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  • Saudi Arabia: Power, Legitimacy and Survival
  • Nadra Hashim
Saudi Arabia: Power, Legitimacy and Survival Contemporary Middle East Series. Tim Niblock London: Routledge, 2006. 224 pp., ISBN 0-415-27419-2, $135.00

Tim Niblock has written a keen analysis of one of the most enigmatic topics in the study of the Middle East. At the core of his discussion of Saudi politics is a careful study of the classic conflict between the (Saudi) state and its (Arabian) society. In Saudi Arabia this tension is especially acute because the society-state cleavage is rooted in competing perspectives regarding a single national ideology, namely the philosophy of Wahhabism. The most dramatic manifestations of this debate have been witnessed in the political ideologies of individuals associated with Al-Qa'ida and individuals responsible for the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Other challenges to Saudi governance, and to the security of the oil it exports, come from external sources.

In the introductory chapter, Niblock briefly introduces the subject of external threats to Saudi oil security, including the country's geographic contiguity to "regional flashpoints" in Iran, Iraq, and Israel, as well as to potential conflicts in the Sudan and Yemen (10–11). These are given serious discussion in the second half of chapter 3, which focuses on the shift in peninsular power away from British influence in the region and toward American engagement with the Saudi royal family (60–67).

In this era, King Faisal attempted to contain "regional radicalism," emerging in Yemen and the Gulf nations. He helped the Saudi nation transform itself from a sprawling patron-client fiefdom to a modern state. These and other efforts stabilized the Saudi state and allowed it the "eudaemonic legitimacy" most western states enjoy. Paradoxically, King Faisal's eudaemonic rule coincided with a royal mission to increase and centralize its power. Niblock does not, at least in this chapter, address this irony sufficiently. [End Page 169]

However, in a later section of the introductory chapter, Niblock discusses the more ambiguous, possibly more pressing, internal threats to national stability (18–20). Among these are the activities of fundamentalist reformers displeased with American influence on the Saudi monarchy—a topic he revisits in chapter 4. To accurately comprehend the impact modern regional and domestic challenges have on contemporary Saudi politics, Niblock has devised a new way to observe the more dynamic aspects of national governance.

Niblock's model offers a nuanced description of the "web of interactions" currently directing Saudi politics. Two pillars comprise the structure of Niblock's model; he calls these "elements" the conditioning factors and the policy processes. Conditioning factors are of three categories: political leadership, which is comprised most notably of the king; circles of support including the royal family, tribal, religious, and commercial constituencies; and a third dubbed "sources of legitimacy," which is characterized by how successfully the Saudi state uses its institutions to provide for the Arabian society it governs (8–12). The second pillar of Niblock's model, an area he calls policy processes, consists of policy strategies, measures, and implementation, which are expressed in regions dubbed the domestic and international environment.

According to Niblock's model, the society-state conflict is most acutely manifested as a clash between particular aspects of the conditioning factors and policy processes. Specifically, the elite circles of support that promote the legitimacy of the royal family and members outside this group whose lives are shaped by policy processes of ministerial activity sometimes find that their interests are in opposition (13–17). The latter group has few resources to challenge the policy processes because limited grass roots institutions are available in Saudi civil society (90–96).

One of the most compelling aspects of Niblock's model is its description of the state's uses of Wahhabist ideology to direct the polity, and the polity's re-interpretation of Wahhabism to resist state command. In 1744 religious leader Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab forged an alliance with Muhammad ibn Su'ud, ruler of a fiefdom in the Najd region. Between 1744–1914, the house of Su'ud tried to expand its holdings...


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