Is Saudi Arabia Really So Stable?
On October 5, 1962, President Kennedy met Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, then-crown prince, in the White House alone. With his fair English, the king requested US intervention to defeat revolutionaries who just seized power in neighboring monarchical Yemen. Egyptian president Nasser backed revolutionaries, and his radio was saying the House of Saud would be next.
In December 1960, Faisal’s government resigned after a three-year dispute with his older brother King Saud. As a result, Prince Salman resigned as mayor of Riyadh. When Faisal returned 18 months later to take over power from Saud, he brought his men with him: Fahad for interior, Abdullah for the National Guard, Sultan for defense, and Salman as governor of Riyadh.
Since then and until now, those four princes have run the country. Their early experience with the revolution in Yemen shaped Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. There is no country in the world where the higher key positions are as longstanding as in Saudi Arabia and this has provided a base for its stability. However, last March Prince Muqrin was named second in line to succeed the king. This may open the door for genuine change in the most stable country in the Middle East, but it is too early to tell.
With the exception of the economic boom in the late seventies, Saudi domestic and foreign policy remains stable and predictable. The four princes didn’t receive an elite formal education, so the source of their strength as rulers is life experience and learning from history.
In a rare speech by the king in early 2012, Abdullah attacked the Arab Spring and expressed his negative feelings toward the Internet and social media. Change and revolution in the Saudi doctrine is perceived as evil. All revolutions that Saudis were exposed to either in Iraq (1958), Yemen (1962), or Iran (1979) brought hostile regimes to the kingdom.
Stability is a prominent value in Saudi domestic politics. Officials usually tend to associate the notion of stability as a “blessing.” Every governor prince of the 13 provinces in Saudi Arabia regularly heads the council of the local government. One of the essential subjects reinforced in every meeting is the importance of security and stability. Moreover, all of those local governors are headed by the minister of the interior, which explains governance priority.
Stability is one of the crucial elements in the Salafis mindset, which aims to maintain the status quo against the sedition of political change or fitna. In the 1960s, the dispute between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal lasted six years before religious elites (Ulema) were convinced to issue a fatwa deposing Saud. On March 5, 2011, the Council of Senior Scholars (Ulema) again issued a statement in which it called for national solidarity and stability to protect the country against regional turmoil. A few days later, the statement was endorsed by the Majlis Al-Shura, a consultative body appointed by the king that serves as a quasi-parliament.
Business elites also encouraged stability. After the 2008 global financial crisis, the Saudi financial policy was set with massive government expenditure. In 2011, a few weeks after the ignition of the Arab Spring, the king announced an economic package of $93 billion in handouts. Although the package focused on infrastructure and education, it included the creation of 60,000 security jobs within the interior ministry as well as social security for unemployed youth. In the last three years, many young entrepreneurs joined the market to launch new startups as the government boosted the economy and expanded lending outlets. Stability for small businesses as well as giant corporations is seen as the bedrock for growth, as the government is the main player in the market. The recent turmoil in Arab Spring countries continues to reinforce this idea.
For decades, journalists and scholars questioned Saudi Arabia’s stability, yet seeing the kingdom from a westerner’s perspective is sometimes deceptive. Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former director of Saudi intelligence, argues that since the unification of the kingdom in 1932, everybody keeps discussing Saudi Arabia’s uncertain future. In my perspective, Saudi Arabia has enjoyed and will continue to enjoy stability primarily through the policies of the four Faisal princes who developed an entrenched role of traditions on how the state runs and behaves. To understand Saudi Arabia today, go back to the 1960s.