By Hicham Alaoui*
For the first time in modern history, what happens in Riyadh matters more for the future of the Middle East than the classical seats of Islamic civilization – Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus. It is Saudi policymaking, not simply American, British, or French, that will determine the region’s geopolitical balance of power. Momentous questions, such as the future of Arab democratization and the battle over Islamic theology, can no longer be answered without taking into account Saudi politics. This requires fully assessing the colossal impact of Riyadh’s new strongman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Since his ascendance over the past several years, MBS’ shake-up of Saudi politics has unfolded across three axes: the consolidation of political power, a vision for economic modernization, and interventionist foreign policies. Yet only in the first realm of internal politics have we seen successful outcomes, while failures in economic reform and foreign policy will embroil MBS in difficulty.
MBS’ political rise has coincided with two structural shifts. The first is biological reality: the Saudi monarchy, currently led by MBS’ father King Salman, can no longer perpetuate through horizontal succession between the expiring sons of the founder. The second is the permanent erosion of rentierism due to the evolution of global energy markets and oil pricing mechanisms, which render this regime’s conventional financing unviable. In recent months, this dynastic consolidation has resulted in the arrest of hundreds of high-ranking officials, including fellow princes, on corruption charges. Previously, Saudi politics was characterized by competing bureaucratic and economic fiefdoms controlled by these elites. Yet because the logic of Saudi monarchism has shifted from horizontal rule to vertical father-son succession, now these autonomous elite domains are being reconfigured into a new single hierarchy of control. For MBS, a heavy-handed approach was necessary given the ferocious resistance that such institutional reordering would invoke. He is upending a half-century of political traditions, but through masterful coordination with security agencies and sympathetic actors that has neutralized his opponents with shock and awe.
The arrest of elites previously thought untouchable, and the expropriation of their wealth, has given rise to a new form of populism. MBS’ actions have proven wildly popular with the Saudi public, making him the first imminent Saudi leader to predicate his rule not on family and tribal consensus but on populist appeals. But in comparative perspective, populist governance has always raised two problems. First, maintaining initial spurts of popularity requires institutionalizing public support with new mechanisms of participation. However, MBS has shown no signs of tolerating such participatory input; if anything, he seems averse to it. Second, even if populism saps the rule of law, the basic task of governance still requires some form of law. Yet MBS’ policies seem to apply to everyone else but himself, suggesting dangerously arbitrary application. Beyond this, there lies immense uncertainty. Previously, corruption was costly but predictable, and thus allowed the entire system to function. It is one thing to eliminate corruption. It is entirely another to generate a new logic of governance without rules, and which merely substitutes one form of arbitrariness with another. Exiting from a semi-feudal system into modernity does require political centralization, but it also necessitates objective rules which MBS seems to abhor.
A hidden dimension of this political earthquake involves reforming religious spaces. MBS is reconfiguring the longstanding alliance between the monarchy and the Wahhabi establishment. His stated desire is to return the practice of Islam in Saudi Arabia to the pre-1979 era, which is erroneously mythologized as a liberal and open period. In doing so, he is trying to kill two birds with one stone. First, he has issued religious mandates such as curtailing the religious police (mutawwa‘), thereby circumventing the traditional authority of the Wahhabi clergy, who are framed as resistant reactionaries. Second, by tightening control over religious discourse, MBS is also eliminating independent Islamic thinking that could pose future threats, like the Sahwa movement.
Such actions provoke several problems. First, there will inevitably be conservative resistance, because religious reorientations have occurred through state interventions rather than indigenous pluralism. Consider the recent allowance for women to drive. The imposition does not give women the right to drive; it merely transfers ultimate authority over that right to the family. Second, MBS is drastically reversing the formula of religious legitimation. Previously, the Wahhabi clergy legitimated the Saudi monarchy’s rulership, but now it is MBS who is legitimizing the religious establishment. Such theological re-engineering takes the monarchy into uncharted territory. Third, the pluralism espoused by this stance is hollow. Recently, the Wahhabi clergy have seldom acted as figureheads of resistance. Further, among the voices ensnared by the reformation of religion are those ironically calling for its pluralism, such as Sheikh Salman al-Ouda.
Beyond this lies the vision of economic reform. Here, we must give credit where it is due. MBS is the only prominent royal in his generation to concede that an oil rentier system defined by horizontal fiefdoms cannot last forever. Massively reducing public expenditures and investing in non-energy sectors requires short-term costs, such as ending subsidies and privatization. Although systemic corruption will remain, it will be theoretically less costly; for as economists reason, a narrow but deep well is less costly than a shallow but wide swamp. However, for this vision to graduate from holding pattern to genuine transformation, the Saudi government must surrender unrealistic fantasies such as constructing robot-filled megacities in the desert, and instead overcome entrenched structural obstacles.
First, weaning the state off oil rents requires uprooting impulses that have long shaped its mentality. The goal of privatizing Aramco should be to create a self-sustaining firm, not generate instant revenues through sales of shares which will otherwise be the rents of rents. Second, the entire labor market must change. The existing system of foreign sponsorship (kafala) must be discarded in favor of a meritocratic job market stratified by skill rather than identity. This requires Saudi acceptance of foreigners as equals in many areas. Yet all this economic liberalization will require some degree of political opening, which MBS has refused to entertain. The rentier bargain is fundamentally political, not economic. For instance, citizens will not accept entitlement cuts and pay new taxes without more representation. This is a monumental challenge, and it remains unclear how MBS will tackle it – let alone how the monarchy will absorb it.
The final pillar of MBS’ overhaul is an expansionist foreign policy seeking to project Saudi hard power across the region. Here, failure abounds. Such interventionism is anchored in an adversarial framework that anoints Iran as the ultimate foe. Saudi-Iran antagonism has much of its roots in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which created a competing Islamist order across the Arabian Gulf. Since the fall of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, however, this struggle has been amplified by hyperbolic sectarian tensions that designates Iran as the vanguard of a Shi‘a revolutionary crescent and Saudi Arabia as the bulwark of the Sunni Arab world. However, the militant interventionism engendered by this anti-Iranian attitude has not met with success. The war in Yemen has not defeated the Houthis and instead created a humanitarian disaster. The embargo against Qatar has destroyed the Gulf Cooperation Council and driven Qatar closer to Iran. Neither did MBS succeed weakening Hezbollah by inducing the Lebanese government to collapse, nor was he able to convince the Palestinian Authority to accept Trump’s “deal of the century.” Most of all, creating the illusion of Saudi hegemony ignores the fact that winning over Shi‘a communities in the Arab world requires appealing to their Arabist identity and heritage, not forcing an alienating choice between loyalty and faith. Only recently has the Saudi government seemed to learn this lesson by reaching out to certain Shi‘a actors, like Iraq’s Abbadi government and Muqtada Sadr.
Such overreaching has been made possible by the Saudi-Emirati alliance, which encapsulates complementary profiles. The UAE has ably absorbed foreign technologies and military arms, but lacks the size and manpower to effectively project its interests abroad. Saudi Arabia needs Emirati skills and prowess, and can furnish the manpower and territorial footprint necessary for foreign interventions. What has emerged is a reciprocal arrangement: the Saudis satisfied the Emiratis by leading the embargo against Qatar, while the Emiratis spearheaded Saudi efforts in the Yemeni war.
There are two problems, however. First, Saudi Arabia has proven unable to convince the US and Israel to attack Iran, which at this stage needs to simply wait out MBS to obtain a constructive grand deal on its terms. Saudi foreign policy has been characterized by humiliating miscalculations, such as the Jerusalem controversy furnishes. The Saudi government desired a gradual normalization with Israel to obscure its de facto alliance with the US-Israeli camp against Iran, but the sudden American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital put Riyadh in an uncomfortable position of ambivalence. Finished are the days of the Bush administration, where cordial familial ties were enough to ensure coherent unitary policies. The Trump White House is far more fractured. Second, Saudi foreign policy has also attempted to undo the gains of the Arab Spring in places like Libya and Egypt but without furnishing an alternative to the authoritarian politics that generated the Arab Spring in the first place. In this sense, Saudi Arabia is anti-revolutionary rather than counter-revolutionary: it remains allergic to popular mobilization, but also unable to offer a new ideological framework of governance.
*English Translation of Le Nouvel Observateur article: “Arabie saoudite: Mohamed Ben Salmane, une dangereuse tendance à l’arbitraire”.