Is Power Trumping Legitimacy in Saudi Arabia?

As things stand today, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz has made his son and heir Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) an unchallengeable crown prince and de facto day-to-day decision-maker in the kingdom. And since last June, the latter has succeeded in sidelining––indeed, imprisoning––his most likely competitors within the royal family and detractors outside the potential line of succession. Using such ruses as reengineering the institutional power structure––removing rivals and taking over the functions and power of the Ministry of the Interior, for instance––and heading a graft-fighting commission, the crown prince has effected radical changes in the dynamics of power and legitimacy on which the Saudi royal family and rule has depended since the inauguration of the Third Saudi State in 1932.

There can be no doubt that a top priority in the kingdom should be fighting corruption not only because it saps needed resources but also because it impedes economic and social modernization. But when applied selectively, attacking fraud, money laundering, dishonesty, bribery, and other forms of graft becomes naked Machiavellianism that is easily and quickly detected and fought. Whatever the efficacy of Mohammed bin Salman’s machinations or the response to them, the power tactics he is employing in asserting his ascendance strike at important pillars of legitimacy in Saudi Arabia. Three such pillars are consensual decision-making among members of the royal family, conservative Wahhabi religious authenticity, and the nature of the social contract between the ruler and the ruled.

Royal Family Dynamics

The orderly, though not always cordial, agnatic seniority transfer of power practiced in Saudi Arabia since the 1950s has ended with the Abdullah-to-Salman turnover in early 2015, Salman’s removal of his brother Crown Prince Muqrin in April of that year, and Muqrin’s replacement with Salman’s nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN). Consequential as that final act was, it paled in comparison to Salman’s removal of MbN and the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as the crown prince. First, it signifies that the line of succession once again takes the form of father-to-son––though not in agnatic primogeniture fashion since neither the late Saud nor the present MbS are first sons––as it did when King Abdulaziz handed power to Saud. However, since King Salman so far has not appointed a deputy crown prince, in accordance with the rules of the Allegiance Council that the late King Abdullah established in 2014, MbS may have the opportunity to set the kingdom on a new path in this regard.

Second, given the famed longevity of the Al Saud, Mohammed bin Salman could potentially rule for half a century, a time sufficient for building and consolidating a Fourth Saudi State on the shoulders of the Salman line of the royal family—no matter what he decides regarding succession. In fact, sidelining his cousins––as happened with MbN last June and, recently, with Miteb bin Abdullah, deposed head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard––obviates any chance of a horizontal transfer of power outside Salman’s progeny. This latter choice was arguably more assured had MbN become king since he has no sons and would have transferred power to MbS (who was his deputy), to a brother, or to another cousin (such as Miteb).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, what is a monopoly of rule in King Salman’s line may have put to rest the consensual nature of Saudi Arabian decision-making as well as the proverbial stove-piping of authority exercised by different branches of the royal family. Participating in decision-making has been a mainstay of the royal family, if for no other reason than preserving secrecy within it and preventing the public airing of dirty laundry. This broad-based, horizontal decision-making process was accompanied by the existence of separate, almost equally powerful and endowed power centers. Thus, the Abdullah branch was in control of the National Guard, which King Abdullah established in the 1960s; national defense was in the hands of the late Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz until it was taken over after his death by then-Prince Salman and later Mohammed bin Salman; and internal security and the Ministry of the Interior constituted the fiefdom of the late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz and later Mohammed bin Nayef. All shared the mission of defending the family and country and all shared in the bounty of economic power such that no branch had more or less resources to play the age-old Saudi patronage system.

As it stands today, Salman and his son Mohammed have taken over these branches, duties, and responsibilities, thus depriving all others from influencing decision-making. This is not necessarily different from the way rule is today organized in surrounding monarchies; but both monopolizing power in the hands of the Salman branch and sidelining other powerful branches by accusing them of involvement in corruption are unwarranted strategic moves that could deprive the new rule of an element of traditional legitimacy. In a tribal society such as that in Saudi Arabia, and the entire Arabian Peninsula, each of the branches has its own relationships with tribal leaders and followers who will obviously be sidelined along with the heads of those branches—and none more so than the National Guard, which has drawn its membership from, and distributed its largesse to, pivotal tribal alliances not only in the hinterlands but also at the center of political and administrative power in Riyadh and other cities.

The Ruler’s Religious Establishment

There should be no doubt that the shifts taking place in Saudi Arabia’s organization of power have at least pro-forma support from the official religious hierarchy represented by the Saudi Grand Mufti Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheikh. He, like many others like him, knows that whatever their religious rhetoric and history, the final arbiters of political power and control remain the king and his entourage, especially with a strident and unforgiving MbS. It was not always like this. In January 2017, Al al-Sheikh himself objected to the government’s plans to introduce public entertainment to Saudis and allow for the opening of cinemas, saying they are anathema to good Islamic values and ethics and have the potential to help spread evil and allow for the mixing of the sexes. Important religious authorities had for decades opposed a woman’s right to drive, warning of dangerous impacts on Saudi society. But when the government announced last September––three months after MbS’s elevation to the position of crown prince––that it will give women the right to drive, the religious establishment refrained from criticizing the move.

In contrast to the normal rhetoric about non-Muslim faiths heard from the religious establishment for decades, the Saudi Minister of Justice and head of the powerful Muslim World League, Mohammed al-Issa, recently announced his and others’ endorsements of Saudi Arabia’s stance against extremism and the kingdom’s embrace of moderation and “civilized communication” with the international community. This change in attitude and behavior from the traditional Wahhabi creed among religious scholars reflects a clear preference among the religious elites to be more in line with the general political sentiment expressed by a would-be secular modernizer like Mohammed bin Salman. After all, religious endowments and the hierarchy are dependent on political authorities for their work and reach among a traditionally conservative population. Today, this is helped by the Saudi authorities’ purge of ultraconservative imams from the country’s mosques and MbS’s talk of a moderate Islam in the kingdom. As for the anti-corruption drive being led by the crown prince, it was seen by the pivotal Council of Senior Scholars—at least publicly—as in keeping with Islamic teachings and the national interest. It would thus be difficult to imagine these religious scholars deviating from the official line and considering the current arrests of important people as merely MbS’s consolidation of power.

Nonetheless, shocking a religious establishment steeped in ultraconservative Wahhabism and a population reared on extremist interpretations is bound to cause consternation, confusion, and possible rejection. Religious authorities have been in charge of the overall administration of justice, civic and social relations, education and its institutions, supervision of public life, setting agendas and daily behavior, and myriad other aspects of societal requirements. To change their status abruptly to try to make them replicas of others in the Arab and Islamic worlds is akin to a radical change, one without interim steps and with the added threat to economic wellbeing. Back in 1979, the kingdom was forced into ultraconservatism after Islamist zealots decrying a perceived threat to Islam took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca. This was further confirmed when the religious establishment led the public in denouncing the deployment of foreign troops on Saudi soil following the First Gulf War of 1990-1991. Although Saudi society is different today, radical change may indeed be too fast for the religious establishment to simply fold and go home quietly, or to relinquish its hold on Islam in its birthplace.

The Uncertainties of the Social Contract

While needing a definite and successful plan for economic diversification, Saudi Arabia runs the risk of undoing the essence of the traditional social contract its rulers have had with the ruled since its founding. At its most basic form, this patron-client relationship has assured the rulers’ commitment to distributing the wealth accrued from hydrocarbon revenues to the Saudi population in exchange for unwritten but firm allegiance. Indeed, what Saudi society has received in government largesse, public sector employment, large public projects, expenditures on education, health, retirement, and other social programs, and national defense has made it, on an aggregate basis, one of the most affluent countries in the world. That this largesse did not eradicate poverty and was accompanied by illegal profiteering and graft is an established fact the current leadership is ostensibly attempting to stop—although it is also being used politically and for consolidating MbS’s power. Nevertheless, the Saudi social contract remains an essential element of stability and regime security.

But weaning the kingdom off hydrocarbons is a costly affair not least because it entails cutbacks in state patronage, expensive outlays on investments in nontraditional activities, and development of a thriving but challenging private sector. As for the first effect, the “Vision 2030” plan announced in 2016 by MbS to lead such a diversification necessitates a rationalizing of the government’s role in socioeconomic welfare and a rationing of its patronage contributions. As Matthew Reed from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes, both wealthy and middle-class Saudis would suffer from subsidy cuts. Water and electricity prices would rise as subsidies decrease. Public employment, a mainstay of middle class success, would decline by 20 percent while the private sector would not yet be able to absorb the extra workforce.

As for outlays on new ventures, the state will still be the funder and driver, at least in the beginning, since it holds the most wealth as receiver of oil revenues. But there the task will concentrate on what industries the kingdom may be able to sustain. From an economic standpoint, the kingdom will have to decide whether it wants to start its own industrialization drive, thus requiring an educated, technically savvy native workforce to lessen the reliance on imported labor, a task that may take generations. Socially, if restructuring and diversification take the path followed by neighboring United Arab Emirates and Oman in developing the services and tourist sectors, Saudi Arabian society may be exposed to unwarranted repercussions that could compromise security and stability.

Moreover, the development of a successful private sector––while also initially dependent on the state––will present its own challenges. First, a private sector inevitably develops into a headache for a monarchical system that is becoming increasingly autocratic, as is happening under MbS’s direction. The severity of the challenge to the established system of public administration increases as those benefiting from leading the new sector seek to expand their networks and challenge state cronies for previously monopolized economic activities. Second, a private sector looks to increase its clout within the polity by trying to enter the realm of decision-making alongside the political leadership because it wants to influence how the market is run, what the bureaucracy is doing, or what laws affect the wellbeing of the sector. Third, the private sector brings an equalizing ethos and practice that will limit the power of the established ruler and elites to unilaterally decide the fate of economic exchanges and investment options and rules, as well as other mechanisms. Finally, and later on, the private sector may want to open up the political sphere as it gains in economic power, a prospect that is likely to challenge monarchical rule.

Sustained Legitimacy Requires Caution

The challenges discussed herein are only part of the overall threats to legitimate rule in Saudi Arabia as it appears to be on the cusp of a generational change in leadership. Until recently, the Saudi royal family has found the necessary tools and mechanisms to handle and manage the political, economic, social, and religious dimensions of such challenges. Not explicated, however, are other worries that are as important to address. Space is getting even more restrictive for semi-independent political and other activities in the country. Frequent incidents of a previously dormant activism in the oil-rich Eastern Province continue to challenge domestic security. Threats of terrorism by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the so-called Islamic State are a constant reminder of the importance of vigilance against the usurpers of the religion upon which Saudi legitimacy traditionally has rested.

In addition, the Saudi leadership is confronting repercussions from an overzealous regional foreign policy that may sooner rather than later have a negative domestic impact. None other than Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the Saudi quagmire in Yemen, which has already sapped resources and damaged Saudi Arabia’s reputation. He, too, remains a driving force for the continuing and unnecessary rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council that, if neglected, will likely cause the collapse of the entente. Tensions with Iran are high as the Islamic Republic becomes stronger militarily and more committed to its proxies. Saudi Arabia may have recently done irreparable damage to Lebanese politics when it influenced Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation. Finally, the Saudi relationship with the United States under Donald Trump’s leadership may be too exposed to the vicissitudes of the American president’s legal troubles arising from his alleged collusion with Russia to influence last year’s elections in his favor.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia under King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed may be witnessing the unraveling of its stability and security if the numerous challenges and threats are not faced squarely and effectively. No less than a serious rethinking of priorities and policy choices is nigh. Legitimacy does not just appear as an accident of history but is cultivated and sustained. The Saudi leadership would do well to be careful how it handles the many elements and dimensions that undergird its legitimacy. Much for the kingdom, the region, and the world is at stake.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here