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Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is greeted after attending prayers on the first day of Eid al-Fitr at Al-Safa Palace in Mecca

When the plane of deposed Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali touched down in Jeddah in January 2011, the Saudi monarchy’s worst nightmare re-emerged. Ben Ali was a close personal friend of then Saudi strongman, the late Saudi Crown Prince and longtime Interior Minister Naif bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. For the Saudi monarchs, seeing two personal friends, Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, deposed in quick succession was certainly frightening.

Until 1953, Saudi Arabia was surrounded entirely by monarchies ruling in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and of course in the gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and UAE. Since then, however, the region’s monarchies have steadily declined, giving way to more inclusive forms of government inspired by republican principles.

This is bad news for the Saudi monarchs. The Saudi goal in the region is to see weaker and more dictatorial governments, preferably monarchies like the KSA. This principle applies even when these governments are driven by sectarian forces such as the Shia, a sect of Islam traditionally deplored by the Saudi branch of Salafism. In 1963, Saudi Arabia supported the Yemeni Shia Zaidi Imam Bader against the secular revolutionaries backed by Egypt.

“Young Saudis have now started to dream of becoming elected prime ministers and even presidents.” – Ali Al-Ahmed

Saudi Arabia remains the largest surviving absolute monarchy in the Middle East. The longevity of the al-Saud monarchy has led some to advocate for a “Saudi Model” of government and policies, ostensibly to ensure stability and continuity. There is no doubt that the Saudi monarchy has thus far been able to navigate the treacherous waters of the Middle East largely unscathed, due to both its wealth and its strong, nearly unconditional, Western backing.

Saudi men are pictured at a polling station during municipal elections in Riyadh September 29, 2011. (AP)

Today, however, the situation is changing. The leaderless upheaval of the Arab Spring has changed cultural and even religious norms. Among the most important changes are people’s expectations and perceptions of their rulers and their designated positions and roles. The old belief that a ruler can do whatever he wishes as long as he speaks in favor of the faith is no longer valid.

The Arab Spring has brought another model to the region that will prevail for the foreseeable future. Love it or hate it, the Muslim Brotherhood model is here to stay and it will take hold across the region, including in the Gulf monarchies. It appeals to a sizable portion of youth in the region, especially in the Gulf, which has not been willing to share power and wealth with broader society. It is a model based on religion and ideology rather than bloodline.

Young Saudis have now started to dream of becoming elected prime ministers and even presidents. The religious cover that provided backing for the absolute monarchy is now collapsing and is being replaced by the view that correctly views monarchical rule as un-Islamic. This week, the Emirati government announced the trial of religious activists who aimed to replace the absolute monarchies.

Saudi tribal chiefs are seen outside the royal palace in Riyadh June 23, 2012. (AP)

The Muslim Brotherhood model – Sunni, Arab, religious, and embracing some democratic views – strikes fear in the heart of al-Saud and other ruling families in the Gulf. It is a more horizontal political system and more accessible to the average citizen, while the monarchies are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite. The Brotherhood, by contrast, appeals to millions of unsatisfied youths who see members of ruling families dominating most aspects of social and economic life in their countries. The increasing size of the ruling families is working against them as it limits their options and capacity to co-opt the people by sharing part of the wealth and power. With the aging and expanding ruling family, it will be almost impossible to protect power with a busy courtyard of princes vying for top seats and petrodollars.

The Saudi model is finding fewer and fewer buyers among the political classes in the region. The current odds favor the Muslim Brotherhood, who unlike any other group, enjoy considerable support on the streets across the region.

This post was originally published under a similar headline on Fikra Forum.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

Ali Al-Ahmed

Ali Al-Ahmed is the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs based in Washington, DC. He is a Saudi political activist and analyst on Saudi Arabia and Gulf political issues.


  1. Craig Dillon

    February 14, 2013

    The recent huge development of oil and gas reserves in North America, thus reducing the US need for ME oil, is also going to have an impact. Will the US continue to back a regime that is anti-woman, anti-secular, and pro-wahabbi? The Saudi financing of madrases that preach extreme islam will be questioned. I don't think the knee-jerk support for SA will continue from the US.

  2. Robbie Hakeem

    February 14, 2013

    I just don't buy this argument. On the one end 30 thousand princes have become too top heavy for the Kingdom. However , despite all the Monarchs are better than the alternative.

    • Craig Dillon

      February 14, 2013

      Better for who? Surely not the women. Surely not those who want a more open and tolerant society.

  3. JKF2

    February 8, 2013

    I think this assessment is skewed/secularist. The people of Saudi Arabia have one of the highest standards of life on the planet, including the cultural aspects. The movements seen in other nations are based on extreme poverty conditions of the majority. Saudi Arabia, is the cultural centre of Sunni Islam, this can’t nor must it be overlooked. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a right to have laws, based on Sharia, that defend the traditions of Islam, just like the Vatican enforces Catholic traditions, Russia’s Orthodox Church enforces its traditions, Israel the only Jewish state has a right to enforce its Jewish traditions, Iran has a full right to enforce its Shia traditions, India its Hindu traditions and so on… The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been in the process of relaxing some of the very strict traditions prescribed by Sharia. If people want a liberal tradition, maybe they should change to a less strict religion; we see this issue in many religions, in which there are various branches/interpretations, but clearly those nations that are the cultural centres, of a particular religion, must not be violated by those that want to change the religion, because advocating many political changes are in fact secular notions, may clearly go against religeous fundamentals. Most religions are not democratic entities, in which people can just vote to make changes, just to accomodate that which happens to be “cool”, at the particular time. Secularism, should not be enforced against nations that are the cultural centres of a particular religion; it really goes against religeous freedoms. It may be, that some human rights may be in conflict with religeous rights, and that is were there is a scope for accomodation. In the case of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Royal family are the guardians of the religion, no different than the British Royal family are the Guardians of the Anglican Church. The Kingdom of SA is changing, and it is adjusting to new realities, but to push for immediate or rapid changes, could only destabilize the Kingdom, and worse introduce criminal elements to persue a destructive agenda. If we believe in religeous freedoms, we must support the right of the states representing the cultural centres, of a particular religion, to have a right to continue the cultural life of that religion; and respect that they will change at their pace. As far as other states, that are not cultural religeous centres, they should all be secular.

  4. Ali Baba

    February 7, 2013

    Saudi Arabia is the main source of problem with its double standard and want to spread Wahhabi. Wahhabi thinking produce Osama bi laden.Wahhabi encourage woman abuses.please get the fact straight. there no secret that most of Saudi men are gays and many woman are lesbian because they hide woman as result men are looking for sex with men. If a man marry four you believe that he can satisfy them.the answer is impossible. these woman with take of each other.


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