Roundtable: The Islamic State Challenges Saudi Arabia
ISG-Inspired ViolenceIn March 2015, the ISG released a video in which a commander argued that Saudi nationals were obligated to kill family members serving in the government security services. The Saudi royal family cannot rule the land without tribal support, the commander argued. The way to weaken the government, he said, was to undermine traditional structures of loyalty and obedience. A number of instances of violence against families followed. In two of the most infamous incidents, two Saudi men filmed themselves pledging allegiance to the ISG before murdering their cousin, a Saudi soldier, in June 2015. One year later, two twin brothers who also declared their affiliation with the ISG were arrested for stabbing their parents and younger brother to death.
These cases sent shock waves through the country. Far from random or sensationalistic, this violence constituted a calculated effort to challenge a pillar of the Saudi political system, Samin argued. However, the salience of the kinship-based system which made it an attractive target to the ISG also made it a difficult one, he said. Efforts to destabilize this core societal tenet have so far had limited success.
Far from random or sensationalistic, this violence constituted a calculated effort to challenge a pillar of the Saudi political system.
In Samin’s view, outsiders do not understand Saudi Arabia’s political laws and therefore struggle to predict Saudi Arabia’s direction. In contrast to Western liberal individualism, the Saudi system is grounded in the premise that kinship ties drive political and associational life. The country does not have a constitution, but rather a basic law rooted in Islamic jurisprudence. The Saudi basic law identifies the family, rather than the individual, as the nucleus of Saudi society.
Saudi Arabia’s Political Laws
From this foundation, Saudi Arabia’s political system was built around genealogical systems of control and kinship nationalism. In most countries, Samin explained, states coalesced around republican ideas and institutions, and sought to instill in their citizens a sense of responsibility and reciprocity towards the state. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, chose to reinforce a system in which political expression is filtered through existing systems of familial ties. In the absence of associational networks such as political parties and unions, demonstrating one’s membership in kinship groups is the only possible form of politics. The strong bonds of kinship therefore play a critical role in society and political life, even more so than religion. It is for this reason that the ISG wishes to undo them, Samin said.
In the absence of associational networks such as political parties and unions, demonstrating one’s membership in kinship groups is the only possible form of politics.
Saudi Arabia’s highly-centralized, patriarchal system informs the distribution of resources and influence according to age, status, and genealogical affiliation. Rentierism has created a system of state paternalism whereby citizens have little autonomy in how they access the resources that flow from the government. As Samin put it, the state is the only buyer of skills. Youth in particular face steep “reverse ageism” which rewards older members of society and systematically disadvantages the youth. This results in young people being “crowded out” of the economy, a phenomenon compounded among the poor and marginalized.
The complex ways in which state paternalism interacts with youth alienation are illustrated in the story of Saad al-Shatri, a Saudi government employee who went on to become a famed ISG propagandist. In 2008, Shatri was a member of the Saudi religious police who expressed his dedication by penning poems of praise about the religious police’s work. Yet, he was deeply affected by regional developments. Two of his brothers left Saudi Arabia to fight with the ISG in Syria. Afterwards, Saad followed in their footsteps in late 2012. In 2014, Shatri composed a jihadi ode that urged members of Saudi tribal collectives to join the ISG. It went viral online, garnering 1.5 million views. The poem elicited strong reactions by a variety of kinship collectives in the form of response poems. These poems—often filmed at home and garnering hundreds of thousands of views apiece at times—passionately defended the speakers’ ancestry, families, and the Saudi government. The government rewarded the young men behind some of the top-viewed videos, but the largely organic phenomenon reflects broad-based identification with kinship as a nationalist discourse, according to Samin.
The complex ways in which state paternalism interacts with youth alienation are illustrated in the story of Saad al-Shatri, a Saudi government employee who went on to become a famed ISG propagandist.
The future of the management of Saudi Arabia’s kinship systems remains opaque. The state continues to struggle with the challenges inherent to institutionalizing informal power systems where influence is often contested at every level. Some individuals quietly aspire to more power within the system, Samin explained, envying the political authority that their ancestors enjoyed. More recently, the economic crisis triggered by lower oil prices and the subsequent efforts to reduce subsidies are forcing the regime to navigate the population’s expectations for state support with diminished resources.
Yet while the system is in tension, it has proven to be durable so far. Arguments which frame the Saudi system as ephemeral neglect the depth of its roots, Samin contended. In fact, if Saudi Arabia weathers the current economic and political storm, as it is likely to do, it will be in part because it has effectively formalized and modernized the current system of genealogically-based patronage.