Madawi Al-Rasheed, The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia (Hurst Publisher and Oxford University Press, 2020). 

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

Madawi Al-Rasheed (MAR): The book is an attempt to understand a central tension in Saudi society since the rise of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Muhammad. From 2017, both the King and the Crown Prince began to introduce social reforms such as allowing women to drive, abolishing certain aspects of the guardianship system, increasing women’s employment, and making moves towards greater social liberalisation. They both promised to return Saudi Arabia to its ‘pristine moderate Islam by curbing the powers of the religious scholars and police. Economically, there was also the promise to expand employment, diversify the economy, and even privatise the oil company Aramco. The Prince promised to open Saudi Arabia to international capital, live entertainment, and tourism. There was a sense euphoria as the leadership promised a new Saudi utopia—not only in the country, but also to return Saudi Arabia to its influence globally and regionally. Western observers, governments, and journalists hailed the prince as a great reformer with an evolutionary vision to transform Saudi Arabia from a “closed conservative” nation to an open society. This was the dominant narrative for almost three years between 2015 and 2018.

Since the rise of the new crown prince, I began to adopt a critical assessment of the top-down revolutionary change as I documented the increasing number of young Saudis seeking asylum abroad and the shocking number of detainees inside the country. Most of the detainees were professionals, writers, feminists, religious activists, and liberals. This consortium of prisoners from a cross section of Saudi Arabia drew my attention to the duality of reform and repression. I wanted to explore this theme to shed light on state-society relations during the reign of King Salman and his son. I began to gather data on Saudi reforms and monitor the repression that became prevalent and led to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. The book became an opportunity to insert the voices of many Saudi activists abroad and the emerging Saudi diaspora, both of whom had been targeted by the regime. In a way, the book is a story of exile, dislocation, and struggle for freedom.

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

MAR: The book critically assesses orientalist narratives about Saudi society that dominate journalistic reporting on the country as a “socially conservative, religiously radical, economically lazy, and dependent on social welfare.” I consider why the new crown prince was seen as a reformer. I relate this to the shortcomings of those who wanted to see social, economic, and religious reform without tackling the thorny issue of political reform. It was believed that for Saudi Arabia to avoid the upheavals of the 2011 Arab uprisings, a new top-down revolution was the only way forward. However, the repression that accompanied this so-called reform pointed to the controversial aspects of these assumptions. In order to redefine state-society relations, I look at the new hyper-nationalism introduced by the crown prince and how its excesses led to the murder of Khashoggi and the exodus of dissidents and activists to safe havens.

I draw on the vast literature on diaspora politics, nationalism, and feminist activism. But I wanted the book to be accessible to the general public and so I refrained from saturating it with too much theory that is only relevant to academic specialists. In the book, there are many voices from the diaspora that register their biographies and experiences before and after leaving their homeland. I also explore the ideological, regional, religious, and political diversity of society through which citizens experience the political system. Youth politics and women voices are important in the book to display the diversity of aspirations and the consensus over freedom. The new online activism of a young generation is central to my analysis and assessment of the future of this cohort of men and women.

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

MAR: I think the book is simply a continuation of my interest in documenting the diversity of Saudi society and its aspirations. Liberals, Islamists, religious minorities, immigrants, and feminists are all represented in this book. I have always chosen difficult topics that do not get enough attention especially in a country where the leadership relies heavily on controlling the media and research and tries to bury dissenting voices to create fake consensus over regime policies.

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

MAR: In addition to academic audiences and specialists, I hope the book appeals to the general public that was shocked by the murder of Khashoggi. I explain why the crime took place at a time when many observers thought that Saudi Arabia was embarking on a road to reform. Others seriously believed that the Saudi regime was drastically different from the Arab republics that had been notorious for silencing dissent by deploying excessive violence. The book blurs the boundaries between the aggressive Arab republics and the so-called benevolent monarchies of the Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab world. It is both an analysis of how power is exercised and legitimacy is created, while giving enough attention to society’s reaction and resistance.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MAR: I am considering conducting research on the Arab and Western cities where I have lived in order to write an account of “witnessing urban life and history” through growing up in multiple countries. From Beirut during the civil war, to the comfort of academic life in both Cambridge and Oxford, I would like to document how an Arab experiences life away from home and in places where they also experience drastic change.

Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, p. 5)

The Son King explores the politics of a regime that until the murder of Khashoggi was not considered brutal, deploying repressive methods akin to those that flourished in the rest of the Arab world under authoritarian republics. Unlike assessments of the republican repressive Arab regimes, many observers considered Saudi rulers to have a strong legitimacy of a traditional nature, cemented by a functioning social contract between princes and commoners, and benefiting from lavish oil subsidies and welfare services. This narrative was typical of ‘knowledge in the time of oil’, when Saudi Arabia became so important for its Western partners. The latter regarded it as a bastion of stability, not only domestically but across the Arab region. Its abundant oil wealth, and the much-appreciated potential market for foreign investment, arm exports, global capital, and more recently, a flourishing entertainment industry for Western performers were enough to maintain partnership with the regime. Under Muhammad ibn Salman, in the eyes of many foreign observers, Saudi Arabia entered a new era of openness, prosperity, economic diversification, and ample opportunities for investment and tourism. Representations of the young future king mixed serious assessment with public-relation propaganda, wishful thinking, and manipulation of knowledge about the country, all done by its crown prince and accepted by outside media at face value.

The hype about the promise of moving the succession to the second-generation princes and appointing the young Muhammad ibn Salman as crown prince developed into the ‘cult of the son king’. In Western media, his long name was abbreviated to MBS to facilitate quick recognition and branding. He became an iconic visionary, not only inside the country but globally, from Washington to Tokyo. The cult had many disciples, both paid and unpaid, who spread images and myths about his great reforms and invited sceptical audiences to join in celebrating the transformation brought about by the young and charismatic Arab prince. The regime’s pervasive media efforts to consolidate the cult of ‘MBS’ resemble what Paul Veyne describes as euergetism. The concept, which flourished in ancient Greece and Rome, concerned cities that honoured eminent persons who, through their money or public activity, ‘did good to the city’. For this cult to be visible and effective, it has to be founded on ‘bread and circuses’, combining money, power, entertainment, and prestige. When the state machine felt or believed that it was threatened by certain interests of its subjects, especially the youth, the crown prince swiftly introduced his subjects to mass culture entertainment, and promised more bread.

The prince wanted Saudis to move beyond dependence on oil by becoming entrepreneurs. He also provided ample opportunities for the circus as part of new mass culture. He embodies Juvenal’s prediction that ‘now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulship, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things – Bread and Circuses’. When the circus is entirely made abroad and imported at a high cost, neither old Marxist approaches that condemn mass culture nor liberal perspectives celebrating its potential for progress are sufficient to explain the new and swift decision to import foreign entertainment into Saudi Arabia wholesale. The introduction of entertainment was undoubtedly the work of foreign consultants who operated within the neoliberal framework, and was a response to decades of accusations against Saudi Arabia of enforcing a strict religious regime which it was imposing on its modern citizens. Previous restrictions were believed to have contributed to the breeding of terrorism. Hence the crown prince wanted to abandon that past and plunge Saudis swiftly into entertainment as a diversion from the previous social and religious control. While entertainment is part of the diversification of the economy, it is nevertheless also a great distraction from more urgent thoughts and aspirations. Saudis are sold the illusion of freedom in the circus, while the prince amasses new income and ensures that his subjects replace religious observance with legitimate ‘decadence’. However, he is not outside the circus, a mere importer of its many attractions. In fact, he is at the heart of mass culture and entertainment. While international boxing champions and singers are imported for colossal sums, it is the prince himself who becomes the main celebrity, starring at each event. Items of his clothing, his posture, and body language are analysed and commented on in great detail, and images of his shoes and unusual coat immediately begin to circulate on social media by his fans. In the heart of the circus, we see him encircled by aides, world media, and local journalists eager to capture a glimpse of the celebrity prince.

Many autocrats resist large-scale mass culture because they believe that ‘if we allow the people to have festivals, innocent enough affairs in themselves, they will suppose that they are free to do whatever they like, and they will no longer be willing to obey or to fight’. But the crown prince’s solution was to provide public enjoyment confined to certain limited moments, for example the Riyadh and Diriyyah Festivals, which are turned into patriotic events. Such spectacles of power, featuring popular Western concerts, car races, boxing matches, football events, cinema, and theatre, assert the crown prince’s right to be obeyed, and this needs to be actualized and expressed in conspicuous consumption in controlled conditions. For this purpose, the prince established the Entertainment Authority, which controls fun and festivals, and delivers them at specific seasons and places. Needless to say, the new entertainment, from concerts to boxing matches, proved a good distraction for an eager millennial generation so far deprived of fun. While the cult of ‘MBS’ flourished abroad, the abbreviation of his full name was not used domestically, and only those opposed to his policies referred to him as MBS, thus appropriating the branded name and turning it against his propaganda.