Why is a military coup in Saudi Arabia possible?

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (openDemocracy) – Students of Arab history might assert that the fall of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 was necessary to kick off further liberation projects in the Arab world – such as in Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Libya and Yemen.

Some read the “Tunisian effect” during the Arab Spring as a reincarnation of this political diffusion (Such as Reem Abou-El-Fadl in her book Revolutionary Egypt: Connecting Domestic and International Struggles). However, I disagree on two main points. Empirically, it seems obvious that Tunisia is neither willing nor able to internationalise its revolutionary agenda. Conceptually, military coups are more capable of policy diffusion than mass movements; if only because they have the necessary capacity (of both hard and soft power) to act cohesively as regional players.

Viewing it from this perspective suggests seeing 1952 Egypt in terms of its ‘power’ not ‘ideology’. That is to say, the regional significance of the Egyptian coup/revolution of 1952 lies not in its revolutionary agenda, but in its ‘ability’ to force its agenda on other states – regardless of what that agenda was. Reflecting this onto contemporary regional politics, it is not Tunisia but Saudi Arabia that seems to be the most significant player (in terms of power/ability) in determining the future of the Arab revolutions. As with Nasser in the 1950s, King Salman appears to be on top of events, funding regimes he favours and cracking down on those he dislikes – in both cases under the guise of defending pan-Arabism.

In such a pax-Saudi regional arrangement, political change can hardly be achieved without the kingdoms’ blessing. Who would wish for the hypothetical toppling of Sisi to be followed by brutal Saudi airstrikes to bring him back to power (as with Yemen’s Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi), or, at best, for the nonviolent Saudi sponsorship of another aid-dependent military president (like Libya’s Khalifa Haftar)?

To break this stalemate, KSA’s regional power must be transferred to a progressive actor. This could happen in two ways: either by replacing the Saudi Arabian regional hegemony – which is not possible at the moment given the lack of a serious alternative approved by world superpowers (particularly the US) – or substituting the ruling regime in control of this hegemony. The second is well within the realm of possibility, for the following reasons.

A brief history

Image Source: Dan Markeye, Flickr, Creative Commons Riyadh satellite view Digital rendering of the satellite view of Riyadh. This globe rendering was created with Globe Master Android globe game. For the globe texture, Whole world - land and oceans composite image was used, created by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center (public domain).

Image Source: Dan Markeye, Flickr, Creative Commons
Riyadh satellite view
Digital rendering of the satellite view of Riyadh.
This globe rendering was created with Globe Master Android globe game. For the globe texture, Whole world – land and oceans composite image was used, created by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center (public domain).

First and formost, the kingdom has lost most of the historical roots of its legitimacy. Since the foundation of the modern kingdom, its legitimacy has been grounded on three main pillars: Sunnism, nationalism and kinship. To understand those three pillars, a quick review of the kingdom’s history is necessary.

Today’s kingdom is the third reign of Al Saud. The first was in 1788, when King Muhamed bin Saud signed an agreement with Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Wahhab – the father of Salafism (also known as Wahhabism) – to fight what Abdul Wahhab saw as “the new jahiliyya” and restore the orthodox teachings of Islam. In that spirit, Bin Saud established the first Saudi state, which ruled over the central plateau of today’s Saudi Arabia (now known as Najd and Riyadh) and was put under the spiritual guidance of Sheikh Abdul Wahhab (also assisted by members of his family).

The Saud-Sheikh families’ alliance pursued war against neighbouring tribes under the pretext of Islamic liberation – ghazw. The alliance was mutually complementary: Al Saud, being among the biggest families in the peninsula, supported the alliance with wealth and manpower, while Al Sheikh legitimised the war through their status as religious priest-warriors. Projected as a semi-caliphate, the Kingdom posed a serious threat to the Ottoman Empire, which effectively put the nascent kingdom down.

In 1824, King Turki Al Saud restored the Saudi dynasty based on the same dual family contract – Al Saud being the political rulers and Al Sheikh controlling the social-religious agenda. Again, the Ottoman empire, the Islamic caliphate of the time, could not stand the Saudi-Wahhabi proposition of a counter-caliphate representing the Muslim population. It supported a tribal coup that replaced Al Saud with Ottoman patrons – establishing the Al Rashed dynasty.

Around forty years later, King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the youngest son of the former Saudi king, regained the family’s patrimony. This was timely, for the Ottomans were no longer a challenge after the failure of their empire and the fall of Istanbul in 1922. Moreover, the rise of Ataturkian secularism in place of the Ottoman caliphate invited the Saudis to stage themselves as the new and only Islamic caliphs.

On another note, the history of Al Saud’s struggle against Ottoman imperialism added a national aspect to their theocratic legitimacy. Those two factors combined made the Saudi family the most legitimate inheritor of Najd after the failure of the Ottomans and their patrons. What remained was to expand their rule beyond Najd and Riyadh, to include tribes in Hijaz which were previously ruled by the Ottoman empire.

With the failure of the former rulers’ patronage in Istanbul, such an acquisition was not the toughest of tasks. The main challenge was to do it peacefully, as a war would invite regional empires to support a proxy war against the rising caliphate, putting Saudi reign once again in jeopardy.

The solution was to take over those tribes by the peaceful means of power sharing with the country’s former rulers and big families. King Abdul Aziz’ resolution was out-of-the-box and exceptionally effective: marriage. The king married a woman from each major family, making her father, brothers and sons participate in both governance and war against revolting tribes. With plenty of princes and princesses, and a contract to pass the throne to all sons of King Abdul Aziz, the power was shared between all involved families and the third Saudi dynasty was here to stay.

This short history demonstrates three main reasons that make a Saudi king accepted as ruler: his theocratic status as the protector of orthodox (Wahhabi) Islam, his nationalistic status as a participant in the unification war, and his promised turn in governance as a representative of his mother’s family which shared power with Al Saud.

None of these three factors apply to today’s crown princes – neither Prince Muhamed Bin Nayef nor Prince Muhamed Bin Salman. Neither of the princes participated in, or were even alive during, the national unification war. Accordingly, neither of them was promised a turn in governance or was proposed as a representative of a warrior-family in a kinship alliance with Al Saud.

Modern day rule of the kingdom

As for the third pillar, theocratic legitimacy, it is about to fall, particularly after the kingdom’s decision to terminate the powers of the official Wahhabistagency that reinforces Islamic order – the ‘Organisation for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue’. The kingdom was forced to make this decision so as to move beyond its contemporary image as a despised semi-medieval state that does not respect human rights.

Although this necessary decision contributed positively to the kingdom’s international status (allowing its admission as a member of the prestigious UN human rights council and its chairing of a key UN human rights council panel twice), it puts the theocratic status of KSA’s ruling class in jeopardy. This has been reinforced by the fact that the concept of a caliphate empire (and ‘empire’ in general), which formed the contours of Al Saud’s dynasty, is no longer globally accepted.

Worse, caliphate has become associated with ISIS, Qaeda, and internationally despised terrorist movements. If the kingdom wants to distance itself from the Islamist organisations that are targets of the ‘war on terror’, it would have to give up its theocratic status, losing a main pillar of its legitimacy. This leaves the coming king without any legitimacy whatsoever.

The loss of political legitimacy, as Hannah Arendt articulated, “is an open invitation to violence”. Three forms of violence are invited: regime coercion to keep control and order, violent opposition from paramilitary groups that find opportunity in lost legitimacy, and external powers which seek to cease the same opportunity. The three apply to the case of contemporary KSA.

Proxy wars are waged by Iranian clients in Yemen – the Houthis – not only against the Saudi puppet regime of Hadi, but even against KSA itself, striking their borders – for the first time in Saudi history – twice. Internally, several terrorist attacks were reported in the last few months, signaling a rise of anti-regime clandestine activism. The rise of those two actors, external and internal, feed further into the already expansive regime coercion against its challengers.

The third violent actor, the regime, is the trickiest. For if we look beyond the conventional conceptualisation of a regime as a black box, to view it from aGramscian perspective that gives attention to each regime ‘component’, we see the distinction and probable separation between the state’s coercive institutions – the police and military – on the one hand, and the state’s political apparatus – in this case the ruling family – on the other.

Whereas conventional political scientists tend to view these coercive institutions as ‘tools’ in service of the political leadership, Gramsci’s workinforms us that it also goes the other way. In the same way that they are being used as ‘tools of coercion’ by political actors, these institutions also use political actors as ‘tools of persuasion’. Those two components are what maintains the regime’s hegemony. If one component falls, it puts more pressure on the other – but also gives it more power.

Nobody wants to do extra work for free! With the coercive apparatus growing simultaneously powerful and frustrated, it becomes more likely to use the opportunity of a legitimacy gap to its benefit. A coup would relax their tensions (extra work) by redistributing the responsibility again with an efficient political (i.e. persuasive) elite which enjoys popular support, while also expanding their access to political power.

This, however, is easier said than done. Several structural factors need to be present to allow such a coup to gain internal and external legitimacy. Luckily for KSA’s military-elite, they are all present.

Anti-regime grievances?

To begin with, the military leadership needs to be interested in seizing such an opportunity. This interest, as Berdal and Malone’s extensive research reveals, is either motivated by the presence of an anti-regime grievance within the military, or the presence of an easy opportunity that incites the greed of military officers.

In economic terms, they explain, it is either motivated from the demand side – grievance – or the supply side – greed. In the real world, they assert, it is usually a mix of both. In the Saudi case, it may appear at first that Saudi military officials should not have grievances. They are well-paid, well-trained, and socially respected and celebrated. This applies as long as we think in absolute terms. Yet in relative terms, comparing their status with that of their political counterparts, grievances become vivid.

Think of Galbraith’s concept of relative poverty which sees the poor as those whose income “falls markedly behind that of their community.” Of course, it cannot be argued that Saudi generals are poor. But what can be argued is that in the same way Galbraith demonstrated how poverty becomes socially redefined in affluent societies, in a way that makes “adequate survival” not enough of an indication of non-poverty, it can be argued that the concepts of ‘wealth’, and also ‘power’, can become redefined as well. In this case, the income and power-share of military leaders in KSA become relatively ‘grieving’.

Looking at the coup possibility from the greed/supply side is far less tricky. The recent rise of anti-Al Saud discourse among international super powers, particularly the United States, signals a carte blanche for the military to make its move.

The analogy between the 2016 US Senate’s unanimous vote to allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Al Saud, and the 1952 British condemnation of Egypt’s last monarch King Farouk’s cabinet reshuffle is striking. The latter signalled to the Egyptian military that the king would not be protected from a military coup against him. The Egyptian Free Officers understood the signal and acted accordingly.

The former might be read in the same terms. The US senate’s declaration that it would not protect Saudi from prosecution in the US also signifies that it would not likely protect them if prosecuted in their own homeland. The US’ position regarding several others of their favoured Arab rulers (think of Mubarak!) is another, equally serious, signal.

Moreover, internally there is the silent rise of an opportunity to mobilise against Al Saud. If the popular protests in the oil rich eastern province were not enough of an indicator, the ones following the execution of Shi’a cleric Nimr Al Nimr – which bluntly called for the demise of the Al Saud family – should suffice. The stubbornly consistent feminist movement calling for women’s right to drive also tells us something about the changing character of Saudi society.

Those socio-political indicators, combined with socio-economic indicators which demonstrate the rise of an educated middle class in KSA, as well as the rise of poverty (absolute and relative), reveal a discrepancy between the society upon which the social contract of Al Saud’s dynasty was drafted, and the contemporary one. This discrepancy does not necessitate the overthrow of the powerful family, but suggests the possible acceptance of a more progressive alternative.

If this alternative can follow the footsteps of Egypt’s 1952 coup, grounding its legitimacy on wealth and opportunity redistribution, their task would be even easier. If only because the resources of the Saudi oil-centred economy are more concentrated than those of 1950s feudal Egypt. In fact, the majority of Saudi resources are centred in the state-owned oil company Aramco. If this company alone is confiscated, the new state would have enough resources to appease the masses.

The recent talks about the Kingdom’s preparation to partially privatise the company (in what could be the world’s largest public offering) puts such a potential confiscation opportunity in jeopardy, as the company’s worth would be internationally distributed. However, it will take quite a while until this privatisation process takes place. And even when it happens, the (non-Aramco) wealth will still remain in very few hands and institutions, again far fewer than in the case of 1952 Egypt.

The final structural facilitator of a Saudi coup is the anti-Al Saud agony of regional powers. Saudi hostility with Iran has reached its peak after the beheading of Nimr Al Nimr. The Iranian government stood silently by while the angry Iranian masses attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The Saudis retaliated by expelling the Iranian ambassador and completely severing the remaining diplomatic ties. Already openly accused of supporting anti-Al Saud movements in the eastern province, the Iranians are very likely to support any action that rids them of their unwelcome neighbours.

As for the two other major Middle Eastern powers, Turkey and Israel, several attempts at reconciliation recently took place, but are far from reaching alliance in the case of Turkey, or even diplomatic recognition in the case of Israel. Although the trend indicates that these three powers are gradually aligning to balance against Iran, several years if not decades are required for such an alliance to take shape. In all cases, a more progressive regime in Saudi Arabia would hasten rather than impede the alignment process.

The question is: with all these factors present, why isn’t a coup happening?

In politics, reasons ‘facilitate’ not ‘cause’ certain outcomes. Thus, one should not be puzzled if the reasons remain without producing their expected effects. All political research can do is highlight the reasons that create probability; then wait, hope and see. The reasons that facilitate the endurance of the Saudi reign also need to be analysed.

This report prepared by HESHAM SHAFICK for openDemocracy.