It is said that Saudi Arabia is in economic dire straits due to the falling oil prices; and because of it the Royal Family is in danger. We disagree with the latter assessment; however, a couple of analyses (here and here) point out that if Saudi Arabia wants to avoid an economic crash, it must reach three objectives: apply austerity measures, liberalise its economy and modernise. But is it as simple as this?
According to Professor Asher Susser, from the Tel Aviv University, the Saudi Royal Family "has married into the main tribal groups, the business community and the religious establishment" meaning that Saudi Arabia's stability is sustained by three main pillars: Tribal, Business and Religious. So how can an economic crisis affect these three columns?
The Arabian tribal system is one of the few examples of how this political system can effectively work within a society. History has it that each tribe kept a defined geographical area under its power, whose pastures and water-holes it controlled.
King Abdul Aziz once sought refuge among the Al-Murrah tribe who taught him quite a few set of skills like “the purity and strength of the harsh desert life,” and the “the custom of hospitality in bedouin life and (..) grazing rights and control of wells. He understood that strength depends on unity and that the survival of the many depends on inviolable concepts of loyalty.” (source) Therefore, it is no wonder that the Saudi National Guard has a unit solely composed by Al-Murrah elements.
As a rule, the business community always sides with the establishment as long as their interests are being met. This is not different in Saudi Arabia, where this community is an intricate web woven with silky Royal treads: the Saudi business community is composed by royal elements, tribal notables (who often marry into the royal family), the bureaucrats and new businessmen (who compose the kingdom's new middle and upper classes).
The Saudi business environment has been deliberately built to benefit nationals, so much so that - according to Kiran Aziz Chaudry (in The Price of Wealth: Economies and Institutions in the Middle East) - “The distribution system was deliberately constructed to facilitate the entry of nationals into intermediary positions between the government and foreign companies.” And although many Princes, bureaucrats and the new businessmen (intermediaries, merchants etc) do wish to see a more economically liberal and modernised Saudi Society, in order to increase their business opportunities, they alas see their wishes stumble upon a huge block called Ulama (clergy).
The Saudi Ulama is better known as the Wahhabis (or Salafis, as they prefer to be called) with whom the Royal family has been in alliance for over two centuries. The Salafis have offered their full support to the Royal Family in exchange for complete control of the Saudi legal system. This trade was a poisoned gift, for while it made sense in the early 20th century, it presents quite a challenge in the 21st century – especially now when the kingdom is facing economic difficulties and is in need of modernisation and change.
The Salafis are adverse to modernisation, which they view as a violation of Islam's purity. Therefore, if King Salman seeks to modernise his kingdom, he will run into troubles with the religious pillar; unless he explains the strategic need of embracing certain aspect of modern life: for instance, if Saudi Arabia doesn't follow the universal trend of green energies it will be forced to drink all of its oil; without a massive income from oil, the kingdom will no longer be able to sustain its welfare programmes and will eventually stop being a Rentier State (a state whose revenues come almost entirely from the sale of natural resources and not from taxation).
To stop being a rentier state means the government will have to collect taxes; Tax collection means representation for the people, meaning they will make demands that hitherto they hadn't been able to make; if they gain this political power, the Royal Family can always adapt (and form a constitutional monarchy) but the Ulama may not survive such a revolution – unless they'd use ISIS or Al-Qaeda to do the dirty job for them, which would stain their image of piety. In sum: an economic crisis, and the solutions for it, may put the Saudi religious establishment in quite a pickle.
King Salman may impose austerity measures upon the people (it's a question of explaining the situation to citizens), he may liberalise the market (albeit a Saudi version that goes with the precepts of Shariah) and he may even convince the Ulama to modernise (again a Saudi version) but these will not be the factors that may bring down the Saudi Royal Family. To cause their fall (assuming they will never effect change) one would need to strike one or two pillars that support them:
Tribal Pillar: It's almost impossible to destroy this pillar because they were cleverly embedded in all segments of society (government, business and military) – and since we support a tribal political system, exactly because it is harder to overcome and conquer, we have much respect and admiration for this pillar. Nevertheless, playing the role of the Accuser, one can always say that there's a way if one considers what is going on in Saudi Arabia “the created new status categories, which are beginning to compete with tribal affiliation and are undermining its importance in the social hierarchy” (source) – in other words, this pillar of support may erode as time goes by and if properly exploited.
Business Pillar: At the moment it is extremely difficult to destroy this base of support given its composition (royal, tribal notables, bureaucrats and new businessmen); however, if greed and ambition is patiently exploited only the sky is the limit, especially now that the Kingdom prepares itself to liberalise its market and modernise the country due to economic constraints – a crisis that presents many opportunities.
Salafi Pillar: This pillar is the most fragile of all, despite its appearance of strength. The Salafi obsession with Islamic purity, along with the adoption of an anti-modernity stance, is where their weakness lies. If the Ulama reacts by wanting to suppress the people, these will insurrect against it; if it uses its proxies (ISIS/AQ) to keep Saudis in check, it will damage its pious image and lose popular support. Furthermore, if one finds out who is the pillar behind the pillar then perhaps it can find the necessary cracks.
(Image: Saudi Arabia - Imagekind)
[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]