Why Gulf kingdom's 89th National Day celebrations have taken on new significance this year for Saudis
Less than a week after an attack on its largest oil refinery exposed Saudi Arabia’s weakness, the country will erupt in celebration for a holiday to showcase its strength.
The kingdom’s 89th National Day, replete with five days of fireworks, has taken on new significance this year for Saudis. It already was supposed to be the biggest ever extravaganza after a year of international pressure on leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Then came last weekend’s drone strikes on one of the world’s biggest spenders on defense.
For Saudis strolling along Riyadh’s Tahlia Street, the celebrations, planned months in advance, are an occasion to show defiance in the face of the most serious violation of Saudi sovereignty in decades.
“It’s important to celebrate our national day to reinforce our love for our country and to show the enemy we’re not scared and it won’t affect us,” said Amal al-Mutairi, a 24-year-old student who wore a pin with pictures of Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman, on her black abaya cloak.
Nearby, Saudis gathered to watch traditional dances performed to rhythmic music and children hoisted on their dad’s shoulders waved the kingdom’s flag. Patisseries sold cakes dyed in the flag’s green color and shops offered special discounts for the occasion.
Entertainment company Cirque du Soleil will perform in the Eastern Province at a location an hour’s drive from the site of the unprecedented Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Arabia’s energy industry. Concerts, street festivals and art and craft workshops will be held across the kingdom under the slogan “Himma Hatta al-Qimma,” which roughly means “Strength Until the End.”
The theme of the events for the September 23 National Day was inspired by Prince Mohammed’s words last year in which he compared his people’s strength to the country’s Twaiq Mountain, said Amr Banaja, chief executive officer of the General Entertainment Authority, which is organising the events.
“The aspirations of Saudis will never break just like this mountain won't,” Banaja said in an interview on Thursday before the festivities kicked off. “So nothing will stop us.”
Saudi Arabia has been stepping up a public relations campaign both at home and abroad. Its reputation in the US and other countries has been battered by the war in Yemen, the detention of female activists and the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.
Saudi and US officials have said the drones and missiles used in the refinery strike last week were made by Iran, had never before been deployed by Iranian proxy groups and came from a northerly direction, ruling out Yemen as a launch site.
But they stopped short of saying the strikes were launched directly from or by the Islamic Republic, claims that could have propelled a drift toward war. The attacks caused an unprecedented surge in oil prices.
“The impact of the attack against the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure will be felt long after the physical damage has been repaired and key infrastructure reconstructed,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at political risk company Verisk Maplecroft, said in a report. “Most importantly, the attacks have highlighted a vulnerability that cannot be easily or quickly remedied.”