In a rare burst of patriotic gusto, Saudis celebrated their national day on Thursday, testing hardline clerics who object to the Islamic kingdom’s only secular holiday five years after it was created.
Tens of thousands of Saudi youths took to the streets in cars in major cities on Thursday night, waving green national flags, dancing on the asphalt and blaring music on one of the very few occasions when public displays of nationalism are permitted.
Many more, along with many of the millions of foreign workers in the kingdom, attended late-night cultural events, activities which have increased each year as cities in the ultra-conservative kingdom take note of the public’s desire for more entertainment.
In downtown Riyadh national museum complex, a lively audience of several thousand listened to traditional lutists and poets and watched children’s dances and drum teams perform.
Kids posed on camels for photos and many teen boys hung out in the latest checked shirt and skinny jeans fashions, forgoing the traditional ankle-length all-white thobe, or dishdasha, normally expected of Saudi men.
Women meanwhile decked out their normally sternly black abayas, the mandatory shroud-like cloak, with green scarves and other trimmings of nationalism, some even showing some green makeup on their mostly-covered faces.
While the country’s religious police were out in force, they seemed to take a light hand, and only reported 100 arrests around the country, according to the new website Sabq.org.
There were no initial reports of the type of violence that erupted in the eastern city of Khobar during last year’s celebration, when scores of youths ran rampage through the city breaking windows of shops and restaurants.
The September 23 holiday marks the 1932 creation of the modern Saudi state by King Abdul Aziz al-Saud, who spent 20 years of bloody fighting and political alliance-building to unify the desert’s disparate clans.
But it was only in 2005, just weeks after he inherited the crown, that Abdul Aziz’s son Abdullah established the first national day.
The move was criticized by conservative clerics who held that the national day was a secular celebration and that the only proper holidays are Islamic.
Writer Abdullah S. al-Shehri, writing in the Saudi Gazette on Thursday, called it “rather ironic, let alone ridiculous,” that some Saudis still debate the Islamic correctness of national day.
“For many decades, we, as a people of this country, were deprived of the privilege of celebrating our national day out of fear that we might be violating the precepts of our Islamic faith!” he wrote.
Underscoring the mostly hidden tensions, on Wednesday Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz stressed in a televised statement both King Abdul Aziz’s political accomplishment of unifying the country and the Islamic basis of the kingdom.
“We are proud of this day not only because it is an anniversary of the nation, but because it is for a state established on the basis of fear of God,” he said.
Saudi Arabia was created on principles “which made the kingdom a truly Islamic state in all its affairs,” he added.