Last update: 2019-05-27 15:24:58
Review of Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix (eds), Saudi Arabia in Transition. Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015
Edited by three of the leading experts on Saudi Arabia, the book is the result of two conferences held in Menton, France and in Princeton. Divided into four sections, it analyses some of the most significant aspects of Saudi society in an exemplary manner, making it possible to focus with incisiveness and clarity on the country’s situation in a political, economic, ideological and social context.
To understand the importance of this book, we need only think about the ever more incisive geopolitical role that the country has been able to carve out for itself. Starting from 1945, the year in which it concluded the informal Quincy pact with the United States, Saudi Arabia achieved a number of records that have made it one of the most influential states in the Middle East. Undisputed leader of the OPEC and owner of 25% of the world’s oil reserves, Saudi Arabia dictates the economic policies of importing countries and is the cornerstone of American security in the area. But it is not just a question of geopolitical balance, because the western region of the Kingdom, with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, represents the heart of Sunni Islam, of which Saudi Arabia declares itself leader.
Despite these good reasons, as the authors note in the introduction, Saudi Arabia remains a country that is rarely studied because of the restrictions imposed by the government, the dynamics of which are often a mystery. As a result, the majority of the predictions by scholars, who have not missed a chance to declare the reigning Saudi family as written off from the 1970s until today, have proved spectacularly wrong. According to the analysts, in 1979 it should have succumbed to the influence of the Iranian revolution and the blows inflicted on it by the rioting by of the Shi‘ite majority – which was carefully suppressed – in Mecca and in the Eastern Province. In the 1990s it was expected that the monarchy would yield to the pressure of the Islamist Sahwa movement, while at the start of 2000 it was deemed to be at risk because of the instability generated by the violent attacks on the Arabian Peninsula by al-Qaeda. Finally, in 2011, on the wave of enthusiasm for the revolutions in the Middle East, it was expected that the government would be blown away by the turmoil of the Arab Spring. But this did not happen, thanks in part to the skill of King Abdallah and his predecessors in mediating situations of danger.
It is this political ability that has allowed the ruling family to avert serious political crises during periods when the price of oil was particularly low and that, as F. Gregory Gause III explains in his essay, made it able to contain the effects of the political mobilisations that took place, contrary to what one might think, during times when the oil revenues were higher. With their political astuteness, as Bernard Haykel explains, the Saud were able to manage the troubled relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. From being protected in the 1950s to being traitors in the 1990s, the Brotherhood was considered a great ally of the royal family in the latter’s attempts to counter Arab nationalism and socialism by supporting Islamism. However, in the 1990s the Brotherhood started to be a cumbersome and awkward presence. The new generation of islamist activists contesting the relationships constructed with the West, was then silenced. The same political skill enabled the royals to quell the discontent of the women who, as Madawi al-Rasheed explains, complain about social relations governed by very strict rules, exclusion from the public sphere, the inability to perform public roles in the foreground, and the difficulty to enter the world of work.
Despite the restrictions, as Bernard Haykel recalls, certain changes are taking place. Saudi Arabia is the Arab country most connected to the internet and the majority of its subjects are Facebook, Twitter and YouTube users. The virtual space gives voice to the criticisms and comments of young people who hold high expectations for their future. It remains to be seen whether the virtual mobilisations will be able to translate into concrete mobilisation, or whether the predictions on the Saudi enigma will prove mistaken once again.
To cite this article
Chiara Pellegrino, “The Saudi Dynasty: in the End It Has Always Won”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 134-136.
Chiara Pellegrino, “The Saudi Dynasty: in the End It Has Always Won”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/saudi-dynasty-end-it-has-always-won.