Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Madawi Al-Rasheed (MAR): This is a multi-disciplinary edited book, with contributors exploring the challenges facing Saudi Arabia under the leadership of newly crowned King Salman ibn Abdulaziz (who assumed the throne following the death of Abdullah in 2015). In the introduction of the book, I introduce the domestic, regional, and international pressures facing the new leadership. To begin with, King Salman is in his eighties. Soon after taking the thrown, the aging monarch quickly reordered the existing horizontal line of succession into a vertical line, a move that benefitted his son Muhammad (who was swiftly elevated to the position of crown price), but angered the few surviving sons of the founder of the kingdom, Ibn Saud, who were eligible to become kings under the previous horizontal model of succession.

This historical moment arrived at a time when Saudi Arabia was still under the shock of the 2011 Arab uprisings that threatened the status quo, both domestically and regionally. While the kingdom did not witness the same level of mobilization and protest akin to other Arab countries, many Saudis were invigorated by the images of protesters in Arab capitals, and many activists appeared in the streets of the Eastern province, Qasim, and Riyadh. They did not demand regime change but focused their attention on the plight of political prisoners and the inadequacy of the welfare services, government bureaucracy, and unemployment. A new wave of repression followed, forcing many activists to flee the country. A nascent civil society and women’s movement demanded political participation and empowerment. Unfortunately, these young movements faced repression, and the activists ended up in detention.

Moreover, the sharp decrease in oil prices since 2014 meant that the leadership was not able to maintain the level of spending on welfare service as before. King Salman and his son introduced a reform package that was meant to lessen the country’s dependence on oil, diversity the economy, and increase employment opportunities. Social reforms included lifting the ban on women’s driving and allowing them greater visibility. However, political reform continued to be neglected, thus creating the semblance of openness and tolerance without undermining the old structures of power and exclusion.

There is also the thorny question of religious reform, especially after Saudi Arabia’s religious tradition, namely Wahhabiyya, came under fire again, as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria appeared to be inspired by the Saudi version of Islam.

Regionally, Saudi Arabia emerged after 2011 as a counter-revolutionary force, desperately trying to return to the status quo ante in places like Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen. The level of violence around the kingdom intensified as a result of the turning of the uprisings into sectarian civil wars. Saudi interventions in Bahrain and Yemen had stated objectives, amongst them is to curb Iranian expansion in the Arab region.

King Salman also faced the challenge of mending relations with the US after the relationship went through a troubled period under the Obama administration. While continuing to develop new ties with China and the Far East, the king’s main occupation was to court President Donald Trump and secure his support for the Saudi regime.

These are the challenges that the book addresses with a view to move beyond the very pessimistic or the very optimistic perspectives that dominate most discussions about the kingdom and its future.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MAR: First, there is the theoretical positions that assure readers about the stability of the Saudi regime. In this literature, the kingdom is portrayed as an island of stability in a turbulent Arab world. Its regional interventions, for example in Bahrain and Yemen, are seen as a stabilizing force, maintaining security. Yet, there is another literature that forecasts doom and destruction as it anticipates the Saudi regime to wither away very soon.

I try to position the book in between these two approaches and critically assess the challenges facing the kingdom in both the short and long terms. Equally, contributors to the volume refrain from directly addressing the question about the durability of the Saudi regime. Instead, they explore the political, social, religious, and economic obstacles that may undermine stability.

Therefore, readers should not expect quick and easy conclusions. They are invited to reach their own conclusions after assessing empirical evidence and analysis that is offered by the experienced authors of the chapters in the book.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MAR: Although this is an edited volume, I continue to explore in my introduction and my own chapter the dynamic of succession that I have dealt with in previous publications. I take a historical perspective to highlight continuities and discontinuities in the transfer of power from one king to another. I also discuss a new approach to studying political rumors, especially those that circulated around the time King Salman made several shuffles at the very high level of leadership. He sacked several senior princes and promoted his son to the top leadership. Applying a political anthropological approach to the study of rumors, I considered them an attempt to insert disenfranchised populations in the political narrative of the kingdom. With the widespread use of social media and the silencing of open critical voices, Saudis produced an unusual phenomenon in the character of the famous Mujtahid. Mujtahid is a popular anonymous source of information that kept forecasting news about royal intrigues. He became so famous that most international media followed his statements and predictions. Most his predictions were initially considered nothing but “fake news,” but they all came true, especially the sacking of Minister of Interior and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, the detention of National Guard Commander Miteb bin Abdullah, and many other princes.

Other chapters build on contributors’ long research interest in Saudi Arabia. This book includes contributions from Gregory Gause to Stephen Hertog, to new scholars such as Nora Duaiji, Sultan al-Amer, and Cole Bunzel, and covers topics such as new perspectives on the Saudi economic future, regime stability, urban dissent, ideological affinity to the Islamic State,  the gender movement, and relations with China, among other topics, are covered in the book.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MAR: The book should primarily appeal to specialists on Saudi Arabia and an informed readership among policymakers, journalists, and non-government organizations. Although all contributors are political scientists, economists, historians, and international relations experts, the book is written in accessible language free of jargon.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MAR: I am working on several aspects of the so-called transformation of Saudi Arabia under the new leadership of King Salman and his son. I have an interest in the new “fun” (concerts, theater, and cinema), all promoted as the face of a modern and “normal” Saudi Arabia. I am also working on the new Saudi nationalism that is meant to replace the old religious nationalism of the Wahhabi movement to turn Saudis into modern homo economicus.


Excerpt from the Book:

Introduction: The Dilemmas of a New Era (Madawi Al-Rasheed)

King Salman began his rule in 2015 with a series of unprecedented challenges. From leadership shuffles and falling oil prices to regional and international upheaval, he faced new dilemmas. This book focuses on this era and provides analysis of previous troublesome historical episodes and contemporary challenges. Although King Salman is old and looks frail, he has brought in several measures to deal with succession issues, the oil crisis, the Arab uprisings, regional rivalries with Iran and other troublesome Arab and Gulf neighbours, reached out to Asia to seek new opportunities, and finally mended relations with the USA under President Donald Trump. Whether his policies, viewed over a very short period – just over two years at the time of writing this introduction – have saved the kingdom from serious upheaval is yet to be seen, but no doubt that a new kingdom is emerging, rightly referred to in the title of this volume, Salman’s Legacy, as a result of his actions. However, Salman’s kingdom – or that of his son – may not be so drastically different from previous incarnations, as there are continuities and historical precedents to some but not all the decisions that Salman and his young son Muhammad have made since 2015. This book is an attempt to provide historical depth and insights into the contemporary challenges that Salman’s kingdom has faced, and is likely to continue to face, in the near future.

Since its creation in 1932, the Saudi regime continues to divide opinions. Among analysts and scholars, speculations about its resilience or imminent collapse remain abundant. But so far it is managing to hold on to power amidst two contradictory narratives. At one end of the spectrum there is a narrative that highlights its resilience and ability to contain shock and challenges at different historical moments.[1] In contrast, at the opposite end there is the story of the imminent collapse of the house of Saud, and even the fragmentation of the kingdom into smaller entities along sectarian and regional lines.[2] But the truth about Saudi Arabia may actually lie between these two scenarios. The triumphalist tone of the first narrative needs to be assessed against the wishful thinking that underlies the second one. In between, observers map the consequences of the collapse, described as potentially cataclysmic.[3]

Based on new research that moves beyond the two diametrically opposed narratives, contributors in this volume engage with Saudi history, contemporary social, political, and economic challenges, and foreign relations. The rich and nuanced studies offer a balanced understanding of the country and sophisticated interpretations of its domestic, regional, and international choices that may appear to outsiders as shrouded in secrecy and speculation. Several contributors engage in diachronic analysis that uncovers the recent past but also identify continuities and discontinuities emerging from both leadership and societal changes. While the contributors may not agree with each other on all matters related to Saudi Arabia – in fact, a few are critical of each other’s work – they nevertheless engage in conversations that generate a better and balanced understanding of the country, its political dynamics, religious tradition, and new directions in its foreign policy. The value of an edited volume is enriched by the potential inherent both in the contrasting views of the contributors and in their criticisms of each other’s work in ways that enhance understanding of the subject.

Observers who draw attention to the challenges facing the kingdom rightly list numerous problems that may undermine future stability. In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings in 2011 the kingdom is often believed to face several domestic concerns that need to be immediately addressed. The rivalry between disgruntled princes, the demographic youth bulge, the new class of educated women, the terrorists, the radical Wahhabi preachers, the aspiring middle classes, the marginalized poor, the unemployment crisis, the repressed minorities, and more recently the dramatic fall in oil prices are often among the list of potential structural problems that the kingdom will have to deal with sooner or later.

In addition, the advent of the internet and new communication technology from Twitter to Facebook are believed to open new avenues of dissent and resistance. Monitoring Saudi users of the new social media allows commentators to map and assess opinions that circulate widely and reach all citizens inside and outside the country. The new voices that are now heard in the virtual sphere are unusual in a country with no experience of an open and free press. Tapping into the voices of dissent among both men and women, even though the most critical remain virtual, points to a changing public sphere where Saudis assess the performance of their leadership and dare to launch criticism of their shortcomings online. They request more rights and entitlements, from women’s driving campaigns to demands for better infrastructure in cities.

Since the Arab uprisings most virtual Saudi campaigns have focused on local demands for higher government salaries, and better welfare services such as health facilities, education, and housing.[4] Other campaigns have had overtly regional political objectives – for example, criticizing Saudi intervention against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in 2013, or the increase in subsidies to other monarchies such as Morocco and Jordan, or in 2017 the rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But the corruption of government officials and the confiscation of land by senior princes remain topics hotly debated in the virtual world among active Saudi citizens with YouTube clips spreading news about local demonstrations, sit-ins, and resistance. Since the Arab uprisings women’s rights issues, especially lifting the ban on women driving and abolishing the male guardian requirement, have attracted a lot of attention among local women, as well as in the international community.[5] Those who predict trouble in the kingdom often point out that the combination of economic, political, and social problems on the one hand and more active citizenry on the other is likely to produce serious internal upheaval in the future.

Madawi Al-Rasheed, ed.,  Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).