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Stirrings in Saudi Arabia
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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 33-40

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Democratization in the Arab World?

Stirrings in Saudi Arabia

Jean-François Seznec

At first blush, an article on democracy in Saudi Arabia—a state often described as an absolute monarchy—could be very short indeed. The secret services are strong and imposing. Most nongovernmental organizations and associations are forbidden. The press is entirely controlled, and the largest press groups are actually owned by members of the royal family. Elections, local or national, have never been held, and King Fahd has said that there is "no place" for them. There are no political parties. Arrests are arbitrary. The judicial establishment is politically dependent. And, while the political clout of radical Islamists is greatly overplayed in the Western media, the regime actively sponsors a conservative form of Islam that is highly repressive, particularly regarding the freedom and equality of women. Given this litany of nondemocratic features, Saudi Arabia would seem to be a perfect example of an authoritarian state.

On the ground, however, Saudi Arabia's authoritarian character is not so obvious. One can even detect protodemocratic stirrings. Granted, if we were to plot the country on Robert Dahl's famous chart ranging regimes between "closed hegemonies" and "polyarchies," we would find it very near the former end of the spectrum. 1 But its political trajectory today is discernibly toward the latter. Since 1992, Saudi Arabia's rulers have allowed for more consultation with those whom they rule, more inclusiveness in institutions, a limited liberalization of the press, and less repression of the Shi'ite Muslims who make up an estimated 3 to 5 percent of the kingdom's total population of approximately 22 million. [End Page 33]

It has been a custom of the king and the major princes to open their doors to petitioners once a week in well-publicized—and now televised—meetings called majlis (the word refers to the salon or reception room where these meetings take place). While today the king's poor health precludes his own involvement, one can see a senior prince receiving thousands of petitioners at each majlis. The petitioners will kiss him deferentially and usually hand him a piece of paper bearing a request, perhaps for a land grant or a small sum of money. This paper is passed on to the prince's staff, which will then provide a response. It is a system in which the princes dole out largesse in order to display and reaffirm their eminence.

The royal family, and the king in particular, traditionally wield enormous power, but it is power that traces its roots to a Bedouin society which was itself quite egalitarian. Tribal leaders were normally chosen for their valor and wisdom, not their birth. Today, the king is named according to a procedure defined in the Basic Law of 1992, but that law only codifies a Bedouin tradition long followed by the House of Saud: A king-to-be is not born heir apparent. He must be approved by the rest of the family, even if also ultimately endorsed by the existing king. One of the consequences of this arrangement is that a potential king must show his ability to negotiate, to maneuver, and to manage his family and some affairs of state before being chosen and enthroned. De facto, then, the king is elected by his family members. And since the family is very large—there may be as many as 15,000 royal princes—the competition for power is keen. It can be argued that while the Saudi state is authoritarian, the ruling class governs itself internally in ways that at least approximate democratic procedures. 2

This tradition of choosing the princely candidate who seems most able to win acceptance and cooperation from his relatives has been the key to the kingdom's political stability. In one form or another, aside from two hiatuses totaling 35 years, the Al Saud family has been in power in central Arabia since 1744. Unlike other ruling Bedouin families in the region, they have tended to transfer power to one another peacefully...