Back to Main Entry

Reviews of Saudi Kingdom

“In this forcefully argued book, Ali al Shihabi portrays the monarchy’s potential downfall as an unmitigated disaster that would lead to the collapse of the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and that would create a void that could be filled only by jihadists or Iran. He is highly critical of the sprawling network of princes and Wahhabi clergy on the state dole, and he argues that Islamism is mostly a vessel for class antagonism. He calls for the state to embrace some reforms—budget transparency, a sharp reduction in the size of royal patronage networks, and fewer restrictions on debate—and he hopes that King Salman will lead the way. Shihabi sees little reason to believe that the nuclear deal that world powers reached with Iran last year will change the Islamic Republic’s disruptive behavior in the Middle East, and he calls for the GCC to admit Yemen, with its 25 million people, which would nearly double the council’s population and make the GCC a more credible counterweight to Iran.”—Foreign Affairs

Contemporary Saudi “high politics” commands the lion’s share of media, policy, and academic analysis about the country, especially regarding the Saudi government’s involvement in the Yemen conflict, the Qatar crisis, bilateral relations with the Trump administration, and attempts to counter Iranian hegemony in the Gulf. Nonetheless, in an era of fluctuating oil prices and rising expectations amongst the kingdom’s predominant stakeholder, namely Saudi youth, domestic issues are also of key importance to the Saudi government as it attempts become less oil reliant and to diversify its economy. Certainly, Saudi Arabia is in transition, but the kingdom faces a myriad of threats and challenges, internal and external, populated with a diverse set of enemies. In The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil, Ali Al Shihabi provides an insider’s account of some of these threats and challenges, and offers a set of arguments that, as Haykel notes in the Preface, offer “policy prescriptions to the Saudi leadership, and to outsiders” (p. vii) about politico-economic reforms that are necessary in order to preempt or prevent political and economic crises. Although much as changed in Saudi Arabia since the book was published in 2016 –– the launch of Saudi Vision 2030 and the elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the office of crown prince, for instance –– the issues that Shihabi highlights are as pertinent and important as ever, given fast-moving events within Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region.

The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil discusses these domestic and external threats in twelve concise chapters. The book is comprised of a Preface by Bernard Haykel, professor at Princeton University, an afterword, three appendices focusing on the history of the House of Saud and the Wahhabi movement, and a selection of maps. The first two chapters consider the contemporary kingdom and the study of Saudi politics, which Shihabi notes remain opaque to outsiders. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the Al Saud and its “considerable achievements” (p. 13), although the author points out that “the extremely tight circle of ultimate decision makers at the top meant that policy was often made impulsively behind closed doors” (p. 44), something that appears to remain true today. The next two chapters consider the role of the Wahhabi religious establishment and the fight against Saudi radical militants.

This segues neatly into a timely discussion of the kingdom’s youth bulge; in particular, the frequently ignored underprivileged male constituency who, as Shihabi highlights, due to boredom and frustration become attracted to the “dangerous allure of violence”. Chapter 7 examines the mystique of state power, in particular, as the legitimacy of monarchical rule is more deeply entrenched in people’s consciousness, thereby enhancing “the aura and stature” of the Al Saud.

As Haykel points out in the Preface “the book is not a doomsday prediction” about the imminent collapse of the House of Saud (as is so often the case); however, the eighth chapter considers the price of an Al Saud collapse, not only for Saudis themselves, but also for the wider world, which Shihabi argues would be “cataclysmic”. Chapters 9, 10 and 11 address external issues: firstly therisk of Saudi instability to the other Gulf Cooperation States; secondly, from a Saudi perspective, the significant threat of a politically ambitious Iran and finally the crisis in Yemen. Certainly, since the book’s publication, there has been deterioration in Saudi-Iranian relations and a worsening of the situation in Yemen –– both of which could have serious ramifications for Saudi Arabia.

The final chapter offers the author’s ideas for reform. Whilst pointing out that reform does not come without risk, Shihabi argues that without “an alert, bold and proactive leadership” failure to deal head on with imminent existential threats (both internal and external) could have serious consequences for the Kingdom, the region and wider world. In the short Afterword (written in 2015) that follows the main text the author discusses King Salman’s decision to appoint Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and Prince Mohammed bin Salman as deputy crown prince ignoring the “concept of family balance” as practiced previously by the Al Saud.

Yet, in 2015 Shihabi could not have known that Prince Mohammed bin Salman would further tear up unwritten Al Saud rules by taking the position of crown prince for himself, thereby potentially positioning himself to become King of Saudi Arabia for decades to come. Although Shihabi writes that a second edition of the book is forthcoming, there is no informationabout a future publication date on the publisher’s website. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to read how Shihabi interprets events since he wrote the original text. Is the new leadership addressing some of the problems and challenges that the author highlights in the text? To what extent does the new more assertive Al Saud leadership constitute the “alert, bold and proactive leadership” that Shihabi says is necessary for the future security of Saudi Arabia? It may not be possible to provide definitive answers to these questions at a complex and uncertain time in the Kingdom’s history.

However, by raising important issues regarding Saudi Arabia’s future, Shihabi’s The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil provides a thought-provoking, insightful and timely text –– one that sheds light on some of the socio-political and socio-economic challenges confronting contemporary Saudi Arabia.–Journal for Arabian Studies

“The author of this work is a Saudi, which gives hopes of insights not directly available to the foreign observer. These hopes are reinforced by a long and laudatory preface by Professor Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton.

Ali al Shihabi is no member of an opposition. On the contrary he gives credit to Al Saud (the House of Saud) for building, over the relatively brief life of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a State that has brought the benefits of stability, infrastructure and basic services to the majority of its people. He points out that in 1932 the Kingdom had no inherited structure of governance, other than a handful of bureaucrats in the Hejaz, on which to build. Fairly enough, he invites the reader to compare the value delivered to the Saudi citizen with that offered to the inhabitants of a peer group consisting of other oil-rich States such as Algeria, Libya and Iraq. Saudis do not, he observes tellingly, emigrate.

The strapline to the title of the book indicates where the author wants us to look for threats to the Kingdom. He states rather than argues the “deadly” threat represented by an ambitious Iran that “looks covetously” across the Gulf at the oil-rich emirates ruled by Sunni emirs backed by Al Saud. He claims that Iran’s elites are driven by an intense desire to spread their ideology of vali-e faqih: the role of Iran’s supreme leader is to be the leader” noTonly of Shia Islanfbut Df*alr* of Islarrn Herasserts. .that the™, record of the history of the Islamic Republic shows that, rather than using soft power, Iran has sought to increase its influence by military means, citing Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and most recently the Yemen. Saudi Arabia, as the most significant obstacle to Iran’s achieving its goal, is in the firing line.

Though it is not mentioned in the strapline, Shihabi devotes a chapter to the Yemen as representing a “fundamental political and military danger” to Saudi Arabia, pointing to potential waves of desperate refugees seeking to climb the rich neighbour’s wall.

Shihabi has an interesting view on the jihadi challenge to Al Saud. He sets the scene by describing how the historic partnership between the ruling family and the Wahhabi establishment was forged, properly noting that

at times the objectives of the two have not been identical, for example in facing modern technologies. He then suggests that in the 1990s an increasingly confident family sought to lessen the ulema’s reactionary interference by replacing a retiring generation of influential clerics with men of lesser stature, subservient to Al Saud in such matters as King Fahd’s decision to invite the “infidel” USA to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This led to a rift in the Saudi community, and one strand “twisted” Wahhabi ideology to justify disobedience to the rulers. Shihabi contends that Al Saud have failed to be creative in countering this dangerous trend, falling back on reliance on Wahhabi elders; thus the Wahhabi pillar of the Saudi State has been shaken. Shihabi does not so much as mention Saudi Arabia’s own encouragement of jihad in Afghanistan: Afghanistan is cited only to point to the fate of its ruling family when it tried to be too progressive in a conservative Muslim society.

The outsider might think that a greater challenge to Saudi Arabia than perceived threats from Iran was what Shihabi vividly describes as the country’s angry youth – and two-thirds of the population are under the age of 29. The “suffocatingly oppressive social environment” subjects them to “insane” levels of frustration, sexual and otherwise. The author brings out widespread resentment at the entitlements of the princely class, numbering something over 10,000 and augmented by certain favoured families, who are given an income, grants of land and other privileges, and are effectively above the law. Against this background, Shihabi notes that Saudis have played a prominent role in jihadi groups outside the Kingdom, and there is a clear danger of blowback.

In suggesting the way ahead, the author asserts that the country is too fragile to insert public participation into its governance. The only course is reform of the existing institutions, for example a reduction in the size of the royal family, strengthening the independence of the judiciary, importing transparency into the budget, granting greater freedom of expression. Even to state this programme is to demonstrate the delicacy of the task facing the Saudi leadership. Shihabi does not guarantee it would succeed, but it “has the highest chance of success”. One might add that the fall of the monarchical regimes of the Gulf has been regularly forecast since the late 1960s and that so far the inherent strengths of the regimes, allied to the skills of the rulers, have proved up to the test.”–Asian Affairs