalty to a sense of citizenship and of belonging to a particular land, people and shared religion and customs, it is highly unlikely that there will be massive buy-in from the population to devote themselves to a single-family. This will likely be the case once the oil dries up and should economic hardship ever strike.
When and if that day comes, I will not be surprised to see this newfound “Saudiness” crumble in a quicker time than it took for the Saudis to defame the Ottoman Empire.