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Government of Saudi Arabia


Government of Saudi Arabia

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The politics of Saudi Arabia takes place in the context of an absolute monarchy founded upon the tenets of Islam. The King of Saudi Arabia is both head of state and the head of government, but decisions are, to a large extent, made on the basis of consultation among the senior princes of the royal family and the religious establishment. The Qur'an is declared to be the constitution of the country, which is governed on the basis of Islamic law (Shari'a).

Government is dominated by the vast royal family, the Al Saud, which has often been divided by internal disputes and into factions. The members of the family are the principle political actors. Political participation outside of the royal family is limited, but there has been pressure for some time to broaden participation. In recent years, there has been a rise in Islamist activism, which has also resulted in Islamist terrorism.


Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy,[1] although, according to the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia adopted by royal decree in 1992, the king must comply with Sharia (that is, Islamic law) and the Quran. The Quran and the Sunnah (the traditions of Muhammad) are declared to be the country's constitution.[2] There is no legally binding written constitution and the Quran and the Sunna remain subject to interpretation. This is carried out by the ulema, the Saudi religious establishment.[3]

National government

The government of Saudi Arabia is led by the monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who acceded to the throne in 2005. No political parties or national elections are permitted[1] and according to The Economist's 2010 Democracy Index, the Saudi government was the seventh most authoritarian regime from among the 167 countries rated.[4] Government is dominated by the royal family.[5]

The King

The Basic Law specifies that the king must be chosen from among the sons of the first king, Abdul Aziz Al Saud, and their male descendants[6] subject to the subsequent approval of religious leaders (the ulema).[1] In 2007 an "Allegiance Council" was created, comprising King Abdulaziz's surviving sons plus a grandson of each his deceased sons, to determine which member of the royal family will be the heir apparent (the Crown Prince) after Prince Salman, who is the current Crown Prince, either dies or accedes to the throne.[7]

The king combines legislative, executive, and judicial functions[8] and royal decrees form the basis of the country's legislation.[9] The king is also the prime minister, and presides over the Council of Ministers (Majlis al-Wuzarāʾ), which comprises the first and second deputy prime ministers (usually the first and second in line to the throne respectively) and 23 ministers with portfolio and five ministers of state.[10] The king makes appointments to and dismissals from the Council, which is responsible for such executive and administrative matters as foreign and domestic policy, defense, finance, health, and education, administered through numerous separate agencies.[8] There is also a 150-member Consultative Assembly, appointed by the King,[11] which can propose legislation to the King but has no legislative powers itself.[12] Although, in theory, the country is an absolute monarchy, in practice major policy decisions are made outside these formal governmental structures and not solely by the king. Decisions are made by establishing a consensus within the royal family (comprising the numerous descendants of the kingdom's founder, King Abdulaziz). In addition, the views of important members of Saudi society, including the ulema (religious scholars), leading tribal sheikhs, and heads of prominent commercial families are considered.[8]

As an absolute monarchy, the personality and capabilities of the reigning monarch have an impact on the politics and national policies of the country. King Saud (1953–1964) was considered incompetent and extravagant and his rule led to an economic and political crisis that resulted in his forced abdication.[13] King Faisal (1964–1975) was a "modernist" who favored economic, technological and governmental progress but was also politically and religiously conservative. He directed the country's rapid economic and bureaucratic development of the early 1970s, but also made concessions to the religious establishment, and abandoned plans to broaden political participation.[14] King Khalid (1975–1982) left government largely to his Crown Prince, Fahd,[15] who succeeded him as King (1982–2005). Prince Fahd was a talented administrator who initiated significant industrial development in the Kingdom. He was regarded by many as the "father of the country's modernization".[16] However, during the last 10 years of his reign, ill-health prevented him from fully functioning. In the absence of a king who could provide strong central leadership, the state structure began to fragment[17] and the country stagnated.[18] King Abdullah, who came to the throne in 2005, is seen as a reformer[19] and has introduced economic reforms (limited deregulation, encouragement of foreign investment, and privatization) and made modernizing changes to the judiciary and government ministries.[20]

Royal family

The royal family dominates the political system. The family's vast numbers allow it to die most of the kingdom's important posts and to have an involvement and presence at all levels of government.[5] The number of princes is estimated to be anything from 7,000 upwards, with the most power and influence being wielded by the 200 or so male descendants of King Abdulaziz.[21] The key ministries are generally reserved for the royal family,[1] as are the thirteen regional governorships.[22] Long term political and government appointments, such as those of King Abdullah,who was the Commander of the National Guard from 1963 until 2010, when he then appointed his son to replace him[23]), Crown Prince Sultan, was Minister of Defence and Aviation from 1962 to 2011, Prince Nayef was the Minister of Interior from 1975 until his death in 2012, Prince Saud has been Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1975[24] and Prince Salman, was the Governor of the Riyadh Region from 1962 to 2011,[25] resulting in the creation of "power fiefdoms" for senior princes.[26]

In the absence of national elections and political parties,[1] politics in Saudi Arabia takes place in two distinct arenas: within the royal family, the Al Saud, and between the royal family and the rest of Saudi society.[27] The royal family is politically divided by factions based on clan loyalties, personal ambitions and ideological differences.[27] The most powerful clan faction is known as the 'Sudairi Seven', comprising the late King Fahd and his full brothers and their descendants.[7] Ideological divisions include issues over the speed and direction of reform,[28] and whether the role of the ulema should be increased or reduced. There were also divisions within the family over who should succeed Crown Prince Sultan.[7][29]

Leading figures in the royal family with differing ideological orientations included

The Ulema and the Al ash-Sheikh

The significance of the ulema (the body of Islamic religious leaders and jurists) is derived from the central role of religion in Saudi society. It has been said that Islam is more than a religion, it is a way of life in Saudi Arabia, and, as a result, the influence of the ulema is pervasive.[32] Saudi Arabia is almost unique in giving the ulema a direct role in government,[33] the only other example being Iran.[34] Not only is royal succession subject to the approval of the ulema,[1] so are all new laws (royal decrees).[33] The ulema have also influenced major executive decisions, for example the imposition of the oil embargo in 1973 and the invitation of foreign troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990.[35] It plays a major role in the judicial and education systems[36] and has a monopoly of authority in the sphere of religious and social morals.[37]

By the 1970s, as a result of oil wealth and the modernization of the country initiated by King Faisal, important changes to Saudi society were under way and the power of the ulema was in decline.[38] However, this changed following the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Islamist radicals.[39] The government's response to the crisis included strengthening the ulema's powers and increasing their financial support:[40] in particular, they were given greater control over the education system[39] and allowed to enforce stricter observance of Wahhabi rules of moral and social behaviour.[40] Since his accession to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has taken steps to rein back the powers of the ulema, for instance transferring their control over girls' education to the Ministry of Education.[41]

The ulema have historically been led by the Al ash-Sheikh,[42] the country's leading religious family.[37] The Al ash-Sheikh are the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th century founder of the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam which is today dominant in Saudi Arabia.[43] The family is second in prestige only to the Al Saud (the royal family)[44] with whom they formed a "mutual support pact"[45] and power-sharing arrangement nearly 300 years ago.[35] The pact, which persists to this day,[45] is based on the Al Saud maintaining the Al ash-Sheikh's authority in religious matters and upholding and propagating Wahhabi doctrine. In return, the Al ash-Sheikh support the Al Saud's political authority [46] thereby using its religious-moral authority to legitimize the royal family's rule.[47] Although the Al ash Sheikh's domination of the ulema has diminished in recent decades,[48] they still hold the most important religious posts and are closely linked to the Al Saud by a high degree of intermarriage.[37]


The Saudi government and the royal family have often, and over many years, been accused of corruption.[49] In a country that is said to "belong" to the royal family and is named after it,[50] the lines between state assets and the personal wealth of senior princes are blurred.[21] The corruption has been described as systemic[51] and endemic,[52] and its existence was acknowledged[53] and defended[54] by Prince Bandar bin Sultan (a senior member of the royal family)[55] in an interview in 2001.[56]

Although corruption allegations have often been limited to broad undocumented accusations,[57] specific allegations were made in 2007, when it was claimed that the British defence contractor BAE Systems had paid Prince Bandar US$2 billion in bribes relating to the Al-Yamamah arms deal.[58] Prince Bandar denied the allegations.[59] Investigations by both US and UK authorities resulted, in 2010, in plea bargain agreements with the company, by which it paid $447 million in fines but did not admit to bribery.[60] Transparency International in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012 gave Saudi Arabia a score of 4.4 (on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is "highly corrupt" and 10 is "highly clean").[61]


Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, there has been mounting pressure to reform and modernize the royal family's rule, an agenda championed by King Abdullah both before and after his accession in 2005. The creation of the Consultative Council in the early 1990s did not satisfy demands for political participation, and, in 2003, an annual National Dialogue Forum was announced that would allow selected professionals and intellectuals to publicly debate current national issues, within certain prescribed parameters. In 2005, the first municipal elections were held. In 2007, the Allegiance Council was created to regulate the succession.[62] In 2009, the king made significant personnel changes to the government by appointing reformers to key positions and the first woman to a ministerial post.[63] However, the changes have been criticized as being too slow or merely cosmetic,[64] and the royal family is reportedly divided on the speed and direction of reform.[28]

In 2011, Abdullah announced that women will be able to be nominated to the Shura Council.[65]

Politics outside of the royal family

Politics in Saudi Arabia, outside of the royal family, can be examined in three contexts: the extent to which the royal family allows political participation by the wider Saudi society, opposition to the regime, and Islamist terrorism.

Political participation

Outside of the House of Al Saud, participation in the political process is limited to a relatively small segment of the population and takes the form of the royal family consulting with the ulema, tribal sheikhs and members of important commercial families on major decisions.[8] This process is not reported by the Saudi media.[66] In theory, all males of the age of majority have a right to petition the king directly through the traditional tribal meeting known as the majlis.[67] In many ways, the approach to government differs little from the traditional system of tribal rule. Tribal identity remains strong and, outside of the royal family, political influence is frequently determined by tribal affiliation, with tribal sheikhs maintaining a considerable degree of influence over local and national events.[8] In recent years there have been limited steps to widen political participation, such as the establishment of the Consultative Council in the early 1990s and the National Dialogue Forum in 2003.[62]

Opposition to the royal family

The rule of the Al Saud faces political opposition from four sources: Sunni Islamist activism; liberal critics; the Shia minority – particularly in the Eastern Province; and long-standing tribal and regional particularistic opponents (for example in the Hejaz).[68] Of these, the Islamic activists have been the most prominent threat to the regime and have in recent years perpetrated a number of violent or terrorist acts in the country.[69] However, open protest against the government, even if peaceful, is not tolerated. On 29 January 2011, hundreds of protesters gathered in the city of Jeddah in a rare display of protest against the city's poor infrastructure after deadly floods swept through the city, killing eleven people.[70] Police stopped the demonstration after about 15 minutes and arrested 30 to 50 people.[71]


Osama bin Laden and 15 out of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals[72] and former CIA director James Woolsey described Saudi Arabian Wahhabism as "the soil in which Al-Qaeda and its sister terrorist organizations are flourishing."[73]

According to a 2009 U.S. State Department communication by Hillary Clinton, United States Secretary of State, (disclosed as part of the Wikileaks U.S. 'cables leaks' controversy in 2010) "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide".[74] Part of this funding arises through the zakat (or religious tax) required to be paid by all Saudis to charities, and amounting to at least 2.5 percent of their income. Although many charities are genuine, others, it is alleged, serve as fronts for money laundering and terrorist financing operations. While many Saudis contribute to those charities in good faith believing their money goes toward good causes, it has been alleged that others know full well the terrorist purposes for which their money will be used.[73][75]

Arab Spring protests

Main article: 2011–13 Saudi Arabian protests

Since 2011, Saudi Arabia has been affected by its own Arab Spring protests.[76] In response, King Abdullah announced on 22 Februaty 2011 a series of benefits for citizens amounting to $36 billion, of which $10.7 billion was earmarked for housing.[77][78][79] No political reforms were announced as part of the package, though some prisoners indicted for financial crimes were pardoned.[80] On 18 March the same year, King Abdullah announced a package of $93 billion, which includeded 500,000 new homes to a cost of $67 billion, in addition to creating 60,000 new security jobs.[81][82][83]

The lack of critical thought in the education system has been cited by some as the reason why fewer protests occurred in the Kingdom.[84]

Regional government

The kingdom is divided into 13 regions(manāṭiq), which in turn are divided into numerous districts. Regional governors are appointed, usually from the royal family, and preside over one or more municipal councils, half of whose members are appointed and half elected. The governors are responsible for such functions as finance, health, education, agriculture, and municipalities. The consultative principle operates at all levels of government, including the government of villages and tribes.[8] The governors act as regional "mini-kings", sitting in majlises, hearing grievances and settling disputes.[85]

In February 2005, the first, and so far only, elections in Saudi Arabia were held. Half the members of the municipal councils were to be elected. In Riyadh, the number of registered voters did not exceed 18% of those eligible to vote, representing only 2% of the city's population. There was evidence of much greater interest in the Shia community of the Eastern Province.[86] Women will be allowed to vote beginning in 2012, as King Abdullah announced in the opening speech of the new term of the Shura Council.[87]

In 2005, candidates tended to be local businessmen, activists and professionals. Although political parties were not permitted, it was possible to identify candidates as having an Islamist orientation, a liberal agenda or reliant on tribal status. The Islamist candidates tended to be backed by public figures and the religious establishment and won most of the seats in the Saudi cities such as Riyadh, Jeddah, Medina, Tabuk and Taif. There was little support for candidates of a more liberal orientation. In 2007, a Saudi commentator noted that the municipal councils were proving to be powerless. Nevertheless, the elections represented an important step in modernizing the regime.[86]

Although male-only municipal elections were held again on 29 September 2011,[88][89] Abdullah announced that women will be able to vote and be elected in the 2015 municipal elections.[65]

Political reform

In March 1992, King Fahd issued several decrees outlining the basic statutes of government and codifying royal succession for the first time. The King's political reform program also provided for the establishment of a national Consultative Council, with appointed members having advisory powers to review and give advice on issues of public interest. It also outlined a framework for councils at the provincial or emirate level.

In September 1993, King Fahd issued additional reform decrees, appointing the members of the national Consultative Council and spelling out procedures for the new council's operations. He announced reforms to the Council of Ministers, including term limitations of 4 years and regulations to prohibit conflict of interest for ministers and other high-level officials. The members of 13 provincial councils and the councils' operating regulations were also announced.

The membership of the Consultative Council was expanded from 60 to 90 members in July 1997, to 120 in May 2001, and to 150 members in 2005. Membership has changed significantly during each expansion of the council, as many members have not been reappointed. The role of the council is gradually expanding as it gains experience.

Saudi Municipal elections took place in 2005 and some journalists saw this as a first tentative step towards the introduction of democratic processes in the Kingdom, including the legalization of political parties. Other analysts of the Saudi political scene were more skeptical.[90] Islamist candidates, often businessmen, did well, but in practice had little real power.[91] In 2009, promised new elections and hopes for female suffrage in them were postponed for at least two years.[92]

On 15 February 2009, in a reshuffle King Abdullah removed Sheikh Ibrahim Bin Abdullah Al-Ghaith from his position as President of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. He also removed Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan as head of the Supreme Judicial Council and appointed the first female minister.[93][94][95]

See also


External links

  • Saudi National e-Government Portal
    • The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia - United States; Washington, DC
  • DMOZ
  • Carnegie Endowment, Arab Reform Bulletin: 'Saudi Arabia'
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