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Saudi Arabia: Between Authoritarianism and Modernity

- Original article available here


Domestic decision-making affects actors’ choices in foreign policy, and this is especially true in the case of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which knew since 2015 an unprecedented transformation of its political structure, social contract and regional policy. The nexus between domestic and foreign policy is vital when assessing the leadership shifts that took place and that affected how Saudi Arabia stands in international relations.

The article recently published on the International Spectator examines the Saudi domestic-foreign policy nexus as King Salman and his favourite son Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS) are transforming the dynastical monarchy into a new vertical political paradigm, while this short article briefly shows the relevance of this political change by using three arguments to illustrate how much domestic decision-making affects actors’ choices in foreign policy: the top-down paradigm in decision-making, the legitimacy issue, and the nationalist and populist domestic agenda that characterize Prince MbS’s leadership.

The first argument states that the top-down paradigm allowed a more decisive and risky decision-making process domestically, which has simultaneously affected the outcomes and choices of the Kingdom’s foreign policy. The major change in Saudi foreign policy, which shifted from a diplomacy consisting in never overexposing itself and prioritising dialogue to an assertive regional policy, is also a result of the generational rift characterising the current Saudi dual leadership that has diverging visions of the world. This twofold leadership is characterised on the one hand by King Salman’s decades-long experience and strong belief in traditional geopolitics and, on the other hand, by his son’s vision. In his mid-thirties he is unskilled in international and military practices and does not share the political culture of his father’s generation but rather leaning to espouse a vision of the world mainly business and technologically oriented. He aims at elevating his country to the position of Arab economic powerhouse through his Vision 2030 programme. King Salman strongly supports a fair solution for Palestinian and opposed to the Abraham Accords. He believes Palestine to be a pan- Islamic cause and does not consider Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat. For his part, Prince Mohammad, even though never contradicting his father’s line, openly embraced being more favourable towards Israel, seeing advantages that a rapprochement with Tel Aviv would ensure in terms of technological transfers and start-up knowledge for his NEOM futuristic project. Nevertheless, knowing the deep opposition of a large part of the Saudi population to normalizing with Israel, Crown Prince Mohammad smartly avoided to address the issue, leaving the press under his control to fully express discontent with this topic.

The second focus is linked with the fundamental question of the Crown Prince’s legitimacy as soon as he became the heir to the Saudi throne in defiance of the traditional functioning of the royal family. He subsequently developed a strategy to reassert his legitimacy, aiming to establish himself as the core of the family institution and, in parallel, searching for popular legitimacy and using his personal charisma as an essential tool to attract the young under 30 years of age.

Third, Prince Mohammad’s domestic agenda is based on a nationalist and populist rhetoric led to an exacerbation of an already assertive foreign policy. A brilliant example is the Iranian encirclement of Saudi Arabia that galvanises national sentiment. A similar nationalist tone was also used to denounce the Qatari-Turkish alliance before the reconciliation of Al Ula summit on 5th January 2021. In addition, such nationalist tones are comparable to the ones present in the new approach to causes such as Palestine or Lebanon. This reflects a profound generational shift in foreign policy where Saudi national interests prevail over Arab and Islamic issues.

In conclusion, these three elements build the typical structure of the newly assumed authoritarian face of the leadership that embodies a facet of modernity, espousing a global model of society and access to high-tech and a hyper-nationalist narrative combined with a repressive domestic and assertive regional policy.

Furthermore, an obvious inflexion of the regional policy is in process since the Al Ula Summit and following the distant relations since US President Biden decided not to talk with Crown Prince Mohammad. The new leadership seems to have learn lessons from its failed assertive policy, in engaging dialogue and rapprochement with all its rival neighbours, such as Turkey and even Iran, while protecting its vital national interest’s vis à vis Iran and its southern border with Houthis in Yemen and in assuming its major economic relation with China.


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