Can Saudi Arabia Bridge Its Generation Gap?

Can Saudi Arabia Bridge Its Generation Gap?
Images of Saudi leaders on a building under construction, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 19, 2016 (AP photo by Hasan Jamali).

The emergence of a brash and little-known 31-year-old as the public face of a dynamic new style of leadership in Saudi Arabia has caught international attention over the past two years. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, whose rise began in 2015, has promoted his so-called Saudi Vision 2030 initiative as an instrument of economic transformation in an era of plummeting oil prices. Against the backdrop of emergency spending cuts in 2015 that stove off financial ruin, the project aims to balance the Saudi budget by 2020, wean the country off of energy subsidies, and reduce the role of the state in the economy. While it is too early to tell if Saudi Vision 2030 will succeed or fail, the prospect of rapid and sustained change is a significant departure from business as usual in a country far more accustomed to cautious and incremental change.

State-society relations in Saudi Arabia are determined by a careful mixture of consensus and balancing among competing interests within both the ruling Al Saud family and society at large. Since the creation of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, and especially after the rise of Crown Prince Faisal in the 1960s, the Al Saud family sought a pragmatic and gradualist approach to socio-political development. Such policies were somewhat successful in softening the impact of economic modernization and guiding the kingdom through periods of internal strain, such as the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and challenges from violent extremism in the 1990s and 2000s.

Saudi society is nevertheless changing at an accelerating pace, as young people redraw the boundaries of social interaction and the welfare state creaks under the strain of three consecutive years of low oil prices. An energetic new leadership under Mohammed bin Salman has emerged to champion Saudi Vision 2030 as an instrument of transformative economic change, but critical questions of power, politics and the direction of policymaking remain in doubt.

History and Context

The contemporary Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—founded in 1932 by Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, who was king until his death in 1953—is the third iteration of a Saudi state in the Arabian Peninsula. The first of these, known as the Emirate of Diriyah, took shape in 1744 when Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an Islamic scholar from Lower Najd—today’s Riyadh—joined with Prince Mohammed bin Saud of Diriyah to create a politico-religious entity aimed at ridding Islam in the Arabian Peninsula of heretical practices and deviations. Abd al-Wahhab sought to restore Islam to its pure and unadulterated roots, and his scholarship formed the core of the Salafi movement.

This first Saudi state collapsed in 1818 after a series of British attacks on Saudi territory and a final Egyptian assault on Diriyah. But many observers of Saudi Arabia attach contemporary significance to the “dynastic alliance” made by Mohammed bin Saud and Mohammed bin Abd al-Wahhab in 1744. In its legacy they see a separation of responsibilities, whereby the Al Saud family exercises political leadership while the descendants of al-Wahhab monopolize religious posts, creating a dual, hybrid state. However, the reality is more complex: Abd al-Aziz Al Saud and his successors—who have maintained power since his death—have, in key moments, mobilized religion both as an instrument of power and as a source of legitimacy, each time using a strategy of co-optation that kept final responsibility for policy firmly within Al Saud control.

While it is too early to tell if Saudi Vision 2030 will succeed or fail, the prospect of rapid and sustained change is a significant departure from business as usual in a country far more accustomed to cautious and incremental change.

The Ikhwan movement, or brotherhood, is an example of religion’s role in the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula. The movement stemmed from Abd al-Aziz’s campaign to settle the Bedouin and turn them into a fierce fighting force. Although the Ikhwan greatly assisted in the conquest of the Hejaz and al-Ahsa provinces, the movement rebelled in the late 1920s, retaliating against Abd al-Aziz’s moderation of religious policy in the newly acquired territories. That posed a threat to the centralization of Al Saud power. The movement was crushed by the forces of the nascent Saudi state in 1929 and 1930, and remained politically and socially marginalized thereafter.

Although oil was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938, World War II delayed the extraction and export of significant quantities until 1946. During the war, Saudi Arabia suffered considerably from economic hardship and disruption to the Hajj—the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, which was a key source of Saudi income prior to the discovery of oil and remains a significant source of revenue. The modern infrastructure of government was only fully established after the death of Abd al-Aziz Al Saud in 1953, as technocratic ministries took the strain off the Royal Court in policy implementation, if not formulation.

Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a summit of Arab and Latin American leaders, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Nov. 11, 2015 (AP photo by Hasan Jamali).

Fifty years after the suppression of the Ikhwan in 1929, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979 by a group of religious militants led by Juhayman al-Utaybi represented what scholar Andrew Hammond calls “the sequel to the Ikhwan revolt of 1929” in the struggle over the speed and direction of Saudi modernization. Al-Utaybi’s father had fought with the Ikhwan in the 1929 battle with Saudi forces. Juhayman became radicalized while studying in Medina in the 1970s and after being exposed to the modern, Western-influenced lifestyle—at least in some regards—seen in Riyadh and other major Saudi cities.

Juyahman recruited similarly disaffected Bedouin from humble backgrounds who were excluded from—but who also rejected—what they saw as the oil-fueled transformation of Saudi Arabian society. After taking control of the Grand Mosque, the militants released a list of grievances over Western innovations, including television and women’s education, and issued personal attacks on the perceived freewheeling activities of senior Al Saud princes.

Faced again with a challenge to its political and religious legitimacy, the Al Saud family responded very differently than it did after having defeated the Ikhwan in 1930. After executing Juhayman and the other perpetrators, the royal family proceeded to implement many of the rebels’ demands, refocusing the role of religion in Saudi society. That included measures that increased funding for religious universities, expanded the remit and size of the religious police, and supported pan-Islamic organizations and causes, such as the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. In addition, the politicization of Shiite Islam in postrevolutionary Iran and the decline in oil prices in the early 1980s challenged the Saudi regime’s leadership of the Muslim world and its ability to provide for the economic welfare of its citizens. Faced with this multipronged threat to political and religious legitimacy, the regime slowed down the process of liberalization and granted more political space for Islamist activism.

Consensus and Balance

The examples of domestic unrest described above illustrate the importance of consensual decision-making in balancing the diverse interests of Saudi society and competing royal factions. This necessity has, at times, lent an air of excessive caution to Saudi policy formulation, but it also reflects the lessons the royal family has drawn from instances of internal contestation, as well as from the prolonged split between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal between 1958 and 1964.

The Saud-Faisal dispute arose following Abd al-Aziz’s death in 1953, which marked the end of patrimonial rule and transition to a system of government that would divide the responsibilities of governing among his many sons. The Al Saud family polarized around the two camps of Saud and Faisal, with a third group of more liberal-minded princes, known as the “Free Princes,” somewhere in between. Ultimately, the power struggle led Saud to abdicate, with Faisal becoming king in 1964.

The period between 1953 and 1964 was thus one of institutional fluidity that contrasted sharply with the subsequent ossification of bureaucratic structures into princely “fiefdoms.” As scholar Steffan Hertog has noted, the interplay of administrative growth and elite politics gradually “congealed” into a “very static Saudi system in which most stakes have been ‘parceled out’ both in business and bureaucracy.”

Prime examples of this segmentation in practice included the long tenures of senior princes in key government posts: Prince Sultan was minister of defense from 1962 until his death in 2011, while his successor as crown prince, Nayef, had been minister of interior from 1975 until he passed away in 2012. Sultan’s successor as defense minister, the current King Salman, served for 49 years as governor of Riyadh before ascending to the throne in January 2015. The Saudi Arabian National Guard formed another entrenched bastion of familial power, first led by Prince Abdullah from 1963 until 2010, and since by Abdullah’s second son, Mutaib.

The interplay of administrative growth and elite politics gradually “congealed” into a “very static Saudi system in which most stakes have been ‘parceled out’ both in business and bureaucracy.”

Such entrenched interests have led close observers of Saudi Arabia to speak of competing “circles” of royals. Although the deaths of King Fahd in 2005 and of successive crown princes—Sultan and Nayef—removed the heads of some of these circles, powerful layers of vested interests remain in play, particularly in the Ministry of Interior, which is today run by Nayef’s high-profile son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The subsequent shift to a new generation of leaders—the so-called Third Generation that encompasses the grandsons of Abd al-Aziz—may inject new potency into factional elites within Saudi Arabia.

The delicate balancing act facing Saudi leaders, as well as their reluctance to be rushed into making critical decisions, came to the fore in August 1990, when then-King Fahd offered to host American-led military forces preparing for the liberation of Kuwait. Fahd decided to do so following a meeting with then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, on the premise that U.S. forces would leave the kingdom after the war. Aware of the need to underpin such a momentous decision with religious support, the Saudi government asked the Council of Senior Scholars to legitimate the move through a fatwa. Initially, the council, led by Abd al-Aziz bin Baz, the senior religious authority in the kingdom, refused to support the government’s position, but ultimately caved under pressure, issuing a fatwa endorsing the king’s decision.

This move alienated a significant portion of the Salafi establishment, which coalesced into the Sahwa movement of religious-political activism, and empowered more radical critics of Saudi policy such as Osama bin Laden. In 1990, Riyadh rejected bin Laden’s offer to send his Afghanistan-based fighting force to repel then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and instead opted for U.S.-led military support. That decision unleashed forces of domestic opposition that coursed through Saudi society for the remainder of the 1990s.

The lesson taken from this historical experience by the highest echelons of the Al Saud family is that policy formulation must be filtered through numerous considerations and cannot be made in an ad hoc or conventionally autocratic manner. Rather, policies are traditionally weighed based on how they will affect the balance of familial and social power within the Al Saud family and Saudi Arabia, particularly in terms of appointments to senior positions. Moreover, the balance of interests has evolved over time and resulted in an element of fluidity in the content of decision-making, as princely assessments of the policy landscape have themselves shifted. This has produced a relatively pragmatic and usually cautious approach to change, generating an often-unstated system of checks and balances that prevents Saudi rulers from exercising untrammeled power. For this reason, the post-2015 concentration of authority in Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the acceleration of a dynamic leadership style constitute a striking departure from the norms of Saudi politics.

Who Calls the Shots in Saudi Society?

In addition to the Al Saud family, the principal social actors in contemporary Saudi Arabia include religious authorities, the business community, certain protected enclaves of economic development and, more recently, a highly interconnected and well-educated youth population. The royal family remains the epicenter of government and politics in Saudi Arabia and, as such, the reference point for all other groups seeking access to power, privilege and patronage. However, the quarter-century since the First Gulf War has witnessed an incremental institutionalization of governance frameworks, particularly during the decade of high oil prices that ended in 2014. During this period, most government ministries and public agencies invested heavily in new and sometimes innovative forms of public-service delivery. Many of these initiatives revolved around the launch of e-government portals as a means of making government more market-facing and readily accessible to Saudi citizens.

Policy formulation must be filtered through numerous considerations and cannot be made in an ad hoc or conventionally autocratic manner.

Furthermore, judicial reforms introduced in 2007 by then-King Abdullah, who ascended to the throne in 2005, initiated a cautious process of change intended to strengthen institutional procedures, as did the expansion of the Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Assembly, with the appointment of 30 female members in 2013. Abdullah’s reforms included new laws regulating the judiciary as well as the creation of a supreme court to oversee the implementation of Shariah. Abdullah simultaneously attempted to weaken religious critics of his reforms by demoting dissident clerics; at one point, he removed a leading member of the Council of Senior Scholars who publicly attacked the gender mixing at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology when it opened in 2009. In a further attempt to dilute the power of the religious elites and bring them more fully under government control, Abdullah issued a royal decree restricting the issuing of fatwas to a list of pre-approved clerics.

The most important religious family in Saudi Arabia is the Al-Sheikh family—direct descendants of Mohammed bin Abd al-Wahhab. In 1902, the Al-Sheikh family reaffirmed their ancestor’s historic 1744 alliance with Mohammed bin Saud by aligning themselves with Abd al-Aziz Al Saud following the recapture of Riyadh. During the three decades of Saudi conquest and state-building that followed, the Al-Sheikh family supported the Al Saud family and became the backbone of the religious establishment of ulama, or legal scholars, and the mutawaeen, or religious police. This position of dominance lasted until the 1969 death of Mohammed bin Ibrahim Al-Sheikh, the supreme scholarly authority in Saudi Arabia, after which then-King Faisal reorganized the religious establishment and the functions it controlled, eroding the Al-Sheikh family’s leadership and influence.

With the emergence of a new generation of religious scholars, led by Abd al-Aziz bin Baz, himself the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia until his death in 1999, the religious elites became less monolithic. The rise of the Sahwa movement in the late 1980s and 1990s illustrated the greater fluidity of religious activism in the kingdom. Clerics such as Salman al-Awda and Safar al-Hawali capitalized on the fallout from King Fahd’s decision to host U.S. troops, accusing the regime of hypocrisy and mining a deep groundswell of disquiet at the presence of foreign forces on Saudi soil. In 1994, al-Awda and more than 100 other Sahwa leaders and activists were arrested and imprisoned as the regime cracked down hard to forestall any emergence of a domestic opposition movement.

The royal family remains the epicenter of government and politics in Saudi Arabia and, as such, the reference point for all other groups seeking access to power, privilege and patronage.

Following his release from prison in 1999, al-Awda and other leading religious figures reinvented themselves as Islamist intellectuals with a substantial public following. This poses new dilemmas for the Saudi regime in the contemporary era of social media saturation. With 11.5 million followers on Twitter, al-Awda now enjoys a vast audience with whom he can communicate directly, bypassing any attempts at state control and making it more difficult for the regime to censure him. Al-Awda took maximum advantage of this when, in March 2013, he released an open letter to then-King Abdullah that criticized the Saudi response to the Arab Spring, and warned that Riyadh could face the “spark of violence” if it did not address concerns over political detainees, poor public services and corruption. Al-Awda disseminated the letter in a series of Tweets, each of which was designed to carry a self-contained message that could be widely shared for maximum impact.

The business community has also gained greater autonomy from state structures. In the nascent Saudi state, the powerful merchant families of the Hejaz constituted the mainstay of economic power, together with immigrant merchants, many of whom came from Yemen. These early economic elites operated within a broader transnational sphere stretching from East Africa to India, and were cosmopolitan in their outlook and connections to Western economic interests, including Aramco, the Saudi state oil company. But over time, a subtle yet powerful shift in the business elite occurred as a new class of economic actors from the Najd forged close ties with senior princes, particularly King Fahd and Crown Prince Sultan. By the 1980s, they had replaced the Hejazi merchants at the head of the business community, with greater involvement of the royal family.

Giacomo Luciani, a leading expert on the geopolitics of energy and oil, points to a “silent transformation” in Saudi Arabia, as “the private sector dependent on the governments’ largesse has mutated into a national bourgeoisie” with its own set of interests and capabilities. This, he suggests, represents a maturation of the rentier model of economic development, in which a strong private sector, while nonpolitical in its actions, has acquired leverage should political and economic interests ever diverge, as in 2015 when private-sector contractors went unpaid—in some cases for months, as the state imposed emergency spending cuts to slash a soaring budget deficit.

This notwithstanding, the public sector has remained the driver of economic development and diversification, and much private-sector activity continues to revolve around the provision of derivative goods and services. While the Saudi government emphasizes its commitment to strengthening and expanding private enterprise, concerns linger over issues ranging from bureaucratic hindrances, regulatory weaknesses, inefficient labor laws and mistrust of crony capitalism, all of which undermine the private sector’s capacity to become a main component of economic growth.

A notable feature of recent Saudi development has been the creation of “islands of efficiency.” These enclaves have been afforded protection from patronage politics and have emerged as regionally and at times globally competitive entities that attract the best and brightest Saudi graduates. Prime examples include the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, founded in 1952; Saudi Aramco, which was nationalized between 1973 and 1980; the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, launched in 1975; the Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation, created in 1976; and, more recently, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, opened in 2009.

Bureaucratic hindrances, regulatory weaknesses, inefficient labor laws and mistrust of crony capitalism all undermine the private sector’s capacity to become a main component of economic growth.

However, this “enclave” approach to reforming the business environment has created a parallel economy that paradoxically threatens to widen existing income and regional disparities. It was illustrative, for example, that responsibility for the development of KAUST was entrusted to Saudi Aramco rather than to the Ministry of Higher Education. While this institutional arrangement enables the university to bypass cumbersome ministerial procedures and operate autonomously, it raises questions about whether KAUST is becoming just another enclave operating in isolation from the surrounding economy and society, and outside of government regulations.

Barriers to Economic Growth and Equality

A large cohort of young Saudis are entering a labor market defined by ongoing attempts to strike a balance between a public sector that is still a driver of much economic activity and a private sector struggling to carve out sufficient breathing space to grow. How the Saudi government manages to absorb all the new entrants—or doesn’t—will significantly impact the next phase of socio-economic development in the kingdom. Traditional models of wealth redistribution and political co-optation have long ceased to function effectively, if they ever did at all, and pockets of relative deprivation exist across the country; a January 2013 investigation by the Guardian estimated that even after years of high oil prices and record revenues, up to a quarter of the Saudi population was living below the poverty line of $530 a month, and that job creation and welfare programs were failing to keep pace with population growth and rising youth unemployment. The impact of two years of public-sector hiring slowdowns and layoffs from private-sector businesses impacted by the budget cuts is likely to have deepened these socio-economic inequalities.

Closely connected with these high poverty rates is soaring unemployment, particularly among Saudi youth and women. Statistics released in 2013 by the International Monetary Fund indicate that unemployment has reached 30 percent for youth and 35 percent for women and that more than 1.5 million of the 2 million new jobs created between 2009 and 2013 went to non-Saudis rather than local workers. Saudi policymakers are faced with a dilemma: While the private sector has been creating jobs, they often don’t go to Saudis, as both small and medium-sized enterprises and large employers opt to hire cheaper, non-national workers. Thus, the number of working visas issued to the private sector more than doubled between 2005 and 2009, while in May 2011 the Ministry of Labor acknowledged that an additional 2 million work visas had been issued since 2009 alone. In 2015, estimates provided by Gulf States News suggested that 368,000 of the 417,000 new jobs created that year—88 percent—were filled by expatriates.

Traditional models of wealth redistribution and political co-optation have long ceased to function effectively, if they ever did at all, and pockets of relative deprivation exist across the country.

The difficulty of luring Saudi nationals into the private sector largely stems from its limited capacity to absorb national labor. Social insurance data, for example, has shown that fewer than 400,000 private-sector jobs in the kingdom paid more than $800 per month, a figure that has been cited as the baseline for Saudi high-school graduates to consider taking a job. According to a May 2016 study, 80 percent of unemployed Riyadh residents surveyed expressed a preference for a job in the public sector, due primarily to greater perceived levels of job security, shorter working hours and longer periods of annual leave.

Moreover, repeated attempts to nationalize the labor force—so-called Saudization—have since the 1980s failed to make much headway. The 2011 Nitaqat initiative, for example, which sought to compel private companies to hire more Saudis, faced heavy criticism from many in the Saudi business community for driving up costs and reducing competitiveness. The fate of these plans illustrates the challenge of aligning business and political interests when it comes to reforming what many private-sector leaders see as their access to large reserves of cheap labor. This makes it harder to mobilize and engage all key stakeholders in support of common policy objectives.

Consequently, there is a risk that an expanding pool of Saudis will feel economically marginalized if they are unable to find suitable jobs or perceive that the government is unable to deliver quick wins that match the ambitious rhetoric of Saudi Vision 2030. There is also the potential for economic discontent to become politicized if the impact of post-2015 austerity measures hits people irrespective of their regional or religious background, and transcends the segmented nature of Saudi society that has prevented the spillover of protests across social boundaries in the past.

While the private sector has been creating jobs, they often don’t go to Saudis, as enterprises and large employers opt to hire cheaper, non-national workers.

The government may also face tension as a growing number of highly educated and skilled Saudi graduates return from abroad only to find limited professional opportunities, not to mention from the practical obstacles facing women in the labor market and society at large. Since the foundation of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program in 2005, more than 140,000 young Saudis have studied abroad on government-funded studentships, and the program proved so successful that it was extended twice before being scaled back in 2016 as part of public-spending cuts.

How the government manages the return of tens of thousands of educated and highly qualified graduates will go a long way toward determining whether the much-vaunted “youth bulge” turns out to be an asset or a liability, and whether Saudi Vision 2030 can become reality. Moreover, the impact of the returnees will go beyond the economic sphere, generating a heightened level of social expectations and entitlement. A foretaste of this came in 2013, when a satirical video entitled “No Woman, No Drive,” lampooning old-fashioned, patriarchal attitudes that underpin Saudi Arabia’s ban on female driving went viral on YouTube and was viewed more than 14 million times. The comedian who created the video said he was inspired to do so while studying at Columbia University on a King Abdullah Scholarship. The returning scholars will inevitably be catalysts of social change as much as generators of economic change, although the government may realize it has far less control over the former than the latter. In 2014, for example, several women activists defied the driving ban, taking to the streets behind the wheel, only to be subsequently arrested. Still, in November 2016, one Saudi prince and business magnate urged an end to the ban, saying on Twitter, “Stop the debate. It’s time for women to drive.” His call unsurprisingly had little impact on policy, but is nonetheless notable.

A woman drives a car as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 29, 2014 (AP photo by Hasan Jamali).

Women are heavily represented among the scholarship students, and their return will likewise trigger a far-reaching debate about their presence in the public and private spheres. Thus far, Saudi government agencies have shown a degree of responsiveness to the issue, launching new initiatives to connect students to jobs and showing greater flexibility in allowing women access to a “virtual workplace” by making it easier for women to work from home. It is noteworthy that young Saudis—men and women alike—often have no compunction about working in a mixed environment, and frequently know each other socially as well as professionally.

There have been multiple recent breakthroughs for Saudi women in positions of professional responsibility or active involvement in public life. The first female law firm opened in Jeddah in January 2014 following the granting of licenses to women lawyers, while Somayya Jabarti became the first female editor of a Saudi newspaper, and Sarah al-Suhaimi was appointed the first female CEO of NCB Capital, a Saudi bank. Together, these appointments, as well as the involvement of women in the Majlis al-Shura, are likely intended to sensitize Saudi society to the norm of women’s participation in both the workforce and in public life.

The labor market is also constrained by potential sensitivities related to updating the practice of Shariah and reconciling it with the demands of a networked 21st-century society. Mohammed bin Salman has sought to build on Abdullah’s judicial reforms to further restrict the influence of the mutawaeen. In April 2016, the religious police were stripped of the power to pursue or question suspects and make arrests. Nevertheless, while women and men do in many cases work alongside each other in private “back office” spaces, any sudden move to desegregate the public sphere could trigger a backlash from religious and socially conservative quarters. It remains an open question whether cautious, incremental societal change is compatible with the transformative economic aspirations at the heart of Saudi Vision 2030.

How the government manages the return of tens of thousands of highly qualified graduates will go a long way toward determining whether the “youth bulge” becomes an asset or a liability, and whether Saudi Vision 2030 can become reality.

Regional inequalities also remain a stubborn feature of contemporary Saudi Arabia that reflects, in part, historical patterns of development borne out of the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula and the subjugation of defeated communities by Abd al-Aziz Al Saud. Inhabitants of the three southern provinces of Jizan, Asir and Najran, which have heavy cross-border familial and social ties with Yemen, have long complained of a lack of access to political and economic resources and a general level of discrimination. This is magnified in the case of the Ismaili community of Najran, which has reported endemic levels of religious and ethnic discrimination by government authorities and security personnel.

Even more dire is the case of the sizeable Shiite minority in the Eastern Province, which the regime views as an ideological and regional threat: both a challenge to the Saudi state’s legitimacy as the custodian of the holy sites of Islam and ripe for manipulation or exploitation by Iran. Near-daily skirmishes and anti-government protests in parts of the Eastern Province form what Toby Matthiesen has labeled “the largest and longest protest movement” in the modern history of Saudi Arabia. So long as the roots of the protests remain confined to the Shiite community, they are unlikely to intersect with grievances felt by groups elsewhere, such as the Ismailis.

Power and Succession

All the social and economic issues analyzed above take on added importance with the looming transition to a new generation of leadership in Saudi Arabia. King Salman’s unprecedented decision to remove a sitting crown prince—his youngest half-brother, Muqrin bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud—in April 2015 guaranteed that he would be the last of King Abd al-Aziz’s sons to rule. Salman’s decision to alter the succession plan laid down by King Abdullah guaranteed that future kings would be selected from the grandsons of Saudi Arabia’s founding father. Upon Salman’s death, power will thus pass to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, his nephew and the minister of interior since November 2011, and eventually to 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and one of Salman’s younger sons whose rapid entry into the line of succession and to the post of minister of defense surprised observers inside and outside the kingdom.

Uncertainties remain over the depth and direction of the transition.

Mohammed bin Salman has accrued significant authority over economic decision-making in the two years since his father became king in 2015. Within days of Salman’s accession to the throne, a wide-ranging Cabinet reorganization placed Mohammed bin Salman as president of the newly formed Council of Economic and Development Affairs, a powerful sub-Cabinet committee to which 22 ministers report; in contrast, a second sub-Cabinet committee headed by Mohammed bin Nayef has just nine members. Having gained control of economic policymaking, a separate decree in May 2015 appointed Mohammed bin Salman chair of a new supreme council for Saudi Aramco and thereby brought him into the heart of energy policy as well. Two Cabinet switches in 2016 subsequently replaced the long-serving ministers of finance and oil, Ali al-Naimi and Ibrahim al-Assaf, with appointees seen as part of the transition to a new generation of technocratic leaders associated closely with Mohammed bin Salman’s expansive Saudi Vision 2030.

And yet, uncertainties remain over the depth and direction of the transition. By choosing to dispense with the crown prince “inherited” from his predecessor, King Salman has established a precedent that could prove awkward for Mohammed bin Salman should Mohammed bin Nayef, as king, also choose the right to select his own crown prince. Alternatively, an ageing King Salman could attempt to seal the succession for his favored son by cutting Mohammed bin Nayef out of the transition and ensuring that power passes directly to Mohammed bin Salman. While any such scenario remains conjecture at this point, the Al Saud family has yet to create a mechanism for deciding succession once the throne no longer passes from brother to half-brother, as it has in an unbroken line since 1953.

Mohammed bin Salman has staked his reputation on two big bets made shortly after his rise to prominence: the military intervention in Yemen that began in March 2015, and his launch of Saudi Vision 2030 in April 2016. If either policy fails to deliver the promised results—and the war in Yemen is grinding toward its two-year anniversary without any obvious prospect of decisive political or military success—then Mohammed bin Salman could come under pressure from factions within the ruling family or Saudi society who fear he has moved too far and too fast to accumulate power and, in so doing, jeopardized the careful balancing act that has underpinned Saudi policymaking for decades.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is the fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.

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