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The Remaking of the Saudi State

The recent arrests of several Saudi political figures reinforce long-standing trends toward heightened centralization and more restive public discourse in the kingdom.

Published on November 9, 2017

The arrests of leading Saudi princes and other prominent political figures in early November 2017 indicate that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is consolidating his influence. King Salman and his chosen heir are strengthening their position vis-à-vis the rest of the ruling family, seeking to centralize elements of the Saudi governing structure, and reining in the autonomy of the religious and judicial apparatuses.

Saudi Arabia has long followed a distinctive, dilatory path in building its modern state. Riyadh features a political system that has evolved in insulated ways, with fiscal needs oversupplied by oil and a Wahhabi religious establishment that has dominated the religious and legal systems from the country’s founding to the present. Recent political changes may be led by a brash and ambitious crown prince, imposed by unsustainable welfare commitments, and rendered more urgent by apparent Saudi foreign policy overreach. They still seem to be products of a different country.

And they may be. Recent political changes in Saudi Arabia build on long-standing trends that were evident even before the crown prince’s ascendance. Such developments not only betray the marks of domestic power struggles but also portend deep structural changes in the way the country is governed. The centralization of royal power and vigorous public debate form a crucial context for understanding recent newsworthy developments in Saudi Arabia. These include the kingdom’s more assertive foreign policy; internal reforms, like the September 2017 decision to allow women to drive; changing rhetoric, such as the crown prince’s pledge to “destroy” extremist ideas; and the country’s ambitious economic reform agenda (encapsulated in the Vision 2030 policy blueprint and the plans for Neom, a wholly new city). Saudi citizens are certainly noticing the changes and are talking about them publically in unprecedented ways—with some paying a price for their frankness.

The political centralization and restive public debate under way in Saudi Arabia reinforce each other to undermine the traditional peculiarities of Saudi politics. These trends make for a potentially combustible mix.

The Ruling Family

The changes start with the Al Saud family itself, which has governed the kingdom since its founding in 1932. And it is a family, not simply the monarch, that rules. Many leading official positions are held by members of the family; princes are granted allowances from state coffers, and some have become significant economic players. Moreover, it is the family that determines which prince succeeds to the throne. Over the past six decades, Saudi Arabia has had six kings. Successions have been fairly frequent, and the monarchy has been monopolized by the sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz—a generation that is finally passing from the scene. Succession struggles have been common. The current moment is no different, with hostile leaks, rumors of arrests, purges, and personnel changes.

But in recent years, not just in recent days, the balance of power has been shifting in favor of the king. This trend can be seen in some subtle shifts in succession practices since the 1990s and more fundamental changes that have been written into law in recent years. Although there are still no firmly established general principles that determine who will take the throne (such as primogeniture or seniority), procedures are slowly being formalized.

From the death of King Abdulaziz in 1953 until the 1990s, the choice of a crown prince was made (as soon as a new king took the throne) behind closed doors by the family as a whole—a practice that allowed the family to depose a king on one occasion. That balance shifted slightly in 1992, when King Fahd issued the Basic Law by decree, allowing the king to choose (and change) his successor (in Article 5) from among the sons of King Abdulaziz and his sons’ sons. Still, unwritten rules gave precedence to the current sons of King Abdulaziz over the next generation and favored continued family consultation. That informal procedure was formalized in a 2007 amendment to the Basic Law, which formed a new body of some ruling family members, the Allegiance Council (Hayat al-Bayah), to designate future crown princes. The amendment compensated for its brevity by referring to the Allegiance Council’s regulations, which, when issued, made clear that the council was to act in consultation and coordination with the king. The end result of these legal changes was a clearer procedure. The precise balance between the king and the rest of the family and the nature of consultation remained subjects generating far more gossip than hard information.

But the most recent changes in succession practice and law may have moved things solidly in the direction of domination by the future king, after a false start. That false start came in 2014 with the designation of a deputy crown prince. King Abdullah tried to determine his successor’s successor by naming his half-brother Muqrin to the post by a decree that explicitly stated it could not be changed. But when the king died in 2015, elevating Salman to the throne, the new king dismissed Muqrin after a few months. In his place, King Salman first named a member of the next generation, Muhammad bin Nayef, as crown prince and his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, deputy crown prince. Two years later, Mohammed bin Nayef himself was dismissed and Mohammed bin Salman replaced him.

The Allegiance Council ratified all these changes, showing that its allegiance can be withdrawn on the instruction of the king. The changes in law have turned out to be less the drivers than simply the channels through which succession struggles have occurred; the Allegiance Council seems simply to certify the king’s choice. The ruling family is not toothless—there are princes who remain politically powerful, and the economic weight of family members continues to loom large. But the succession process now seems much more in the king’s hands than those of his many relatives.

Presumably to mollify the family, the Basic Law was amended to bar future kings from taking the step that King Salman had just taken, naming his own son as his successor for the first time since the death of King Abdulaziz. But the Basic Law can, of course, be changed by decree by the next king if he so desires. Born in 1985, Mohammed bin Salman may have much time to decide whether or not to take that step.

But when the current crown prince takes the throne, the country will likely have a king who takes an intense interest in governing, delves into details and delegates little, reshuffles top positions, and does not hesitate to sideline family rivals, if moves like the recent round of royal arrests are any indication.

A More Centralized Future?

Once on the throne, if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should rule for several decades, he could potentially convert the fractious, uncoordinated Saudi state structures of the past to a system that is more centralized around the throne as a single source of authority. Indeed, such centralizing changes—affecting the entire state and not just the family—are already well under way.

In the past, Saudi politics has not been all that organized (or even public) in terms of formal structures, although the royal figures presiding over various state organs have developed them into something akin to constituencies. Parties and (with limited exceptions) elections were absent and debate was constricted, but quiet political maneuvering took place. Saudi society is divided by tribe, region, sect, degree (or nature of religiosity), and class. Although these various groups are only rarely organized in formal structures outside of the state, many developed special connections with specific state bodies, turning the sprawling state apparatus into constituencies of sorts. This made coordinated initiatives difficult: any new initiative that required cooperation from different parts of the state apparatus or that undermined the position of some of these officially shaped constituencies could be hard to implement in practice.

Middle East expert Steffen Hertog has aptly described how the Saudi state emerged in the oil era: leading princes carved out structures they could dominate; state institutions worked in silos and coordinated poorly; and networks of beneficiaries, contractors, and influence brokers populated various bureaucracies. The Saudi state expanded rapidly into an uncoordinated group of what Hertog goes so far as to call “fiefdoms.”

Yet now the current crown prince is threatening that system with an attempt to centralize authority in a manner unfamiliar to Saudi Arabia in the oil era. Middle East expert Stéphane Lacroix has explained that, during interviews he conducted with supporters of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his interlocuters attributed this push for centralization more to a desire for “efficient decision-making” than an effort to overcome the “political inertia” that has characterized the Saudi state. In any case, Lacroix concludes that “In place of the horizontality and consensus seeking that previously characterized the Saudi system, there is now a vertical line of power ending with [Mohammed bin Salman].” While the crown prince did not initiate these centralization moves, he has forcefully advanced them by demonstrating the willingness to arrest even powerful family members who seem to stand in his way.

A More Politically Engaged Society

Beyond these political trends toward greater centralization and a micromanaging monarch in waiting, Saudi society at large is also exhibiting more political engagement. The resulting debates about public affairs still generally eschew formal organizations and structures. Political parties, labor unions, and the like are not part of this scene. Yet debate occurs. The country’s consultative assembly, the Shura Council, sometimes hosts significant public discussions. And arguments on many issues crop up in the press.

But public arguments take place most vigorously through newer forms of social media, such as Twitter. On two trips to Saudi Arabia in 2017, the author was startled to find how much private discussion took place on what seemed to be sensitive topics (such as royal family power struggles or the ongoing confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar), with citizens gleaning information from internet sources. On many subjects, debate is freewheeling. Of course, private discussions may have always been lively—but they used to take place in face-to-face encounters between community members in specific locations, like homes, mosques, and universities. These conversations now have moved more into the public square through the emergence of social media.

The result is a new Saudi public sphere—or a set of spheres, since various groups in Saudi Arabia, as in many other Arab societies, can be polarized and interact primarily by way of ridicule and disagreement. It is not uncommon for Saudis that the author has met to discuss social media’s potential to drive the free flow of information across borders and open up society to new ideas and independent thinking—a perspective similar to that heard in more optimistic times a decade ago in other parts of the region.

But opinionated Saudis also confess to a growing fear, as the heavy hand of the state can fall on dissidents who are influential and vocal. The country’s leadership patrols social media, looking not merely for dissident views but even for unwelcome silence from prominent figures, particularly on topics on which the regime has staked a clear line (such as the Egyptian coup in 2013 and the ongoing confrontation with Qatar that began in 2017). The popular preacher Salman al-Awda, for instance, was barred from traveling when he held his tongue on the Qatar crisis and was arrested when he expressed wishes for mediation efforts to succeed.

The Religious-Legal Apparatus in Transition

These trends of centralizing state authority and a burgeoning (if polarized and policed) public sphere may be mostly clearly on display in Saudi Arabia’s religious and legal realms. To speak of a religious-legal apparatus alludes to the distinctive way the Saudi state was built. Religion and law are intertwined throughout the region, but most Arab states have built identifiably separate structures for religious authority, lawmaking, and adjudication. These functions have been far more fused in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi state has largely eschewed the path followed by other states, where law has been codified, the influence of the Islamic sharia often has been restricted to matters of personal status, and the hierarchical court systems generally have been built on a civil law model.

Instead, the Saudi state identified itself with a particular kind of Islamic jurisprudence (Wahhabism) and populated judicial, legal, and religious positions with scholars who prided themselves on a strict, literalist, and extreme socially conservative approach. Judges resisted any efforts to codify law and were suspicious even of specialization—a proposal to set up commercial courts, for instance, was decreed at the beginning of the kingdom but then was resisted by judges who felt it would be a step toward the kind of judicial systems then being built in other Arab states. Alongside its judicial system, Saudi Arabia features a freestanding body known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice tasked with enforcing sharia-based norms (as its members understand them) in public places. The body—which Saudis simply call the Committee—is often termed the religious police in English.

But slowly other legal systems grew up alongside these religiously inspired structures. Saudi rule became more formal as kings increasingly issued what are termed regulations (the term law, or qanun, being too sensitive to employ) and established specialized committees (which religious figures would have opposed had they been called courts, or mahakim). These steps, taken from the founding of the kingdom, have become extensive indeed. Until recently, the new mechanisms were kept somewhat separate from the general court system but were allowed to operate in their own respective realms. For example, in the case of financial disputes, a banking committee was created that could render judgments, but if it were to issue a ruling that clearly suggested payment of interest (or other forms of recourse that violate traditional Islamic law), the courts would simply refuse to enforce them.

By 2017, the legislative process has grown elaborate, with legal experts, the royal court, government bodies, ministries, the cabinet, and the Shura Council all playing a role in making laws. A set of administrative courts, the Diwan al-Mazalim, was constructed, modeled after the Egyptian and French systems. Legal professionals gradually emerged, and they were allowed to practice in some courts but were often held at bay by the sharia courts, which have retained general jurisdiction and long continued to resist legal codification and specialization.

But over the past decade, religious institutions and the newer state bodies have become somewhat less isolated from each other—and the religious bodies are taking on some features of the increasingly influential state ones. The regular courts have been given all sorts of procedural regulations, which they have dutifully followed. The legal profession has been organized and given official status; consequently, lawyers have brought pressure on the courts to make rulings public so that judicial inclinations become more predictable.

Saudi jurists continue to eschew the full codification of the law, but codification by stealth is occurring. Around 2007, King Abdullah won a concession from religious scholars, who agreed to commit to paper how they rule on major questions. As with many reforms, implementation has been slow, but it finally has begun in a serious manner. The selected set of past rulings will not be formally binding on judges, but it could serve as a surrogate code and will still give litigants an idea of what to expect. Most legal observers agree that judges will find it both easier and safer to go to that text rather than to review Islamic jurisprudence on every legal question that comes before them.

King Abdullah ordered other reforms, although implementation has sometimes lagged behind. He instituted the specialization of the general courts that had been resisted since the 1930s (so that criminal and personal status cases, for instance, are heard now by different bodies). King Abdullah also ordered that the commercial courts, earlier set up as part of the Diwan al-Mazalim, be folded into the regular court system (a step just now actually being implemented). Meanwhile, the public prosecution system has been separated from the Ministry of Interior. Equally significant is an informal change evident over the past decade: the social and geographical base of the judiciary has widened beyond its formerly narrow base in the conservative al-Qasim region. Taken together, these gradual changes suggest that Saudi Arabia has long been moving toward other systems in the region with a consolidated legal system, rather than the patchwork of tribunals and structures that has grown up more by accretion than design.

And still more changes have been made under King Salman. The religious police have been deprived of their power of arrest and can now only hector or report offenses to the regular police. Some changes indicate a firm hand and not merely a reforming one—a few judges were included in a recent wave of arrests of political dissidents. Legal observers are swapping rumors about a possible purge of judges seen as oppositional.

Far bigger changes are in the works. In two visits to Saudi Arabia this year, the author met with legal specialists who had been summoned by official bodies to work on a cavalcade of draft laws that would bring major symbolic changes (like allowing public movie theaters) and others that go beyond the symbolic (such as abolishing the restrictive Saudi visa system to allow more open entry to the country).1 If these plans come to fruition, the cumulative effect would be to further diminish the religious establishment’s autonomy and influence.

Historically, Saudi leaders have propounded the view that the sharia is the country’s highest law and the overall legal system operates within its bounds. Implicitly, many Saudi elites would view the situation in much of the Arab world as the reverse: the sharia is effectively restricted to a few domains, and it is interpreted in ways favored by these countries’ respective regimes. Saudi Arabia has not gone that far—religious scholars still have a role in drafting legislation, clear violations of sharia rulings are out of bounds in most areas, and judges are still expected to have a sharia-based training.

But the domination of the religious establishment in law is ending. The king and crown prince are clearly favoring (and fostering) religious figures who repudiate some long-standing official views. King Salman’s decree ending the ban on women driving cited the (perhaps reluctant) support of a majority of the country’s senior religious scholars. The quarantine around non-Islamic aspects of the legal system has eroded to the extent that discussions of Saudi law with Saudi lawyers and judges tend to start more often by citing state-authored texts rather than religious principles.2

Reinvented Authoritarianism Meets Reinvented Politics

These trends—in Saudi royalty, bureaucracy, religion, and law—are not separate. The centralization of royal authority, the consolidation of the bureaucracy, the diminution of the influence of religious scholars, and the stronger role of law originating from official (rather than religious) texts are creating a state that purports not to obstruct but instead furiously encourage such change. The crown prince is both a product of and an agent of the emerging system.

Yet in one important way, the current restiveness is contradictory. It is based on, and fosters, attempts to meet the needs of a growing (and younger) country, whose citizens are more engaged with public affairs—and with each other. But the unmistakably authoritarian top leadership pursuing these efforts seeks to tightly grasp the reins of power to guide Saudi society according to its vision of social and economic transformation. How Saudi Arabia emerges from this experience—and the current leadership’s success, in part—may hinge on whether this odd mix of politicization and repression can continue to coexist.


1 Author interviews with Saudi lawyers and judicial personnel, Riyadh, July and October 2017.

2 Ibid.