Saudi Arabia: Power, Legitimacy and Survival

Tim Niblock

Routledge 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
Niblock begins his history of Saudi Arabia with topics of contemporary interest such as oil and gas, international terrorism, and Middle Eastern security, but his particular focus is on the internal dynamics of the Saudi state. He describes its sources of legitimacy — ideological, traditional, personal, eudaemonic, and democratic/structural — and its sources of support in the royal family, religious and tribal constituencies, a Najdi geographical core, merchants and the commercial bourgeoisie, the technocratic and administrative elite, and international connections.

After that introduction, three chapters present a chronological history. The first covers state formation, starting with the 1744 alliance between ibn `Abd Al-Wahhab and the house of Al Su'ud and briefly tracing the uncertain course of the early Saudi states. Oil revenues began in 1948, there was a confrontation with Nasser's Egypt, and the international environment changed dramatically. The state failed to adapt, however, and the power struggle between Faisal and Su'ud between 1958 and 1962 was decided by traditional sources of power.

The period from 1962 to 1979 saw Faisal's creation of a new polity (though Faisal became king in late 1964 and died in 1975, Niblock sees policy across the period as consistent). Saudi Arabia became a powerful centralised state wielding a capable administrative machinery, with eudaemonic legitimacy from delivering benefits directly to the population. And extensive economic and social development occurred.

1979 brought not only the Iranian Revolution but the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca by discontented Islamists. Rather than liberalisation or reform, the Saudi response was to re-assert its Islamic credentials and affirm links to the religious leadership. And the alliance with the United States strengthened, especially after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War. Niblock surveys the variety of critics and calls for reform, both Islamic and liberal: "In a system where civil associations seeking political reform are not permitted, the only available alternatives are subversion or collaboration." The state response was limited: the introduction of a Basic Law, a Consultative Assembly, and provincial councils.

The economic challenges facing Saudi Arabia include unemployment and dependence on migrant labour, inequity in distribution of wealth, lack of investment in social and physical infrastructure, and a lack of long term planning. But there was steady progress towards WTO membership (achieved in December 2005), with encouragement of foreign investment, moves towards privatisation, and so forth. As well as increasing liberalisation, Niblock sees a need for broader labour reforms and investment in education, health and welfare.

The Saudi alliance with the United States has evolved with events. The Iranian Revolution and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan created common strategic interests, most notably in backing the Afghan mujahidin. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the increasing threat of terrorism brought challenges. While economic ties remain strong, the broader US alliance has become problematic since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Saudi Arabia faces a dilemma reconciling domestic pressures, security, and its international diplomacy.

In his conclusion Niblock offers some suggestions as to how the Saudi state could move to a more secure basis, with a diversified economy and a political system with democratic/structural legitimacy. He suggests the ascension of King `Abdallah "may provide the means and the incentive to change the pace of reform".

Saudi Arabia: Power, Legitimacy and Survival is occasionally dry but never dull; it is an accessible introduction to the unique political structure of the Saudi state and its adaptation to the modern world.

February 2008

External links:
- buy from or
- share this review on Facebook or Twitter
Related reviews:
- Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia
- books about the Middle East + Middle Eastern history
- more modern history
- books about politics
- books published by Routledge
%T Saudi Arabia
%S Power, Legitimacy and Survival
%A Niblock, Tim
%I Routledge
%D 2006
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0415303109
%P 206pp