Saudi Arabia is considered one of the world little understood countries. Difficult to enter, restrictive for women and with entire cities only Muslims can enter, this is not a nation know for its accessibility and open nature. One of the enduring mysteries and quirks of this nation is the role of the monarchy and the structure of the government of Saudi Arabia. The Monarchy in Saudi Arabia holds all the power in government and the Al Saud family is one of the most powerful families in the world, occupying a national position that monarchies of Europe lost centuries ago.
The current leader, King Abdullah, is a half-brother of King Fahd, and his successors are all members of the Sudairi Seven, a powerful group of brothers who dominate politics in the Kingdom and dominate the other princes, estimated to be near 7,000 individuals. Under Saudi law the succession goes from brother to brother and the Sudairi Seven alliance has ensured these brothers retain the succession. Prince Sultan was Crown Prince (2005-2011), Prince Nayef was also a Crown Prince (2011-2012) and following the recent death of Nayef, Prince Salman has been named the new Crown Prince.
These individuals, who dominate the succession, have also dominated many of the main ministries and governorships including:
- Defence Minister – Prince Sultan (1962-2011)
- Interior Minister – Prince Nayef (1975-2012)
- Governor of Riyadh – Prince Salman (1963-2012)
These long periods of control show a nation dominated by a single authority, in a kingdom more similar to a medieval monarchy in Europe than a modern state. These positions have also ensured that the Sudairi Seven could build their power in the state and prevent other individuals or branches of the royal family from achieving power. Although not a member of the groups himself, King Abdullah was able to cultivate close relations with the brothers and established the Allegiance Council to decide on the succession. Many consider that this council dilutes the power of the Sudairi Seven by reducing their proportional power, however they still retains the greatest number of seats and therefore retain power in the council.
However despite the apparent total control of the monarchy there does exist a check on their power. Saudi Arabia’s laws are not based on a modern constitution but instead on the Koran and as such there is a religious hierarchy in place to exercise control through religious law over the population.
This control is exercised through the Ulama, a body of religious officials and leaders, who have major roles in the judiciary and education systems, whilst maintaining a monopoly on social and religious traditions. They can challenge the royal family and, through their conservatism, they are the leading voices for Sharia law in the state. However like the other areas of government the Ulama is also dominated by a single family; the Al ash-Sheikh family, which are the nation’s leading religious family and second only to the Al Saud family. The two families close relationship has led many to question whether there exists an opposition in the country at all, or whether opposition only exists in factional politics between rival family members.
These controls in politics are also reflected in controls within society. Under Sharia law females are discriminated against, homosexuals are discriminated against and those who break the law are met with strict punishments, including the death penalty, reserved for the severest crimes.
Saudi Arabia is clearly a country of control; of a political and social structure that is unfamiliar to the people of West and therefore a lack of understanding about this powerful Arab state persists. For many their only real knowledge of the nation is rooted in stereotype. They see the nation as an oil state, ruled by repressive kings who forbid women from driving cars. However although aspects of this are true Saudi Arabia, today, is a nation that is changing.
King Abdullah is considered a more reforming and liberal-minded leader; one who does seek to challenge the strictest Islamic law. He removed the control over female education away from the Ulama, passing it to the Ministry of Education, under the control of Nora bint Abdullah al Fayez, the very first female minister, in charge of female education. Further reforms for women have been seen in the creation of the first co-ed university and funding given for women to study abroad. Beyond education reforms for women have also been seen in society, with Saudi women being allowed, for the first time, to compete at the Olympics.For London 2012 Saudi Arabia confirmed they will send two female athletes to the games. Both Sarah Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will compete in London in the 800m and Judo respectively.
However the biggest leap has been the declaration that women will be allowed to vote in the next local elections in 2015. This would begin the country’s first steps towards universal suffrage, a hallmark of progressive states.
With appointments to important government and religious positions of more moderate individuals, Abdullah is seeking to create a modern Saudi state. However the stereotype of this Arab state persists and international politics is focused on the nation’s control of vast oil reserves, its fundamental Islamism, that many claim has created and sustained Islamic terrorist groups, and conflicts over the authoritarian regime and its international supporters, which most recently saw Saudi Arabia grant asylum to Tunisian ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
This is a nation shrouded in mystery and assumptions. Many of these are true. It is a nation with an authoritarian monarchy, whose dual power as monarch and government official gives them unparalleled control in the country. The only checks are the religious officials, however they are also dominated by a single family, who have a monopoly over the positions.
It is a nation dominated by Islam, with laws that restrict non-Muslim’s movement round the country. However this nation cannot be simply defined by these stereotypes; the outlook is not as black and white as many would claim. Although Sharia law defines how people here interact, many moderates in the nation’s hierarchy are seeking to upset the balance in the country by taking steps to empower women, to allow them education and rights that have never before been afforded to them.
Saudi Arabia is slowly approaching a crossroads. One path leads down a slow progress towards modernisation and reform, whilst one continues down strict adherence to the law of the Koran. This balancing act is also critical to how the world views Saudi Arabia. It is traditionally a pro-American voice in the Middle East, but its close links with terrorism and support for controversial leaders, such as Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt, have weakened this link. However Saudi is still a leading OPEC country, Arab League Member and anti-Iranian voice in the region and thus must still be considered a critical country when looking at Middle Eastern politics. It’s a nation that defines Middle Eastern politics whether in its most restrictive or most progressive form.