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Arresting Reform: Saudi Arabia’s New Moderation and One Family's Survival

06 Nov 2017
By Will McEniry
President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman had members of the royal family and top government officials arrested this week in his crusade to reform the country. But there is more going on behind the royal curtain and it’s not necessarily for the good of the people.

In late October, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared that Saudi Arabia would return to a moderate Islam in the hopes of attracting further outside investment and even foreign tourism. This declaration was met with commendation by many around the world, including the UN.

While many see this statement as a push for Saudi Arabia to become more moderate by granting greater rights to individuals and by diversifying the economy, the main motivation for this modernisation is regime security, especially for the crown prince. This has been further exemplified be recent arrests of prominent members of the royal family and government officials including billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Al-Saud family history

The al-Saud family—the Saudi royal family—gained legitimacy not only as the ruling authority of Saudi Arabia, but also as the guardians of the holy Islamic sites of Mecca and Medina by aligning with the Wahhabi establishment during the mid-18th century. This crucial alliance provided the al-Saud family with religious legitimacy to govern, benefiting the Saudi monarchy domestically and internationally as the leaders of the Muslim world.

The monarchy has long maintained a strategy of expanding the size of the royal family through intermarriages and, in order to solidify political control, family members have been given key positions in the Saudi government. This has also been used as a political tool by the ruling powers to dispose of any threats from within the royal family. The arrest of several princes and government officials on corruption charges illustrates the political infighting between royal factions and the power struggles at play within the monarchy to consolidate power. It is important to note that these factions are not based on religious ideology or Islamic conservatism but on power and political control of the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s access to massive oil reserves has afforded it material incentive to buy support from its citizens to consolidate the monarchy’s rule. The royal family has long sought to secure regime survival by providing state welfare from its oil revenue, thus relying on rentierism. However, the economic shocks in oil production will adversely affect the regime’s stability as it will impact on the socioeconomic status of the state. Saudi Arabia has a young and uneducated population and the youth bulge will cause major strain on the rentier economy, causing unemployment and discontent among the young population that the regime would have previously paid off.

This has become a major concern for the royal family and a motivation for the crown prince to declare a modernisation of Saudi Arabia in order to avoid unrest and any threats to the regime itself.

Saudi modernisation

The crown prince’s plan to push Saudi Arabia to a form of moderate Islam has already begun with the recent declaration that the kingdom would allow women to drive. Saudi women will soon also be allowed to enter certain sporting stadiums that were previously male-only. Additionally, there has been discussion within the country on easing guardianship laws which restrict women’s ability to marry, divorce, travel, or work without permission from a male guardian.

Further social modernisation has also included reducing the power of the religious police and even allowing forms of entertainment like music and film that have long been banned in Saudi Arabia. As the crown prince himself stated,

“We want to lead normal lives, lives where our religion and our traditions translate into tolerance, so that we coexist with the world and become part of the development of the world.”

Along with social modernisation comes the economic modernisation of the kingdom. The crown prince recently announced the creation of a new mega-city on the Red Sea coast designed to become something like the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. Costing around USD$500 billion (AUD$653 billion), the mega-city is part of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan that seeks to revitalise and diversify the economy in order to end its dependence on oil revenue. This could provide many unskilled and uneducated Saudis with employment opportunities that are necessary to avoid future youth unemployment and discontent. Vision 2030 may also provide incentives for foreign investment and tourism with plans to open Red Sea resorts that would cater for Western tourists, rivalling Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Problems of modernisation

While the crown prince’s aspirations for a future moderate Saudi Arabia would provide economic diversification to secure regime survival, it will also face many barriers. Some Islamic scholars suggest that the Crown Prince’s idea of moderate Islam still teaches the unconditional obedience to the ruling family and forbids any political opposition or questioning of authority. Regardless of how moderate Saudi Islam becomes, the ruling family will still continue an autocratic rule that will crack down on any forms of political dissidence or civil disobedience—including from within the royal family—that may threaten the regime’s stability and survival.

Further, the conservative form of Islam that has ruled over the country since its founding runs deep in Saudi society and reforming the social system will likely take longer than many hope. While Saudi Arabia aspires to introduce an Islamic society similar to that of the United Arab Emirates, unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE was not founded on a deeply conservative form of Islam. The crown prince will likely see resistance from conservative religious authorities in the country, especially those that view this modernisation as a threat to their own legitimacy. The crown prince will have to tread carefully in order to maintain this delicate bond between the establishment that gives the Saudi royal family its religious legitimacy and the calls for moderate Islam.

This modernisation also requires huge reforms to the Saudi education system, which teaches ideas such as calling for the execution of apostates, and questions the validity of science and modernity. To remove these ideas from education will not immediately change many attitudes of the conservative parts of society but rather will be a generational change that may appear too slow for those that want fast reform, including the crown prince himself.

True motivations

It is clear that without this cultural Islamic modernisation, a deeply conservative Saudi Arabia would likely be unable to implement the necessary economic reforms needed to move the kingdom away from its dependence on oil. This is the true motivation for the crown prince’s October announcement. The ruling family’s insecurity over regime survival has pushed it into taking such steps to reform as well as disposing of any internal threats since without such reforms the collapse of the rentier system would directly threaten the ability of the al-Saud family to rule. Regime survival is the goal of the al-Saud family and the new enthusiasm for reform and this week’s arrests are nothing but further steps in maintaining that goal.

Will McEniry is a former intern with AIIA Victoria and AIIA National Office. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.