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Saudi Arabia at a Crossroads

Can MBS pull off what no other Arab ruler in the Middle East has—a dynamic, thriving economy—without tipping the kingdom into instability?

Michael Mandelbaum

The founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia between 1902 and 1932 by Abdulaziz bin Abdul al-Rahman, a leader of the Al Saud tribe, and its persistence to the present day count as one of the most remarkable political achievements of the modern era. The founder gathered together several dozen fractious, independent tribes into a single political unit. He brought peace and stability to the Arabian Peninsula, where tribal feuding and a culture of raiding and looting had long been the norm. The king and his ruling family derived much of their legitimacy from an alliance with a particularly austere brand of Islam, Wahhabism, that was and is hostile to many aspects of modern life; yet they managed to make the kingdom modern in many ways, while preserving their partnership with the Wahhabi clerics.

In an age in which monarchs in the Middle East and elsewhere lost their thrones and even their lives, the Saudi monarchy has remained in place, with six sons of Abdulaziz serving as king between 1953 and the present day. In a region not lacking in predatory, aggressive regimes, Saudi Arabia has maintained its independence. Of course, the kingdom’s massive reserves of oil have exercised a powerful influence on its social and economic evolution and have helped to purchase political stability; but oil wealth does not guarantee the longevity of a regime, as the shah of Iran discovered in 1979. The Saudi royal family has avoided his fate. Finally, while virtually every other Arab autocracy came under attack from the society it governed during the tumultuous Arab Spring of a decade ago, the Saudi regime did not.

Yet Saudi Arabia now faces a major political challenge, which has its origins not in discontent bubbling up spontaneously from the people of the kingdom (although there is some of that) but rather in sweeping changes imposed from above by its supreme ruler, King Salman, who turns eighty-five on the last day of 2020, and his son and designated heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, who is thirty-five years old and the driving force behind the changes. The two have effectively, although not formally, adopted as their motto a well-known line from The Leopard, a 1958 novel about 19th-century Sicily by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: “Everything must change for everything to remain the same.”

Salman and MBS have concluded that in the future, the kingdom will not be able to live off its oil revenues, as it has for much of its history. It must therefore reduce the government’s expenditures and create a modern economy, goals that require major economic and social changes to achieve. The new policies it has adopted for this purpose, however, strike at the foundations of the very political stability that has been the ruling family’s great historical achievement.

Two recent books on Saudi Arabia illuminate the challenges the country’s rulers now face. Crosswinds: The Way of Saudi Arabia is the second posthumously published volume by Fouad Ajami, the great scholar of the contemporary Middle East, who completed it in 2010, four years before his death. In his characteristically compelling literary style, Ajami paints a vivid picture, based on both visits to the country and immersion in the writings of Saudis themselves, of the shifting, conflicted moods of its people in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads, by David Rundell, a retired American diplomat with decades of experience in Saudi Arabia specifically and the Middle East generally, skillfully takes the story from the beginning to the present and provides a concise history of Abdulaziz’s kingdom. The book offers a thorough and balanced account of Saudi politics and society, from which a clear picture emerges of the stresses with which the current rulers must cope.

Not the least of those stresses involves the kingdom’s relationship with the United States. The two countries have maintained an informal alliance for more than seventy-five years, based not on common political values, of which almost none exist, but rather on their common interest in assuring that Saudi Arabia continues reliably to supply oil to the rest of the world. In 2018 the regime put that relationship in jeopardy by brutally murdering Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist with many American friends and colleagues, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The killing proved to be both a crime and a blunder: It caused an outcry in the United States and, with it, calls to downgrade or even end entirely American ties with the Saudi regime.

The Saudi-American relationship has weathered previous crises—notably, the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, fifteen of the nineteen perpetrators of which were Saudi nationals—and will probably survive this one as well: The security and availability of Saudi oil will remain, for the foreseeable future, too important for American interests for the United States to abandon the regime that controls it. (The Saudi regime has taken out an insurance policy against the weakening of the American connection in the form of cooperation with Israel, the one Middle Eastern country effectively opposing Saudi Arabia’s great and menacing external adversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran.)


Even more serious threats to the monarchy’s stability come from within. Saudi Arabia is a family business, with the family consisting of the descendants of Abdulaziz, who now, because of their practice of marrying multiple wives and siring many children, number in the thousands. Only a small minority of them have wielded genuine power, but all have enjoyed privileges and wealth—until now. The solidarity of the royal family has served as a major guarantor of political stability since the days of Abdulaziz, but Salman and MBS have undercut it by concentrating power in their own hands at the expense of other royals and reducing the subsidies that family members receive. In 2017 they even went so far as to incarcerate some of the wealthiest of them in a Riyadh hotel, charging the prisoners with corruption and forcing them to return large parts of their considerable fortunes to the government. All this has, to say the least, made for an unhappy royal family.

While the royal family has received far more generous stipends, most Saudis have enjoyed oil-generated financial support from the government in one form or another. Salman and MBS have already cut these, too; and, as oil income falls, they are likely to cut further, creating an aggrieved population in the kingdom.

The present rulers have also reduced the power of the religious establishment. This has earned them the appreciation of many Saudis, especially younger ones, who had come to resent the intrusions of the religious authorities on their daily lives; but these same authorities and those who sympathize with their outlook still constitute a formidable and now discontented constituency in the kingdom.

Finally, Saudi Arabia has never permitted political freedom but neither has the regime practiced the severe repression that the people of Syria and Iraq have had to endure since the end of European rule in their countries in the 20th century. Along with relaxing the restrictions on social life, including the removal of some of the limits on what women are allowed to do, the current rulers have cracked down hard on any sign of political dissidence. The people of Saudi Arabia have become socially freer but politically less so, creating another potential source of opposition to the current rulers and the regime more generally.

Salman and MBS, assuming the Crown Prince manages to consolidate his power as the monarch when his father ceases to be king, may prove sufficiently crafty, and forceful, and lucky to survive the political turbulence the changes they have introduced have wrought. In that case they will be able to pursue the economic goals set out in the master plan they have adopted, called “Vision 2030;” but that poses perhaps the greatest challenge of all.

Can Saudi Arabia do what East Asian countries have managed but that no Arab country has come close to achieving—namely, create, in a society that until recently was very traditional a thriving, dynamic, modern economy? Can the regime somehow instill the work ethic and entrepreneurial drive that such an economy requires in a country in which abundant oil revenue has heretofore made them unnecessary, and where they were neither cultivated nor encouraged?

What Salman and MBS are doing breaks radically with the long-established way of going about things in a country in which, as Ajami observed a decade ago, “No descendant of [Abdulaziz] would embark on some hazardous new course” and where “few Saudis believed that so difficult, so idiosyncratic a place could be reinvented.” Yet reinvention is now on the agenda.

The current leaders surely take as their model Salman’s father: where Abdulaziz founded Saudi Arabia, they are attempting, in effect, to re-found it. They run the risk, however, of following in the footsteps of another, more recent leader of a different country. He, too, inherited power in a polity with stable politics but a stagnant economy. He, too, introduced political and social reforms for the purpose of economic revitalization. Like Mohammed bin Salman, Mikhail Gorbachev gained power at a relatively young age. Like MBS now, Gorbachev, upon taking power, was both impatient and supremely sure of himself. Rather than saving the Soviet Union, however, Gorbachev set in motion a chain of events that, in the end, unexpectedly and entirely unintentionally destroyed it. Gorbachev believed that the status quo in the Soviet Union in the 1980s could not continue, and MBS similarly believes that the status quo in Saudi Arabia in the third decade of the 21st century cannot be sustained. He may be correct. That does not mean, however, that his efforts to change the country will lead, from his point of view—or from that of the United States—to a successful outcome.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).

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