The Paradoxical Survival of Monarchy in the Middle East: Why do some regimes fall and others survive? The case of the Saudi Monarchy

by Saleh Alharbi 

The Arab Spring of 2011 ended several authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Other authoritarian regimes, especially the gulf monarchies like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remained largely undisturbed. On one hand, the popular protests – which toppled long-existing dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, led to the killing of Libya’s four-decade-long ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, and triggered a prolonged civil war in Syria – marked an unprecedented political change in the region.  While authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria came under attack, others, especially the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia were largely untroubled.  How do we account for this paradox? What enables the monarchies in the Middle East, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to withstand the threat of democratic change?

To understand this, it is necessary to look at the question of regime survival within a perpetually contested process of state-making, evolution, and – quite possibly – unmaking. At the domestic level, the state is a product of successful domination by a political organisation or force over all other forces seeking hegemony. The process of domination also meets resistance from sectors of society that are negatively affected by the dominating forces. Thus regime survival is a question of how a state’s dominant political actor or group of actors manages political contestation within the state’s borders. In other words, the survival of certain regimes is something actively and continuously created.

This is a conceptualisation of the state which is simultaneously a conceptualisation of the political, or of the-state-in-society. Describing the nature of the state – how it came into being and how it self-reproduces – cannot be fully disentangled from examining what constitutes the realm of politics. This juxtaposition allows us to think about the persistence of some regimes, to account for the breakdown of others, and perceive potential threats to those that still manage to survive until today.

In order to understand the survival of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia it is important to elicit those struggles – the clashes, negotiations, tactical coalitions, and deliberate incitement of conflict between different groups – that have contributed to the seeming impossibility of democratisation. The state-in-society theory of Joel Migdal provides an apt framework for this purpose. The uniqueness of the Saudi Arabian political landscape, however, calls for a specific concept – the double standard coalition a strategy of domination – which, though aligned with the broader state-in-society framework, particularly describes Saudi Arabia’s state-society relations. The double-standard coalition allows us to examine the important groups who have competed for power and who have demanded and resisted reform. The coalition that emerges has allowed the Saudi monarchy to manoeuvre towards its survival.

Two dominant, but competing, social forces, groups that could potentially usher in political change in Saudi Arabia, have emerged from the history of tribal and religious society. On one hand, the Islamists have traditionally been influential in Saudi Arabia, because of the deep entanglement of government and religion in the country. As the law of the state draws on Islamic laws, the state and religion have formed a mutually sustaining relationship. On the other hand, Liberal fields have emerged in society during recent years with the rise of new intellectuals, artists, students, and women’s rights advocates, all trying to have an influence within Saudi society.

These two ideological camps, with their own ideas of an acceptable social order, have since competed for political influence. Both, however, assume an attitude of scepticism towards democracy in Saudi Arabia. Both the Islamic and the liberal forces have avoided democratic reforms as each camp assumes that democracy will politically benefit the other.  The incumbent Saudi monarchy has capitalised on these influential forces’ attitude towards democratisation and has deliberately fuelled disputes between them, or kept conflicts unresolved. It has maintained “double standard” coalitions with both camps and has simultaneously enjoyed their support. Meanwhile, both forces have sought agreements with and concessions from the Royal Family in order to maintain their influence in determining a future social order. This kind of strategic interaction between the Royal Family, the Islamists, and the Liberals reinforces the resilience of the status quo as well as the popular perception that the monarchic regime is durable.

That it has to maintain alliances with ideologically diverse but socially-influential groups, while deliberately keeping them in conflict, points to the constructed nature of the Saudi ruling regime. That is, the hegemony of the Saudi monarchy is preserved by the competitive interaction of different stakeholders each articulating their own interests and pursuing their respective objectives. The perceived credibility of the Saudi regime’s enforcement capacity emanates more from the state actors’ constant engagement with the mutually opposing dominant social-political forces. The Royal Family’s double standard coalition strategy allows it to make compromises, accommodations, and alliances and, hence, to develop into relative durability.

It is possible to understand why the Saudi Monarchy has remained stable while other authoritarian regimes have fallen. It is also possible to understand why democratic change has been slow in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it becomes possible to understand the paradox of why some of the most famous liberals in Saudi Arabia oppose democracy. 

Saleh Alharbi

Saleh Alharbi is a third year PhD candidate at the School of Politics & International Relations, UCD. His research focuses on Politics of the Middle East, political reform, democratization, terrorism, Islamic political thought and human rights. Saleh had a Master of International Relations from University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. And a Bachelor of Political Science and Global Political Economy from King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia. Previously to joining UCD, Saleh worked for three years as a lecturer and a teaching assistant in the department of Political Science, and as the deputy head of Media and Public Relations unit in the Faculty of Economics and Administration in King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia.


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