Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on the future challenges to the Saudi royal family's rule. Click to read Part 1.
A dramatic change in Saudi Arabia's public sphere and growing criticism of the powerful religious establishment will present an unprecedented challenge for the House of Saud. The relationship between the House of Saud and the religious leadership is a critical pillar of Saudi rule because it gives the government religious legitimacy and authority and allows it to balance an oftentimes conflicting domestic and foreign policy agenda. The government has lost control over public discourse, and the next decades will witness a shift in how Riyadh manages its relationship with an increasingly restive and mostly young Saudi population.
Religious Foundations of the House of Saud
Political stability in the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been based on the House of Saud's ability to dominate public discourse with the aid of its historical partners in the Salafist and Wahhabist religious establishment. In fact, it is an austere interpretation of Islam, mixed with the values of tribalism and familialism, that has been the bedrock of domestic tranquility within the kingdom and the basis for Saudi dominion. For nearly a century the religious scholars (ulema) have enjoyed a virtual monopoly over what constitutes acceptable thought and behavior. However, more and more Saudis on social media websites are harshly challenging the national narrative. This raises the question of whether the emerging third generation of the House of Saud will be able to bring about reforms to manage dissent.
The Salafist ulema, who have a major stake in the Saudi monarchical political system, have since the early days sought to protect the monarchy from dissent. They have relied heavily on the classical view among Islamic theologians and jurists that, so long as the rulers are implementing Islamic laws, it is forbidden to revolt — even if they are sinful oppressors. The argument emphasizes order and is based on an abhorrence of the chaos that would result from an uprising.
As for the Saudis, the ulema promoted them as defenders of the faith through their international efforts to spread Salafist ideology, construct mosques and support causes, including armed resistance to forces deemed deviant. In situations in which the public deemed certain policies of the kingdom or certain actions of elite members questionable, the ulema would invoke the above principle to deflect any dissent.
Nevertheless, occasional turbulence, including from within the religious community, abounds:
- In the 1920s there was the Ikhwan insurrection, when the tribal-religious militia that had played the pivotal role in the making of the modern kingdom wanted to continue fighting into British-held Iraq and Jordan. King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman had to forcibly put down the militia.
- In the 1960s, King Faisal's modernizing agenda met resistance from the ultraconservative social and religious elements, especially when television was introduced into the kingdom. There is some evidence to suggest that Faisal's assassination in 1975 was related.
- In 1979, a group of extremist Wahhabis who denounced the rule of the House of Saud as un-Islamic seized the Kaaba in Mecca. The standoff ended after two weeks of gunbattles that left hundreds dead and wounded.
- In 1991, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, a group of younger generation ulema arose who openly criticized the government for allowing U.S. forces to be stationed in the kingdom and demanded political reforms.
The latter incident was the first time a significant group of religious scholars had engaged in political dissent and marked the Salafist entry into Islamism. Prior to that, Salafists largely viewed Saudi Arabia as an Islamic state and thus avoided Islamist tendencies. After a couple of years of struggle, Riyadh, with the bulk of the religious establishment on its side, initiated a crackdown that led to the five-year imprisonment of several prominent and well-respected religious scholars. It was only after they accepted that they had erred and vowed to abide by the kingdom's traditions to channel their disagreements that the scholars were released.
In each of these cases, the Saudis were able to successfully make use of the religious establishment to portray the dissenters as having been contaminated by deviant ideas.
The situation improved until 9/11, which brought the ideas and activities of the Saudi religious establishment under intense international scrutiny — after all, Osama bin Laden was a product of Wahhabist doctrine. The House of Saud was forced to change the way it had operated since its inception. King Abdullah initiated a series of gradual reforms in order to offset pressure from Riyadh's closest ally, the United States, while not upsetting the historical relationship with the ulema at home. To make matters worse, the kingdom was also dealing with an al Qaeda-led jihadist insurgency.
Riyadh rallied the religious establishment on the need to meet the domestic and international challenges and purged troublesome members within the ulema circles. But there was another problem: The reform process that was under way had weakened the ulema class' standing with the public. Over the decades, a cross-section of society had grown restive over the enforcement of the strict religious and moral codes by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.However, frustrations did not morph into anything beyond latent resentment — again because of the ulema-driven norms in society, backed by the coercive apparatus of the state. There was no social space to accommodate an exchange of ideas that could give rise to a coherent alternative worldview — not to mention there was no opportunity for mobilization. This is why, even after the arrival of satellite channels, Internet and cellphones, the latent dissent in Saudi Arabia did not translate into public unrest.
This is also largely why, with a few minor exceptions, the Arab Spring did not find expression in the streets of the kingdom. This relative absence of public agitation, however, does not mean that the Saudis have once again prevailed. The problem is that the global focus has been on the streets when, in fact, massive normative shifts are under way on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The interactive nature of these forums has exposed Saudis to alternative worldviews with greater speed and allowed them to truly exchange ideas. By contrast, email and websites were slower and more one-sided, allowing the regime and its supporters to more easily inject suspicion into online discussions. Social media offers much more comprehensive exposure to and exchange of views, as well as camaraderie with thousands of like-minded fellow citizens.
Impact of Social Media
YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are replete with Saudi youths encountering ideas that question the foundations upon which the Saudi polity has rested for so long. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told the Los Angeles Times in July that Saudis constituted the fastest-growing group on the social networking website; the number of Saudi Twitter users increased some 3,000 percent in June. Time magazine reported the same month that Saudi Arabia has the highest Twitter usage in the region (400,000) and second-highest Facebook usage (around 4 million), behind Egypt. Additionally, the Dubai School of Government claimed in a July report that there were 90 million YouTube video views in Saudi Arabia per day — the highest number of YouTube views in the world per Internet user — and that 50 percent of Saudi YouTube users were female.
Galvanized by the toppling of autocrats in the region, Saudi youths are using social media to produce alternative narratives on society, religion and politics. For the first time, the kingdom is experiencing a substantive challenge to the religious and political order formed by the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance in 1744. The situation has evolved well beyond simple discourse.
In June, a young Saudi woman in a Riyadh mall openly defied the moral brigade that confronted her for wearing makeup in public. In addition to using aggressive language against the mullah cops, she filmed the entire encounter on her hand-held device. The video became a sensation on YouTube.
Obviously, this is only one example of real-world defiance, and most of the dissent remains in cyberspace. Nevertheless, it is a major development and the Saudis are not taking it lightly. For one thing, the social networking services cannot be easily shut down. Indeed, this is why many pro-government elements are active on social media sites, trying to rebut criticisms of the regime and especially the ulema.
There are many in the ulema class who operate Facebook and Twitter accounts. These individuals and other regime agents have tried to counter anti-regime discourse by painting it as an effort by pro-Western secularists and pro-Iranian Shia to tamper with the Islamic culture of the kingdom. Stratfor sources have noted some success in this strategy because many Saudis do not want to be seen as "deviants" — and especially not as collaborators of Iran and the Shia.
One example of this strategy is the case of Hamza Kashgari, a young Saudi poet and democracy activist. Kashgari allegedly posted a Twitter message containing insulting remarks about the Prophet Mohammed that the regime was able to use to fight back. Incidents such as this provide the regime some temporary respite from threats to the foundations of the Saudi state.
Ultimately, this tactic is unlikely to be effective because the official narrative has lost ground and alternative ones are emerging, especially with the rise of religious and political alternatives such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the phenomenon of Salafist democratization. Prominent Saudi religious scholar Salman al-Audah said a few months ago via Facebook and Twitter, "Democracy might not be an ideal system, but it is the least harmful, and it can be developed and adapted to respond to local needs and circumstances."
This means that the demand for political reform is not going to emanate only from the laity. It will also come from within Wahhabism, which traditionally has declared democracy to be an un-Islamic idea and promoted the idea of obedience to the rulers. This has the potential to upset the historical relationship between the Saudis and the Wahhabis that has allowed the House of Saud to maintain an absolute monarchy.
Recognizing that the times are changing and concerned about the posterity of the House of Saud, there are calls for reform from within the royal family. Given that the monarchy is absolute and the religious class dominates the national discourse, there are no mechanisms to channel dissent, however. A path of substantive reforms could quickly get out of hand.
Additionally, the changes taking place within the kingdom have implications for national identity. Saudi nationalism revolves around the idea of loyalty to the House of Saud because it is the defender of the Islamic faith. With those bonds weakening, the country will be looking for a new national basis.
Although the House of Saud has demonstrated resilience for more than 250 years, the system that has underscored its political well-being is in need of a major overhaul. The question is whether the grandsons of Abdulaziz will be able to manage it.