Since its establishment in 1932 Saudi Arabia has enjoyed considerable importance in the Middle East largely because of its oil wealth. It has the world’s largest reserves of oil estimated at 10 million barrels per day. It has been a favourite haunt of the major global oil companies which have vied with each other to get a large stake in the oil business, and therefore to make huge profits accruing from the needs of an oil-hungry world. The country has been dominated by the Najd region of the central Arabian Peninsula, with the Al-Saud tribe having overcome its principal rival, the Al-Rashids at the start of the twentieth century, remaining in the driving seat. The first ruler King Abdul Aziz had a long reign (1932-1953) in which he reportedly fathered over fifty children from multiple wives. These Saudi royals in a country which allows polygamous marriages (up to four wives) have hugely increased in number in the past eight decades. I believe there is no accurate statistical count that I am aware of, but it definitely runs into the thousands. Each royal is reportedly entitled to a very generous allowance and with increasing numbers in today’s world, this represents an increasing burden on the Saudi budget.
In recent days a number of senior Saudi royals in prominent government positions and other notable personalities in the business world, have been rounded up, ostensibly for corruption. This appears to be a difficult charge to justify in a country in which the New York Times has recently opined that “corruption is tough to define when family and state are one”. Another factor which also exists in other countries with an authoritarian structure is the opacity which is prevalent in state decision making. Not many decades ago the Communist Soviet Union was notorious for the secrecy of its government’s actions. Saudi Arabia is of course much better than that period but it is still struggling to become a full democracy.
Some well-known Western scholars such as the renowned Fred Halliday had prophesized as early as 1974, that the Sheikhly system in the Arabian Gulf was not sustainable in the long run. The theme was taken up recently by Christopher Davidson, a Reader at Durham University in the United Kingdom who forecasted in 2012 that all the Gulf monarchies would be replaced by changes that were occurring in the Middle East. The Arab Human Development Reports (2003- 2009) had outlined in stark detail the looming deficits in the Arab Middle East: a knowledge deficit, a governance deficit, and a gender inequality deficit. It is quite possible that these reports provided an important impetus for what came to be known as the Arab Spring. Naturally the Gulf monarchies were alarmed by this turn of events that had displaced the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, but were largely able to deflect popular discontent by increasing welfare provisions to their nationals. The huge rentier income available to these monarchies serves as a kind of safety mechanism but the question remains as posed by Davidson: for how long?
There is no doubt that the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia did try to introduce more substantive reforms in the political and economic structures of Saudi Arabia but opinion seems to be divided about the efficacy of the measures. According to author Andrew Hammond, these reforms represented only an illusion of progress. It remains to be seen whether Hammond’s prognosis is on the right track or not.
The latest events in Saudi Arabia need to be seen in the above backdrop. The King, Salman, who succeeded Abdullah in 2015, is old and ailing which has probably permitted his ambitious second son, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman more commonly known as MBS, to assume de facto power. Some analysts are saying that when MBS ascends to the throne, he could conceivably look forward to wielding power for 50 years. MBS is also seen as the architect of the civil war in Yemen which has hardly been a success from the Saudi point of view. It has led to enormous human rights abuses and suffering in the Yemeni civilian population. MBS has also been proactive in trying to reduce or thwart Iranian influence in the Middle East. This impulse is reflected in the current Saudi policy to isolate Hezbullah in Lebanon and also to continue with the political and economic blockade of Qatar, a member of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council also known as the GCC (consisting of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar) for its alleged pro-Iranian policies. The quartet imposing the blockade (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt) also accuse Qatar of supporting terrorist groups. Clearly the GCC established in 1981 is currently going through a difficult period.
Whether MBS succeeds in consolidating his power through the unprecedented purge currently underway in the Saudi kingdom, is difficult to gauge at present. However if he is not successful he could end up being marginalized. It appears that he is playing a high stakes game. Interestingly President Trump while on his current trip to the Far East, found time to tweet on the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia, by suggesting that some of the influential personalities in that country had been “milking the state” for a while. Whether the United States had brought up this issue bilaterally with the Saudis in the past, is not known.