GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Paper Proposal Text :
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the few remaining absolute monarchies in the world, was caught off guard by the unrest that started in Tunisia and then spread to the other parts of the Arab world. Much attention has been devoted to Saudi Arabia’s response to the changing balance of power in the region and the challenges set in motion by the processes that go under the name of the Arab spring. However, the intellectual debate has mostly focused on the inherent fragility of the Kingdom and questions have been raised about its ability to withstand the wave of change domestically by relying exclusively on economic handouts as a means to buy off creeping criticism and dissent. Similarly, the military intervention in Bahrain in March 2011 carried out under the umbrella of the military arm of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Peninsula Shield Force, has been thoroughly scrutinised, and in some cases harshly contested, as a counter-revolutionary attempt in the Kingdom’s neighbourhood. What the existing analyses of Saudi Arabia and the Arab uprisings have failed to do is to link the kingdom’s short-term responses with the long-term question of legitimacy that looms over the future of the country.

This paper will thus seek to assess the impact of Saudi Arabia’s response to the Arab spring on the issue of the regime legitimacy, which remains, and is likely to increasingly become, a contested issue in the near future. The main argument is that the Kingdom’s response to the challenges of the Arab uprisings has heightened the feeling, both among the ruling elite and some parts of the population, that the legitimacy question cannot be further postponed.

Legitimacy refers to “the capacity of the system to engender and maintain belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society” (Lipset 1960). The literature identifies five possible bases of legitimacy, each of which has some relevance to the Saudi political system (Niblock 2006). The first basis of legitimacy stems from the articulation, manipulation, promotion and defence of a particular set of values relevant to the organisation of society. In the Saudi case, this ideology is epitomised in the ‘religiopolitical’ character of the state, naming the constant projection of the Saudi monarchy as protector of the Islamic faith. Besides the personal basis of legitimacy which applies in the case of a recognised charismatic leadership, also a traditional claim to legitimacy, defined as the acceptance of a ruler on grounds of inheritance, seems to have played a major role in strengthening the right to rulership in the hands of the Al-Saud family. Finally, the last two bases of legitimacy – the democratic one and the eudaemonic one, according to Niblock’s classification – represent the real challenges facing Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy. True political reforms and effective measures to ease the sense of marginalisation felt by some groups of the population with a view to creating a shared sense of economic and social justice still seem far-fetched realities, thus impinging on the kingdom’s long-term sustainability and stability.

In the paper the legitimacy question will be tackled by scrutinising Saudi Arabia’s response to the Arab uprisings domestically and regionally. On the domestic front, two issues will be addressed in particular: the politics of succession and the identity question. Regarding the succession issue, the Kingdom is currently going through one of the most serious succession crises following the demise of two most senior Princes, Prince Sultan and Prince Nayef, within less than eight months, and the removal of the kingdom’s Interior Minister after only five months. What is more worrying is the state of confusion and uncertainty sweeping the inner circle of the House of Al-Saud about the rules for the distribution of responsibilities and duties among the members of the family. The lack of any clear succession structure impinges on the stability and legitimacy of the Saudi royal family, which in turn is likely to have a negative impact on the stability of the state.

Turning to the question of identity, this is particularly important as far as the young generations are concerned. The kingdom has the same demographics of its Arab neighbours – in particular a large youth bulge that is chasing too few jobs. In addition to youth unemployment, housing problems rank among the most important ones for the new Saudi generations, who are increasingly exposed to the global world thanks to the use of modern communication technologies, such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Finally, the stance of the Saudi youth towards what is happening in other parts of the Arab world has not been fully scrutinised yet.

The second section of the paper examines the impact on the regime legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policies towards the uprising in Bahrain. The interventionist approach adopted by Riyadh against the eruption of protests in Manama, it is argued, has contributed to delegitimizing the regime because of two reasons. First, it has heightened the sectarian conflict within its own territory, thus further alienating the Shia'a minorities in its eastern province who have become more vocal about the need to change the power distribution. Second, it has revealed the inconsistency between the regime's foreign policies in Bahrain, on the one hand, and in Yemen and Syria, on the other. This inconsistency is exploited by Saudi liberals to criticise the regime’s domestic reforms and foreign policies in general, thus deepening the divide between the ruling elite and some parts of the population. This in turn risks endangering the regime legitimacy in a delicate moment for the future of the country.