The Navigator from CGP

Saudi Arabia’s Transformation: Necessary But Risky

PUBLISHED October 11, 2017


Saudi Arabia is currently in a national tug-of-war. The current monarch and crown prince will have to find a way to balance between those who want to maintain the nation’s tribal and religious ultraconservatism, and those who want to bring the country into the 21st century. Riyadh faces the enormous challenge of trying to establish an equilibrium between these conflicting demands in order to preserve the regime in its current form. Given the contradictory nature of these two visions something will have to give.

The nature of a state is woven into its very fabric, and any attempts to alter that nature usually create crises that could unravel the regime in question. Saudi Arabia is in the throes of unprecedented change that is necessary for the regime’s survival. However, the kingdom faces major internal constraints in its effort to accomplish that change. More important, there is a real risk that the socio-political reforms it pursues could lead to the very circumstances it is hoping to avoid, such as upheaval in the kingdom.  

Saudi Arabia has followed a gradual, controlled process of implementing limited reforms, most of which were made during the reign of former King Abdullah (1995-2015). King Abdullah gave women a bit of space to begin participating in the public sphere — largely in the workforce. Yet Saudi women, who make up nearly half the country’s population of approximately 30 million, still face significant restrictions. Abdullah also attempted to grant women the right to drive but did not want to risk upsetting the ultraconservative religious and tribal establishments that historically been the monarchy’s pillars of stability.

That Abdullah’s half-brother and successor Salman announced that Saudi women will finally be issued driver’s licenses does not mean that opposition from these forces has been neutralized. The communique released by the country’s official Saudi Press Agency was very telling in that it acknowledged that a significant number of clerics on the apex religious body, the Council of Senior Ulema, had reservations about the move. Furthermore, authorities have given the clerics a key role in determining how the decree will be carried out (reportedly by next June). Clearly, Riyadh has to find a terribly difficult balance between moving forward with reforms and the imperative of maintaining support from the religious and tribal sectors.

Here it is important to bear in mind that most leaders do not engage in reforms purely for altruistic reasons. Even the most enlightened ones can only push for social, political and economic reforms when it is politically viable. In most cases, institutional reforms are pursued under duress because staying the old course becomes perilous. For example, in the late 1980s former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin reformist policies known as Glasnost and Perestroika were meant to increase transparency and restructure political and economic institutions. However, Gorbachev’s reforms could not preserve the Soviet Union.

While Saudi Arabia’s current predicament is nowhere near as dire as that of the former Soviet Union, the Saudis face mounting internal and geopolitical challenges that are forcing the regime to engage in long-term reforms under the auspices of the “Saudi Vision 2030.” But before we go into the discussion of the factors that are bringing to bear a tremendous amount of strain and stress on the Saudi kingdom, it is important to revisit how the Saudi polity has historically functioned.

The Fundamentals of the Saudi Kingdom

The Wahhabist strain of Salafism and the ability to export crude oil have been the kingdom’s two defining characteristics since its founding in the 1930s. The ultraconservative reading of Islam – manifested in the form of an expansive and powerful religious sector – has given the state its legitimacy and played a key role in ensuring the loyalty of the kingdom’s tribal society. However, as is evident from the fate of the two previous incarnations of the Saudi regime (1744-1818 and 1824-1891), religion and tribalism were necessary but insufficient. The discovery of oil in 1938 and the country’s subsequent emergence as the world’s largest petroleum exporter rendered the third incarnation of the Saudi state far more durable than its two predecessors. Proceeds from oil exports, which make up some 90 percent of the Saudi government’s revenues, have provided not only a viable political economy but also the ability to project influence around the world.

For decades, powered by oil and an adherence to a strict theology of Salafism, the Saudi state proved resilient against a host of domestic threats: Islamists, jihadists, liberals, Shia, foreign workers, etc. On the external front, it has had the United States as a guarantor of its security since the momentous 1945 meeting between the founder of the modern kingdom, Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman, and then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Quincy in the Suez Canal. For more than a half century Saudi Arabia enjoyed a stable strategic environment. All that changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Thereafter, the U.S. need to respond to al Qaeda’s attacks led to a divergence in American and Saudi interests, and the Saudi state was forced to begin changing the way in which it behaved.

For the next decade, the Saudis expended a great deal of resources trying to manage the crisis stemming their state ideology of Salafism, which came under increasing international scrutiny given its significant overlap with jihadism. At the same time, U.S. interests converged more with those of Saudi Arabia’s historical nemesis, Iran, which lead to the establishment of a Shia-dominated regime in Iraq. If that was not enough, then came the Arab Spring, which has thrown the kingdom’s entire strategic environment into chaos. The resulting tumult required the Saudis to increase the use of their traditional foreign policy tool – oil wealth – to manage the regional turmoil.

At a time when Saudi expenditures were increasing they also faced a significant drop in the price of oil. Depressed crude prices forced the Saudis to dip into their reserves for foreign policy purposes. More important, though, it created a crisis in terms of the more immediate need to maintain and even enhance spending on the domestic front in order to ensure stability at a time of great commotion. Moreover, all of this is happening as the Saudi regime is going through a generational transition of power from the sons of the founder to the grandsons.

Charting a New Course: Risks and Rewards

In this context, the current king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, engaged in the unprecedented move of appointing his young and inexperienced son, Mohammad bin Salman, to succeed him. This decision required two crown princes (a half-brother and a full nephew) to be removed from office within two years. In keeping with the kingdom’s conservative values, none of the previous five Saudi monarchs who held the throne since the death of the founder attempted to disrupt the traditional line of succession. It is only natural that the king’s decision to have his 33-year-old son supersede other, more experienced princes would create competitive misgivings within the royal family, even though the House of Saud has proven to be a resilient political elite.

This is the backdrop to the recent decision to give Saudi women the right to drive. Between a weakening financial situation and growing risk of domestic turmoil, the current Saudi leadership needs to shore up its position domestically. The long-standing demand for women to have the right to drive provides such an opportunity. The move is popular among a good cross-section of the youth, which makes up some two-thirds of the country’s citizenry and has been exposed to globalization via social media.

The king’s calculation is that this rather popular policy shift will help his son consolidate power. While a segment of the Saudi populace may support this move, it does not sit well with the old guard that historically has provided the foundational support for the monarchy. The key point is that this divide within the kingdom is not simply a battle of ideas over social norms, but rather a conflict for real power and control of the reigns of the Saudi state.

The government’s decision to issue driving licenses to women radically alters the way in which Saudi society has historically functioned. There is trepidation among the religious and tribal establishments about such moves. Already, the regime has moved to limit the profile of the country’s dreaded religious police force, commonly known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. This is in response to the growing restlessness among the youth and more liberal segments toward strict religious regulations. The establishment seeks to place limits on how women will be able to exercise the right to drive, and is definitely wary of a slippery slope effect. Granting women, the right to drive, is likely to embolden others to push for more rights, and that translates into less power for the traditionalists.

The kingdom is being pulled into two different directions. The Saudi ruling elite is caught in the middle and must balance two competing currents in order to maintain political stability. The problem is that the old ways of doing business are growing increasingly obsolete, and there are no alternative political paradigms — certainly not one that can maintain the monarchy in its current form amid two opposing visions for the future.

Considering kingdom’s strategic position in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world the weakening of the Saudi regime has massive implications for U.S. interests. The current state of pandemonium in the region could exponentially grow in the event of instability in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot that Washington can do to help Riyadh navigate through this difficult period of transformation. What we are witnessing is a natural evolution of the Saudi state and society and reactive measures on the part of the U.S. could aggravate matters. Therefore, the Trump administration would be well advised to find the right balance between a hands-off approach and one that entails a greater American footprint.      

Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy and Programs at CGP. He is also a senior analyst with the intelligence firm Geopolitical Futures, and a Fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP. 

Image Credit: National Geographic

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