Saudi restoration commemorates pact of princes and Wahhabi clerics
Climb the rickety ladder through the Emir Omar bin Saud Palace courtyard in crumbling Diriyah and the image of old Saudi Arabia suddenly appears in an adobe roofscape set against dark green palms.
The caramel tones of the mud walls, the smell of dust mingling with water and the muffled clanging of hammer on stone belong not to the kingdom’s impoverished past, however, but a restoration project costing at least $133 million.
It was in Diriyah that the ruling al-Saud family first rose to power, and in memorialising its ruins, the authorities are celebrating a telling of national history that puts the dynasty and its clerical allies front and centre.
As capital of the first state built by the al-Saud in alliance with the revivalist cleric Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab around 270 years ago, Diriyah is the Saudi Camelot.
“Diriyah is symbolic. It’s about going back to your roots. The whole idea of the Saudi state started in Diriyah,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a political science professor in Riyadh.
In school text books, national day posters and programmes on state television, the alliance and its revival under the modern kingdom’s founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud is portrayed as delivering the nation from centuries of infighting and superstition and bringing unity, religious enlightenment and oil wealth.
It’s a version of events that, while perhaps not applauded by some critics of the government and people from parts of the country that were conquered by the al-Saud, nevertheless has solid roots in history.
The partnership of princes and clerics survived Ottoman invasion, tribal feuding and a transformative oil boom to become the political fulcrum of a country many times larger than the remote desert emirate it succeeded.