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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 21, May 16, 2015

Challenges to Royal Legitimacy in Saudi Arabia

Saturday 16 May 2015


The Royal legitimacy in Saudi Arabia drawn from religion and rentierism is beset with a number of challenges today. To begin with religion: it is well known that Islam is deeply embedded in the legitimacy discourse of Saudi Arabia. In this perspective, the Ulama1 tied to the Royal family through a religio-political alliance, accords support to the Saudi regime. On the other hand, the rentier state paradigm guarantees the stability of the system through its redistributive mechanism. But the recent upheavals in the region might have a cascading effect upon the kingdom and it remains to be seen how the new Saudi King, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, strategises to avert the imbroglio. Taking a cue from this, this paper attempts to analyse the whole issue of the theoretical straitjackets of the discipline both in its historicity and ambit of contemporaneousness.

As an Islamic state, the political culture of Saudi Arabia with overwhelming Islamic denominations shape major aspects of social interaction. Islam’s influence on the political culture is traditionally interpreted in two general categories: religious and temporal. These categories seek to define the theological beliefs and transcendentally ordained ethical duties on the one hand and the interests of the ruling dynasties, military and financial affairs on the other.2 Saudi politics, in fact, has never unyoked itself from religion, as religious loyalties remain the primary base of political legitimacy. The al-Saud family in tandem with the Ulama (religious clerics) has claimed legitimacy of the people, and this religio-political relationship is witnessed since the reign of first house of al-Saud in 1744.3 Abd al-Aziz al-Saud, who consolidated the Saudi Kingdom in 1932, managed to combine the principles of both with the pragmatic ambitions of statehood. Thus, he created an ideology which helped him to strike out the religious and political differences of the provinces by rejuvenating the explicit teachings of Islam. The basic structure of authority was retained.

In keeping with the patriarchal traditions, the ruler remained the sole arbiter of power and justice. The concept of ‘consensus’ was introduced to tide over the mutual rivalries that characterised the Saudi society in its formative phase. From that time onwards, the pattern of political organisation in Saudi Arabia has toed the line set by its founder. Ibn Khaldun’s concepts of “Royal Authority” and “Assabiyah” (Group Solidarity) were employed, too, to justify the strong leadership of the King to rule the people.4 Since the Saudi kings are the protectors of Islam being the custodians of the Holy places of Mecca and Medina, they well thought-out that the support of Ulama was most crucial for their legitimacy. Thus, the Council of Higher Ulama as an institution was created in 1971 through a Royal Decree ‘to express opinions on Shariah regarding matters submitted to them by Wali al-Amir (The King)’.5

In most turbulent times, Ulama have given tactical support to the Saudi regime. But the differences of opinion have led to the emergence of dissident Ulama defying the policies of the regime. As Leigh Nolan, an erudite scholar on Gulf Studies of the Brooking Doha Centre, observed in this context, “The Ulama are not a monolithic body and have been divided on several occasions—most notably during the 1979 siege of Grand Mosque of Mecca, after the first Gulf war, and during protests against education reform in 2004 and gender mixing in 2009. The official or establishment Ulama occupy positions of authority in state-proscribed bodies such as the Senior Ulama Committee and enjoy a close relationship with them. This relationship has on several occasions led to changes of co-optation and inflamed popular support for dissident religious leaders.”6

The al-Saud legitimacy is also partly drawn from the rentier state mechanism which is based on the premise that “state-society relations seem predicated on the principle of no taxation, no representation.”7 The authority of the state is founded on the welfare system as well as bureau-cratic structure thronged on state patronage. Rentierism concedes legitimacy to the regime affording services to the citizens without expecting any proceeds from them. The rentier economy of Saudi Arabia, characterised by the principles of accumulation and legitimi-sation, is undergoing transformation in the contemporary period. The changes that transpire in the system would have tremendous impact upon the trajectory of the development process in the economic sphere. The state prolonged its activities for capital accumulation gaining legitimacy from the people. But accumulation and legitimisation are not always tantamount, rather they are incongruous, to each other. The state always intends to adopt the model that includes both the elements.8 James O’ Conner says “the state needs to devise a fiscal regime which allows it to pursue either of the objectives because a state that openly uses its coercive force to help one class accumulate capital at the expanses of other classes loses its legitimacy and hence undermines support. However, a state that ignores the necessity of assisting the process of capital accumulation risks drying up the source of its own power, the economics surplus production capacity and the taxes drawn from the surplus.”9

The nature of the state expenditure is twofold in a rentier economy. It adds to the course of accumulation raising productivity in labour, adds to profit by funding industrial expansion and harnesses social consumption decreasing the cost of production. It also legitimises through public investment to bring synchronisation between labour and capital. The state’s finance plays a dominant role in the rentier economy. The rent constitutes the main source of the revenue. The relationship between the state and society becomes very typical in the rentier economy. The policy of the state is governed by certain primary motives. These are: a) offering welfare services, b) instituting new private sector and bureaucracy dependent on state support, and c) reinforcing state power. When the rentier state performs those functions, it consolidates state power and concedes legitimacy to the regime. The state sponsored welfare activities automatically create different types of political environment wherein the state authority assumes supremacy over social distribution. And economic interest is served individually rather collectively.10 “The development of clan consciousness, profession for trade union organisation is retarded—society atomised into individual rent and reward seekers and development of the autonomous institutions of civil society is severely stunted.”11 Consequently, the rentier state faces several fiscal crises. The volume of expenditure exceeds the volume of revenue. The reduction of expenditure leads to the tapering of the economy. The rationalisation of it gives rise to substantial reduction of welfare service, patronage and streamlining of the security sector.12

The economic boom in the seventies due to the steep hike of oil prices pushed the Saudi authorities to spend the ‘oil rent’ in the infrastructural developmental projects and subsidised services providing free education and health care in the Kingdom. It got ‘eudaemonic legitimacy13 drawing sustenance from the distributive-welfare nature of the state’.14 However, the swift fall of crude oil price, which went below $ 50 per barrel in the recent year, stunted the flow of oil revenue into the kingdom. Confronted with this grave scenario, the regime introduced new measures to seek a detour out of this impasse. As such cuts were imposed on health and education, and the middle class was made to bear whatever cost such spending entailed. This certainly can generate discontent among a substantial section of the middle class population. Possibly, this anno-yance can propel them to strike a sympathetic chord with the Islamic fundamentalists. Moreover, a sprawling youth, deeply embedded with the theological and scriptural knowledge of which the syllabi prescribes an overdose in some areas contrast to the rudimentary instructions in science and technology, is rendered unemployable for the flourishing private concerns. Thus the vast reserve of unemployed youth becomes the human force that the Islamic radicals can easily draw upon by playing to their religious sentiments. In this sense, the culmination of a potential Islamic threat cannot be thrust aside.

It is pertinent to mention that Saudi Arabia is already confronted with the presence of the Islamic State in its northern border15 and the mounting pressure of Houthi Shia rebels in its southern border, that is, neighbouring Yemen would further exacerbate the Saudi predicament. The kingdom is fully aware that unless the situation is controlled, the political space may be occupied by the Islamic radicals. Even the experts working on the Middle Eastern Studies corroborate such views. To name a few, F. Gregory Gause, III of the Brookings Institution in Doha said: “The Saudis fear it as a potential domestic threat, turning Salafism into a revolutionary political ideology rather than the pro-regime bulwark it has usually been in Saudi Arabia.”16 Conversely, Yakub Halabi opined that “the prolonged conflict might lead to “Syrianisation of Yemen, where amid the political vacuum, transnational Jihadist allied with either al-Qaida or the Islamic State will enter Yemen to fight against the ‘infidel’ Shiites. Saudis estimate that a protracted war will sooner or later spill over into the Kingdom. Hence, this war is not a competition over hegemony in the Arab Peninsula between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but a war over the survival of the Saudi monarchy. Toppling the Saudi regime was always the main goal of transnational Jihadists. Doing so would give the Jihadists access to the lucrative source of Saudi oil income and the legitimacy of protecting the holy sites of Islam in the Hejaz region.”17

Notwithstanding this, the Saudi monarch, in order to uphold his legitimacy, did employ decisive measures including ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ to suppress Islamic uprising in its southern neighbourhood. He also reshuffled the Cabinet very recently balancing power with populism to quell any domestic upheaval. Consolidation of power being the initial principle, King Salman expanded his Sudairi clout by appointing his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the present Interior Minister, as the Crown Prince in place of his half-brother, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, and his son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the present Defence Minister, as the second Deputy Crown Prince to keep hold of his control over the vitals of the Saudi security apparatus.

Populism being the other principle, he allowed the commoners to hold key positions in the Saudi Government as well. The King appointed the Saudi Ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, a person from the non-royal family, as the new Foreign Minister replacing the experienced royal family member, Prince Saud al-Faisal, who held the post since 1975.18 However, this is not an enduring solution given the nature of competing claims and power equations as far as the Sudairi, Shammar, and Bani Faisal branches are concerned. As Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House observed, “They will need to manage the other princes within the royal family. They need to share power. There’s no succession where the King has traditionally just given power to his son. There’s usually a lot of power-sharing among different branches of the family so they need to make sure that the others still have a large stake in the system.”19

What is to be done? A more pragmatic approach here is to redefine the traditional base of the regime’s legitimacy in the present context. The politico-religious alliance sustained by the Saudi regime with the Ulama is to be reinter-preted in the true spirit of Islam to protect the interests of the Kingdom. Besides, the redistri-butive paradigm of the rentier mechanism is to be restructured to bring inclusive development encompassing equity and accountability in the system. Moreover, the democratic space initiated by the previous Saudi regime is to be reinforced by expanding the participative process through the structural mechanisms (National Dialogue, Majlis al-Shura and the partially elected Municipal Councils)20 presently operating in Saudi Arabia.

The enlarged political participation would dilute the regressive politics endowing structural or institutional legitimacy to the regime. As Anthony H. Cordesman a leading expert on west Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies observed, “Saudi Arabia has faced, and will face, constant challenges in finding the pace of modernisation and reform that pushes forward as fast as possible while retaining Saudi popular support, meeting Saudi Arabia’s unique religious and cultural needs, and ensuring that evolution will not turn into either regression or revolution.”21


1. The Ulama may be interpreted “as those theological and legal experts who through their personal conduct and knowledge gained the respect and recognition of the community in general and the political authorities in particular”. See, Ayman Al-Yasini, Religion and
State in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
(London: Westview Press, 1985), p. 42 Al-Yasini writes: “The agreement arrived at between the ‘Shaykh and the Prince may be considered the cornerstone of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance according to which the temporal power was left to Muhammad Ibn Saud and his successors whereas the spiritual was reserved for Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his descendants.” Ibid., p. 25.

2. Akbar S Ahmad, “Mullah, Mahdi and Mosque: Emergent Trends in Muslim Society“, Arab Studies Quarterly, vol. 4, 1982, p. 127.

3. Joseph A. Kechichian, “Ulama-Saud Politics”, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 18, 1986, p. 53.

4. Summer Scott Huyette, Political Adaptation in Saudi Arabia, (Boulder, London: West View Press, 1985), pp.129.

5. Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent (London: MacMillan Press Ltd. 1999), p.37.

6. Leigh Nolan, “Managing Reform? Saudi Arabia and the King’s Dilemma”, Policy Brief, May 2011, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2011/5/saudi-arabia-nolan/05_saudi_arabia_nolan.pdf Accessed on May 5, 2015.

7. Simon Henderson and Joshua Teitelbaum, “Saudi Arabia: Politics, Succession, and Opposition”, no. 228, December 18, 1996, Washington Institute, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/saudi-arabia-politics-succession-and-opposition Accessed on May 5, 2015.

8. Girijesh Pant, The Arab Gulf Economies: From Crisis to Reform, (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1996), pp. 91-92.

9. Cited in Ibid.

10. Ibid., pp. 93-97.

11. Cited in pp. 97-98.

12. Ibid., p. 98. See, Jajati K. Pattnaik, “Neo-Liberalism and Development Debates: Contextualising in Saudi Arabia” in Anwar Alam (ed.), Contemporary West Asia: Politics and Development, (New Delhi: New Century Publications, 2010), pp.1-26.

13. Tim Niblock writes eudamonic legitimacy “stems from a regime delivering the policies, welfare and performance which the population seeks. Since the beginning of oil production, but especially since the oil price rises of the 1970s, the Saudi regime has stressed its eudaemonic achievements. While the link to legitimacy has not been made specific, the message of a right to rule on eudaemonic grounds is nonetheless conveyed. The building up of the infrastructure, the provision of modern educational and medi cal services to the population, the institution of welfare programmes for the poorer elements of the population, and the modernisation the institutions of the state are projected as the achievements of an effective political leadership. The limitations to claims to eudaemonic legitimacy arise when population needs are not met. Where economic resources are not being equitably spread across the population, and corruption leads both to mismanagement and acquisition of immense fortunes by those in position to gain the eudamonic dimension becomes delegitimised.” See, Tim Niblock, Power, Legitimacy and Survival, (London: Routledge 2006), pp. 12-13.

14. Ibid.

15. Chris Zambelis writes: “The meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has since styled itself the Islamic State in an affirmation of its broader aspirations of dominion over a self-declared caliphate beyond the territories where it exercises control, has aggravated the Middle East’s already treacherous geopolitical landscape. A consideration of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical significance is critical to appreciate the nature of the threats the Islamic State poses to the Kingdom.“ See Chris Zambelis, “To Topple the Throne: Islamic State Sets its Sights on Saudi Arabia”, vol. XIII, no. 5, Terrorism Monitor,http://www.jamestown.org/uploads/media/TerrorismMonitor Vol13Issue5_03.pdf Accessed on April 30, 2015.

16. Cited in Jethro Mullen, “New Saud King’s Big Challenges: Iran, Yemen and ISIS“, CNN, January 24, 2015, http://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/23/middleeast/saudi-arabia-new-king-challenges/ Accessed on April 28, 2015.

17. Yakub Halabi, “Yemen Crisis: A War for the Survival of the Saudi Monarchy”, http://www.i24news.tv/en/opinion/68513-150421-yemen-crisis-a-war-for-the-survival-of-the-saudi-monarchy Accessed on April 28, 2015

18. Angus McDowall, “Saudi King Resets Succession to Cope with Turbulent Times”, Reuters, April 29, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/29/us-saudi-politics-idUSKBN0NK05W20150429 Accessed on May 5, 2015.

19. Cited in Jack Moore, “Saudi King Stokes Tensions with Cabinet Reshuffle”, Newsweek,http://europe. newsweek.com/saudi-king-stokes-tensions-cabinet-reshuffle-326720 Accessed on May 5, 2015.

20. National Dialogue is a novel mechanism adopted by the Saudi regime to engage civil society in the reform process of the Kingdom. The first National dialogue was convened in Riyadh from July 15-18, 2003 to discuss on National Unity, Role of Ulama, International Relations and their Effect on National Unity. Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council created on December 29, 1993 as a 60 member nominated body became 150 in 2005. Article 67 of the Basic System of Rules, which outlines the functions of the legislative body, says: “The regulatory authority (Consultative Council) lays down regulations and motions to meet the interests of the state or remove what is bad in its affairs, in accordance with the Shariah. The election to the partially elected Municipal Council consisting of 178 members was held in 2005 to usher in urban grass root democracy in the Kingdom.” For details see, Jajati K. Pattnaik, “Democratisation in Saudi Arabia” in Gulshan Dietl (ed.), Democracy and Democratisation in the Gulf (New Delhi: Shipra Publications, 2010), pp. 109-114.

21. Cited in no. 16.

Dr Jajati K. Pattnaik is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Indira Gandhi Government College, Tezu (Arunachal Pradesh). He also served as a Visiting Scholar at the Gulf Studies Programme, Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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