It is often facilely assumed that while the economy of Saudi Arabia has undergone enormous transformation and perhaps even that its society is being transformed, its politics remain static and fossilized. It is perhaps more accurate to say that political change is a continuing process in the Kingdom — a process where change seems to move at a glacial pace and is thus not easy to discern. Joe Kéchichian is a well-known scholar of the Gulf with a long list of books to his name. This is not by any means the first of his works to focus on Saudi Arabia, as he has previously published volumes on succession in Saudi Arabia and a biography of King Faysal. His research for this book included a dozen visits to Saudi Arabia between 2007 and 2011, where he interviewed 48 personalities, of whom 32 wished to remain anonymous, and many of whom were jurists.
Kéchichian’s focus is on how the administration of politics in Saudi Arabia has changed on the last two decades or so. His central conclusion is that changes have been the result of various pressures on the Saudi royal family and the crown prince, now king, ‘Abdullah, as much or more as independent initiatives or “gifts” of the family and ‘Abdullah. This approach demonstrates a more nuanced view of politics within the Kingdom and how it has changed than the more commonly expressed views that either the regime seeks to buy off dissent or that ‘Abdullah is a kind of “closet liberal democrat.”
In this regard, Kéchichian examines the pressures for change, as well as the process and the outcome. One prism employed is that of variant views of groups of ‘ulama and the regime’s reaction. Another is the emergence after the Kuwait War of the practice of submitting petitions to King Fahd and later King ‘Abdullah, accompanied by his response of creating a “National Dialogue” to address the issues raised — as well as international dialogues to discuss Western reaction to Islamist extremism and its impact on relations. Another response was increasing the scope of formal political participation through the creation of the Consultative Assembly (Majlis al-Shura) and the tentative institution of partially elected municipal councils. Perhaps most importantly, the foundations for change were laid in the nature of the Basic Law of 1992, a concrete step for institutionalization of political power and participation. Another key development in institutionalization was the 2006 creation of the Hay’at al-Bay‘a, or Allegiance Commission, which codified the procedure for future succession to the kingship — a process as yet unsolved but perhaps ameliorated by this institution.
It is a rare book on contemporary Saudi Arabia that does not discuss the country’s relationship with the United States. The threads of the bilateral relationship are frequently discussed in the media and have been studied at greater length and depth in a number of books, but Kéchichian covers the essential points authoritatively and provides worthwhile insights.
As the author notes, the slow pace of change was not the fault necessarily of the government or the Al Sa‘ud royal family but derived in large part from resistance by its conservative society. He gives high marks, with some reservations, to ‘Abdullah’s approach: “[T]he reformist measures introduced since 2005 constituted a unique revolutionary process in the kingdom, which reflected the monarch’s ‘will to power,’ and which echoed his own shortcomings in so many areas, including sensitive questions that dealt with succession, religious issues, economic matters, and political concerns. Shortcomings notwithstanding, the monarch tackled all of these topics with gusto. In fact, many of his thoughtful initiatives fulfilled progressive adjustments, rather than the full introduction of Jeffersonian democracy …” (p. 213).
The most original and valuable contribution of this book is perhaps its discourse on legal reform and changes to the judiciary. Kéchichian points out a principal goal of the king “was not only to habituate the clergy [End Page 484] to adapt to changing circumstances, but to also welcome the very...