To understand the Kingdom, ingratiating interviews are not enough

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:56:54

Review of Madawi al-Rasheed (ed), Salman’s Legacy, the Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia (Hurst & Co., London, 2018).

Madawi al-Rasheed, Muted Modernists. The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia (Hurst & Co., London, 2015).


With Muhammad Bin Salman’s nomination as heir to the throne and his promises of reform, interest in Saudi Arabia and the new direction supposedly called for by the young prince has greatly increased. Experts on Saudi Arabia number but a few, however, and scholars who can boast a direct, all-round knowledge of this country even fewer. Madawi al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the Middle East Centre in the London School of Economics and Political Science, belongs to this narrow group.

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A volume in which the scholar figures both as editor and as author, Salman’s Legacy, the Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia is a collection of papers presented at a conference held at the National University of Singapore in December 2016. The book intends to give historical depth to the challenges that King Salman and the crown prince will be called to face in the short term. It seeks to strike a balance between the two narratives through which scholars have been trying to explain Saudi Arabia for decades: the triumphal one, which extols the Sa‘ūd family’s resilience, and the defeatist one, which has been prefiguring the country’s imminent collapse for years.


Cohesion within the ruling family is certainly a factor on which the Kingdom’s stability may depend. Madawi al-Rasheed’s essay examines the succession mechanism, highlighting how the traditional line of horizontal succession from brother to brother has been substituted by a vertical line from father to son only twice from Saudi Arabia’s creation until today. That happened in 1953, when ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Ibn Sa‘ūd appointed his firstborn son, Sa‘ūd (r. 1953-64), as heir to the throne and in June 2017, with the nomination of Muhammad Bin Salman. Al-Rasheed’s theory is that attempts to normalize the succession mechanism (thereby limiting the risk of political struggles within the family) have all failed. Salman’s move would demonstrate this: by amending the Basic Law in order to introduce vertical succession, he is confirming himself as the only real arbiter.


Gregory Gause, III also talks about the monarchy’s stability. For him, the ruling dynasty’s resilience is linked to three domestic political factors: a system founded on petrodollars, the bond with the religious establishment and cohesion within the family. On the one hand, the oil revenue has allowed the Sa‘ūd family to create patronage with certain social groups and guarantee itself the loyalty of the population by distributing benefits. On the other, it has changed the dynamics of the relationship between the political institution and the religious one. Indeed, the oil boom of the 1970s marked the end of the religious establishment’s independence and the beginning of its subordination to the royal family, who allowed the ulama to create their own institutions and exercise control over the social life of Saudis in return.


Sultan Alamer’s contribution is an original one. He examines the protests occurring in Qatif and Buraydah between 2011 and 2013 and deconstructs the narrative of the “denominational protests” so in vogue amongst Western academics. Such narrative tends to explain the activism in terms of denominational polarization between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, without according the right weight to regional identities. According to the author, the areas with a strong local identity are the ones most inclined to demonstrate, unlike the agglomerations that lacks a rooted sense of identity. Paradoxically, in some cases it is the process of state- and nation-building that has fostered the birth of these forms of local identity. Alamer presents the example of the two different procedures for issuing an identity card, according to whether the applicant is a Bedouin or hadarī (sedentary). In the first case, it is necessary to furnish five names (one’s own, that of one’s father, that of one’s grandfather, the name of one’s lineage and that of one’s tribe), whereas the hadarī are required to indicate their place of birth instead of their lineage and tribe. If these methods of identification foster the sense of tribal belonging for Bedouins, they facilitate a feeling of regional identity for the hadarī, who identify with their place of provenance. Another mechanism that fosters forms of local identification, the author explains, is the country’s division into administrative units the toponyms of which indicates the greater or lesser degree of the inhabitants’ sense of identity. Indeed, a toponym may not have any link with history or the local people but, rather, serve the state’s need to identify a zone precisely (as is the case with the Northern Border province) or it can follow the name of a geographical place (for example, the city of Dhahran in Eastern Province, thus called after the homonymous massif). The agglomerations born of immigration and, therefore, basically lacking a strong identity generally fall into this last category. The opposite situation can be noted, on the other hand, in the case of administrative units that derive their name from cities or regions existing before the Saudi State, as in the case of Riyadh.


Salman’s Legacy thus accompanies the reader on a virtual tour of the Saudi state and society. It investigates certain elements of the Wahhabi religious tradition and explores the Kingdom’s geopolitical and economic relations with the West and the Far East. It certainly offers a panorama of the dilemmas the new Saudi direction is facing but it may prove useful to integrate it with another text by the same author, Muted Modernists. The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia. Published in 2015, this volume has lost none of its topicality. It masterfully documents contemporary Saudi Islamist activism, considering, in particular, those whom Madawi al-Rasheed calls “modernists” (also known as Islamo-liberals or tanwīrī, “enlightenment thinkers”). Some of the intellectuals and preachers whose arrest was ordered by MBS in the autumn of 2017 fall into this category and this constitutes another reason that makes this book fundamental reading. The author’s aim is to follow the evolution of this group of intellectuals and religious scholars, composed mainly of ex sahwī (“Islamist revivalists”). After ending up in prison in the mid-1990s following accusations of subverting public order, these men were rehabilitated and co-opted by the Monarchy.


The modernists to whom the book is devoted have chosen the reformist road, creating a sort of third way between violent jihadism and the religious establishment’s Wahhabi quietism. They are reinterpreting the classical Islamic political theology by creating a hybrid discourse that unites Western political thought and Islamic tradition in an attempt to find solutions to the problems that contemporary Muslims are experiencing. The modernists – and here the figure of Salmān al-‘Awda stands out – advocate, for example, the notion of consultation, the division of power between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary and inclusive pluralism. Some of them, including ‘Abdullāh al-Mālikī, maintain that it is advisable but not obligatory to apply sharia and that the real solution is not Islam, according to the Muslim Brothers’ well known slogan, but the umma’s political sovereignty. Others are asking for a constitutional monarchy and a reform of Wahhabi Islam, whilst arguing that peaceful jihad (silmī), as a form of peaceful civil protest, is lawful (‘Abdullāh al-Hāmid).

Madawi al-Rasheed’s analyses generally demonstrate that the proclamations of the king and crown prince regarding the creation both of a freer and more open Saudi society and of a “middle-of-the-roaod” Islam have not stood up to scrutiny so far. Her books are therefore a sine qua non for those who wish to grapple with the complex relationship between Saudi narrative and reality.