Understanding the Current Political Opening

In recent years international and domestic reform demands have injected new elements of openness into Saudi Arabia's political reality – but they have not altered the authoritarian nature of the political system fundamentally. By Amr Hamzawy

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, center, is surrounded by hundreds of Islamic clerics, tribal chiefs and other prominent Saudis before he receives oaths of loyalty in a traditional Islamic investiture ceremony that bestows his legitimacy (photo: AP)
Saudi King Abdullah (center) has carefully pushed for reforms. His critics argue that rapid reforms would undermine the rulers' authority, eventually leading to a jihadist takeover

​​Recent years have witnessed unprecedented political dynamism in Saudi Arabia. Since 2002, the government has pursued various reform policies. Its most relevant measures have included reforming the Shura Council, holding municipal elections, legalizing civil society actors, implementing educational reform plans, and institutionalizing national dialogue conferences.

Although these measures appear less significant when compared with political developments in other Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Egypt, they constitute elements of a meaningful opening in Saudi authoritarian politics.

Authoritarian consolidation

In the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia represented a clear case of authoritarian consolidation. The Al Saud royal family used high oil revenues to boost its control and to expand existing networks of patrimonial allegiance across the country. The state apparatus swelled and, with it, the role of the security forces and the Wahhabi religious establishment grew dominant.

The government's authoritarian grip over society tightened. A degree of pluralism rooted in the tribal structures of the Saudi society and in the benevolent rule of the first kings was replaced by an emerging repressive state and an aggressive, fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, exposed Saudi society to the catastrophic outcomes of its authoritarian Wahhabi lethargy. The most immediate impact of the 9/11 attacks was to subject the royal family to increasing international pressure to introduce significant reforms to combat terrorism and extremism.

However, the attacks also served as a catalyst for wide-ranging debates among the political and intellectual elites about "what went wrong" and "what should be done." Domestic calls for reform were suddenly given a better hearing. In recent years these two factors — international and domestic reform demands — have injected new elements of dynamism and openness into Saudi Arabia's political reality. They have also generated sufficient incentives for the government to embark on the road of reform.

Reform measures 2002-2005

Recent reform measures in Saudi Arabia have stemmed from power relations among the major political actors. To a great extent, the interplay between the royal family and the Wahhabi religious establishment has determined the pace as well as the scope of implemented reforms. Other actors, however, have also entered the political arena and now play an important role in shaping the reform process.

Although far from organized and viable opposition movements, these dissenting groups — most notably liberal reformist groups, moderate Islamists, and conservative religious scholars critical of official Wahhabism — have increasingly placed reform issues in the public space and as such have induced the royal family and the religious establishment to address their demands.

Reforms implemented by the Saudi government in recent years have revitalized existing consultative councils and introduced the mechanism of elections at the municipal level. New opportunities for citizen participation in civil society have emerged, and the margin of freedom in the public space has expanded significantly.

In addition, the political spectrum has grown more diverse with the entry of new players, who have garnered popular support for their reform platforms.

Although these changes represent a significant opening in Saudi politics, they have not altered the authoritarian nature of the political system fundamentally. The royal family and the Wahhabi religious establishment have sustained their domineering positions in society. Their ability to block, stall, and even reverse reforms has not diminished substantially. In the absence of competing power centers, the reform process has remained inherently vulnerable and limited.

The role of external actors

Promoting the current political opening in Saudi Arabia presents the United States and Europe with a set of difficult challenges. In the Saudi case, both the United States and Europe lack the leverage of economic or military aid that can be conditioned to the implementation of further reform measures. On the contrary, Western economies depend a great deal on Saudi oil, which has grown even more important in recent years.

Shocked by the fact that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens, the Bush administration pressed the royal family to combat terrorism and extremism — and that pressure continues.

In 2002 and 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq, the administration also unleashed an unprecedented barrage of rhetoric about the necessity for Saudi reform, targeting in particular the absence of political participation and the educational system. Fearful of losing its strategic alliance with the United States and amid growing domestic demands for change, the royal family did respond and implemented some reforms, as discussed earlier.

The Iraq factor

However, the emergence of the Iraqi turmoil has pushed the pendulum of U.S.–Saudi relations back in the opposite direction. Over the past two years, the Bush administration has softened its stance vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and kept a low profile on Saudi domestic issues.

The royal family, for its part, has resorted to scare tactics, arguing that rapid, uncontrolled reforms would undermine its authority, leading to a jihadist takeover. The United States and Europe, worried about the possibility of total destabilization in the Gulf region, have abated their pressure for reform.

In its search for entry points to promote reform in Saudi Arabia, the United States and Europe are also constrained by Saudi domestic realities. Although the current political opening is undoubtedly significant, it is by no means the beginning of a Saudi democratization process. This is not a country that can be expected to legalize political parties or organize truly competitive elections in the near future.

By the same token, the emergence of a powerful legislative authority or an independent judiciary is unlikely. Reforming the authoritarian polity in Saudi Arabia is bound to follow a slow path — an uneven process that entails the gradual expansion of political representation and the creation of new spaces where citizens enjoy limited freedoms. Disagreements about certain issues such as the mélange of religion and politics as well as the role of women in public life are integral parts of introducing reforms in a country like Saudi Arabia.

Two realistic entry points

Given these conditions, the United States and Europe have two realistic entry points to encourage political reform in Saudi Arabia. First, at the government-to-government level, Western governments should support the demands of Saudi dissenting groups advocating reform. Second, at the nongovernmental level, the West should offer to intensify its contacts with civil society actors.

Such an endeavor will necessitate joint efforts by governments and by nongovernmental organizations operating in the fields of democracy promotion and human rights. The Saudi government must be pressured to allow freer cooperation between international and domestic NGOs, something which remains extremely difficult at present.

Gradually including Saudi NGOs and professional syndicates in ongoing regional programs as well as devising country-specific measures can help develop their capacities and embolden their reform platforms by exposing them to the international democracy promotion agenda.

The steps advocated here are modest. But in a country like Saudi Arabia, which is only now beginning to take the first steps toward liberalization, it is better for the United States and Europe to set modest goals and promote them consistently than to indulge in the grand rhetorical statement about democracy that cannot be backed by a clear policy.

Amr Hamzawy

© Amr Hamzawy 2006

The writer is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC.


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