Mapping Saudi Arabia’s New Ruling Bargain

“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” Machiavelli, The Prince

The western press has been awash in pictures of Saudi women taking to the wheel for the first time. Indeed, no one can minimize what happened in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2018: in Riyadh, a hot and expansive metropolis with a brooding clerical establishment (many of whose stalwarts view women drivers as tools of Satanic corruption), the opportunity for women to motor themselves clearly constitutes an exhilarating kind of freedom.

The more fundamental question is what this specific change means for Saudi Arabia’s political system. This question emerged in the weeks preceding the lifting of the driving ban, when the government arrested ten activists, most of whom were women who had led the campaign for driving rights. Did this clampdown reveal Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) as little more than a crafty dictator whose real goal was to ingratiate himself with western leaders? To be sure, his efforts to cultivate prominent US publications—and in so doing, project an image of moderation and reasonableness—certainly seem to support this interpretation of his actions.

Still, this narrow view of the driving story misses the wider political change unfolding in Saudi Arabia. If the contours of this transformation remain blurry, we can still begin to connect some dots. What comes into view suggests a reworking of the old “ruling bargain” between the ruler and the ruled, according to which the former provides necessary goods and protection in exchange for the latter’s acquiescence and loyalty. This shift is sufficiently robust to create both opportunities and dangers for Saudi Arabia’s leading prince and “the new order of things” that, by fits and starts, MbS seems to be pursuing.

Saudi leaders have wielded the threat of Wahhabi ideology and the presence of “religious enforcers” (the mutawa) to keep potential opponents in line.

Ruling Bargain Politics and Their Legacy

Saudi Arabia’s political system has much in common with other monarchies dependent on the ruling bargain. In this system, patronage and protection are provided to specific groups in return for their support of—or at least acquiescence to—the principle that regimes ultimately wield power. Benefits such as housing, subsidies, and jobs are a useful incentive to make clients dependent on patrons, but incentives are insufficient. Indeed, all regimes also rely on generating fear to keep their followers in line and foster distrust among them. Thus, most of the time, an effective ruling bargain makes a would-be guardian simultaneously the source of wellbeing as well as a threat to freedom of choice.

Many Arab monarchs have proven especially adept at using the system for their political ends. Among the advantages they enjoy is a division of labor by which kings and emirs use the powerful symbols and institutional power of monarchy to distance themselves from the political fray, while delegating the tasks of governance to political leaders. In countries such as Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait, many of these leaders are elected and thus can claim some democratic legitimacy. Further, monarchs have periodically engaged these elected leaders in “reform programs” that promise greater political openness while insuring that ultimate power continues to rest with the king and his allies. In several cases––the most prominent example of which was Morocco––the 2011 political revolts in the Arab world spurred more of these experiments in state-enforced political change. But when the limits of such change were exposed or contested, monarchs let the blame fall on politicians, thus sometimes setting the stage for a new round of “reforms.”

No economic program as ambitious as Vision 2030 one can have a possibility of success absent a corresponding bid to restructure the political game.

The Contours of MbS’s New Ruling Bargain

In contrast to Morocco, Jordan or Kuwait, Saudi Arabia did not foster this dance of state-managed political reform. On the contrary, Saudi leaders feared that any opening, no matter how controlled, could pose a severe threat. Such hesitancy is partly explained by the fact that there is far less institutional and ideological space to play the reform game in the country. Saudi leaders historically have been stymied by their alliance with a clerical establishment that functions as the ultimate source of religious authority. Thus, they have rarely courted less powerful sectors such as liberals, western-oriented women, or the Shia minority—all targets of hostility from the clerics. Indeed, Saudi leaders have wielded the threat of Wahhabi ideology and the presence of “religious enforcers” (the mutawwa) to keep potential opponents in line. Under the system that MbS inherited, the challenge of reform pivoted around his ability to break out of this confining legacy without provoking retaliation from clerical elites, especially their most hardline elements.

No wonder, then, that the regime’s first priority was to espouse dramatic economic change rather than rework the political system. The aspiration for such change, as reflected in the regime’s “Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030,” is real, even if it may be unrealistic. After all, the country cannot rely indefinitely on oil income to fund its social formula. But no economic program as ambitious as this one can have a possibility of success absent a corresponding bid to restructure the political game. Kicking out his main princely rivals was a necessary first step, but by itself it provided MbS with no obvious political path forward. Nor did the November 2017 imprisonment of leading Saudi business tycoons in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton address this challenge. The roundup yielded some billions of dollars, and even more importantly, telegraphed who was the new and unrivaled purveyor of both goods and power. But this shakedown did not mitigate MbS’s potential political isolation.

Mohammed bin Salman’s strategy appears to court support from the very groups that had previously depended on the regime to shield it from the clerical establishment, especially westernized professional women and the Shia community.

As a consequence, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken four decisions that point to what might be a significant reworking of the old ruling bargain.

  1. Distancing the monarchy from the religious establishment. By putting a distance between the regime and the clerical establishment, he avoided a total divorce. Indeed, the regime seems to be cultivating a group of “enlightened sheikhs” to buttress a less rigid religious discourse. This goal is in keeping with MbS’s very public demand for a “moderate” Islam. Whether he genuinely wants to embrace—or is capable of fostering—an alternative religious ideology is unclear. The November 2017 arrests of what the regime described as “hardline” clerics certainly attests to the prince’s resolve. However, the arrests two months earlier of several leading Islamist intellectuals who were not part of the clerical establishment—but who had previously called for democratic reforms—sent a clear message: bin Salman is ready to silence and thus deter any bid to forge an alternative Islamic ideology that falls outside the regime’s control. In short, whatever the content of “moderation,” its nature and limits would be defined by the king, crown prince, and their allies.
  2. Reaching out to new constituencies. Mohammed bin Salman’s strategy appears to court support from the very groups that had previously depended on the regime to shield it from the clerical establishment, especially westernized professional women and the Shia community.
    Regarding the first group, the royal decree allowing women to drive was the most dramatic of the crown prince’s initiatives. Other changes have been unfolding as well, including the creation of women’s blogs, running clubs and fitness centers, and the organization of reading groups. Many of these initiatives have not required official permission. However, if the women involved in them see the absence of interference as a kind of permission, they must be careful. The May 2018 arrest of women activists makes plain the regime’s intention to ensure that the new protections afforded to professional women do not invite political mobilization under the banner of freedom or democracy. (On this score, it should be noted that in 2016, the Saudi government scaled back the presence of religious police, or the mutawwa. The latter reappeared in June 2017, however, a development that may have underscored the limits to which MbS is willing to confront these conservative forces. This may also have signaled his continued desire to use the leverage provided by these forces to sustain the dependence of professional women on him and his government.)As for members of the Shia community, the regime has pursued several initiatives designed to secure their support. The potential significance of—and difficulties associated with—such efforts should not be discounted. The clerical establishment’s intense and very public hostility toward the Shia sect and its adherents is such that any outreach to the Shia community will not sit well with many clerics. But MbS has every reason to pursue this effort. He seeks Shia support to rework the social and political benefits system, especially because it has been only two years since the Saudi regime executed Nimr al-Nimr, the most vocal leader of the Shia opposition. Clearly, the crown prince cannot hope to counterbalance the Sunni clerics without mobilizing Shia “moderates.”
  3. Promoting a national dialogue. To legitimize these efforts, Mohammed bin Salman wants to promote a new kind of Saudi nationalism. This third element in his tool kit finds expression in the regime’s efforts to promote “national dialogues” with multiple sectors. In the Arab world, such dialogues are hardly new. At various times the autocratic leaders of Morocco, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait promoted or even presided over discussions whose declared aim was to foster a new political consensus. However, these state-managed debates never resembled Tunisia’s substantive 2014 “National Dialogue.” While that dialogue set the stage for Tunisia’s transition to democracy, the other national discussions gave different groups the chance to articulate commonalities and differences in ways that did not threaten—and often effectively supported—the prevailing political powers.The available evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia’s dialogues are designed to advance a similar balance between fostering intra-communal dialogue and containing the potentially subversive effects that could flow from such discussions. As demonstrated by the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue, these gatherings include young leaders from different communities. Further, the web pages devoted to the center’s Naseej1 (Arabic for woven fabric) program demonstrate that they are designed to reach out to the eastern provinces and thus address the Shia. However, the participants in Naseej make no explicit mention of Sunni-Shia differences; instead, they speak in the language of tolerance, national unity, and understanding—while steadfastly avoiding any mention of democracy.
  4. Conducting elections. The regime held municipal elections in November 2015. These were Saudi Arabia’s third such elections. With 284 municipal councils and up to five million Saudi women eligible to vote, the elections were not insignificant—a fact illustrated by the opposition of hardline clerics to the participation of women voters and candidates. In the end, only 130,000 women actually registered, and only 20 of the 900 female candidates won seats. All of this took place when MbS held the post of defense minister and some two years before he was declared the crown prince. Nevertheless, the participation of women in elections for local councils—albeit with very limited powers—fit well into the emerging strategy of a rising prince seeking to bestow protections onto a vulnerable constituency and thus win himself new allies.

When it comes to Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to rework the old ruling bargain, one basic fact is pivotal: the king and crown prince are the only ultimate sources of power. They are the ones who grant the right to drive, pursue dialogue, or hold elections.

Protected Privileges Are Not Political Rights

When it comes to Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to rework the old ruling bargain, one basic fact is pivotal: the king and crown prince are the only ultimate sources of power. They are the ones who grant the right to drive, pursue dialogue, or hold elections. Thus, they are not really bestowing “rights” so much as doling out privileges (by royal decree) to groups who need the shield of royal patronage. Indeed, Saudi leaders can withdraw these “rights” if and when they conclude that their new “allies” are getting too strong.

It is worth noting that in the United Kingdom and Denmark, among other countries, monarchs were also once the sole dispenser of such privileges. Over the centuries, however, these eventually transformed into rights guaranteed by constitutions and protected by parliaments and the courts. In short, systems of kingly social responsibilities and privileges evolved into constitutional monarchies.

Such a transformation has not unfolded in Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait, and it is more unlikely to do so in Saudi Arabia. The problem is not only that MbS and those who will follow in his footsteps see that relinquishing actual control or authority to elected leaders and independent courts is politically suicidal. There is a parallel challenge, namely that the groups now seeking the favor of the crown prince see no easy alternative to relying on his protection for their political and even physical survival. Saudi Arabia’s liberals, women’s groups, and not a few in the Shia minority have reason to worry that inclusive and free national elections could very well empower their more powerful rivals. For these groups, rearranging the details of the governing system to create a “liberalized autocracy” might eventually seem like a better alternative to either a fully autocratic regime or a fully competitive democracy.

The problem for MbS is that if he is indeed serious about creating a liberalized autocracy, he must ensure that state-controlled political reforms are real and substantive, but that they do not awaken liberalizing demands that he is unable to control. Perhaps worse, bin Salman must guard against provoking retaliation from hardline clerics who fear that even a small number of reforms could represent a slippery slope to cultural, religious, or possibly political oblivion. How to turn this double dilemma into an opportunity is the crown prince’s greatest domestic political challenge.

1 Source is in Arabic.