Sunday, March 30, 2014

Saudi Arabia's Decentralization

Madawi al-Rasheed describes transformation in the nature of Saudi Arabia's polity, with entrenched princes around a figurehead king:
Given the proliferation of royal positions and power holders, it is time to think of Saudi Arabia as a kingdom with multiple heads or several fiefdoms. In this context, the kingdom is no longer a centralized absolute monarchy as it used to be under King Faisal (1964-1975), but a cluster of clans under an honorary king, and over which Prince Muqrin will preside in due course. He will have to acknowledge the interest of each one of these clans and keep balancing the various factions in ways that do not undermine their privileges, positions and wealth. He can only do that by creating more positions that will absorb the growing number of princes within each clan. He will also have to be seen as a neutral arbiter between the various competing factions while not undermining their inherited control over key ministries and government arms.
The pluralism that is currently unfolding among those in power is a mixed blessing. Internally, Saudis are trying to navigate this change and hope to place themselves in a patron-client relationship with at least one clan. They have been denied any say in the way their government is run, and the only available option is to become part of a princely circle of power. If one prince proves to be remote and uninterested, they may seek another, one more in need of developing his own clients to boost his popularity. The multiple princely actors within the state offer opportunities for a population denied any political representation or pressure groups...
The multiple Saudi clans that are in control of the government and Saudi resources offer real opportunities for their members, but undermine the evolution of the kingdom into a state with institutions that are durable beyond the life of the prince. The king was expected to regulate the transfer of power to the second generation, but he can only deliver an honorary future king to rule over flourishing multiple centers of power, each of which thinks it has a divine right to monopolize the top position. For the moment, the multiple clans will continue to coexist because no one wants to rock the boat, given that the stakes are so high. The alternative to coexistence is internal strife that will no doubt undermine the future of the kingdom.
This transformation strikes me as already well underway.  In fact, I'd say that the fact this decentralized system is already entrenched is why the family is keeping the throne in the same family for as long as possible.  Also, although Saudi Arabia far away from this, I'd argue that it makes a peaceful democratization path impossible to envision for the simple reason that so many princes who have fiefdoms would have to be on board with it.



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