Saudi Royals Thrive on Religion, Tribal Allies and All That Oil

Article Summary
Saudi Arabia is a structure of interlocking tribal alliances, religion and oil working to ensure the dominance of the ruling family, writes Jaafar al-Shayeb. Yet, he says, despite this, the kingdom will inevitably face challenges in the near future.

Many factors enable the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to calmly and coolly manage the crises and challenges that it confronts, such as distinguishing attributes that enable the mechanism of the state to operate. To that end, tremendous financial resources and — by regional standards — a stable political situation are employed to guarantee the position of the ruling family, the powerful role of the religious establishment and the weakness of the political opposition. In any case, the country's social, cultural and economic components — characterized by a broadly tribal formation, sectarian pluralism, diverse regional and cultural heritage and economic development — compel such an approach. Thanks to the balance obtained between these different unique factors, the ruling family has successfully avoided many of the challenges that have confronted it, and contained major crises that could potentially have undermined its security and stability.

Since information on the inner circles of decision-making in Saudi Arabia is exceedingly scarce, many studies tend toward analyzing, predicting and observing those circles from afar. For all their efforts, they often miss the mark. Despite this ambiguity, it is well known that Saudi Arabia is going through many internal and external challenges that are only deepening in the absence of any venue for speaking openly about them, any formula for publicly debating them, or counterweights to the sovereignty of conservative intellectual modes of thought work to hinder the spread of modern, secular proposals.

A rentier economy

The massive financial resources stemming from the extraction and export of large quantities of oil to international markets have played a central role in the kingdom's policies and programs, both at home and abroad. They have allowed it to cope with the numerous challenges confronting it. Declining oil prices across the globe or the outbreak of oil crises (when they occur) have had a clear impact on its coping mechanisms.

Perhaps the greatest economic crisis ever faced by Saudi Arabia took place during the mid-1980s, when in 1985 oil production decreased to about two million barrels per day. As its budget deficit grew, the Saudi government was forced to tap into its foreign assets. Some sources estimate that the financial reserves of the Arab oil producing states fell from $45.6 billion in 1985 to $32.4 billion by 1989. This financial pressure in turn prompted both cuts to subsidies provided to growth and development projects as well as a rise in the unemployment rate.

The state has constructed a rentier economy which provided for the basic everyday needs of its citizens, including free education at home and opportunities to study abroad, health care, land grants, interest-free housing loans and all manner of tax breaks. In 2011, defense and national security spending accounted for 31% of the national budget, while spending on human resource development amounted to 27%, public administration and utilities 16%, and health and social development 9%. Furthermore, pumping money into robust budgets for various government projects usually creates extensive opportunities for various private sector businesses.

In most cases, money is used as a balm to resolve political crises. In this manner, the government defused crises of unemployment by increasing the salaries of state employees, creating new public sector jobs and providing financial benefits to those who were unable to find work. For example, when the Arab Spring revolutions first got underway, the Saudi government announced an enormous economic package costing an estimated $109 billion, which would address housing and public service issues and establish new positions within the state bureaucracy.

It is clear that when financial liquidity is available, the state employs it in an attempt to pacify citizens and neutralize any demands they might harbor for change and reform. The overarching goal is to instill within them the feeling that the state is their guarantor and their source of livelihood, entrenching the sort of culture which one American researcher described as "a means of buying silence and loyalty to the state."

The religious establishment

The Saudi Arabian religious establishment is widely considered the backbone of the political system’s legitimacy. The latter has depended — since the rise of the first Saudi state in the late 18th century — on an alliance between the tribal structure and the religious establishment, embodied at the time in the person of Sheikh Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. Despite the “secularization” of the Saudi state, which loosened the bonds of this alliance, the influence of the religious establishment remains of extensive importance in managing social policy.

Regardless of the precise outline of the events that have constituted major challenges to the kingdom’s political system in the past, there are a number of key issues that continue to stand in the regime’s way and have done so ever since the kingdom’s major components were first welded together into a nation in 1926. On the religious level, clashes with extremist elements have become a chronic problem. First came the battle of Al-Sabilla against the Ikhwan in 1929. Then came the protests against the introduction of education and television in the mid-1960s, the revolt led by Juhayman al-Otaybi and his group that occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the opposition to the deployment of Western troops in Saudi soil in 1991, and finally the armed clashes that have been ongoing since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. 

Despite these head on confrontations with the margins of the religious establishment at various points in Saudi history, and others beside them, the regime has proven itself capable of disengaging from extremist currents and maintaining the overall cohesion of a religious establishment that forms an essential part of its strategy and which pursues a policy of conservative traditionalism. Moreover, the Saudi regime has been able to avail itself of a cloak of religious authority that legitimizes many of its political positions and decisions both at home and abroad. Saudi authorities seeks to manipulate ideology to broaden the appeal of their policies at home. In a parallel fashion, they seek to do the same in their relations with the surrounding Islamic environment.

Whereas the religious establishment as a whole draws its authority from the king, attempts are occasionally made to restructure and reform this establishment in such a way as would benefit the government or its policies. For example, the government reserves the right to appoint a new General Mufti, new members to the Committee of Senior Religious Scholars, the president of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, new members of the Supreme Judicial Council, Ministers of Justice, Islamic Affairs, the Hajj and so on. The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — the religious establishment’s police arm — is estimated to number around 4,000 individuals alone. Yet in the event of an open break with some leaders in the religious establishment, they can be discharged from their duties by royal decree, as has in fact happened on multiple occasions to a number of members of the Committee of Senior Religious Scholars.

The royal family

The Saudi Arabian royal family is estimated to number almost 13,000 individuals. They are the children and grandchildren of the founding father of the Saudi state, King Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, as well as members of closely related families. King Abd al-Aziz’s most prominent male descendants have ascended to positions of leadership throughout the various organs of the state, and particularly in the ministries and governing bodies, like the foreign ministry, the ministries of the interior, defense, security and so on.

The dynamic within the ruling family has endured its own major crises. After the death of the state’s founder, King Abd al-Aziz, in 1953, a conflict broke out between his sons. On the one hand stood King Saud, who was appointed as his father’s successor, and on the other his brother King Faisal. Strife between them continued in the years 1958-62 and only reached a conclusion when Saud stepped down [and] Faisal assumed power. Saud eventually died outside the kingdom. Likewise, Faisal was assassinated in 1975 by a member of the royal family, [a nephew,] one Faysal Bin Musa’id Al Sa’ud.

With the growing size of the ruling family and the escalating ambitions of some of its members to ascend to positions of leadership, provincial governorships and their deputy positions are reserved for members of the ruling family. Yet in the past, these positions were open to members of different tribes and regions. New state posts have been devised in order to employ and pacify members of this extended family: deputy ministers, advisers to the Royal Diwan, entire ministries, as well as honorary positions in governmental and non-governmental institutions. To this may be added certain newly instituted various academic and literary prizes. Authority is thus concentrated within the royal family, whereas in the past it was more diffuse, with at least some power devolving upon members of other tribes.

There is a binding hierarchy among members of the ruling family that can sometimes render it difficult to appoint new officials. This leads to the monopolization of certain key posts by certain individuals for decades at a time, leading to their stagnation or paralysis. One of the challenges confronting the state in such situations is the wide, unregulated authority enjoyed by many of those who occupy these posts, especially in the absence of any process of administrative or financial accountability or oversight. In an effort to avoid vacuums of political leadership, King Abdallah Bin Abd al-Aziz in 2006 formed a system to found an “Allegiance Council” composed of all members of King Abd al-Aziz’s male progeny or their representatives. Totaling 36 members, its mission was to manage and regulate the process of bids to succeed the king or the regent, as well as of attending to matters of state in the event the king is incapacitated. Yet even though it was considered a major milestone in striking a balance between the different elements of the ruling family in administering the kingdom’s affairs, the council has failed to exert any real role since its establishment.

Managing the diversity of opposition

Tribal, regional and sectarian diversity is extremely rich in Saudi Arabia. The founder of the state sought to firmly root this diversity, granting it legitimacy in exchange for loyalty to the central state. Yet even at late periods in Saudi history, extremist currents of thought began to believe that this diversity presents a danger to the state’s authority and influence. This came into sharp focus particularly among certain extremist religious and provincial circles in the Najd region. Their obsession influenced state policy and its interaction with the various cultural, social and religious constituencies of Saudi Arabia. It hampered their economic development and discriminated against them in terms of their civil and public rights, their cultural practices, their right to revive their heritage and folk traditions, or their various religious activities.

This rising alienation stemmed from a growing return to traditional ties, like those of tribe, sect and region. These protective umbrellas appeared to provide immunity from “the other.” The stature of the state as an uplifting and incubating force on the national level for all sectors was much diminished. Citizenship was reduced to a slogan, devoid of practical application on the ground. As a result, the sense of discrimination spread, whether the proximate cause was regional development imbalances, the small clique’s monopolization of decision-making, or the absence of popular participation in government. The government attempted to answer this rising phenomenon by instituting national educational programs in local schools, officially celebrating national holidays, seeking to address development deficiencies in remote areas and dispatching senior officials to visit those areas more frequently.

As for the opposition, the absence of any venues for political expression by forming political parties or associations coupled with the lack of a free media have led to diminished opportunities for popular participation in public affairs and decision-making. The extreme methods of dealing with national reform movements by the security forces have compelled them to engage in secret work and to transform themselves into a political opposition based abroad. Throughout recent decades, no period of Saudi history has lacked for a political opposition to the royal family based abroad. They engage in media and human rights work within their calls for political reform, the holding of free elections, the formation of elected legislative bodies, holding the government to account, limiting the powers of the ruling family and granting more public liberties.


Due to the peculiar factors highlighted above — tremendous financial wealth, the alliance with the religious establishment, the cohesiveness of the ruling family and the weakness of the opposition — the regime still retains the means and the dynamism to maneuver. Nevertheless, despite all this, it remains the case that many challenges remain and, should they combine as the result of an emergency at home or abroad, could upset the fragile and sensitive balance that has been struck in Saudi politics. 

The above article was translated from Assafir al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

Found in: saud, saudi

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