Saudi Arabia at the Edge of a New Era

'Salman's Legacy', a collection of academic papers edited by distinguished Saudi anthropologist and political commentator Madawi Al-Rasheed, attempts to give an idea of what the future holds for the House of Al Saud, but fails to tie all the strands together.

When King Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended the Saudi throne in January 2015, few would have guessed that this senior prince, who had been at the heart of the royal establishment for several decades, would quickly reject every norm and principle that has defined the functioning of his country and given it stability and resilience.

The royal order put in place by the founder of the modern dynasty King Abdulaziz was based on consultation among senior royals, distribution of power and wealth among different royal family branches, deep affiliation with the Wahhabi religious establishment, and a patronage system that accommodated different national constituencies – clergy, tribal leaders, business and youth.

Contemporary challenges

Much of this order has now been overturned. Royal authority – in politics, military, security, the economy and culture – is now the sole prerogative of one young prince, 32-year old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son from his third wife.

Over the last two years, this prince has elbowed out two senior royals who were crown princes before him, has incarcerated other senior royals after divesting them of position and wealth, has arrested a number of intellectuals and dissidents, and has imprisoned several prominent businessmen on corruption charges to divest them of their resources to fund the prince’s extravagant schemes.

The crown prince has promised wide-ranging economic and cultural reforms that would take the kingdom into the post-oil era and bring it to the vanguard of global technology and private sector enterprise, led by free and creative youth. Mohammed bin Salman has also shaped a solid relationship with President Donald Trump, which has bolstered his war effort in Yemen and the competition with Iran across the region.

These tumultuous changes are discussed in Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia, a this collection of academic papers which have been edited by the distinguished Saudi anthropologist and political commentator, Madawi Al-Rasheed.

Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia
Madawi Al-Rasheed (Ed.)
Hurst & Co, London, 2018

In the Introduction, Al-Rasheed points out that “a new kingdom is emerging” which will be legacy of King Salman. This new kingdom will be defined by the responses of the king and the crown prince to contemporary challenges: maintaining royal family unity, obtaining the support of the religious order while coping with the scourge of extremism, handling the sectarian divide, and, above all, providing space for the burgeoning aspirations of youth and women in an environment of uncertain oil prices and a deteriorating regional security scenario.

The effectiveness or otherwise of these royal responses will determine whether the kingdom remains a resilient entity or witnesses royal family collapse and even a breakup into smaller entities, shaped by religious or regional affiliations.

The royal family

Looking at the royal family, F. Gregory Gause III notes that Saudi Arabia had earlier successfully coped with a wide variety of domestic and regional challenges by maintaining family unity, co-opting the Wahhabi establishment as partners (albeit subordinate) in governance, and maintaining national support through an efficient system of wealth distribution.

Royal power is now concentrated in the hands of the crown prince, influence of the clergy is being diminished through the prince’s “reform” programmes, while the distribution system is cracking against the rock of economic reality – falling oil prices have made the generous subsidy order unsustainable.

However, Gause hesitates to make a prognosis: he concludes by recommending that the Al Saud will “need to develop new strategies and mechanisms” to sustain national and global support, but does not specify what these could be.

Al-Rasheed sounds an “urgent warning” about simmering dissent within the royal family. She provides details of an anonymous letter posted online in September 2015 that recalled the principles of seniority and fitness in determining royal family appointments and noted that King Salman was “mentally incapable”, while his son was accused of “continuous depletion of state resources”. Al Rasheed notes that the three suspected royal signatories of this letter have since “disappeared”.

While pointing out that speculations relating to the royal family have now become criminal offences, Al-Rasheed devotes considerable space to the anonymous Saudi tweeter ‘Mujtahid’, an unknown whistle-blower and ‘rebel’ who has a million and a half followers. He has been regaling Saudi and foreign followers with his views and predictions on royal family matters. He says he seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the royal family and thus contribute to “the big project of political change” in his country.

While discussing with Al-Rasheed the prospects for change in the kingdom, Mujtahid said that the principal sections of Saudi society, tribal, religious and business leaders, were still loyal to the royal family, which was also using the security forces for repression. He made the interesting point that Saudis are incapable of peaceful protest; they are tuned to armed struggle, such as the actions of jihadis, but the government in turn is using the same instruments to intimidate the populace.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on October 24, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo

Wahhabi thought and influence

The book has four papers on the Saudi religious order. The writers have had the benefit of nearly 50 years of experience and scholarship in this important area; hence, the papers provide some valuable insights into the evolution and ramifications of Wahhabi thought and practice, both by the clergy and the state, and the impact this had had on jihadi doctrine. 

Andrew Hammond has provided an excellent discussion on Salafism, the process of emulating the beliefs and practices of the “pious ancestors”, i.e., the first three generations of Islam. Saudi rulers and many scholars have projected the Wahhabi movement as part of the Salafi tradition and its founder, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab as a “renewer”, not the leader of an innovative sect, though they were uneasy about the Salafi rejection of the schools of Sunni Islam (madhab).

Cole Bunzel has provided a substantial study of the various strands of Wahhabi doctrine, aspects of which are accepted both by the Saudi royal family on the one hand, and Turki Al-Bin Ali, the young ideologue of the Islamic State, on the other.

This is on account of a vertical doctrinal divide in Wahhabiyya, between the establishment clergy that backs the government and the dissident scholars, some of whom are reformist while other are rigid and non-accommodative. Foremost among the latter was Sheikh Abdullah ibn Jibrin, whose death in 2009 was mourned by both Prince Salman, then governor of Riyadh, and Turki Al-Bin Ali.

Ibn Jibrin insisted on enforcement of “greater conformity of [government] laws and policies with the Sharia”, saw the Shia as a heretical sect, and gave full support to jihad. This thinking, Bunzel points out, shifted jihadi doctrine of from the radical Muslim Brotherhood discourse of Sayyid Qutb and Abdul Salam Faraj that had influenced Al Qaeda, and became the doctrinal basis of the Islamic State (IS), so that, in Bunzel’s view, the IS can be described as a “Wahhabi state”.

Both Andrew Hammond and Michael Farquhar have examined the place of “Islam” in the promotion of Saudi foreign policy interests. Hammond writes that the kingdom used Islam to compete with the secular principles of nationalism and socialism being promoted with considerable success by Jamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s. With the various Islamic institutions set up by it, Saudi Arabia reached out to different Muslim communities to project itself as the guardian of Islam’s holy sites and the leader of the Muslim community. It later used the instrument of Salafism in its rivalry with Iran after the revolution of 1979 and against the allure of the Muslim Brotherhood after the Arab Spring uprisings from 2011 onwards.

Foreign policy

This book has three papers on Saudi foreign policy: an excellent account of Saudi-US ties in the Cold War by Toby Mathieson, another on contemporary Saudi relations with Trump’s America by Madawi Al-Rasheed, and a third one on China’s emerging role in the Gulf by Nasser al-Tamimi.

Mathieson shows how the kingdom became a valued US ally in the Cold War on the basis of Islam’s rejection of “godless Communism”. Besides Saudi Arabia’s ideological affinity with West, the author throws new light on the active Saudi role in promoting the West’s anti-communist interests in Africa in the 1970s through the “Safari Club”, a grouping of the intelligence heads of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Morocco and France. The ideology, networks and experience of the club were later directly used against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, though Iran was no longer a part of it.

Nasser al-Tamimi says that, while the US will remain the principal military and political force in the Gulf over the next decade, the Kingdom is likely to attach increasing importance to its strategic ties with China as a defence and security partner. This will be reciprocated by China, given the high inter-dependence in their economic and energy ties and its expanding interests in the region.

Cars drive past the Kingdom Centre Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 30, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser

Cars drive past the Kingdom Centre Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 30, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser

Al-Rasheed notes the strong relations built up by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with the Trump administration on the basis of defence contracts and shared animosity for Iran. She however sees these ties as a “momentary symbiosis”, noting that “both [Trump and Mohammed bin Salman] can be erratic and capable of making ad hoc decisions that may backfire”. She also briefly discusses the kingdom’s links with Israel (increasingly dubbed the newest Sunni state) and the support it is giving to Israel’s agenda in the occupied territories.

Al-Rasheed describes Mohammed bin Salman as one who “is not a capable fire-fighter or tactical statesman”, but one who believes that, with his financial resources and unconditional US support, he can surmount all obstacles to his accession to the throne after his father. But, she is sceptical: he has broken the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but without any success in his confrontation against Qatar, which is now backed both by Iran and Turkey. In Yemen, in spite of three years of brutal warfare, there is no sign of military victory. She fears that the young prince’s aggressive approach may “backfire and lead to future internal upheaval”.

An assessment

While the book is a useful compendium of the challenges the kingdom faces under King Salman and his son, the crown prince, it suffers the shortcoming that afflicts most books on West Asian affairs – it is overtaken by developments since the chapters were written. Thus, though Al-Rasheed makes a brief reference to the royal family purge engineered by Prince Mohammed bin Salman in November last year (which was clearly added when the main text had already gone to the publishers), she is not able to discuss the full implications of this event, particularly in the context of dissent within the family to which she gives considerable attention in her paper.

Madawi Al-Rasheed. Credit: Twitter

Similarly, Gause speaks of the concern in Riyadh about a reduced US military role in West Asia which, he says, “has cast into doubt the core foreign alliance of the regime’s survival strategy”. In fact, the opposite is true: the US has signalled its desire to enhance its role in the region through a robust political and military confrontation of Iran and full support to Israel against Iran in Syria and against the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

There are other frustrations. Since this is a collection of papers by specialist scholars, there is no thematic unity in the book. Thus, while Sultan Alamer makes some important points in discussing the shaping of regional identities in the towns of Qatif and Buraydah in the Eastern Province, he does not actually discuss the sectarian factor in contemporary Saudi domestic politics, surely a matter of central importance in the kingdom’s domestic and regional policies.

The section on foreign policy is even more disappointing. Instead of the episodic approach covering just two aspects of Saudi foreign relations, the US and China, the book would have benefitted from one coherent paper discussing the Salman foreign policy, particularly ties with Iran and the sectarian mobilisations at home and in the region.

Above all, there should have been a concluding chapter which would have tied all the strands together and set out a clear prognosis. Now, the book ends abruptly with the China-related paper, giving us no sense of Salman’s legacy or even the “dilemmas of the new era” promised in the title, which are scattered across the book.

Al-Rasheed notes in the Introduction the need for “a full and nuanced picture of Saudi Arabia … to emerge in the future”, but seems to leave this task to a “new generation of scholars”. With her standing and that of the other contributors to this book, surely the challenge could have been taken up in this volume itself.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, holds the Ram Sathe Chair in International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, and is Contributing Editor, The Wire.)