Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course
Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course

Can Saudi Arabia Reform Itself?

The Saudi regime faces one of the more difficult phases in its history. Fearful of change, accustomed to a system in which it holds enormous power and privileges, the ruling family may consider any serious reform a risk not worth taking.

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Executive Summary

The Saudi regime faces one of the more difficult phases in its history. Fearful of change, accustomed to a system in which it holds enormous power and privileges, the ruling family may consider any serious reform a risk not worth taking. The irony is that a program of change offers the most likely path to stability, and the greatest risk would come from doing nothing at all.

The Saudi regime's U.S. ally is angry at its perceived complacency with Islamic extremism while its domestic constituency increasingly resents its perceived subservience to Washington. It needs to address internal and external pressures for reform without alienating the conservative religious leadership on which its legitimacy depends. Severe socio-economic problems include rising unemployment and poverty in a context of galloping population growth. And all this before the country awoke to the emergence of an armed, militant group within its borders that has unleashed a wave of violence intended to shatter confidence in the regime, its economic prosperity, and its stability.

Under such trying circumstances, the regime might conclude that the safest approach is to crack down on the more violent militants while essentially clinging to the political status quo. Security forces have had some success, arresting hundreds of suspected extremists, killing many others including the presumed leader of al-Qaeda in the Kingdom, and confiscating weapons and bomb-making material. Most citizens -- even those opposed to the regime -- appear repulsed by the militants' methods. The regime is not on the brink of collapse or the country on the verge of civil war. In this context, the argument that a political opening unnecessarily risks giving voice and influence to extremist forces is appealing. However, adoption of such a conservative approach would ultimately be a self-defeating strategy.

The rise of radical Islamism in Saudi Arabia has many and complex causes -- most recently including the U.S. posture in the region, epitomised by the invasion of Iraq and neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- but the closed nature of the political system and skewed resource distribution certainly count among them. The militants, in other words, did not appear in a vacuum. Their roots are deep in Saudi history and an environment that has stifled pluralism, prevented the organisation of social and political interests and nurtured intolerance. That the groups engaged in terrorist violence have little interest in free elections or greater political participation for Saudi citizens is self-evident. But just as surely they capitalise on the erosion of regime legitimacy to recruit new volunteers.

There have been some initial encouraging signs that at least part of the royal family understands this. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S., in which Saudi militants were heavily involved, an intense internal debate has been underway. An informal reform lobby of liberals, progressive Islamists, nationalists, and Shiites has begun to press for change, offering a vision that is a non-violent alternative, consistent with Islam, home grown and respectful of the al-Saud's unifying role. In response, the government has acknowledged the need for political, social and educational reform and begun grappling with what that would entail. By sponsoring National Dialogue sessions, promising partial local elections, easing (though far from lifting) press censorship, and establishing a committee to review school curricula, the regime apparently signalled openness to at least some reform. So far, however, this has principally been in words. In addition, while asserting determination to reform, the regime has arrested and harassed reformers, limited public debate and blocked initiatives it does not control.

Notably, the political reform agenda -- initially triggered in some degree by the growing threat of extremism -- appears to have been at least temporarily set aside since that threat took on a violent form. This is short-sighted. Security measures to curb extremist militancy are the first line of defence, but dealing with longer-term challenges and keeping violent opposition marginal requires repair to a legitimacy that has been severely battered by the closed and arbitrary nature of the political system, the concentrated power and wealth of the royal family, and the record of financial corruption and profligacy of many of its members. This necessitates broadening public space, giving more citizens a voice and a stake in the system, allowing them to organise freely, strengthening political institutions such as the Majlis al-Shura, creating a sense of accountability and cracking down on corruption. The recent violent attacks ought not be used as a pretext to deviate from reform but as an imperative reason to accelerate it.

Reform will not come easily or without risk. Saudi Arabia is a highly conservative society where religion plays a central role in framing political discourse for rulers and opponents alike and is a potent tool of legitimisation. As they fight an Islamist insurgency led by al-Qaeda, which seeks to discredit them on the same religious grounds from which they draw their legitimacy, the al-Saud cannot afford to alienate traditional allies in the religious establishment. Nor can they carelessly tread on the sensibilities of the popular independent preachers who criticise them for their alliance with the U.S. and corruption, but oppose the jihadi groups attacking the Kingdom. The challenge is to marginalise the violent forces without alienating the broader conservative constituency. Some reforms -- curbs on the power of Wahhabi clerics, major changes in the status of women -- most urgently desired by the West are least likely to be carried out soon. This is largely a problem of the regime's own making, the product of decades of accommodation to ultra-conservative views in the educational and social spheres. But to insist that it rapidly unmake it would underestimate how extensively a puritanical brand of Islam has permeated society.

The broader question is whether the Saudi regime and an ageing leadership facing the issue of succession are capable of the necessary vision, let alone implementing it.

Cairo/Brussels, 14 July 2004

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