Saudi Arabia is changing, and without protests from below and the “street”. Because with the crown prince Muhammad bin Salman Al Saud the constants of the kingdom shift. The House of Saud no longer rules, but only one line of the house, that of Salman, the king since 2015. It would not be a surprise if there would soon be six kings, all of whom were sons of the state founder Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, who died in 1953.
Three constants form the framework of this state, which is the only one in the world to be named after a family. First, there is House of Saud, which is more than a quarter of a millennium older. The ruling family has always stuck together, especially in times of crisis. The king is at the top and rules with absolute power. After the death of a king, the family quickly agreed on the new king, and the princes took the bai’a, the oath of loyalty, towards him. Despite the many thousands of princes, the dynasty remained a system that is closed to outsiders.
The second constant is made up of the holy places of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Most of the early history of Islam took place on the territory of what is now the kingdom. Millions of pilgrims from all over the world travel to Mecca every year for the great pilgrimage, the hajj, and the small pilgrimage, the umra. The pilgrimages are the second most important source of income for the Saudi state.
The third constant: oil. It has brought wealth to the kingdom, influence on the global economy and an invitation to the club of the 20 largest economies, the G20.
Each of the three constants is subject to change today. With the transfer of rule to the grandchildren generation, it appears that the House of Saud is reduced to one line: that of Salman and his sons. The descendants of the other sons of the founder of the state are thus excluded from power. The pact with the Wahhabi religious scholars is loosened, if not abandoned, and with the end of the fossil fuel age the importance of petroleum is waning. Saudi Arabia does not have much time to put its economy on a new, stable footing.
The impression that the ultra-conservative kingdom is stuck in the past and not changing has never been entirely correct, even if it is true that Saudi Arabia has developed more slowly than the rest of the world. Every king was faced with the challenge of finding a balance between the need for modernization and the persistence of Wahhabi Islam. Because at all times the House of Saud was more open to change than the religious scholars and society.
King Faisal (1964 to 1975), for example, prevailed against the resistance of the religious scholars for girls’ schools, and King Fahd (1982 to 2005) is considered the “father of modernity”. He used the bubbling oil revenues for an unprecedented development boost. Many thousands of princes joined companies during that time, and the large trading families benefited from government contracts and the involvement of international companies. A relatively diversified industrial structure emerged in the hitherto underdeveloped country, and a middle class grew up. Finally, King Abdallah (2005 to 2015) modernized the education system and started a social dialogue that had never existed before.
The kings had advanced modernization in times of external threat, making Saudi Arabia the leading power in the Arab world. During the reign of King Faisal, the conservative but pro-Western Saudi Arabia fought a bloody proxy war with Nasser’s socialist Egypt. In 1990, King Fahd responded to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by allowing non-Muslim Western soldiers to be stationed on the “holy” soil of Saudi Arabia. King Abdallah ultimately had to keep the Islamic Republic of Iran in check, which expanded its influence after the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. And from 2011 the task was to prevent the Arab mass protests that had led to the overthrow of four rulers from spilling over.
However, there has never been a fusion of Islam and modernization. King Salman and his favorite son Muhammad now draw the conclusions from this. They downgrade the leading role of Islam and give priority to modernization. To this end, after his accession to the throne in January 2015, King Salman filled thousands of control points with his own people and commissioned Muhammad to continue and accelerate the transformation.
King Salman and his assertive son Muhammad mark a turning point. Since Salman is frail, the power rests entirely with his son, who initiates a generation change, also at the switching points of power. As Defense Minister he ordered the war in Yemen immediately after taking office, and as Head of the High Commission for Economic Affairs he commissioned the “Vision 2030” for the modernization of the kingdom. And he sets the oil policy. Since 2015 he has been gradually closing the chapter of traditional Saudi Arabia.
Visible steps are the lifting of the driving ban for women, the opening of cinemas, public concerts and the dissolution of the strict separation of the sexes in public. But there is more to it. In order to preserve the kingdom, the power of the religious scholars is curtailed, and a new social contract is emerging as a future foundation. The ties of the individual to the state are to be loosened and the comprehensive welfare state is to be scaled back. Whereby this more personal responsibility should not lead to more political claims.
Despite all the ruthlessness that Muhammad bin Salman is rightly said to be: With the “Vision 2030”, Saudi Arabia is following a long-term plan for the first time. The Crown Prince speaks an unusually straightforward language for Saudi Arabia, and he acts accordingly. This is how he makes enemies, especially among the older Saudis. But he doesn’t have to fear this opposition, the security services take care of that. And since the armed forces seem loyal to the Crown Prince after the last wave of purges in August 2020, there is no threat of a coup.
So he turned to a subject that he is pursuing with high priority. For over decades political and economic blocs with great power had arisen around all the living sons of the founder of the state and their sons who had a prospect of the throne. For example, if a foreign company wanted to gain a foothold in Saudi Arabia, it had to work with a prince. These power blocs were a thorn in the side of the new Crown Prince for two reasons: They did not derive their strength from their ties to the Saudi state, and they encouraged corruption. Muhammad bin Salman ended this system.
In order to expand his power, he has integrated offices that were previously based on personal relationships of loyalty into the state apparatus. In doing so, he achieved three goals: he switched off the autonomous power centers of the princes, he disempowered potential rivals in the house, and he centralized power. One example is the National Guard. For decades it was an autonomous power base outside the state. The tribes of which they are composed were loyal to a prince, who bequeathed the relationship of loyalty to a son. Abdallah had been at the head of the National Guard since 1962. When he became king in 2005, he was followed by his son Mutib. But then Muhammad bin Salman converted the National Guard into a ministry. Mutib was now only a civil servant, and as such King Salman dismissed him in November 2017.
Like Muhammad bin Salman, no member of the House of Saud had previously acted against the other princes. In doing so, however, he violates the principles that were previously the guarantee for the stability of the House of Saud, such as the seniority principle. If it were up to the previous rules of succession, he would not have been allowed to become crown prince, nor should he become king. Second, it violates the principle of consensus, because it eliminates who, according to the principle of seniority, has more entitlement to the throne than he does and who opposes him and his politics in the family council.
Muhammad Bin Salman is shaking the foundations of Saudi Arabia. At the same time, however, he plays with high risk. These include the oil price war with Russia, the conventional war in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia does not win, and the conflict with Iran, which cannot be won either. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is becoming less important. An example of the tension between member states is the Saudi-Emirati boycott against Qatar, which lasted from 2017 to 2021. Confidence in the US guarantee to keep the kingdom safe has been shaken. Certainties that once provided stability are dissolving.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia weathered all crises and challenges well in the 20th century. Be it in the 1960s, when Egyptian President Nasser challenged the kingdom with his pan-Arab claim. Be it 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the occupation of the Great Mosque in Mecca and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Be it in the summer of 1990, when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein marched into Kuwait and threatened to also annex parts of the oil-rich Saudi Eastern province. Be it 2003 with the terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda.
Today the kingdom seems to rest on stronger pillars than the first two Saudi states to fall. When it comes to religion, it has endured the balancing act that has arisen from the fact that it rules the holy places for all Muslims at the same time and, with Wahhabism, stands for an extremist Islam. It also endured the contradiction in terms of oil, which made modernization possible and at the same time became a source of excessive corruption. On the other hand, a third support was exchanged, which was still important for the first two Saudi states: Today the kingdom relies on international corporations to exploit natural resources and increase wealth, but no longer on warlike tribes and the conquest of land.
This construction proved to be stable when mass protests shook the Arab world from 2011 onwards. Under King Abdallah, Saudi Arabia took the lead in the counterrevolution and initially neutralized the danger. However, a decade after the mass protests of 2011, new dangers loom. States have failed; Wars destroy Yemen, Libya and Syria; Countries like Iraq and Lebanon are nearing failure; Egypt and Sudan are on the brink. Waves of refugees and humanitarian disasters threaten. Together these developments form a breeding ground for new terror. The kingdom primarily wants to neutralize two dangers that it sees as the greatest threats to its stability, even to its existence: the almost nuclear power Iran with its transnational militias and the challenge posed by “political Islam”.
Internally, three weak points could threaten the stability of the kingdom: the heavy state repression; the costly military preference that has become necessary because traditional allies cannot be relied on; and an economic model that does not ensure that the “youth bulge” is absorbed.
Like Egypt, the kingdom is also resorting to massive state repression to keep the pressure in the boiler. And as there, the repression is aimed at the whole range of critics: at dissidents like Jamal Khashoggi, at entrepreneurs and women’s rights activists who only demanded what the Crown Prince finally did, at Sunni religious scholars and at members of the Shiite minority. For the first time, leading princes are arrested and placed under house arrest. In the past, these dissidents were mostly exiled.
Muhammad bin Salman thus destroys a structure that has grown over decades, which placed consensus in the foreground and with which the House of Saud brought merchants, religious scholars and tribes together under one roof. There is no telling what this construction will replace. The short-term task for Muhammad bin Salman is that, although he has upset large parts of the House of Saud, he will ensure that when his father dies, there will be enough princes on his side for the oath of loyalty.
A constant of Muhammad bin Salman’s reign is the regular purges and waves of arrests directed against leading princes and potential rivals. He’s behaving paranoid for good reason. Because he made enemies of many (once powerful) cousins and uncles, and he made so many mistakes that the kingdom is now militarily and economically weaker than at any point in its modern history. In addition, the reputation of Saudi Arabia is suffering.
The purges created a “permanent uncertainty” in the highest circles of the House of Saud, whereby the Crown Prince personifies this uncertainty himself. With him there would be no stability for the kingdom, without purges Muhammad bin Salman apparently would not feel safe in the saddle.
The Crown Prince focuses in particular on the “seven Sudairi” and the descendants of King Abdallah – princes who have a legitimate claim to the throne. The seven sons of the state’s founder, Abd al-Aziz Bin Saud, and his favorite wife Hassa Bint Sudairi had occupied the control positions in the security apparatus and in the military for decades. Five of the seven brothers have since died – Fahd as king in 2005, Sultan and Nayef as crown princes in 2011 and 2012, Abd al-Rahman as deputy defense minister in 2017 and Turki as a disgraced businessman in 2016. Salman became king in 2015. Ahmad, the seventh, refused the oath of loyalty to the new crown prince in 2017.
Ahmad Bin Abd al-Aziz is just as imprisoned as the once powerful sons of the “seven Sudairi”, such as the former Minister of the Interior and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef. Most recently, on August 31, 2020, Muhammad bin Salman ordered the arrest of the commander of the armed forces in the Yemen war, Fahd bin Turki bin Abd al-Aziz, and his son Abd al-Aziz bin Fahd. This means that the descendants of the Sudairi are no longer represented in any leading position in the army. The career soldier Fahd Bin Turki, who is popular with the troops, was undone for criticizing the great influence of the United Arab Emirates on the warfare in Yemen and thus indirectly the Crown Prince. He couldn’t have liked the fact that the general, who is also married to a daughter of the former King Abdallah, maintains good contacts with retired generals.
The House of Saud, which owed its stability in the past not least to its unity, is therefore in turmoil. The foreign and security policy, on which Saudi Arabia has relied so far, has also slipped. Since the meeting of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt with King Abd al-Aziz Al Saud on February 14, 1945 on the American warship USS Quincy, the United States’ promise to guarantee the security of the oil-rich kingdom has been a solid pillar of the country’s stability. That is no longer absolutely the case. US President Barack Obama offended the kingdom with his call to come to terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran and work with Tehran to create a new security architecture in the Gulf.
How vulnerable Saudi Arabia is and how little it can rely on the United States was shown by the Iranian attacks on the Saudi oil industry on September 14, 2019. Iranian cruise missiles destroyed parts of the Khurais oil field and the world’s largest crude oil processing plant in Abqaiq, which prepares five percent of the crude oil consumed every day for export. The attack culminated in a wave of Iranian attacks on oil tankers and pipelines in the Persian Gulf that lasted several months. It was disappointing for Saudi Arabia that President Trump did not follow up with retaliatory strikes. He also withdrew the Patriot anti-aircraft missiles from Saudi Arabia during the oil price war in April 2020.
Already under Obama the long overriding interest of the United States in the Gulf region has waned. Saudi Arabia has had to do without strong Arab allies for years. Iraq as a bulwark against Iran was lost in the fall of Saddam Hussein, and Egyptian President Sisi cannot get a grip on his country. Both fail as regional actors. This created a vacuum, and Saudi Arabia could not prevent Iran from partially filling it.
The Gulf Cooperation Council also fails to provide stabilizing support. The six Gulf monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula founded it in 1981 in order to move closer together in the face of the Iranian threat and the Iran-Iraqi war. However, the Gulf Cooperation Council never became a security alliance. And the embargo that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates practiced against Qatar from 2017 to 2021 has accelerated its loss of importance.
The Saudi leadership is responding to the changed environment by diversifying foreign policy and turning to Russia. Since 2016, Saudi Arabia has been coordinating oil policy with Moscow with mixed success. The Kingdom thereby recognizes that Russia has greater influence than the United States and Europe in several countries in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia spends more than a tenth of its gross domestic product on armaments and is investing heavily in expanding its armed forces. In the United States alone, Saudi Arabia has ordered arms worth more than $ 110 billion. A US military expert describes these enormous expenditures as “a serious burden on the economy”, especially since they would bring “only mixed benefits” for security.
Many supplier countries, however, behave more restrictively and do not, at least officially, supply weapons to states that are involved in the Yemen War. In order to become more independent and also to export themselves, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are therefore building up their own armaments industries. In May 2017, for example, the kingdom founded the “Saudi Arabian Military Industries”, which also has the task of creating jobs.
Because the third danger to the stability of the kingdom is looming, should the “Vision 2030” not be successful and create enough jobs for the rapidly growing population. If “Vision 2030” fails, Saudi Arabia fails. This could happen if revenues from oil exports remain low and the funds for start-up investments are lacking.
Saudi Arabia has to learn that Dubai’s success story cannot be copied. Dubai also became the economic center between Hong Kong and South Africa because the more than 90 percent of the residents who are not Emirati citizens have made a cosmopolitan city-state possible. Such foreign infiltration is unthinkable in Saudi Arabia, the motherland of Islam. In addition, Dubai has continuously developed its model over the decades. But Saudi Arabia only has a few years to lay a solid foundation for the future and create jobs for a population that will grow by 10 million by 2050.
In the past, Saudi Arabia posed a threat because of its backward-looking understanding of Islam. Today, Saudi Arabia could pose a threat if the House of Saud collapses, the country is no longer integrated into a strong security architecture and the overdue restructuring of the state, society and economy does not succeed in time.