Yesterday's post looked at the long-term rise of Saudi Arabia as the only expanding state in the Middle East over the past couple hundred years, which means it is going to start contracting since no empire's expansion lasts beyond 200-250 years.
Before covering the medium-term decline of the past 40 years, we must first look at the preceding 50-year height of the Saudi empire, otherwise the current phase of decline will not stand out in contrast.
I'm not sure how broadly Stephen Skowronek's model of regime dynamics has been applied, but we can adapt it even to non-democratic, tribal polities like Saudi Arabia. In democracies, there are "periods" or "eras" of 30-50 years -- likewise within a dynasty. In democracies, there are "parties" who collectively contest for power against each other -- akin to factions in pre-democratic societies. In democracies, parties are united around a "platform" -- akin to whatever causes and interests unite the individuals within a faction.
In tribal societies, where kinship ties are fundamental, the dynasties and factions will be based on blood and marriage relations. Each clan is like its own party. These clans form coalitions just like parties do in democracies.
In both polities, periods have rulers of four types: trailblazing founders, extenders of that framework, opposition reformers, and "disjunctive" ineffectuals during a gear-shifting final phase before the next trailblazer founds a whole new framework. Disjunctive rulers belong to the dominant coalition, not the opposition.
Following Ibn Khaldun's model of generations of rulers, we can discern two clear periods since the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 -- an Early period whose kings played a role in the conquests that created the Kingdom, and a Later period whose kings grew up once it had already been solidified. The Early kings were more familiar with nomadic life -- including the practice of raiding, by which they conquered others -- while the Later kings were more accustomed to sedentary lifestyles. Whereas the Early kings knew material hardship and saw the appeal of thrift, the Later kings knew only affluence and dismissed thrift in favor of indulgence.
All kings of Saudi Arabia have been either the founder himself, Ibn Saud, or his sons by various wives. Throughout Saudi history, the political-military clan of Al Saud has intermarried with religious-cultural clans. In a tribal, kin-based society, joining these two extended families is the way to form political coalitions. The religious clans descend from the founders of Wahhabism, the puritanical fundamentalist version of Hanbali Sunni Islam that guides Saudi culture.
This post will survey the Early kings period, when the Saudis were at their height, and the next will cover the Later kings period when they entered terminal decline.
The founding trailblazer of the Early kings was Ibn Saud, who was followed by the opposition king Saud, whose displacement gave rise to the extender king Faisal, whose peak preceded the reign of the disjunctive king Khalid. This period began in 1932, peaked during 1964-'75, and ended in 1982, lasting 50 years. It paralleled the New Deal period in the US, and the Labor Party period in Israel.
The main themes of the framework during this period were the end of military conquest, having consolidated as much of the peninsula as they could, and a focus on developing the consolidated kingdom economically, bringing their commoners into a more modern way of life (like settling the nomads). The oil fields would be nationalized away from American companies during the peak of this period.
Foreign policy was guided by a gradual shift toward the American pole of the Cold War world, using financial means to thwart the attempted expansion of Israel, and offering a Pan-Islamic rather than a Pan-Arab ideology for international alliances. At the same time, the rulers kept in check the clerics who were extreme even by Saudi standards.
In the greatest blow against Israel and its Western allies, Faisal withdrew Saudi oil from the world market to punish the non-Arab side of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (Yom Kippur). That drove the price of oil through the roof, set off a crippling energy crisis, and set the stage for far higher oil revenues soon after, with prices still sky-high.
The three kings of the dominant coalition had mothers whose families were powerful religious clans from the origin of Saudi Arabia, the Najd region in the central part of the country, where the capital Riyadh is located. Ibn Saud had a mother from the Sudairi clan, and Khalid's mother had a (diluted) link to the clan as well. Faisal's mother was from the Al ash-Sheikh clan, who are the descendants of the founder of Wahhabism.
The opposition king, Saud, had a mother who was not from a religious elite clan, nor from the Najd region -- rather, from the southern region of the peninsula (a Qahtan clan), closer to the Yemeni clans. Unlike the other three of his period, he was less favorable toward the US and wanted a non-aligned position like that of Nehru, he was relatively less religiously inclined, and he didn't see his role so much as a prudent steward over a foundling nation but as a profligate dispenser of loot won by recent conquest.
He was forced to abdicate (akin to removal from elected office) by Faisal's faction, which had the backing of the ulama, or religious council -- including the grand mufti, the highest religious authority, who hailed from the same clan as Faisal's mother. That's why it matters what clan your mother comes from, as Saud had no similar clerical elite background on his mother's side to draw allies from. Faisal had also married into a separate religious elite clan, the Sudairis, and received their backing as well.
Faisal's reign saw the culmination of the period's main themes. In economic modernization, he ended slavery, set up the first five-year plans, introduced television, began the welfare system, and tightened finances in order to keep the nation from going broke before it had had the chance to develop. As during the concurrent New Deal era in the US, "tightening finances" simply meant refraining from the practice of raiding the national treasury (oil) to lavishly spend on indulgences -- it did not mean driving his people into austerity a la the future neoliberal model. He began nationalizing the oil fields that had been owned by the American oil companies, acquiring a 60% majority in Aramco by 1974, with the remainder to follow two years later under his successor.
He blocked the (relatively) extremist clerics from rising too high, and fired one (Shaykh bin Baz) who had radicalized a future leader of the extremist group that would violently take over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.
It's notable that Faisal, and even Saud just before him, used the weapon of an oil embargo in foreign affairs. It's a short-term self-inflicted wound -- foregoing all that oil revenue -- in order to achieve a more important longer-term goal -- bringing your geopolitical enemies to heel. It is a radical violation of free-market globalist trade ideology -- trade schmade, we have to punish the Zionists for trying to expand! Willingness to sacrifice characterizes the elites of a state at its height.
For unclear reasons, Faisal was assassinated in 1975. Powerful rulers can crush a coup d'etat -- as he did earlier -- but they cannot escape getting targeted by assassins. In the US as well, it is typically the trailblazers of a period, or their extenders, that are targeted by assassins, who feel so shut-out of power that they take to killing off the leader instead. Opposition rulers are not long for the political world, based on their structural weakness, and don't need to be bumped off pre-emptively -- forced to abdicate, or removed from elected office, perhaps, but not killed off. Disjunctive rulers are ineffectual and pose no dire threat to anyone.
This period's disjunctive ruler was Khalid, whose economic development program was to coast on the successes of his predecessor (prudent finances and jacked-up oil prices). The weak leader could not stop the Islamic radicals from gaining more control in society, including their two-week-long seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Indeed, rather than punish the radical clerics, he promoted them to higher positions to appease them (although he did execute the foot soldiers involved in the seizure).
He founded the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981, the first decisive move away from the Pan-Arab alliance around the Middle East that had flourished after they kicked the Ottomans out of the region, and emphasizing just the Gulf Wahhabi monarchies as a bloc. Yet he also supported the secular Arab nationalist government of Iraq against Iran during their war, which would lead to the pivot toward Iran and away from Israel as the main geopolitical contest.
He both promoted and tried to keep in check the faction that would become dominant during the Later kings period, who all shared a mother from the Sudairi clan. Pulled toward both the old way and the new way, he was undone by these contradictions, and replaced by a whole new coalition who would lead the country into decline, continuing through today.