Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich, staunchly Islamic Middle Eastern kingdom, has been making the headlines lately. With an aim to diversify the hitherto oil dependent Saudi economy and break away from Islamic fundamentalism, the ambitious 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammad ibn Salman, has been on a spree of reform. Latest in his strategy to transform the socio-economic environment of Saudi Arabia is an anti-corruption drive that has led to the arrest of 11 princes, along with 38 other officials and businessmen. The sudden purge has come just days after the ultra-conservative kingdom announced that women in their country would be allowed to drive from 2018 on and that they would now be permitted in sports stadiums as well.
The steps taken by the crown prince is being read in diverse ways — from being perceived as an effort to consolidate power base both within the royal family and among the foreign powers to being analysed as an attempt at economic reform choosing the path of moderate Islam. For a country that took birth as a product of a symbiotic relationship between politics and religion, the giant leaps taken by Prince Salman has sent shockwaves throughout its barren hinterland and the rest of the world.
In Saudi Arabia, for generations power has been firmly kept within the royal family and shared among its various branches. When in the eighteenth century, the predecessors of the Al-Saud family laid out the foundation stone of what would develop into modern Saudi Arabia, the Arabian peninsula consisted of a large number of Bedouin tribes, who squabbled among themselves in search of resources for sustenance. Out of this struggle for dominance, the Saud tribe managed to successfully assert its power on account of a critical alliance between them and the followers of the Wahhabi school of Islam. As noted by historian Wayne H. Bowen in his book, “modern Saudi Arabia is a nation struggling to adapt its eighteenth century political and religious system to the demands of the new millennium.”
The absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia is known to have more power over its people than any medieval European kingdom. In order to better understand the kingdom’s latest face-off with its people, we need to reflect upon a long past of internal and external conflicts that affected the state boiling down to the recent event of naming of Prince Salman as crown prince by his father King Salman Abd al-Aziz, replacing the former deputy prime minister, Mohammed Ibn Nayef al-Saud. In the last few centuries, since its birth, the country has undergone four major phases, all the while battling away with both external pressures from foreign powers, domestic clashes and the struggle to stay committed to the conservative forces of Wahhabism through which it first came to acquire power.
Struggling his way above factions of quarreling tribes, chieftain Muhammad bin Saud reached an agreement with religious leader Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab in 1744. As per their understanding, the religious leader would provide all support to the struggles of the Saud tribe, in exchange for the latter’s dedicated commitment to the Wahhabi school of Islamic thought. A follower of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam (supposedly the most conservative school of Islamic law), Abdul Wahhab was a fierce fundamentalist, whose aim was to return Arabia to the religious fervour of the seventh century. While he provided religious legitimacy for the Sauds to carry out attacks on all those who did not follow Wahhabism, Muhammad bin Saud helped the former in extending the territorial reach of Wahhabi fervour. From their base in Diriyah, the alliance began to spread in all directions.
While on one hand, several among the Bedouin tribes joined in support of the Saudi-Wahhabi cause, there were several others who posed severe opposition to them as well. By 1790, they had established themselves as an economic, political and military stronghold in central Arabia. Wherever they went, they enforced a strict form of Wahhabism, encouraged all the more by their success, as being an approval from Allah.
While external opposition, particularly from the Ottomans was a regular feature, it was only in the early nineteenth century that they were overthrown by Egyptian forces. While the Saudis had fallen as a ruling tribe, they retained loyalty of majority of the tribes and managed to strike back yet again, moving their power centre to Riyadh. In the course of the nineteenth century, the Sauds continued to face much hostility from the Ottomans, and finally in the 1890s, the Saud control over Riyadh was overtaken and the family under Abdul Rahman bin Faisal fled to Kuwait.
Protected by the British at that moment, Kuwait proved to be a safe refuge for bin Faisal, till he could return to power in Riyadh. It was his son, Ibn Saud, who would go on to recapture Riyadh and become the first King of Saudi Arabia in 1902.
With the recapture of Riyadh in 1902, the House of Saud was once again in power. In the next 30 years, as the state prospered both economically and politically, they faced immense opposition from the Ottomans and the British, apart from the Arabic tribes. As noted by Bowen, “Egyptian, Turkish and British forces, not to mention important Arab tribes, fought against Saudi military power and Wahhabi religious doctrine with fierce determination.” Nonetheless, the Saudis managed to continue extending territorial power, maintained internal order and survived the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1912, Ibn Saud created the first professional army called the Ikhwan (Brotherhood). The Ikhwan was the Saudi king’s weapon to redress revolts within the newly formed state’s territory. The force was directed to fight against the enemies of the Sauds under the battle cry of Jihad. They were also tasked with enforcing strict Wahhabi laws and punishing the unorthodox.
While Ibn Saud was aware of the support he received from the British in recapturing Riyadh, he did not want to be in a position where Saudi Arabia too would become a British protectorate. In the 1920s, when oil was first discovered in Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud immediately embraced the opportunity to use the resource in forging relations with America. It was the economic relationship between Saudi Arabia and America, based on oil, which would go on to define both the foreign policy of countries in years to come.
The third decade of the twentieth century marked a new phase in the history of Saudi Arabia. The modest socio-economic space of yesteryears had suddenly given way to a sprawling metropolis with modern infrastructure stemming all across the peninsula and heavy industry gaining importance.
It was also during this period that the country transformed itself into a modern nation-state, with a centralised government and a stable economic system based on petroleum. The national budget and a tax system were brought into place. This was the moment when the cultural and religious values of the region first saw the need to adapt itself to the needs of a modern technological society. However, Ibn Saud preferred to not establish any central institutions, preferring to maintain unity through personal loyalties to him, following the traditional tribal pattern.
After the death of Ibn Saud in 1953, a bitter power struggle arose among his descendants, particularly between Prince Saud and Prince Faisal, who kept alternating power between themselves. In 1958, on account of pressure coming in from the royal family, Prince Saud was forced to cede executive power to Faisal, while retaining his position as a monarch. Under prince Faisal’s reforms, Saudi Arabia underwent a large scale fiscal transformation. In 1964, Saud abdicated and fled to exile in Europe, leaving the throne completely in the hands of Faisal. Once in control of complete authority, Faisal went about making reforms more aggressively, realising the urgent need for the Saudi economy to modernise. He introduced five-year-plans of development, invested in education, transportation and industry so as to increase the basic standard of living. By the end of 1970s, Saudi Arabia was a thriving economy, and a society that was developed enough to provide all basic facilities to its population.
Even though by the mid-twentieth century, the Saudi state had prospered sufficiently, an ill effect of the same was that there were not enough labour force to meet the demands of a modern economy. Further, traditional Saudi cultural ethos prohibited men from working as manual labourers and women were barred from any profession where they would interact with men with whom they shared no blood or marital bond. The prohibition on women drivers also meant that most of them were unable to work. By late 1900s therefore, 50 per cent of the workforce in Saudi Arabia consisted of foreigners.
This was also the time when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution had left a conservative Islamic Saudi Arabia rather worried for its traditional status. Large sections of the radical Islamic population started agitating against a monarchy that they believed had become too decadent and West aligned.
Under King Abdullah who came to power in 2005, Saudi Arabia underwent yet another phase of modest reforms. He reorganised the legal system and under him the country joined the World Trade Organisation. Despite the changes he brought about, the socio-economic scenario in Saudi Arabia remained quite dismal. Youth unemployment, conflict with foreign workers and the fear of angering radical forces with modernisation drives were issues that continued to disturb the country.
The ongoing crisis in Saudi Arabia needs to be located in this long history of upheavals and frustrations that the country has gone through over the years. King Salman ibn Abd al-Aziz who came to power in 2015, named his son, Mohammad ibn Salman as crown prince in the summer of 2017, thereby replacing the deputy prime minister, Ibn Nayef al-Saud. The reason given was the prince Saud was the architect of the Kingdom’s counter-insurgency programme and that he was addicted to painkillers. Also, the king believed that his son would be able to address the mounting frustrations of the youth better. However, experts are of the opinion that the real reason behind prince Salman coming to power is that prince Nayef had opposed Saudi’s embargo on Qatar and had raised doubts about Tehran’s proxies in Syria and Yemen. Both of these were largely favoured by the crown prince.
While reports suggest that the sudden steps to modernise Saudi Arabia, both economically and culturally are attempts by prince Salman to consolidate his position better, overcoming every opposition that comes his way, there can be no denying the fact that the recent spree of changes has ushered in the newest phase in Saudi Arabian history.
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