Why Saudi Arabia's revisionist erasure of its Ottoman history will backfire

Why Saudi Arabia's revisionist erasure of its Ottoman history will backfire
Comment: Saudi Arabia is distancing itself from its Ottoman past to fuel its rivalry with Turkey, whipping up jingoistic sentiments, and resurrecting the ghosts of racism, writes Muhammed Nafih Wafy.
6 min read
24 Jun, 2020
Riyadh Municipality reportedly removed a street sign bearing the name of Suleiman the Magnificent [Twitter]
As anti-racism protests erupted across the world, with demonstrators toppling US Confederate monuments and statues of British slave traders, a strange parody of this has emerged in a street in Saudi Arabia. 

A sign bearing the name of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent was removed from one of the main streets of the kingdom's capital, Riyadh. But this was not done by angry protestors "speaking truth to power", as protest is a rare commodity in Riyadh, and ordinary people in Riyadh harbour no immediate grudge against the erstwhile Ottoman Empire, and its longest-reigning sultan.  

Instead, the decision to remove the road sign (Arabic link) was taken by Riyadh municipality, at the behest of the Saudi administration under its de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman.

The move was widely hailed in pro-regime media and Twitter accounts as an effort to expunge 'colonial' remnants from Saudi Arabian streets.

But the decision to change the name of the Riyadh street is just the latest in a series of attempts by Saudi Arabia and its allies to rewrite the version of the Ottoman history they had officially subscribed to for almost a century, because of current political tensions with Turkey.

Contrary to what generations of GCC citizens are taught at schools and universities, the new narrative seeks to portray the Ottoman reign in the Arab world as an imperial occupation rather than a pan-Islamic caliphate.

Although the Ottomans presided over one of history's most powerful empires and controlled much of the territory that form today's Saudi Arabia, the signboard carrying the name of Suleiman the Magnificent has nothing to do with Turkey's colonial legacy in Saudi Arabia.

The new narrative seeks to portray the Ottoman reign in the Arab world as an imperial occupation rather than an Islamic caliphate

Unlike several Ottoman monuments and structures in and around Mecca, which Saudi Arabia demolished in the past in the name of renovation and urban development, the street name was not an Ottoman memorial. Ottomans never named the street in Riyadh after their Sultan and its existence in no way symbolised Saudi Arabia's subjugation to the empire.

Instead, the street name reflected a period of bonhomie and strategic relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Turkey in the post-Ottoman period, when the former was ruled by the uncles of the current crown prince.

Saudi authorities have the right to change the name of any street inside their territory, and there are several streets, mosques, squares and other landmarks in the Arab world which were named and renamed according to the whims and fancies of the rulers.

Portrait of Suleyman I (1520-1566), 10th Sultan of
the Ottoman Empire [Getty]

But this decision was mooted by the Saudi bloc's desperate need to build a narrative portraying Turkey as an oppressive imperial master, and the Arab countries as their colonies.

The move is part of an ongoing campaign to manipulate history. In 2019, Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Education modified its history textbooks by calling the Ottoman reign in the Arab world an "occupation" instead of a "caliphate" as it was previously referred to. The new textbook accuses the Ottomans of dividing the Arab region and unleashing brutalities against the House of Saud. Egyptian religious authorities also changed their terminology from Ottoman "conquest" of Istanbul, to Ottoman "occupation".

Read more: Hagia Sophia conversion plan comes at testing times for Turkey's Erdogan

In 2018, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan reposted a comment that accused the early 20th century Ottoman commander Fahreddin Pasha of robbing and looting Medina, worsening the diplomatic dispute between the two countries. Turkey responded by officially changing the name of the street where the UAE embassy is located to "Fahreddin Pasha Street."

The recent decision to remove the name of Suleiman the Magnificent was also immediately reciprocated, with Libya's Tajoura Municipality naming one of the main roads in the town after the Ottoman Sultan. Apparently, the past has become a hostage - unjustly so - of the present Saudi-Turkey rivalry, over their conflicting visions of a future middle East.

But the current dispute was born out of a political conflict dating back just nine years, and has nothing to do with the distant past about which they are now bickering.

Until 2011, Turkey was a "brotherly" ally for all the GCC countries, and history textbooks in schools and universities taught children that the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic caliphate which contributed to the global expansion of Islamic culture and the flourishing of its civilization.

Even as recently as 2010, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah presented Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the prestigious King Faisal International Award for his "services to Islam".  

The current dispute was born out of a political conflict dating back just nine years, and has nothing to do with the distant past

But the Arab Spring changed all these equations, with Erdogan's endorsement of Egypt's first democratically elected government led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, pitting Turkey against Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who would later aid and abet a military coup against Morsi.

Diplomatic tension grew into a political confrontation while Turkey supported Qatar when it came under a blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. In March 2018, Prince Mohammad bin Salman went to the extent of describing Turkey as part of a "triangle of evil" alongside Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The diplomatic row rose to a crescendo with Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate in October 2018. Turkey's handling of the murder, which according to a UN report was perpetrated by Saudi agents under the direct command of the Crown Prince, exposed the Saudi Arabia's role in the assassination.

The kingdom and its allies are also unhappy with the Erdogan government's intervention in Libya where the Turkish military has helped the internationally recognised government to stave off an offensive by the eastern militia led by rogue General Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by two Saudi allies - the United Arab Emirates and Egypt - as well as Russia. 

The Arab allies interpret Turkish military presence in Qatar after the blockade as well as the interventions in Syria and Libya as part of Erdogan's expansionist ambition in the region, modelled on the erstwhile Ottoman empire.

But Saudi Arabia's invocation of Ottoman past to fuel its current rivalry with Turkey will only serve the short term purpose of whipping up nationalistic sentiments at home, and provoking the ire of Erdogan. In the long term it will resurrect the ghosts of racism, nationalism and tribalism buried beneath the veneer of history.

When the current diplomatic tensions thaw, it will be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.

Politicians often use history as an easy scapegoat to settle scores with their opponents. When they do not have a convincing case to argue, or fail to defend their cause, demagogues resort to history to pick up some "grievances" on which to build their narrative.

This political expediency of using history, race and nationalism for political advantage might help rulers to score some temporary gains, but in the long run, will end up breeding intolerance and pitting people of the same region, sharing the same cultural history, against each other.


Muhammed Nafih Wafy is a journalist and writer currently based in Muscat. He is the author of 'The book of aphorisms: Being a translation of Kitab al-Hikam'.

Follow him on twitter: @nafihwafy

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.