Sustaining Authoritarian Rule
KIRA D. BAIASU
[Fall 2009, Volume X, Issue I]
In 1980, James Piscatori asserted that the House of Saud’s inability to adapt to political trends had slowly worn away at the strength of the Saudi state. He wrote, “Most observers of the Kingdom have looked on its history and seen, not remarkable resilience and acceptable compromise, but internal contradictions and the steady wearing down of old ways. They believe that soon enough the tricky business of innovation and holding the ulama in check will become an impossible task even for the limberest Muslim mind and the most patient of technocratic characters” (Piscatori 1980, 137). At the time, Piscatori’s assessment was plausible. In addition to the increasing obstinacy of the ulama (religious scholars), the 1979 Siege of Mecca had recently served as an example of the monarchy’s inadequacy in managing disaffected segments of society. However, if Piscatori’s claim of Saudi political stagnation were raised today, it would ignore the transformative potential of the regime’s current attempts at reshaping institutions. Under the leadership of King Fahd and King Abdullah, the Saudi government has slowly reformed the state, its institutions, and the balance of power within its coalition of support, all at a pace that allows for relative political stability to persist. The sustainability of an authoritarian regime is dependent on its flexibility in assuming a variety of political structures and policies. Over the past two decades, the Saudi rulers have proven their ability to adapt and survive.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy characterized by an authoritarian political system and a rentier economy. In this paper, authoritarian rule is defined as “an arbitrary and usually a personal government that uses law and the coercive instruments of the state to expedite its own purposes of monopolizing power and denies the political rights and opportunities of all other groups to compete for that power” (Jackson and Rosberg 1982, 23). Crippling of authoritarian rule may occur through a regime’s failure to acclimate to changing political tides. An inflexible state that is not adept at restructuring institutions and alliances runs the risk of collapse. A rentier state, in this context, is defined as a state whose revenues consist largely of external rent, such as gas or oil revenues, foreign aid, and other kinds of direct payments (Winckler 2000, 237).
Through an analysis of political reforms and the relationship between the state and the religious and economic elites, this paper will explore the House of Saud’s ability to sustain authoritarian rule. The paper identifies that the Saudi regime’s coercive capacity and ability to maintain power lies in its access to oil rent, the continuous support of international patrons, its management of domestic coalitions of support, the authoritarian character of the state and its institutions, and the state’s ability to adapt to the changing political climate by shifting alliances. Political reforms enacted in the past two decades exemplify a remodeling of authoritarian rule in an effort to maintain the status quo. With the establishment of the Basic Law and the inception of municipal elections, for a council that is confined to an advisory capacity, the House of Saud is able to quell calls for democratization and greater political participation. “The institutionalization of personal authoritarian rule entails the maintenance of a weak political system that is never fully institutionalized in comparison to the ruler’s own position” (Kassem 2004, 168). As long as the monarchy is able to repress the development of political institution outside of its control, Saudi Arabia will remain an authoritarian state wearing the mask of liberalization and reform.
This paper also attempts a paradigm shift from the traditional notion that the protracted relationship between the House of Saud and the ulama is immutable and crucial to the continuity of authoritarian rule within the Kingdom. Exploring the creation of nascent political entities, such as the Consultative Council and the Supreme Economic Council, in conjunction with the 2007 judicial reforms, reveals a monarchical objective aimed at modifying the coalition of politically relevant elite supporting the regime in order to ensure its survival. This design is carried out through an alliance shift that diminishes the political role of the ulama and increases the political participation of the business class.
The theoretical framework that will be used centers on the theory of politically relevant elites (PREs) presented by Volker Perthes in the book Arab Elites: Negotiating the Politics of Change. According to Perthes, the PRE encompass:
Those top government, administrative, and political leaders who actually exercise political power or persons whose strategic position in large and powerful organizations and movements enables them to influence political decision making directly, substantially, and regularly. The PRE reaches, however, beyond the political elite to include groups and segments that contribute to political processes or influence them from various sidelines (Perthes 2004, 5).
The PRE may originate from all segments of society, ranging from government to corporate and the media, using their position to influence national discourse and political agendas. It should be noted that PREs are not temporary elites, whose political relevance is transient. PREs can be either opinion makers or decision makers. Not only can PREs be members of government, but they can also be oppositional voices or groups, as long as they maintain their relevance in the political process. According to the model outlined by Perthes, there are three concentric circles that indicate the degrees of PRE influence. The first circle comprises the ‘core elite’ who decide on strategic issues. In the second circle are the ‘intermediate elite’ or those who exert a large amount of influence or are responsible for lesser decisions on strategic issues unless larger ones are delegated to them. In the third circle are the ‘subelite’ who indirectly influence strategic decisions or national discourse through their position in the media, government, or interest groups. The circles are not permanently defined and people or groups may find themselves moving from one to the other.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the core elite is traditionally composed of the royal family, the ulama occupy the second circle of intermediate elite, and the business class are confined to the realm of subelite. This paper unveils the current renegotiation of the Saudi framework. The new, evolving formula allows the monarchy to retain its place in the first circle, but begins to raise the status of the business class to the intermediate elite while simultaneously diminishing the ulama to the subelite.
The paper is divided as follows: the first section will provide a history of the relationship between the ulama and the monarchy, followed by an analysis of the partnership’s demise and the 2007 judicial reforms. The successive section will canvass political reforms enacted in the past two decades to appease those calling for political liberalization. The subsequent section examines the historical association between the government and the business class and the recent creation of political institutions favorable to the economic elite, leading into a discussion of the political benefits gained by the monarchy through closer ties to the business sector. Next, the case study of Egypt’s political and economic reforms will serve as a comparison to the current Saudi political remodeling. Finally, the paper will conclude with an assay of the transformative potential of the current political restructuring.
The Saud-Wahhab Connection
Since the eighteenth century, the House of Saud has enjoyed its position as the keystone of the Saudi Arabian political system with the ulama acting as its primary domestic support and a foreign power, first the British and then the United States, acting as its primary external support. Many would say that without both American and ulama backing the monarchy would collapse. However, it will soon become apparent that while the royal family may continue to need both domestic and foreign buttressing to maintain its authority, the composition of its domestic coalition of support can be altered.
In order to comprehend the foundation of the twenty-first century Saudi state, it is crucial to understand the alliance and origins of the relationship between the Saudi royal family and the religious establishment and how this union has perpetuated the continuity of the Saudi royal family as heads of state and the religious establishment as top advisors. While there is no consensus on the exact date marking the establishment of Saudi Arabia, many trace the beginnings of Saudi state formation to the agreement between Muhammad ibn Saud, ruler of Dir’iyyah, and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was of the Banu Tamim tribe that occupied several oases in Najd. The family was not wealthy, but had many religious scholars among its ranks. In 1744 a pact was sealed between the amir and the religious reformer. One source recounted:
Muhammad ibn Sa’ud greeted Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and said, ‘This oasis is yours, do not fear your enemies. By the name of God, if all Najd was summoned to throw you out, we will never agree to expel you.’ Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab replied, ‘You are the settlement’s chief and wise man. I want you to grant me an oath that you will perform jihad (holy war) against the unbelievers. In return you will be imam, leader of the Muslim community and I will be leader in religious matters (al-Rasheed 2002, 17).
Thus, a symbiotic relationship was formed between al-Saud and al-Wahhab. Al-Wahhab provided al-Saud with the religious legitimacy that he was lacking. At that time, many strong tribal leaders in the region claimed to be descendants of the Prophet or could at least recount a prominent tribal history. Al-Saud was unable to affirm prophetic religious decent and was a member of a relatively insignificant tribe. Conversely, al-Wahhab held religious legitimacy, but needed the support of a political force in order to spread his message. Al-Saud adopted al-Wahhab’s religious message and its promises of wealth through zakat (alms giving) and political expansion under religious guidance. “The Wahhabi reform movement certainly provided an alternative source of legitimacy for the Al Sa’ud” (al-Rasheed 2002, 18). The accord between al-Wahhab and al-Saud gave birth to the eventual establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Contemporary Ulama: Participation and Cooptation
In 1970, the informal alliance between the Saudi royal family and the ulama was formalized through the establishment of the Ministry of Justice. As part of King Faisal’s bureaucratic reforms, the ulama were co-opted and the most senior ulama became state functionaries. While the ulama had the right to staff their own ministry, they were now part of the state bureaucracy and under the direct control of the government that paid their salaries. The Ministry of Justice was responsible for administering the country’s more than 300 Shari’a courts. Appointed by the king, the minister of justice was selected from among the most senior ulama. He was also the de facto chief justice and was assisted by the Supreme Judicial Council, a body of 11 members chosen from among the top Saudi religious scholars. The Supreme Judicial Council supervised the work of the courts, reviewed all legal decisions referred to them by the minister of justice, expressed legal opinions on judicial questions, and approved all death sentences, amputations, and stonings. Since 1983, the minister of justice has also served as chief of the Supreme Judicial Council, which has further increased his influence (Metz 1993, 202). Through the founding of the Ministry of Justice, the ulama gained an immense amount of judicial authority, as most laws were not codified and rulings were based on independent interpretation and precedent.
The ulama were placed in charge of specific realms of society, particularly culture and education. In the new partnership, the king was pressed to consult with the ulama on educational and cultural issues and seek their approval. He was also pushed to create a separate Ministry of Education for Girls run by the ulama before the religious authorities would support female education. Other official religious agencies included: The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice, the Religious Supervision of the Holy Mosque, the Ministry of Pilgrimage, the Directorate of Religious Research, Religious Decrees and Promotion of Islam, and the General Department of Women’s Education.
While the ulama gained formalized positions and symbolic power through becoming state functionaries, by acting as an arm of the state apparatus they lost their autonomy. In 1971, King Faisal created the Council of Senior Scholars or Council of Higher Ulama by royal decree with the king appointing its members. Its purpose was to produce fatwas, books, and sermons that would legitimize the political order. The council comprised twenty scholars, primarily from the Najd region from where Wahhabi Islam derived. Chaired by the grand mufti, who is the highest religious authority, the Council’s fatwas took on an almost legislative effect (Vogel 2000, 93, 117). The existing informal centers of learning, such as mosques, were replaced by state-sponsored religious universities, and the Saudi royal family made concessions to the ulama in exchange for fatwas supporting state policies. “Religious decrees casting authenticity and legitimacy on almost every aspect of social and economic reform…highlights the historical context whereby his [the king’s] private commitment to faith became a political strategy to counter a series of internal and external threats” (al-Rasheed 2002, 124-25). Islam can be used as a tool or language in which to articulate ideologies and meet political objectives. While Islam and its belief system do play a real role in the lives of the royal family, Islam is also used as a means to reach political ends. It should be noted that the relationship between the ulama and the Saudi monarchy was not characterized as one of quid pro quo. The monarchy did need the ulama to provide religious legitimacy to political actions and offered the scholars limited influence in return, but there was no equal partnership. Ultimately, the House of Saud was in control and the ulama were part of the state bureaucracy.
Religious scholars were crucial to Saudi state formation, and the 1970s oil revenue allowed Faisal to increase their numbers and financially reward the most devout, who were also elevated in status based on lineage, education, and piety. Conversely, religious hardliners whose political leanings and ideas were deleterious to government stability were punished by being barred from becoming civil servants at a time when government-paid jobs were lucrative. Excluding the confrontation between the ulama and Faisal over the Islamic nature of television in 1965, the majority of the ulama supported the king, particularly because they had been educated by state-sponsored religious universities and were state employees whose livelihood depended on the monarch.
In the 1990s, after the Gulf War, ulama who gave their support to the royal family were rewarded. During the war, cleric Abd al-Aziz bin Baz gave his blessing for international military deployment and denounced ulama who challenged the decision. In response to his efforts, the core elite appointed him grand mufti in July 1993. He was also given the presidency of the Senior Ulama Council and the Administration of Islamic Studies and Rulings (Kostiner and Teitelbaum 2000, 146). Bin Baz was known for writing the weekly al-Majalla, calling for obedience to the rulers (Kostiner and Teitelbaum 2000, 146). Following his death, in December of 1999, bin Baz’s deputy, Abd al-Aziz al-Sheikh was appointed grand mufti. Al-Sheikh continued to support the core elite’s viewpoint and refrained from any attempts at grasping political power. The core elite progressively gave preference to moderate, second-generation scholars who engaged in political quietism.
The ulama’s strength lies in their ability to share public opinion and mobilize the masses. Traditionally, they have been able to legitimize as well as delegitimize the royal family by providing or withdrawing support. At the same time, they are often coerced into championing the endeavors of the royal family, receiving rewards for endorsements and penalties for opposition. While the ulama had enjoyed a position of significant influence for ages, in October of 2002, following the September 11 attacks, the core elite decided that religion could no longer be solely managed by the ulama, and the senior ulama lost ground (Glossemeyer 2004, 153). The core elite began to make statements condemning those who abuse Islam and damage Saudi Arabia’s image abroad. In making such proclamations, the core elite were able to perpetuate the perception of the royal family being defenders of the faith and the king being the guardian of the two holy mosques, while simultaneously usurping some power from the ulama by assuming ownership of who defines Islam. “The religious, cultural, and historical reserves of Islam allow both legitimation and delegitimation of monarchy. It depends on who is doing the interpreting” (Halliday 2000, 292).
The past decade has seen many examples of the royal family’s attempts to reduce the ulama’s power. In 2001, Crown Prince Abdullah publicly warned the ulama to stop inciting radicalism. Abdullah’s statement, associating the ulama with extremism, discredited the religious scholars by tying them to an unacceptable, violent form of Islam. Additionally, when Sheikh Abdullah Al Turki, member of the Council of Senior Ulama and head of the Muslim World League, made a statement implying that the ulama viewed their position as equal partners in power with the royal family, Prince Talal bin Abd al-Aziz, member of the Royal Family Council, quickly responded to the comments, using the national media to explain that scholars are advisors to the ruler but do not rule themselves (Glossemeyer 2004, 154). What will now be examined is the negative affect that the 9/11 attacks had on the ulama’s position and the manner in which the event expedited the process of diminishing the religious scholars’ political relevance.
The Ulama Post 9/11
Following the Gulf War, the royal family’s legitimacy was called into question because foreign troops had been permitted to be stationed on Saudi soil. Many Saudis questioned why the royal family had spent so much money in the 1980s on U.S. weapons, only to plead for U.S. military defense because the Saudi military was not well trained to use all the equipment and weapons that had been purchased. While inside the Kingdom the ulama-controlled educational system promoted the evils of the West, after the Gulf War, the close relationship between the royal family and the U.S. government was exposed. Thus, the contradiction between a government that domestically defamed the U.S. but in foreign policy befriended them came to light. In order to regain its religious legitimacy, the royal family allowed for the promotion of even more dogmatic views in the educational system in order to reconcile with the ulama. “As they had done many times in their short history, when confronted with internal dissent, the Saudi rulers invariably compromised with religious authorities to strengthen Wahhabi influence in the Kingdom” (Posner 2005, 145).
There are some who believe that the concessions made to the ulama in the 1990s may have contributed to Saudi nationals constituting fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11 (Unger 2004). After 9/11, many Saudi citizens, as well as the royal family, began to reexamine the educational system and the ideas that were being ingrained in children from an early age. The Saudi government also began to fall under international pressure to make domestic educational reforms and crackdown on extremism. On May 22, 2002, in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. questioned its relationship with Saudi Arabia in the congressional meeting titled, ‘The future of U.S.-Saudi relations’ (United States. Congress. House. Committee on International Relations. Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia 2002). As recently as March 24, 2004, the U.S. Congress held a committee meeting titled, ‘Saudi Arabia and the fight against terrorism financing: hearing before the Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia’ (United States. Congress. House. Committee on International Relations. Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia 2004), and on November 8, 2005 a more poignant example of American feelings on Saudi involvement in propagating terror was demonstrated by a Senate meeting titled, ‘Saudi Arabia: friend or foe in the war on terror’ (United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary 2007). These meetings failed to place Saudi Arabia in a good light. In the theory of elite change, “Policy shifts are often externally induced, which may speed or otherwise affect elite change. Short of an inappropriate degree of force or outright war, however, such pressure will likely not succeed in bringing about a change in the political leadership of any country in the region” (Perthes 2004, 23). International pressure has not affected the royal family’s position, but has led to the demise of the ulama’s political status with both the international community and the House of Saud, who are beginning to view the ulama as risky partners.
In 2003, the Saudi government suspended 1,300 imams (prayer leaders). Three hundred fifty-three were sacked for extremist preaching, hundreds had their licenses withdrawn, and 1,000 clerics were sent for retraining (Posner 2005, 187). An article related to the dismissal of clerics mentioned that critics of the regime had said that the Saudi government turns a blind eye to preachers who encourage hatred of the West and identified that “the Islamic establishment in Saudi Arabia espouses a doctrine, known as Wahhabi Islam, that is not fundamentally different from the ideas embraced by Osama bin Laden and his followers” (Abdelhadi 2003). The tough handling of clerics was also a response to the domestic bombings that took place that year. Retraining of 40,000 more clerics was announced in March of 2008 (Abdelhadi 2008), suggesting that the difficulties that the Saudi government is having with the religious establishment are not close to over. The House of Saud’s clampdown on the religious community is clearly a response to the negative depiction by the international media of Saudi Arabia as a haven for extremist thought.
Even prior to the 2003 suspensions of radical religious figures, the international media exposed the terrifyingly uncompromising views of some members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. On March 11, 2002, it was reported that 14 girls died and more than 50 were injured at a girls’ public intermediary school in Mecca. A fire ripped through the school, but the girls were unable to escape the burning building because the school gate was locked. The gate was locked to ensure strict segregation of the sexes, but when the fire occurred, the male guard who held the key to the gate was nowhere to be found. When bystanders attempted to rescue the girls, members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice obstructed rescue attempts, beating back the girls because they were not wearing proper attire (HRW 2002). Later that month, cleric Ali bin Murshid el-Murshid was dismissed and his ministry, the Ministry of Education for Girls, was merged with the Ministry of Education (BBC News Online 2002). As previously discussed, in the early 1970s King Faisal had made a deal with the ulama to place women’s education under religious control. Thus, the two agencies had been separate for approximately thirty years. Removing women’s education from ulama control less than a year after 9/11 was significant in two respects. First, the action indicated that the Saudi government felt it could take no chances with international perception and that appearances on the world stage were more important to the regime than aggravating the ulama. Second, revoking the ulama’s authority over a prominent ministry signified a consequential shift in domestic policy.
The progressive decline of the ulama’s authority was exacerbated in October of 2007 when the Saudi government announced an overhaul of the judicial system. Under the remodeled framework, a supreme court and appeals court would be created, and new general courts were set to replace the existing Supreme Judicial Council. Historically, Saudi laws were, for the most part, not codified and judges were able to issue rulings based on their own interpretations of Islamic law using precedent. The judicial reforms constructed a systematized legal system.
Traditionally, defendants were not afforded legal representation nor did they have recourse to appeal rulings. Under the new system, appeals courts would act as safeguards. The decree establishes two supreme courts for the general courts and administrative courts, which would replace the Supreme Judicial Council. The Supreme Judicial Council would now be confined to reviewing administrative issues such as judge appointments and salaries (BBC News Online 2007). Specialized court circuits will handle commercial law, labor and personal status cases, and ministerial tribunals dealing with labor disputes will allow for an internationally-recognized process of appeal. The head of the Supreme Court will be appointed by the king. Many say that these new reforms will “chip away at the unchecked powers of the conservative clerics, who lead the judiciary” (BBC News Online 2007).
The Saudi royal family needs both domestic and international support to survive. While the government may be publicly distancing itself from the U.S. to preserve its image, its lack of a strong military, in conjunction with regional threats such as Iran questioning its legitimacy, leaves no indications that the Saudi government will sever its ties with its U.S. protector any time soon. However, the status of the ulama is increasingly coming into question.
According to Volker Perthes, “The relationship between elite change on the one hand and the regional and international relations of Arab states on the other has crosscutting effects: Elite change affects these relations, and external factors affect the composition and behavior of local elites” (Perthes 2004, 19). It appears that elite change may be occurring due to international pressures and negative perceptions which were exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks and the involvement of Saudi nationals. As the ulama become a greater liability, promoting ideas that may have contributed to terrorism both within the Kingdom and abroad, the royal family may be attempting to replace this now questionable body of support with one more moderate, relevant, and conducive to promoting a cohesive domestic and foreign policy.
In the past two decades, the Saudi government has engaged in a number of political reforms. Next, we will observe the political transformation that occurred under King Fahd and the manner in which new documents and institutions were utilized to perpetuate personal rule.
While King Faisal was known for economic and infrastructural modernization, the first prominent political reforms in the Kingdom were instituted under the reign of King Fahd. The reason for initiating these changes was partly to quell the growing oppositional voice that resulted from a backlash against the House of Saud, following the Gulf War, due to the presence of U.S. ‘infidel’ troops on Saudi soil. An additional purpose for the revisions, as in the case of the Supreme Economic Council, was to diminish the political relevance of the ulama and increase the political relevance of the business class.
In the 1990s, many sectors of the Saudi population were unhappy with the direction that the government was taking. There was opposition to the royal family’s close relations with and dependence on the United States, and a growing number of citizens desired a larger role in the political process. In December of 1990, amid the tension caused by the anticipated war in Iraq, 43 academics, writers, businessmen and government officials of religious as well as liberal leanings circulated a petition appealing to the king for a revision of political and legal institutions. Their requests included the systemization of fatwas, the establishment of a consultative council, the creation of a basic law of governance and a revival of municipal councils, a reform of the judicial system, placing limitations on the activities of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice, and allotting greater freedoms for women within the framework of Shari’a (Kramer 2000, 263). This unprecedented petition emerged from secular segments of society demanding greater political freedoms and political liberalization.
The 1990 secular petition was followed by a religious petition, The Letter of Demands, signed by members of the ulama community and presented to the monarch. This May 1991 petition, at the end of the Gulf War, was signed by 400 ulama demanding the establishment of a Majlis al-shura (Consultative Council), an end to the royal family’s as well as the elite families’ economic monopoly, and the ceasing of nepotism in government. The ulama challenged the royal family’s foreign and military policies stating that they were not Islamic and that the royal family’s deportment was not in line with Shari’a (Kostiner and Teitelbaum 2000, 142).
Dated July 1992 and published in September of 1992, more than one hundred lower level ulama, including faculty of Islamic universities, proselytizers, imams, and khatibs (preachers), published the Memorandum of Advice, which reiterated the concerns of the earlier petition and criticized the government for not consulting the ulama in commercial, military and economic areas. It directly challenged senior ulama for failing to enforce religious law and requested more Islamic programming as well as more access to media overseen by a body of ulama (Kostiner and Teitelbaum 2000, 142-3). Additionally, the petition insisted on justice and equality for all Saudi citizens before the law, the establishment of a consultative council, a strict application of Islamic law, and the abolition of all non-Islamic laws and decrees, dues, and taxes. The Memorandum of Advice called for a revision of all treaties with non-Muslim and non-Islamic governments and security policies geared toward Muslim states and Muslim interests (Kramer 2000, 264). Many signatories to the Memorandum were members of an alliance called the Awakening Sheikhs, a group of imams born in the 1950s that set out to challenge the core elite.
For decades, Saudi rulers insisted that no constitution was needed because the Qur’an and the Sunnah (sayings of the Prophet) were the law of the land. However, on March 1, 1992 King Fahd introduced the Basic Law of Government. While not an actual constitution, the Basic Law was the closest the country had ever come to one. The Consultative Council Law (Royal Decree No. A/91, dated 27-8-1412) (al-Farsy 2001, 180) and the Law of the Provinces was established in concomitance with the Basic Law. Representing major political developments for Saudi Arabia, the Consultative Council, the restructuring of the Kingdom’s Regional Government, which led to municipal elections, and the introduction of the Basic Law all coincided with the 10th anniversary of King Fahd’s reign.
The Basic Law has a pretense of being fixed, but the nature of authoritarian rule is that institutions can be bypassed and the ruler’s political decisions are not bound by law. Thus, while the Basic Law was a peace offering to various opposition groups and helped to alter the face of authoritarian rule, in terms of changing the governing political structure it was insignificant. As a whole, these new laws formally established the king’s right to appoint all those who influence decision-making on both the national and regional levels. While it may initially appear that the government is extending more political power to the people, what is actually occurring is the state’s utilization of new political documents and institutions to consolidate authority and renegotiate the rankings of who falls within the higher echelons of the politically relevant elite. The following segment will outline the growing relationship between the House of Saud and the business class and the significance of the business elite’s increasing influence.
The Emerging Business Class: Unseating the Ulama
The 1973-74 oil embargo caused a large increase in oil prices, allowing Saudi Arabia to enjoy unprecedented wealth and permitting the government to extend social services, build infrastructure, and increase the population’s dependence on the state and its resources. Saudi society was transformed by the oil boom. In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia earned $225 billion from oil, which was more than $60,000 per capita, and in 1980 alone, oil income was $95 billion (Quandt 1981, vii). The oil boom intensified the rentier character of the Saudi state.
The nature of a rentier economy is that a group or class may form consisting of those who profit from the beneficence of the government, often in exchange for loyalty to the regime. Rent accrues to the government, not to individuals, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, where there is no distinction between the prince’s purse and public funds, the royal family was able to control the distribution of funds to influence government contracts and employment. The government sector was responsible for as much as two thirds of GDP (as expenditures) (Ayubi 1999, 225). Thus, the House of Saud was able to use oil revenues to consolidate its power through its dominion over the redistribution of state wealth. Oil promotes social mobility, but “also consolidates the role of the traditional elites who have the right to allocate most of the society’s financial resources” (Ayubi 1999, 225).
Citizens who were co-opted by the regime’s oil wealth and prospered as members of the affluent elite included tribal nobility, those in the close circle of royalty, some of the old merchant families, a class of commercially successful, educated Saudis, and Western-educated technocrats who also entered the business domain. Some of the families that dominated the commercial scene in Saudi Arabia and benefited from the largesse of the royal family were the Jufalis, Alirezas, al Rajhis, al Khashoqjis, al-Uliyans, and bin Ladens (Fandy 1999, 30). Throughout the history of Saudi Arabia, merchant families have had strong ties with the royal family and have even held government positions, particularly in areas related to the economy. The Alirezas have a tradition of political involvement in the Kingdom from Muhammad Alireza, Minster of Commerce in the 1950s, to Abdullah Zainal Alireza, who has served as head of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry as well as Minister of State and Commerce and Industry Minister (Alireza 2008). However, families such as the bin Ladens and Alirezas lack Saudi tribal connections, originating from Yemen and Iran respectively. While these families are economically powerful, they do not pose a political threat to the regime in a country that places a high value on tribal descent.
Saudi government is characterized by personal, authoritarian rule. Hence, the leader is all imposing and authority is based on his ability to successfully engage in co-optation and consultation, patronage, agreement and accord. Personal rulers practice clientalism in patron-client relationships “that bind leaders and followers in relationships not only for mutual assistance and support, but also recognized and accepted inequality between big men and lesser men” (Jackson and Rosberg 1982, 39). For clientalism to be successful there must be weak institutionalized and highly personalized government, pluralistic societies, and particularistic cultures. Another mode of support for the leader is loyalty based on ethnic or kindred bonds. When a ruler cannot rely solely on loyalty he looks to stronger patronage policies.
Oil rent has allowed the royal family to further consolidate its power by extending its patron-client relationship with the business and merchant elites. Those who have allied with the regime have been awarded large contracts. The Saudi Bin Laden Group was founded by Muhammad ‘Awad bin Laden, who emigrated from Yemen as a specialist in construction. Slowly building his fortune both in and outside of Saudi Arabia and establishing his relationship with the House of Saud, Muhammad bin Laden created a billion dollar business empire around engineering, construction, manufacturing, and telecommunications. While oil rent has increased clientalism, the patron-client relationship between the regime and the merchant and business classes can be traced back before the oil embargo. Two of the most prominent contracts that the Saudi Bin Laden Group won were the exclusive responsibility for the restoration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which they had until 1967, and the expansion of the holy places in Mecca, which is still a work in progress. More recently, in 2005 the company was among a consortium charged with building the $26.6 billion King Abdullah Economic City. Clientalism hinders democratic reform and contributes to the longevity of authoritarian rule by using discretionary patronage to build a loyal base of support and weaken the opposition. Thus, the patronage offered to business elites ensures both their allegiance and their acceptance of the current political order.
In the past two decades, the political power of the business elite has increased significantly through the creation of the Consultative Council and the Supreme Economic Council. While the Consultative Council lacks legislative power, the king’s decision to increase its numbers twice in nine years indicates that the core elite recognize the utility of this body, particularly as a means by which to manage coalitions of support and maintain the status quo.
Established by King Fahd in August 1992, with Justice Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Ibrahim bin Jubeir as its first speaker (al-Farsy 2001, 182), the Consultative Council acts as an advisory body to the government and the king. The Council gives a voice and more influence in the decision-making process to the growing professional class. Members of the Council may review domestic and foreign policy issues as well as initiate legislation. They can also summon and question government ministers. However, any government action not approved by the Council is referred back to the king. The Council has yet to attain lawmaking powers. While major ulama and merchant families are included in the Council, descendants of Ibn Saud are excluded. The king selects the members of the Council every four years and for each term, half of the members must be newly appointed. In 1997, the king increased the number of Council members from 60 to 90 and in 2001 the number grew again to 120 members. The creation of the Council “illustrated that the core elite’s strategy of dealing with the growing number of highly qualified Saudi nationals who might challenge the family’s political and social position was one of appeasement and co-optation” (Glossemeyer 2004, 159-60).
Discussions that take place in the Council provide the core elite with a window into the general population and assist the royal family in identifying potential challengers. The Council also allows the core elite a chance to influence public discourse and aid in national integration efforts, such as the 1993 appointment of a Shi’i member. The Consultative Council acts as a formalization of the traditional majlis and a channel for political communication between the new politically relevant business and professional class and the royal family (Fandy 1999, 41). Not only does it provide a forum for policies to be tested, but it also allots more political power to a growing, economically relevant social class. The constitution of the Council demonstrates the core elite’s dexterity in manipulating and engineering shifts within the politically relevant elite.
One of the most important aspects of the establishment of the Consultative Council is its relevance to elite change. “The establishment of the CC exemplifies the core elite’s strategy toward second and third-circle elites, as the council supplemented and even had the potential to inherit the function of legitimizing the core elite’s policies, heretofore held by the Council of Senior Ulama, thus reducing the core elite’s dependence on the religious elite. That the council’s presidency was reserved for the ulama could be seen as a kind of compensation” (Glossemeyer 2004, 159-60). The formation of the Consultative Council allows the royal family to reduce its dependence on the ulama while promoting a new class of business elite to legitimize its policies.
In August 1999, the business elite’s influence was further increased when a thirteen-member Supreme Economic Council (SEC) was created. Chaired by Crown Prince Abdullah and Prince Sultan, the SEC brought together representatives from various ministries and agencies and provided the new class of business elite with access to the core elite. Acting as a consultative body to represent the business class, the SEC united the government and the economic establishment in a manner that allowed for greater interaction between the two parties. The actualization of the Council signified the Saudi government’s acknowledgment of the economic community’s importance and their crucial role in the future of the country.
In searching for moderate supporters whose aims do not threaten the present political order, the Saud’s have settled on the business elite. Islamists have pressured the government to politically liberalize and relinquish more power to the religious elite. The institutionalized ulama have been vying to maintain their status, but have become a political liability because of their extremist, anti-Western views, which have inspired Islamist political terrorism committed by Saudi citizens both domestically and abroad. With their lack of political ambition and their contributions to economic development, the business elite are acquiring an increasingly louder voice in determining state economic policy and are approaching the inner circles of the politically relevant elite. According to Volker Perthes, “As a matter of fact, democracy is not high on the agenda of any group of actors that otherwise are forces pushing for change. Businesspeople in most Arab countries have become vocal in demanding economic reform and liberalization. As mentioned, however, they have in most cases abstained from openly calling for political liberalization, let alone democratization” (Perthes 2004, 26).
The business elite comprise merchants, technocrats, and an emerging middle class who gained education and opportunities from the rentier economy intensified by the oil boom. Many lack strong tribal alliances and rely completely on the regime for their economic and political power. Because their survival is tied to the regime, they neither demand nor want democratization, preferring economic liberalization and a say in economic policy. “The Saudi merchants are in many ways captives of the regime, for it is inconceivable that they could fare as well under any alternative regime, and chances are they would do much worse” (Shaw and Long 1982, 78). Thus, the business elite are content with the political arrangement that ensures their status. The business class is the new ideal group from whom the royal family can co-opt support through the distribution of oil wealth in their direction in the form of lucrative contracts. Conversely, the ulama are no longer an attractive community with which to ally.
New Economic Initiatives
Saudi Arabia’s 2005 accession into the World Trade Organization (WTO), as its 149th member, contributed to a move toward development and privatization. The WTO required the Kingdom to adopt the organization’s legislation in its entirety and liberalize currently restricted sectors. As early as 2002, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was urging Saudi Arabia to speed up reform and to strengthen its oil-dependent, volatile economy (BBC News Online 2002).
In June of 2006, Saudi Arabian Minister of State, Abdullah Zainal Alireza, made a speech stating, “Saudi Arabia is experiencing a transition from public to private sector growth and its strategy for achieving balanced development through privatization is founded upon building an effective public-private partnership. Its objectives are straightforward and designed to enhance human resource development, to diversify government revenue sources away from an overwhelming dependence on the oil sector, to promote privatization of government owned entities, to use the private sector to enhance the bureaucratic efficiency and effectively controlling the public sector…In order to pursue these ambitious economic initiatives Saudi Arabia remains committed to building an ever more dynamic free market economy” (Saudi-US Relations Information Services Online 2008). The current economic reforms in Saudi Arabia are reminiscent of economic restructuring in Egypt where, beginning in the 1970s, the Washington consensus, IMF, and World Bank pressed for neo-liberal reforms and privatization. In order to participate in these internationally renowned organizations and enjoy their benefits, according to the international community, Saudi Arabia must reform its economy. Thus, as the Saudi economy takes a new direction, the importance and power of the business elite increases drastically.
Egypt: A Case Study in Political and Economic Transformation
The Egyptian political and economic transition serves as a key comparison to the case of Saudi Arabia. Both the Saudi and Egyptian regimes implemented tactics of replacing old, politically relevant groups with economically knowledgeable business elites to form a new support system to maintain authoritarian rule. In both cases, economic liberalization was promoted, particularly due to prompting from the IMF and World Bank, but real political reform failed to take place. What can be learned is that the endurance of authoritarian rulers lies in their ability to adapt through transforming policies, political structures, and alliances.
The socioeconomic polices implemented by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s formed a social contract between the state and the masses. The basis for Nasser’s legitimacy lay in his ability to raise the standard of living of the working class and peasants. However, under President Anwar Sadat, a shift from economic nationalism and populist social policies to state-led development occurred. Sadat’s 1974 Infitah (open door) economic policy led to little economic structural change and even less democratization. “The aim of political liberalization was to encourage foreign capital investment in Egypt, and to rearrange ties and alliances in order to form the broadest possible front for the encirclement of Nasserist and socialist trends” (Kassem 2004, 53). Thus, liberalization was a façade created to improve Egypt’s economic situation, as Sadat had inherited an underdeveloped economy in debt. Nasser’s objective of income-redistribution conflicted with the economic need to increase investment and expand industry, and Sadat was left with a crisis of import-substitution industrialization and state-led development.
The Washington consensus in conjunction with the IMF and World Bank “began to promote a neo-liberal program of export-led development, private enterprise, and integration into the world capitalist market” (Beinin 2001, 145). Inconveniently, stabilization and structural adjustment called for a reduction in state subsidies, which led to worker uprisings. While Sadat portrayed himself as more liberal than Nasser, he created Law 3 in 1977, which allowed the government to punish strikers and imprison them with hard labor.
When Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981, he refused to further reduce state subsidies because the policy led to political instability. However, after Egypt’s participation in the Gulf War led to a new agreement with the IMF and debt forgiveness, Egypt began to actively engage in privatization of state-owned enterprises and eliminated Nasser-era job security and striking abilities. Sadat had redistributed land upward and Mubarak continued the trend with national income being redistributed to self-employed individuals and corporations. He also implemented the law 96 land reforms. While Nasser’s land reforms were “intended to break any political opposition to the revolution from the ancien regime’s pasha class” (Bush 2002, 9), and populist policies were meant to gain the support of the masses, Mubarak’s law 96 served to reverse course. Law 96 of 1992 redistributed land upward, and robbed tenants of their tenure security. “Unlike Nasser’s legislation, which drew its strength and legitimacy from trying to redress the economic disparity between landholders and the political power that large landowners wielded, Mubarak’s legislation has rewarded the economic strength of landlords with increased financial and social power” (Bush 2002, 18).
Mubarak’s land reform was necessary because the IMF’s calls to cut government subsidies broke the social contract, established under Nasser, between the government and the people that allowed for the leader’s personal rule to be sustained through mass support from the peasants and working class. With the government unable to maintain populist policies of subsidies, this redistribution of land allowed Mubarak to consolidate authoritarian rule through shifting patronage from the masses to a small, economically influential elite. This redistribution of income was sanctioned by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). “The legitimacy of the regimes and the extent of popular tolerance for authoritarian rule depended on making substantial progress towards this goal [of providing for the masses]” (Beinin 2001, 139). When the government could no longer gain legitimacy through populist means, it turned to faux democratization, economic liberalization, and a manipulated rule of law. Thus, the purpose of Egypt’s economic reform and shift from Arab socialism to economic liberalization under the Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Program (ERSAP) was to bring the country out of debt, gain the patronage of a foreign superpower, the U.S., through cosmetic reforms and political acquiescence in terms of the Arab/Israeli conflict, and renegotiate the contract of control from patronage to and support from the masses, which proved to be too expensive, to a more sustainable patronage to and support from a small, powerful elite. Joel Beinin argues that “the imposition of the Washington consensus policies was accompanied by significant further repression and a decline in political freedom” (Beinin 2001, 165), and Maye Kassem elaborates writing, “A more common trend has emerged in which increased repression by specific authoritarian regimes is directly and indirectly encouraged by their Western democratic patrons” (Kassem 2004, 178).
In the case of Egypt, economic policies from Nasser to Mubarak were implemented to solidify the authoritarian system. Economic transition and liberalization has not led to real democratization and serves to reinforce the status quo. These types of reforms are not meant to lead to political liberalization and will not be fully implemented if they pose a threat to the authoritarian system. However, economic liberalization does promote the political and social status of the business elites who are often accepting of the regime that provides them patronage. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are pursuing a policy of projecting an aura of political reform while transforming coalitions of support to maintain personal rule.
There is little international pressure on Arab states to reform politically. According to Volker Perthes, “The United States as well as the European Union will be content if new, friendly Arab regimes and regime elites do exactly what they have placed at the top of their agenda – modernize their economies and their administrations while refraining from risking domestic and regime stability and well-established international relations by putting themselves and the systems as such to a sudden democratic test of popularity. In fact, many governments, while often deploring the lack of democracy in Arab countries, have appreciated the continuity inspired by authoritarianism in the Arab world” (Perthes 2004, 27-8). The dichotomy of a country with a democratic initiative that supports an authoritarian regime is not extraordinary. The first rule of realism in international relations theory is that “individuals are organized in states, each of which acts in a unitary way in pursuit of its national interest, defined in terms of power” (Mingst 2003, 67). As long as authoritarian regimes engage in economic liberalization, lubricating the path to greater trade, many Western nations are satisfied.
The House of Saud’s survival is contingent on its ability to maintain the patronage of a foreign superpower, in this case the United States, manage supporting coalitions and alliances domestically, and perpetuate personal rule through control of economic resources. In the past, the Saudi government has been able to separate domestic and foreign policy, manipulating both to its advantage. However, the actuality of a political strategy that engenders conflicting domestic and foreign policies has been impossible to sustain. The negative affects that U.S.-Saudi relations had on domestic stability following the Gulf War have already been discussed. Counterpoising these internal problems, after 9/11 Saudi domestic policy has also been under international scrutiny. With U.S. senate committee meetings questioning Saudi Arabia’s position on terrorism, the House of Saud is particularly under fire for its failure to control the preaching of extremist imams and its anti-Western curricula in an educational system run by the ulama. The Saudi government may be attempting to amend its image on the international stage through a reconfiguration of its political relationships.
The ulama, once nationally revered, were co-opted by the House of Saud to act as a rubber stamp for the royal family’s policies. Now that the newly formed Islamist movements question not only the legitimacy of the royal family, but also the credibility of the ulama who support the monarchy, the ulama’s effectiveness in fulfilling their function has diminished. At the same time, the Saud’s cannot gain religious legitimacy from the ever-growing number of Islamists without relinquishing a substantive amount of political power to a group that is not only ultra conservative and unwilling to religiously validate the government’s political decisions, but is also calling for a constitutional government.
As it becomes an increasingly difficult task to attain religious legitimacy, the House of Saud is seeking other means of support. Similar to the case of Egypt, where law 96 was enacted to change Mubarak’s political base of support from the masses to a smaller group of economic elite, the Saudi monarchy is attempting to slowly reduce the influence of the ulama and increase the political relevance of the business class in order to reshuffle the order of politically relevant elite that undergird its domestic alliances. This business class will serve to move the nation forward economically and will not counter the government with demands for increased political power, as the business elite are dependent on the contracts from and largesse of the royal family who control the oil wealth.
In Saudi Arabia, the political reforms of the past two decades hold a two-fold function. First, with a lot of fanfare and little real political change, they temporarily quiet the growing calls for political liberalization that were shouted with loud voices domestically and whispered from abroad. Second, these reforms serve as a new mask for the old face of authoritarianism. The longevity of an authoritarian regime is partly determined by its ability to be a chameleon. Maye Kassem eloquently expresses this concept in her discussion of Egyptian politics: “The adoption of a formal democratic framework does not necessarily imply a change in the fundamental nature of authoritarian rule. In fact, personalized authoritarian rule can prove to be so overtly flexible and resilient, that it can function over a long period of time, with successive rulers, and under the guise of various political structures and policies” (Kassem 2004, 167).
Because the ulama have become a political liability, the Saudi government has used its greater autonomy, derived from oil wealth, to dismantle the authority of the ulama and extend more political power to the business elite, who are more interested in economic liberalization than political reform. The creation of the Consultative Council, the Supreme Economic Council, and a restructuring of the judicial system, among other reforms, do not indicate political liberalization, but function as a pretext for a new form of authoritarianism. Under the new structure, the business class will become a more politically relevant elite class, entering the intermediate elite circle, and the ulama will be relegated to a less politically relevant status, somewhere between the intermediate elite and subelite circles. The composition of the regime’s supporting coalition is vital to its sustenance. The Saudi monarchy has demonstrated remarkable adaptability and foresightedness in its slow and calculated restructuring of its partnerships. It is the alliance shift away from the ulama, who have become a political impediment, and a turn toward the business elite, who offer economic growth and political compliance, that will ensure the continuity of the House of Saud.
Kira D. Baiasu holds an M.A. in Middle East Studies from the American University in Cairo.