One of the clear analytical distinctions that could be made about the “Arab Spring” (2011-2014) was the marked stability of monarchial regimes—as opposed to “dynastic republics” (gumrukiyah) like Egypt, Syria, and Libya—in the Arab world. Eddies of the wave of rebellion that swept many of the Arab republics touched on Jordan and Morocco, but gained little traction (except in Bahrain, the newest Arab kingdom, whose challenges from its majority Shia population are different in kind).
Saudi Arabia is a stellar example of the truth of this generalization. For many years, for those who closely follow Middle Eastern politics, Saudi politics were an occasionally interesting but generally arid and glacial process. The country’s politics could be summed up as a gerontocracy of exquisite checks and balances between the dozens of sons of Ibn Saud, the founder of the third Saudi state, from his various wives, with the kingship passing from one son to the next. Their legitimacy and stability was buttressed by the fundamentalist religious establishment, and the state apparatus functioned to a large extent to facilitate the excesses of the sprawling royal family. This was all funded by the great wealth generated by the world’s largest oil reserves, which enabled the Kingdom to have great influence when it chose: since 2005, in Lebanese politics and since 2011, in Syrian politics. While challenges have arisen over the years from the Shia minority in the Eastern part of the Kingdom, they never posed a real threat to the survival of the regime. For decades, change in this incredibly stable system was anticipated only when the “rule by brothers” would eventually end, and the “generation of the grandsons” would begin.
The harbinger of this long-anticipated change in generations took place in April 2015 when King Salman appointed Mohammad bin Nayef—a member of the third generation and the grandson of Ibn Saud—Crown Prince, the second most powerful position in the Kingdom and for much of its history, the de facto day-to-day monarch, in place of Prince Muqrin, the latter’s brother. Salman also appointed his own son, Mohammad bin Salman—the Minister of Defense and the architect of the intervention in Yemen—as Deputy Crown Prince (second in line to the throne). This June, Salman replaced bin Nayef with bin Salman. The Saudi “Great Leap Forward” picked up steam.
Many explanations have been given for the surprising and unprecedented (since the coup of 1964, at least) move this week against powerful members of the royal family. But many of them are tactical, and the explanations which see a significant cause in the Iranian threat should be taken with a grain of salt. The Iranian threat has riveted the Saudi leadership since 1979, but it does not seem to have qualitatively changed in the past year, and in any case has little bearing on the internecine politics of the Saudi royal family.
Rather, the generational shift of 2015 led to a release of political and social energy which had been bottled up for decades by the consensus rule of conservative septuagenarians and octogenarians. The change also occurred on the background of the elemental forces and changes released in 2011with the Arab Spring. In conjunction with the lackluster response and effort of the U.S. in the region, Saudi Arabia was pushed into an unaccustomed, overt leading role in the Middle East. The two Prince Mohammads led, to a very large degree, the country in its newfound role in the region. The urge for change and renewal, for a paradigmatic shift which would “shock and awe” the opposition within the regime, and for the new generation to quickly make its mark (supported by King Salman, who at 81, and understanding that he is the last king of the old order, may also feel this need) has, it seems, been enabled by the anti-status quo rhetoric and disposition of President Donald Trump, and his lack of concern for the internal hygiene of friendly governments.
For the past year and a half, Saudi Arabia has consistently been in the news with dramatic developments of the type never seen in the Kingdom: the plan to restructure and diversify the economy (including the well-publicized launch of a new economic zone called NEOM); the decision to take Aramco public (and then the reports of second thoughts); the economic war on Qatar; the granting permission for women to drive; the restrictions of the arrest powers of the religious police; the creation of an anti-corruption council under bin Salman (to ostensibly root out behavior that is the very essence of Saudi politics); and most recently, the moves by the Crown Prince against other princes in the Royal Family (in one way, these have all served Saudi Arabia well, as they have forced up the price of oil).
The key to the Saudi regime’s stability and longevity—but also to its inertia and lifelessness—has been its internal conservatism (including its grounding in religious fundamentalism), its ponderousness, and its frozen politics and society. The most hidebound country in the Middle East has provided in an incredibly short time its most sweeping changes in the past five years. Hopefully, Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward will not carry it, through Salman’s and Mohammad’s own actions, into the abyss.