I often use Saudi Arabia as the model for a security studies graduate class I teach on intelligence analysis when discussing the “what if” and “low probability-high impact” models. After all, when gaming out the country’s likely political trajectory, most fellow Saudi watchers I know agree that the likelihood of the kingdom imploding is slight, but were that to come to pass, the consequences for the U.S. and the rest of the world would be enormous. Yet Saudi Arabia has managed to negotiate several turbulent events in its recent history with a rather remarkable lack of destabilization. And it’s most likely to continue along that trend, even in the face of what could be more storms to come. But nothing is certain, and no one has a crystal ball capable of foreseeing events like those that triggered the Arab Spring, let along the global pandemic with which we’re still struggling.
In just the last 10-plus years, the House of Saud survived the Arab Spring, a royal succession, plunging oil prices, a palace coup, an ensuing political purge, the murder of a journalist, essentially kidnapping a foreign leader, the pandemic, and a disastrous war with Yemen that laid bare any illusions that the nation’s young, de facto leader might have had about the kingdom’s military prowess — particularly in any showdown with his nemesis, Iran.
Saudi Arabia is a society built on tribal and regional sentiments, and a people, despite generations removed from their nomadic past, who still identify with their Bedouin heritage. There’s little history of political appetites, apart from among the disenfranchised Shi’a community, or the type of non-conformist individualism we know in the West. Saudis, rather, are bound by blood, tribe, soil, religion, and, even if only a pretense for some, honor. Regional differences remain strong, and southern Saudi Arabia is remarkably different socially and culturally from the more conservative north and east — a legacy of the Hejaz region’s distinct history and prior Hashemite rule.
Potential internal threats
While the conventional wisdom suggests the most likely threat to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, comes from rivals within the House of Saud, a low probability but high impact event could include a military coup or popular revolt that gives rise to a radical Islamic regime. MbS has appointed trusted royalists and loyalist professionals across the kingdom’s military forces and security agencies to mitigate against just this possibility and no senior official or member of the House of Saud is free from monitoring.
Among the branches of the ruling family, former King Abdullah’s Shammar possesses the greatest willingness and capability to oppose MbS and the imperative to act given their loss of power, resources, and, in several cases, personal freedom. Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, long viewed as a contender for the throne, was formerly the commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Although he was released after a brief detention, and a $1 billion payment, following MbS’s November 2017 political purge, he is no doubt under pervasive coverage and control. Any misbehavior he might consider is tempered by MbS’s ongoing detention of his younger brothers Turki and Faisal.
A popular revolt, were one to arise over economic, political, or social issues, would likely have exponentially broader consequences, drawing the country into a complex and bloody civil war. Whatever the cause, as was the case in Egypt during the Arab Spring, an organic uprising spawned by political or economic considerations could be hijacked by a conservative religious element. The prospect of a jihadist regime aligned with the Islamic State’s (IS) philosophy would likely compel the country’s long-marginalized Shi’a, fearful of genocide, into a desperate, Iranian-supported separatist insurgency. Unlike in Egypt, however, there is little history or current evidence of a well-established or organized conservative religious opposition in Saudi Arabia, violent or otherwise, apart from within the Shi’a community, but rather individuals and small, underground al-Qa’eda and IS cells.
Still, remote as the prospects might be, the consequences of having Saudi Arabia’s resources under the control of a regime intent on revolution, exporting violence and attacking the West, might draw the U.S. into yet another armed Middle East conflict. Economic analysts would cringe over the impact on the energy market and broader global economy.
In the declassified February 2021 assessment of the Saudi government's role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the United States Intelligence Community, reportedly based largely on CIA collection and analysis, assessed that MbS, has “control of decision-making in the Kingdom,” and “absolute control of the Kingdom's security and intelligence organizations.” But in upending his predecessors’ traditional reliance on consensus, cooption, and incremental change, MbS has created enmity across almost all segments of Saudi society upon which the ruling family once relied.
The challenge of economic diversification
MbS’s fortunes, and those of his kingdom, are largely dependent on whether Vision 2030 can deliver on the promise to diversify the country’s hydrocarbon-dependent economy and provide greater employment and more housing. Neom, the high-tech, futuristic $500 billion city under construction in Saudi Arabia’s northwest, is the centerpiece on which much else depends. But Neom has struggled to meet its projected 2024 opening, created political waves among tribes owing to forced relocations of locals, and continues to experience technical challenges while drawing less international money than the crown prince had hoped.
The currently high oil prices notwithstanding, roughly two-thirds of the country’s 35 million residents are under the age of 35 and half of them hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Even for those securing jobs, subsidies have been reduced and taxes, first introduced in 2016, have tripled. Meanwhile, housing for new families, a major issue among Saudi protesters during the Arab Spring in 2011, remains hard to come by.
Saudi unemployment and housing figures are not reliable indicators as the seemingly stabilizing unemployment numbers in 2021 are skewed by reduced Saudi labor participation. And that’s compounded by the departure of roughly 1 million expatriates working in construction owing to the pandemic and ensuing visa complications. Similarly, announcements about housing projects are consistently more frequent and optimistic than the number that are ultimately completed and occupied, especially by Saudi families versus expatriates.
Political parties are banned in the kingdom, which likewise lacks a free press that might offer windows into popular sentiments and trends. Still, in 2021, concerned at grumbling no doubt detected beneath the kingdom’s otherwise tranquil surface, the government slowed its reduction of gasoline subsidies owing to the negative public reaction.
Reform and religious identity
Much of the positive Western media coverage MbS has received in the past is due to his series of reforms addressing the kingdom’s cultural practices and restrictions on women. But these reforms have been applied largely within the context of an economic agenda. He maintains the kingdom’s intolerance for free expression, let alone dissent. And for the moment, Vision 2030 is more flash than substance, as both technical barriers and social realities impede progress and discourage foreign investors. Further, the country’s tribal-based culture has neither the history nor the inclination for pluralism where long-simmering social and religious tensions have traditionally demanded incremental changes.
Moreover, while these reforms were well received in the West and are certainly appealing to some in the kingdom, the conservative Wahhabi dogma integrated into every aspect of Saudi life and imprinted on generations did not just disappear overnight. As a 2016 Brookings study explained, Saudi Arabia has always been a conservative Muslim country but Saudi kings deliberately pursued a conservative religious identity to shore up their domestic legitimacy and counter the appeal of pan-Arabism. The November 1979 seizure of Islam’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, by Saudi religious extremists, who called for the violent overthrow of the House of Saud, was a turning point, however, after which the kingdom shifted in a more conservative direction, with King Khalid bin Abdulaziz yielding power to religious authorities and implementing stricter enforcement of shari’a (Islamic law).
The Saudi government promoted Salafism through the extensive building of mosques, Islamic centers, and schools abroad and the establishment of strict, anti-Western, and often racist education at home. Billions of dollars in public and private funds were distributed through religious charities, including those later found to have been linked to terrorist groups like al-Qa’eda. Religious conservatism was further solidified through the training of countless clerics and Islamic judges, a community from which emerged some who would participate in violent, extremist causes in the kingdom and abroad.
This population has not disappeared and the country’s well-publicized rehabilitation program proved largely ineffective, a showcase for former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef that has hardly been mentioned since he was deposed in June 2017. Saudi Arabia was one of the world’s five top sources of IS financial support and its second largest source of foreign fighters. It has also been an IS target with attacks that included the May 2015 bombing of a mosque resulting in 21 fatalities, and a triple suicide-bombing attack across three cities in July 2016.
Responding to popular unrest
As the Arab Spring uprisings swept across the region, a 65-year-old man's self-immolation in Jizan in late January 2011 sparked hundreds to protest in the kingdom, further fueled by public outrage over flood damage. Prominent Shi’a cleric and government critic Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, later executed by the state in January 2016, encouraged non-violent protests, which broke out across the oil-rich Eastern Province and appeared in Riyadh.
The House of Saud survived the Arab Spring by mixing incentives with severe crackdowns and leveraging its alliance with the religious establishment. Then King Abdullah promised to spend $130 billion to increase salaries, build housing, and undertake other projects. The state paid an extra two months’ salary to government employees and spent $70 billion on 500,000 units of low-income housing. The king prevailed upon the grand mufti, the kingdom’s highest religious official, who delivered a fatwa, or religious ruling, that forbade street protests; the religious establishment was subsequently rewarded with roughly $200 million in funding.
Internal Saudi security capabilities remain a robust means for the government to identify and neutralize threats and opposition organization. Saudi security services make extensive use of internet monitoring and purchased the Israeli firm NSO's Pegasus spyware even as security service role players engage and befriend dissident targets to penetrate their groups. But Saudi watchers suggest that the security services are vulnerable to insider threats from conservatives and zealots who might aid religious radicals and are overly focused on monitoring royals and prominent government figures over the broader population. The Saudis strictly compartmentalize information and activities within their security services, reflecting awareness of the problem.
Going forward, the signs suggest that MbS will likely ascend the throne, having already accounted for those within the palace who might oppose him, and is subsequently focused on the economic challenges ahead. While earning a well-deserved reputation for being ruthless and impetuous by virtue of his plots against perceived enemies and muscle flexing that boomeranged in Yemen, Libya, and with Iran, he appears to have gone all in on Vision 2030, the futuristic city of Neom, and other ambitious initiatives. But advancing social reforms and liberalizing the nation’s cultural boundaries fuels popular expectations and doesn’t align well with a police state pretending to be evolved.
As opposed to his predecessors, who tied their legitimacy and authoritarian rule to religion, culture, and history, MbS appears to be looking at another model, and perhaps sees that in his perception of China’s. At the risk of over simplifying, the likely future king seems committed to preserving his absolute authority in exchange for providing a high quality of life shared by the masses, not merely the most privileged. In a conservative society with little history of individualism or political appetite, MbS is counting on the kingdom’s ability to generate the resources required to mitigate against the distractions of Western liberalism, which he hopes will remain unappealing to his people.
Yes, things can change, and quickly, and MbS could find himself overextended, deflecting challenges from within the House of Saud, but for the time being he faces little threat. And after all, Saudi Arabia remains ranked second in the world in both proven oil reserves and production, so who else is going to stop him if he decides to otherwise work and play well with others?
Douglas London is the author of "The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence." He teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. London served in the CIA's Clandestine Service for over 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Africa, including three assignments as a Chief of Station. Follow him on Twitter @DouglasLondon5. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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