Book Review: The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia by Madawi Al-Rasheed


In The Son King: reform and repression in Saudi Arabia, Madawi Al-Rasheed provides a new narrative of Saudi Arabia’s recent history, focusing on the duality of reform and repression that characterized the era of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman. This book is an essential resource for those seeking to understand the transformations and contradictions of Saudi Arabia under King Son, written Betul Dogan Akkas.

The king son: reform and repression in Saudi Arabia. Madawi Al-Rasheed. Hurst. 2020.

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In The king son, Madawi Al-Rasheed reflects on the transformations in Saudi Arabia, offering the reader an account of Saudi Arabia’s recent history, focusing on reform and change. In his seminal study, Al-Rasheed elaborates on the historical and contemporary milestones of Kingdom politics in seven chapters. Although the full title of the book is The Son King: reform and repression in Saudi Arabia, its scope is wider than that of the titular Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammed bin Salman (hereafter MBS).

Al-Rasheed starts with a reporter The tragic murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which has become a shared starting point in the latest books on Saudi Arabia. The introduction provides a comprehensive review of the literature on branding and policies of the new era, including the duality of reform and repression during the reign of MBS. In today’s Saudi Arabia, these reforms are heavily discussed in the media and in academic studies; However, as Al-Rasheed states, there is still a lot to be said about a wave of digital and social repression.

The introduction gives readers a clue that digital propaganda and the new Saudi diaspora have emerged over the past decade due to policy changes, especially intensified after the Arab uprisings. As Al-Rasheed states, the book “explores new social and political outcomes beyond the reach of radical religion, oil, and current progressive leadership” (2), guiding us through potential challenges for the future of the country. In the introduction, Al-Rasheed also shares his own story of exile. This personal anecdote and the short story of how his research interests evolved were good and insightful additions to readers.

Al-Rasheed’s introduction defines the main assumptions of the book. To begin with, she points out that Saudi society is still struggling to define its national identity. While the state lacks a unified social and political identity, MBS promotes itself through new modern images and policies to generate loyalty to itself rather than to the nation. Al-Rasheed also discusses stories from the Saudi diaspora, including the murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and asserts that “the violence of the new regime has also gone global” (9).

Al-Rasheed also portrays the power vacuum that emerged in the years following the deaths of several senior princes in the 2000s and the subsequent transformations Saudi Arabia went through. Another critical argument from the book is to define change in Saudi Arabia beyond being a natural process of installing a new monarch. Al-Rasheed examines “the contradiction between repression and reform that has become a central prism”, exploring the duality of reformist and oppressive monarchical rule.

Image Credit: Crop ‘160616-D-DT527-209’, DoD photo by Master Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz with Muhammed bin Salman (Released) under license US Secretary of Defense under CC BY 2.0

The first chapter summarizes the history of previous Saudi states and how current Saudi rule was authorized. This section is especially important for readers unfamiliar with Saudi history as it describes the establishment of Saudi Arabia through old and new strategies, the role of local actors, and challenges for the state.

Chapter two begins with a detailed analysis of Son King’s branding and network of alliances, primarily through media and PR companies. Al-Rasheed portrays “the optimistic and openly congratulatory assessment of the media in the emerging kingdom” (31). How the regime deployed a new royal vision through a persuasive and aggressive advertising campaign is the focus of this chapter. Al-Rasheed says analysis published in the media and academic media suggests that progressive leadership is the only way to solve the ills of Saudi society. However, offering this leadership as a solution ignores the views and experiences of locals, the Saudi voices who have struggled for years to demand reform. She later adds that while the media and these contested analyzes define MBS as the leader of reform, he “appreciated the work and struggles of feminists and vocal activists, while keeping them in detention and pretending to be himself. even the source of these initiatives and progress. ‘(85).

Chapter Three presents MBS in detail, exploring how he solidified his cult of personality and how his policies combine reform and repression. Significantly, Khashoggi’s murder is one of the focal points of this chapter. According to The king son, the evolution of Khashoggi from man of the Palace to dissident in exile, persona non grata, represents the duality of reform and repression in the era of MBS. Khashoggi was a proponent of change during the time of King Abdullah, and he defended the regime abroad: Al-Rasheed says that for many he was first seen as an “apologist” (108). In the era of so-called reforms, he was expected to be among those impressed, but instead he was critical of the nation’s current policies. She adds that “observers who might think that Khashoggi’s murder represents an unusual turning point in the history of Saudi repression are probably unaware of the precedents for this heinous crime” (122).

Al-Rasheed argues that “Saudi Arabia has moved from religious nationalism and pan-Islamism to populist nationalism to mobilize citizens’ loyalty to the future King Son” (138). Chapter four deals mainly with this new wave of populist nationalism deployed by MBS. However, Al-Rasheed maintains that Saudi Arabia is far from being a melting pot for its multicultural and multi-faith society. Instead, the Kingdom is still a state ruled by Al Saud, not a nation.

After examining religious nationalism in the early days of state formation and pan-Islamism in later times, Al-Rasheed presents the new nationalism along with its conflicting accounts. MBS ‘“Saudi moderation” propaganda offers the myth that it was the Iranian revolution and the 1979 siege of the Mecca mosque that encouraged radicalism in Saudi Arabia. Al-Rasheed does not dispute the accuracy of this claim; However, she points out that these interpretations of the reasons for radicalism in Saudi Arabia release political elites and society at large from responsibility because of the belief that if there were no trigger in the region like Iran , Saudi Arabia would be ‘an island of tolerance’.

Considering the counter-narratives to this new nationalism, Al-Rasheed provides examples of activists and exiles who reject this, stating that he does not represent them but rather Al Saud. One of the critical advantages and exceptional elements of The king son is the use of primary data collected during interviews. Notably, in this chapter and the following chapters, where Al-Rasheed interviews women, young people, exiles and “sub-nationals” (or minority groups) to learn about their approach to reform and repression in the Kingdom. , these insider comments give readers a comprehensive overview.

Similar to the approach of Chapter Four of New Nationalism, Chapter Five deals with minorities and sub-nationals in the Kingdom, beginning with a conceptual and historical analysis. The chapter provides a full account of tribalism, the competition between tribes, religious minorities, mainly Shiites, and their problems with the regime.

Chapter Six illustrates the struggles of Saudi women, including case studies of well-known figures from the Kingdom and elements of patriarchal domination such as guardianship. Al-Rasheed begins with the conflicting political positions of young people towards the regime, discusses the millennial “runaway girls” who sought political asylum outside Saudi Arabia, and later provides similar examples of young Saudi men in the country. chapter seven.

Chapter Seven highlights the regime’s efforts to deal with the restless youth and the demands of the new generation. In particular, digital technologies and the Kingdom’s use of them for further repression and investigation are elaborated in detail. As the book indicates, there is more than one component in Saudi society that opposes current policies. However, the regime is aware that this opposition is not unified and that there must be more than one strategy to deal with these multidimensional threats. Thus, the current duality of reform and repression has various elements that can work to deal with the problems posed by subnationals, the Shiite population, women, youth, tribes and exiles.

Al-Rasheed’s elaboration of change and transformation in Saudi society, focusing on the duality of reform and repression in the time of King Son, provides a well-structured discussion of Saudi political history. and concepts embedded in it, such as populist nationalism and the hyper-nationalist agenda. The book details the network that governs and manages the Kingdom through well-rated speeches and narratives. As Al-Rasheed states, “Saudi society has found refuge in social media” (14), and The king son proposes the reasons and results of each type of exile experienced by different Saudi citizens. For students and scholars of Gulf studies al-Rasheed’s book is an essential resource.

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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.

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About the Examiner

Betul Dogan Akkas Qatar University Gulf Studies Center, Durham University School of Government and International Affairs
Betul Dogan Akkas is a doctoral candidate in the joint program of Qatar University Gulf Studies Center and Durham University School of Government and International Affairs. She obtained her master’s degree with the thesis titled “Securitization of Qatari Foreign Policy” at the University of Qatar. Dogan Akkas obtained his BA in International Relations from Bilkent University. His research interests include foreign policy development, security and the social transformation of Gulf countries.


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