Are surprise ministerial reshuffles in Saudi Arabia a sign of a power-struggle in the country? Or are they a sign of positive, stablising changes taking place? Zaid Belbagi argues the latter in this analysis of recent Saudi government decisions.
The internal structure of the Saudi ruling family attracts much academic and media attention. It was recently described as a “hyper-dynasty”, indicative of its crucial role in steering a country of immense strategic, religious and economic importance.
Amidst the speculation that has surrounded recent government appointments one development is clear, influence is shifting. Rather than suggesting instability, the changes in government communicate a quiet unity and shared sense of purpose at the top.
Since the death of the Kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz, in 1953, power has passed from brother to brother amongst his sons. However, contrary to popular understanding, Saudi Arabia is not an absolute monarchy. It is ruled by an extended patriarchal unit, an aristocracy of sorts with multiple centres of power and authority managed by a King, as primus inter pares. This distribution of power is further manifested through the different Majalis, tribal networks and councils through which the family engage with wider society.
Decisions in Saudi Arabia can take considerable time; however, thorough consultation has shown time and time again that potentially divisive reforms can be made, at the right time. Last week it was announced that women were appointed to a fifth of the seats in the previously all-male consultative Shura Council, this is very much part of programme of well-paced reform that has been taking place since the introduction of television in the 1960s, to the vigorous Saudisation of the private sector most recently. As explained by Crown Prince Salman, “the government is keen to lead the advancement with gradual steps that would ensure the general interest and at the same time avoid upheavals and shocks. Everything will happen at the right time”. The Saudis have managed to maintain stability through encouraging modernisation whilst valuing the traditionalism of Saudi society. The introduction of female members to the Shura Council is illustrative of this balance. This “intuition” on behalf of the monarchy has enabled it to make key liberal concessions to avoid unrest by the educated middle class, though simultaneously managing its relationship with the Ulemma.
Such announcements attract global interest in the functioning of the ruling family. To understand how they function, the experience of the last two centuries is crucial. Through a long history of conquest and defeat, the Al Saud have realised the importance of distributing power effectively and accommodating different factions. Essentially, one characteristic of the family is its absorptive capacity. The family has been able to exercise flexibility and a “refined” ability to bestow power into the hands of those most qualified to exercise it. Similarly it has managed to keep power out of the reach of men who are effete. The side-lining of senior sons of King Abdulaziz from the line of succession is indicative of this. In a similar vein the Council of Ministers represents the Al Saud’s absorptive capacity further in that the emergent technocratic class have been included, showing the ruling family’s realisation of new social developments. The implementation of Majlis consensus politics in government has allowed Saudi rulers to maintain significant control over various factions and thereby support stability.
Government appointments made by Royal decree in the last year highlight an overarching trend, government is being refreshed, and King Abdullah’s ambitious plans are very much still in motion. At the Interior Ministry Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef replaced his uncle Prince Ahmed Bin Abdulaziz, the Secretary-Generalship of the National Security Council passed from Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz to his nephew Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, whilst at the Foreign Ministry Prince Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah now regularly deputises for his uncle Minister Prince Saud. These appointments at the ministerial level are profound; however, this week’s announcement provides even more insight. The governorates of the Eastern Province and Madinah have been passed on to younger princes, in a country comprised of thirteen governorates (Imarat), each headed by a Royal governor (Emir) with the rank of a minister; this is a key government post. It essentially ensures that in a country covering an area of 2.25 million square kilometres (about the size of Western Europe), central power from Riyadh is represented throughout the Kingdom. In this respect, it ensures the King and Crown Prince are able to efficiently manage government through able regional Deputies.
To this end, surprise government appointments are not indicative of some sort of power-struggle; rather they are a representation of the balanced attitude of a government which possesses the right strategy to manage such an intricate society. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, through a keen understanding of Saudi culture and values, have managed to avoid certain destabilising policies and will continue to reform at a pace that Saudi society can cope with.
Zaid M. Belbagi is an expert on Saudi Arabia and acts as a strategic communications adviser to MENA governments. He is a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies. He holds a Masters in Diplomacy from Oxford University and a BSc in International Relations and History from the London School of Economics. He tweets at @Moulay_Zaid.
A fully-cited version of this article is available upon request.
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