On Tuesday, for the first time Saudi Arabia celebrated its founding day nearly 300 years ago, and chose to downplay the role played by clerics from the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam.
The anniversary marks the day in 1727 when Mohammed bin Saud, founder of the first Saudi state, took over the emirate of Diriyah, a remote town which now lies on the northwest edge of the Saudi capital Riyadh.
This was around 18 years before what historians generally consider as the beginning of the Saudi state when bin Saud, a tribal leader, forged an alliance with Islamic preacher Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, whose purist doctrine is often referred to as Wahhabi Islam.
The agreement with the clergy boosted the legitimacy of the Al Saud rulers in exchange for lavish funding and influence granted to the conservative religious establishment over social issues, education and public morality – powers which have recently been curbed by the country’s de facto leader.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has reined in the religious police, and has opened the country to cinemas, and concerts, and lifted a ban on women driving and eased the guardianship system, which gives men significant control over the lives of their female relatives.
Last month, through a royal decree Saudi Arabia declared February 22 as its “Founding Day”, in recognition of “the commencement of the reign of Imam Muhammad bin Saud” marking the start of the Saudi state.