Saudi Arabia And Authoritarian Regimes – OpEd


Most of the Gulf States have been led by Authoritarian regimes in one form or another, Saudi Arabia is not an exception. Saudi Arabia is a prodigious example of last enduring champion of absolute monarchy since its formation in 1932 by Ibn Saud till today (Wehrey 2015). One can easily figure out the essence of absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia with the fact that King of Saudi Arabia is also the chief of state, prime minister, commander in chief of the military and head of the government, the anecdote does not end up here, above all, nearly all the important posts, positions and ministries have also been occupied by the same family since the formation of Saudi Arabia (Ziegler 2016). The focal point of this report is not to explain the nature of government or monarchy in Saudi Arabia, instead it is to shed light on the foremost dynamics which are helping to sustain Authoritarianism (monarchy) in Saudi Arabia. In order to explore the foremost question that how authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia has been survived so far, this report shed lights on different factors including political system in Saudi Arabia, political economy, coercive apparatus and legitimacy. 

Most of the countries in Gulf region have been led by authoritarianism but as the population, demography, wealth, area, population of ethnic minorities and customs are different in all of them in one way or the other, so in order to be more specific about the factors which have assisted the sustainability and empowerment of authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia this report does not simplify Saudi Arabia with other gulf states and hence particularly analyzes the internal dynamics of Saudi Arabia and the policies which have been implemented by Saudi monarchs in order to empower their regime. The factors which have assisted and empowered authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia ranges from sustainability in the political system (monarchy), renitier economy of the state, use of religion by the state, use of (renitier) oil wealth by the state elite in order to maintain its legitimacy, lack of taxation, state being the distributor of wealth rather than extractor, use of coercive apparatus by the state which includes use of religious police, use of Islamic laws to subjugate the population, repression of freedom of speech, assembly, and expression, political prisoners, suppression of media, suppression of women rights and political punishments etc. Apart from these factors, this report also sheds light on internal dissent and resistance, for example, protests in the Shiite dominated province. But this report also explains that how Saudi elites are coping up with these internal dissent and resistance in order to sustain their regime.  

As far as political system in Saudi Arabia is concern there is no hesitation in saying that Saudi Arabia is a prodigious example of absolute monarchy, with its king holding absolute power and sharing some of the powerful positions, post and ministries with his close relatives (Wehrey 2015). Koran and Sunna has been declared as the constitution of the state since 1992, the cabinet, whose members have also been appointed and selected by the King , passes legislation in the country, this legislation becomes law once authorized by royal verdict (Freedom House 2015, Wehrey 2015). Majlis-al-Shura fulfils the duty of consultative advisory but one thing to note here is that there is no one other than the king who appoints the members of Majlis-al-Shura (Freedom House 2015). There is no concept of elections in the country apart from local level municipal elections which were also introduced in 2005, even in the municipal elections out of total 285 seats half of the seats were filled on the King’s recommendation, permission was granted to the women to caste vote but it has not been implemented properly till now (Freedom House 2015). There is no presence of proper working opposition in the country, and no one is allowed to make a party or to run a campaign against the monarchs of the country in Saudi Arabia. Any person whether he is an activist, lawyer, journalist, and cleric etc try to challenge the authoritarianism and legitimacy of the regime has to face strenuous judicial inquiries and most of them have been punished as well.

As aforementioned that King and his family constitutes the absolute power in Saudi Arabia specially the political system of Saudi Arabia is wholly and solely dependent on the royal family, but the main point to highlight here is that apart from the direct political system, King and royal family of the Saudi Arabia extend its power to religious police, ordinary police, military, higher offices, judiciary and to the religious clerics. As the king and his appointed members of his family maintains the absolute power in Saudi Arabia to appoint higher officials of their respective departments, so most of the departments including judiciary, police and military etc work for the sustainability, empowerment and protection of the regime and monarchy (Freedom House 2015). 

According to most of the scholars the countries whose major portion of economy is dependent on external rent, such economies has been labeled as rentier economies and the states which illustrate such type of economies has been labeled as rentier states (Beblawi 1987). Major portion of Saudi Arbia’s economy is also dependent on its oil rent hence Saudi Arabia is also a rentier state, the focal point of this report is not to explore that whether Saudi Arabia is a rentier state or not, so without going into much detail, this report undeviatingly explore the connection between the sustainability of the regime and use of oil wealth by state elites in Saudi Arabia.

There are few points in the rentier states theory which correlates with Saudia Arabia and sustainability of the monarchy or authoritarianism in Saudi Arbia, for example, state being the provider of wealth rather than extractor, there is absence of regular taxation in Saudi Arabia, and distribution of wealth in some factions of the population in Saudi Arabia (Beblawi 1987, Alkhater 2012). One more thing to consider here is that Saudi elites have also been utilizing this oil wealth to maintain their legitimacy and also to buy loyalties of the populous, this act of buying of loyalties of the population goes back before the formation of Saudi Arabia and this buying of loyalties is actually a traditional and customary thing in Saudi Arabia. According to Scholars, the legitimacy in the rentier states came into being due to the creation of rentier mentality, as there is absence of relationship of taxation which is present in a democratic state, in a rentier state rentier mentality persists which promotes the notion that as the people do not take part in the production of the wealth rather people are receiver of the wealth, welfare services and standard living from the state without any significant role in the production of economy, hence population is in turn responsible to accept the legitimacy of the regime (Beblawi 1987, Alkhater 2012). Such a mentality has been named as rentier mentality and it is important to note that such a mentality also persists in Saudi Arbia, which has been helping the monarchy to sustain in Saudi Arabia and which has been helping the monarchy to maintain its legitimacy.      

Retaining legitimacy in a monarchial regime is not an effortless assignment, it is one of the most tricky errands which a monarchial regime has to manage, apart from rentier mentality there are few other imperative aspects as well through which Saudi political elite has been maintaining its legitimacy in the populous, including repression techniques, repression of media, repression of ethnic minorities, use of coercive apparatus, and use of religion etc. Government in Saudi Arabia compactly controls the print and electronic media, one good example of government’s involvement in the affairs of media is that the royal family owns major portion of stakes in the media (Freedom House 2015). Media has also been censored to publish any news offensive to religion, religious establishment and the ruling elites, a good example of this censorship is the royal decree of 2011 which has banned any kind of criticism on grand mufti, government officials and the council of senior religious scholars (Freedom House 2015). Online content which deems to be offensive, dangerous and politically sensitive for the regime is usually banned from the internet, one such example is the blockage on the access of more than 400,000 websites present in the internet. 

Writers and activists who try to oppose the present government have been imprisoned and have been punished very harshly, one good example of such imprisonment and punishment is of Wajdi al-Ghazzawi who has been sentenced 12 years in prison by the court in February 2014 ( Freedom house 2015). Other examples of such politically motivated imprisonment of people includes, Raif Badawi, who has been sentenced 10 years in prison by the court in 2014, another examples includes, Dr Zuhair Kutabi, who has been banned from writing for 15 years and finned heavily due to his criticism of the system and the regime (Amnesty International 2016). The major reason of subjugation of media by state elite is the surety of the stability of the legitimacy of the regime, in simple words, elite subjugate the media so that no voice for the change and revolution takes place in the country.

Government in Saudi Arabia also uses the coercive apparatus of the state including police and religious police in order to suppress any kind of upsurge and in order to maintain the legitimacy of the regime. Freedom of expression, assembly, association and belief has been banned in the country, the main reason for such bans is also based on the fact that the government does not want to take risk of any upsurge, as happened in different countries of the region during Arab Spring, which can cause the demise of regime in the country. Freedom of expression is banned in Saudi Arabia to the level that activist Fadhil al-Manasif has been sentenced 15 years in prison because according to the officials, Fadhil al-Manasif broke his allegiance with the ruler and contacted the foreign news to exaggerate the news (World Report 2015). Lawyers have also been treated harsh by the government who tries to oppose the regime, one such example is of prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair who has sentenced 15 years in prison on April 15 (World Report 2015). Freedom of belief is also not allowed in Saudi Arbia, Islam is the official religion and all the inmates are required to be Muslims by the law (Freedom House 2015). Public practice of any other religion is ban in Saudi Arabia, specially the religious practices of Shiites and Sufi Muslims is ban in Saudi Arabia. 

Freedom of expression and assembly is also ban in Saudi Arabia, ban on both of them is also because of the fact that the government do not want to take risk, the government in Saudi Arabia repeatedly confines political activists who carry out protests or engage themselves in other type of civic advocacy, so far no large-scale protests have carried out in Saudi Arabia, rather protest that are smaller in magnitude have become more frequent, the largest of these took place in mainly Eastern Province which is dominated by Shiites (Freedom house 2015). 

As aforementioned that the Koran and Sunna have been declared as the constitution of the country in 1992 and that the official state religion is Islam in Saudi Arabia, not only this but there is also presence of religious police in Saudi Arabia. The main reason to present these facts here is to emphasize on the fact that Saudi Arabia is using religion in order to sustain its legitimacy and regime. Since its formation, Saudi Arabia has been using religion one way or the other in order to suppress the populous, specially the women and ethnic minorities. It is very clear that today the regime in Saudi Arabia faces the most dangerous dissent and resistance from its women and ethnic minorities, and hence the regime in Saudi Arabia is using religion in order to suppress women and ethnic minorities (World Report 2015). Shiites who make up approximately 10 to 15 % of the population has been deprived of the freedom of belief, higher official government’s jobs and any prominent political positions. One good example of suppression of Shiites in Saudi Arabia is the prosecution of Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, who was arrested in 2012 for the allegation that he led a campaign against the regime, he was sentenced to death in 2014 and was later executed in 2016 (Freedom House Report 2015). Apart from Nimr al Nimr, his 18 year old nephew was also arrested on the allegation that he took part in the protests against the regime, he was also sentenced to death in may. Repression and use of coercive apparatus of state has been used in Saudi Arabia to the very next level, repression of media, repression of freedom of speech, assembly, and belief etc, all just because of the fact that the political elite of Saudi Arabia do not want to lose its legitimacy and regime. 

This report has demonstrated that the Saudi elites have been sustaining their regime through a number of factors, including, political system (monarchy), upholding major posts, government positions and ministries by the ruling family,  rentier economy of Saudi Arabia, use of religion by the state, use of (rentier) oil wealth by the state elite in order to maintain its legitimacy, lack of taxation, rentier mentality, use of coercive apparatus by the state which includes use of religious police, use of Islamic laws to subjugate the population, repression of freedom of speech, assembly, and expression, political prisoners, suppression of media, suppression of women rights and political punishments etc. After careful analysis of all these factors, this report has come to the conclusion that the most important factor which has been sustaining monarchy in Saudi Arabia is its political economy, which has been led by state and whose major portion is dependent on the oil rent. All the other factors which include state use of coercive apparatus, state supremacy on judiciary and police etc, rentier mentality due to which population accept the legitimacy of the regime are all the outcomes of the state’s rentier political economy.

*Rauf Khalid Cheema is a student at National Defense University, Islamabad. He is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Studies. His areas of interest include traditional and non-traditional security issues, national security and threat perception of Pakistan and International politics. He can be contacted at [email protected]


Amnesty International (2016) Saudi Arabia 2015/2016. access 01 May 2016. 

Alkhater, K. R.  (2012) The rentier predatory state hypothesis: an empirical explanation of the resource curse. Journal of Economic Develpoment. 37(4), pp. 29-60.

Beblawi, H. (1987) “The Rentier State in the Arab World.” Arab Studies Quarterly 9(4). pp. 383-98. JSTOR. Web. 01 May 2016.

Freedom House Report (2015) Saudi Arbia. access 01 MAy 2016.

World Report (2015) World report 2015: Saudi Arabia. access 01 May 2016. 

Wehrey, F. (2015) The authoritarian resurgence: Saudi Arabia’s anxious autocrats. Journal of Democracy. access 01 May 2016.

Zielger, H and Associates (2016) The political system of Saudi Arabia. access 01 May 2016

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