Mystique of Monarchy

MADAWI AL-RASHEED — Limited social and political reforms in Saudi Arabia only prolong the life of authoritarianism. 

Although Saudi Arabia’s government relies on the religious establishment for its legitimacy, there are multiple groups and factions that fall under the Islamist category. How does the monarchy understand the relationship between Saudi’s religious establishment and political governance? 

The dynamic at the heart of this question is better understood as one between religion and politics within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The relationship between these two spheres has evolved through the twentieth century. There is not one way of describing the interaction between religious and political entities, simply because it is subject to the political will of the regime — and the government’s evolving connection to official Islam and Islamists’ discourses and practices. Ultimately, this relationship has gone through three distinct phases since the consolidation of the modern state

The first phase (1960s-1990s) can be described as one of cooperation and instrumentalization. Since the establishment of the modern Saudi kingdom in 1932, the al-Saud political leadership tried to cooperate with the religious establishment in their country. The royal family institutionalized their discourse by creating specific religious bodies and honoring key figures for their support of the regime. Saudi Arabia’s government claimed legitimacy as the leadership that applies Islamic law and protects the  Holy Cities — as well as directs outreach to Muslim communities around the globe. The regime’s efforts to incentivize religious bodies to support the monarchy derived potency from the fact that Saudi’s religious groups operated according to a populist ethos: religious figures can reach people in mosques, schools, universities, as well as exercise control over the judiciary.

The second phase began in the early-1990s, following the 1990-1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. During this period the Saudi regime alternately repressed and accommodated opinions from the multiple voices within the religious establishment and the splinter groups around it. Saddam Hussein’s military operations posed a serious threat to Saudi Arabia’s security and economy. The royal family understood that it needed to bring foreign, non-Muslim soldiers onto Saudi soil to defend the Kingdom — an action that angered conservative religious elements. Immediately after the Iraqi invasion, the Saudi regime began repressing Islamist voices that dissented against cooperation with United States and other foreign militaries.

Many Islamist religious groups regarded King Fahd’s plan to cooperate with foreign troops as a breach of the Islamic tradition, whereby a so-called pious Muslim leader would not invite infidels to defend the lands of Islam. The King’s invitation exposed the limits of Saudi defense and military institutions. As soon as the Islamist position became public, the political leadership moved to crack down on the more vocal activist elements. Many religious figures were imprisoned for extended periods, for example Sheikh Salman al-Awdah. Only by 2000 did the regime begin to loosen its restrictions, and release some of these activists.

The 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States reshaped the way Saudi’s royals dealt with its religious interlocutors. After 9/11 the government in Riyadh was put under immense pressure to address the perceived menace of radicals within the vast sphere of Islamism, which many people believed emanated from the country’s Wahhabi tradition. The Saudi elite attempted to absolve themselves from any responsibility for propagating anti-western discourse. In 2001-2003, Riyadh’s crackdown on Islamist figures and organizations across the religious spectrum consolidated the emergence of a violent strand of al-Qaeda within the Kingdom; between 2003 and 2008, Saudi Arabia became home to a splinter group that orchestrated domestic terrorist attacks.

In 2011, the Arab Spring precipitated the emergence of the third, current phase of state-mosque relations: simultaneous appeasement and repression. During the period of unrest across the Arab World in 2011-2012, Saudi Arabia feared the emergence of Islamist groups in places like Egypt and Tunisia. In response to the Muslim Brotherhood’s 2011 electoral victory in Egypt, Riyadh launched a second, major crackdown on political Islamist organizations. It is important to remember that the Saudi religious establishment extends across multiple groups, with little institutional coherence or united voice. Today, some elements within the religious sphere remain loyal to the regime, or wish for greater adherence to conservative Islamic interpretations of law; others have become critical of its governance strategy; still others seek to reform the regime’s policies peacefully; and a few have taken up arms to violently oppose leaders in Riyadh.

The Saudi government tries to suppress those who propose any kind of peaceful reform. Some religious groups — which can be labeled “Islamist modernists” — have opened themselves to non-Islamist activists and causes. For example, they propagate popular demonstrations as legitimate ways of drawing attention to a given cause, like prisoners’ plight in Saudi jails. Figures like Professors Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, exemplify this trend, helping to found the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. Both men are in prison for their work.

The interaction between Saudi Arabia’s royal family and the country’s religious establishment has often been reduced to a question of which is the more dominant actor. However, such binary conceptions seem to miss the fact that this relationship is a dynamic function of religious legitimacy and social control. As it attempts to modernize sectors like the Saudi economy and education system, as well as implement limited social reforms, how does the monarchy reconcile its efforts with religious pressures on government?

There is no single bloc labeled “Saudi royal family” or “religious establishment.” The latter is not even really an establishment. There is a group of state-appointed clerics, judges, bureaucrats, ministers and mosque preachers who are on the government payroll. Even within this loyal faction there are multiple and disagreeing voices.

It is more important to discuss which group is dominant in this dynamic relationship between government and religion. The regime will always have a plurality of power, because it possesses the necessary financial resources and means of coercion — police, security services, and surveillance apparatuses. Both religion and politics are totalizing practices and ideologies. They are bound to collide and cooperate depending on the requirements of the regime in power.

For example, the Saudi regime recently issued a royal decree to regulate the work of the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. This body, known in Arabic as Hai’a (Committee), was established and funded by the state to monitor and control personal conduct in the public sphere. The Hai’a patrols public spaces like a police force, but it is folly to think of the institution as simply a religious police; they are religiously-educated people who are employed by the government — although some are volunteers — to check morality. Yet they also serve to penetrate society, forcing each citizen to remain alert. The King’s decree declared that the Hai’a cannot arrest people without a warrant, and that they must work during certain hours and shifts. However, at the same time, the Hai’a director was elevated to the position of Minister. The recent reforms of the Hai’a that were demanded by many Saudi citizens, especially through online campaigns, sought to regulate the institution’s operations. But the recent royal decrees did not change its mandate.

This kind of move makes for good public relations, but does not precipitate any meaningful change in daily realities for Saudi citizens. The Hai’a and similar decrees help to manage public expectations, and minimize criticism. The monarchy is under immense financial and social pressure at the moment. Oil prices have dropped, and the government is trying to reform the economy through privatization and “Saudization.” By limiting the influence wielded by the Hai’a, the Saudi government is essentially asking the international community to have faith in the regime and its ability to fight terrorism.

During the Arab Spring movement in 2011-2012, the monarchy responded with swift and decisive force both to domestic unrest and protests in neighboring Bahrain. Yet opposition elements remain vocal — if not suppressed — across the Saudi state today. How does the Saudi regime understand the implications of political reform in the post-Arab Spring context?

The Saudi regime does not have political reform on its agenda. What is meant by the term “political reform”? Does it imply that the regime must give its people a voice? If so, that is not possible. There has never been any meaningful attempt to create, for example, an elected national council or national assembly — both of which were desired by many people over the last decade. Between January and March 2011 — at the height of the Arab uprisings — there were four petitions submitted to the King in which citizens demanded representative government that could limit the monarchy’s power. Each petition went unheeded.

However, the regime is focused on socio-political reform. It appointed 30 women to the Consultative Assembly, which serves in an advisory role that is non-binding to the royal family. This kind of change is positive — it gives a voice to women in a high state institution — but the Assembly nevertheless remains appointed by the King. No Saudi has access to this process. Municipal elections are another institution that the regime has attempted to reform in a limited fashion. Leaders in Riyadh claim that these elections represent a way of enfranchising ordinary citizens. Yet only half of Municipal Election Council members are actually elected — and these individuals have limited power: they cannot decide on their own budget or exercise local authority. Instead, they might deliberate on issues relating to rainwater management, sewage disposal, or public park construction.

According to the Saudi narrative, these institutions are indicative of healthy reform in the country, as citizens are able to participate as voters or candidates. These kinds of so-called political reforms are beneficial insofar as they give citizens some kind of experience of election or democratic government. In the long term, however, they have prolonged the life of authoritarianism by giving it the semblance of democratic legitimacy.

Where do these limited programs lead the Saudi state? Since the Arab Spring, there has been, overall, greater repression of any dissenting or oppositional views. Activists have been imprisoned simply for tweeting negative opinions of the regime. And those who are sent to prison must serve incredibly harsh sentences. For example, Raif Badawi — who created the website, “Free Saudi Liberals” — was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for his actions. Repression has taken its toll on all segments of Saudi society, including Islamists, Liberals, and ordinary citizens who might simply wish to write a poem criticizing the King. The monarchy’s consolidation of power goes hand-in-hand with the limited socio-political reforms it may seek to implement.

Yet some opposition does emerge. In April 2016, images of clashes between the police and residents in Omq village near Mecca went viral on Twitter, after the regime announced it would evict villagers to make room for future development. These residents managed to mobilize around their interests. Against the heavy hand of the regime, people are beginning to resist and assert their agency — albeit under great duress.

In 2011-2012 protests occurred across Saudi Arabia, primarily in the country’s Eastern Province. Since then sporadic protest activity has coalesced somewhat into an oppositional faction. How do Saudi’s reform-minded groups and citizens understand the methods of governance employed by leaders in Riyadh — has post-2011 unrest contributed to an evolution of how the citizenry conceives of its relationship to the monarchy?

Those who are reform-oriented have put their projects on hold. The Saudi regime has successfully portrayed itself as targeted by malicious external powers, such as Iran. Riyadh is able thus to cast the Shia protests in the country’s eastern provinces as a conspiracy fomented by Tehran. Any kind of protest that took place in 2011 was fit into this sectarianized framework. Those protestors who are not Shia — many of whom come from mainstream Sunni activist groups — are considered terrorists. For example, there was a lawyer named Walid Abulkhair, who had defended a series of dissident-reformists. He was subsequently put on trial in a terrorism court for his advocacy. By at once sectarianizing Shia dissent, and labeling any other activists as dangerous extremists, the Saudi regime effectively silenced its population. Many groups that had once been critical of regime policies are now endorsing them

The Saudi war in Yemen — launched in March 2015 — has been a particularly effective means of silencing internal discord. Riyadh’s decision to undertake a major military operation in Yemen was driven in large part by a desire to rally domestic groups around the Saudi flag. Since 2008 former King Abdullah had been trying to convince the United States to punish Iran for its nuclear program. The Obama Administration did the opposite of what Saudi leaders wanted it to do, concluding in July 2015 the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). These secret negotiations were shocking for Saudi Arabia. Therefore, King Abdullah was seen as a weak monarch who had failed to achieve any success against Iran.

When King Salman took power in January 2015, he wanted to invigorate the Saudi leadership, and show how serious it was about confronting the Iranian menace. The Houthi takeover of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, provided a good opportunity to accomplish this goal. Saudi leaders felt under siege — that Iranian influence is growing in Yemen, as well as in Shia-majority Bahrain. They had to do something to restore their peoples’ faith that the country could lead the Muslim World. Almost all of Riyadh’s actions are designed to establish the country as the sole regional power.

Within three months of his accession to the Saudi throne in January 2015, King Salman bin Abdelaziz overhauled the royal cabinet, realigned the monarchy’s line of succession, and embroiled Saudi armed forces in Yemen’s civil conflict. Do his actions represent a movement of influence away from the kingdom’s founder to a younger generation of leaders — how can these reforms be contextualized within broader trends across Saudi social and political spheres?

Salman did not respect the wish of the deceased King Abdallah, who had originally put Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as Deputy Crown Prince. Abdallah’s arrangement would have respected the horizontal successor pattern that had been in place since 1952: when a king dies, his brother inherits the throne. Salman recognized that this principle was already reaching a dead-end, as one old king replaced another. All the surviving royal brothers were in their 80s. He thus moved from this horizontal system to a vertical line of succession. He promoted the Minister of the Interior, Mohammad bin Nayef, to the position of Crown Prince as a reward for his actions against al-Qaeda in 2003-2008. King Salman then made his son, Mohammad bin Salman, Minister of Defense, Head of Economic and Development Affairs, and Head of the Royal Court. At the moment, the succession is stable, despite some peripheral online resistance and criticism of the reshuffle.

Saudi leadership is today centered around the trinity of the King and his two princes. Nearly all the other princes have been sidelined. Nobody wants to challenge the new succession during the current atmosphere of financial crisis and conflict.

Do King Salman’s represent a broader generational shift in Saudi leadership? From a governmental standpoint, the reshuffling was certainly cast as a way to involve a younger generation in the Saudi political system. However, the incorporation of less-aged leaders should not imply that there will be enlightened monarchs in the future. Western media has a proclivity for equating the new Saudi generation with progressivism or reform. However, there have been many young princes who rule in a far more authoritarian fashion than did their fathers. The movement within the Saudi monarchy is not about the leaders’ ages, but rather about internal politics within the royal family. Salman wants the succession to remain in his own line of descent — he does not envision ordinary Saudis benefitting from a younger ruler.

Why should the youth be any more progressive than their fathers? Youth is a constructed category. It can include leaders who are violent, regressive, or repressive. Young people often inspire a sense of novelty and hope, but it is folly to equate these feelings with real policy. For instance, Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad was once seen as a young, reformist leader, and now he is more willing to bomb citizens than pursue meaningful social or political change.

The Saudi royal family has traditionally been simplistically divided into moderate and more conservative factions. Within this binary, the former prioritized increased citizen participation in government, while the latter emphasized securitization. Is such a characterization accurate — how have internal disagreements within the ruling family impacted Saudi social reform trends and political development, particularly after regional upheavals in 2011?

The distinction between reformist and conservative princes is quite popular in media discourse today, but it is a false binary. King Abdallah has been hailed as the greatest reformer of all Saudi kings, with the exception of King Faisal in the 1960s, both domestically and abroad. King Salman was difficult to categorize at the outset of his reign. Many thought that he would rule as a conservative monarch. Yet these are simply labels that people outside Saudi Arabia use to understand the mystique of monarchy.

What is meant by the label “reformist monarch”? If he was a great reformer, he would presumably start to implement new policies domestically. Abdallah married around 30 women, and there are stories that indicate his daughters were restricted from traveling outside Saudi Arabia. Are these the hallmarks of a social reformer? It is difficult to say. Saudi kings and senior princes have to manage a segmented public consisting of very conservative elements, hardline Islamists, liberal constituents, and a moderate majority. Any monarch who curbs the religious establishment is called a reformer; any who bolsters it is labeled conservative. At a political level, however, every ruler must please all segments of Saudi society.

Ultimately, the main concern of Saudi leaders is survival. If a king feels he needs to appease the religious establishment, he will do it; if he must enlist the liberals or propagate a better image of the monarchy, he will do it. This is the game of power that all Saudi rulers play.


MADAWI AL-RASHEED is Visiting Professor at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. Her latest book is called, Muted Modernists: the Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia.

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