After the oil price revolution what emerged in the gulf was a distinct model of a ‘rentier state’ that Gause called the ‘Oil Monarchy’. The oil windfall meant that the state came to enjoy a radical autonomy from society. With more than half the population on the state payroll, 100 percent of Saudi citizens dependent on ‘cradle-to-grave’ welfare, and almost all Saudi businesses feeding directly or indirectly at the state’s tits, the Al Saud came to exercise uncontested control over the country. The Wahhabi clerics seemed to enjoy a degree of autonomy but in reality they too were tamed. Power in Saudi Arabia rested firmly in the corporate body of the ruing family, with different factions or subbranches competing for influence in what was effectively a ‘ruling oligarchy’ à la Winters. Inside the corporate body of the family, the King was no more than a ‘first among equals’. American protection after the Islamic Revolution provided external security, letting the Al Saud concentrate on family politics, propagating salafism worldwide, patronizing clients like Pakistan, and playing the regional game.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has moved decisively to consolidate all power in his own hands. There are two theoretical models available to understand these developments. In Winters’ frame, what we have is a shift from a ‘ruling oligarchy’ to a ‘sultanistic oligarchy’. Such shifts are attended by purges and highly public disciplinary attacks by the dominant oligarch against his rivals. When a dominant oligarch manages to establish his supremacy, he can arbitrate disputes amongst the oligarchs, thereby generating consent and stabilizing his rule. If he fails, the bid is likely to be generate instability. We have seen this process unfold more or less transparently in Russia under Putin, India under Modi, and China under Xi. It remains to be seen whether Salman can pull it off in Saudi Arabia.
The other theoretical model I have in mind is developed by Kotkin in Waiting for Hitler, the 1200-page second volume of his biography of Stalin. In that frame, the shift is from dictatorship to despotism. A dictatorship is established when a clique gains unchallenged control in an autocracy; instead of power being dispersed in multiple institutions as in legal-authoritarian orders such as Singapore, power in a dictatorship is unchecked and concentrated in an informal network at the very top of the hierarchy. In Stalinist USSR, this clique was a ruling group of fewer than a dozen individuals who usually met at Stalin’s dacha. They constituted a veritable ‘state within the state’ and made all the important decisions of the party-state in the name of the Politburo. The shift from dictatorship to despotism occurs when the dictator effectively neutralizes all his rivals in the ruling group. No more ‘first among equals’, the despot consolidates his power at the expense of the rest of the ruling group. Stalin moved towards despotism after the assasination of his closest friend Kirov. In order to do so, he had to unleash the terror.
Although both lenses are illuminating, I find Kotkin’s frame more useful. For it allows us to go beyond the oligarchy and view the shift in a larger frame. Specifically, it allows us to also triangulate the mass politics of dictatorship. Mass politics means that the dictator appeals directly to ‘the people’ for support, bypassing mediating interests. Often this takes the form of populism and a ‘cult of the leader’. Moving from dictatorship to despotism exposes the dictator to conspiracy by his threatened rivals—it must therefore be seen as a sign of weakness; whose origins lie in the dictator’s real or imagined insecurity. A resort to populism increases the dictator’s personal power relative to his rivals in the ruling clique. The interaction of the bottom-up politics of resentment of the elite with the dictator’s bid to achieve despotism can generate tremendous violence and instability. Herein lie the origins of the terror.
At this early stage it is not in fact clear whether Salman wants to a sultan or a despot. Perhaps he himself doesn’t have a specific end-state in mind. But the will to power is strong in this one so it is inadvisable to assume that he has moderate ambitions. What we can say is that, as we watch the shift unfold in Saudi Arabia, we need to pay attention not just to the Crown Prince’s consolidation of power within the ruling family and over the Saudi rentier state, but also for signs of mass politics that attend a shift from dictatorship to despotism.