Back to Main Entry

Reviews of The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil

Contemporary Saudi “high politics” commands the lion’s share of media, policy, and academic analysis about the country, especially regarding the Saudi government’s involvement in the Yemen conflict, the Qatar crisis, bilateral relations with the Trump administration, and attempts to counter Iranian hegemony in the Gulf. Nonetheless, in an era of fluctuating oil prices and rising expectations amongst the kingdom’s predominant stakeholder, namely Saudi youth, domestic issues are also of key importance to the Saudi government as it attempts become less oil reliant and to diversify its economy. Certainly, Saudi Arabia is in transition, but the kingdom faces a myriad of threats and challenges, internal and external, populated with a diverse set of enemies. In The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil, Ali Al Shihabi provides an insider’s account of some of these threats and challenges, and offers a set of arguments that, as Haykel notes in the Preface, offer “policy prescriptions to the Saudi leadership, and to outsiders” (p. vii) about politico-economic reforms that are necessary in order to preempt or prevent political and economic crises. Although much as changed in Saudi Arabia since the book was published in 2016 –– the launch of Saudi Vision 2030 and the elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the office of crown prince, for instance –– the issues that Shihabi highlights are as pertinent and important as ever, given fast-moving events within Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region.

The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil discusses these domestic and external threats in twelve concise chapters. The book is comprised of a Preface by Bernard Haykel, professor at Princeton University, an afterword, three appendices focusing on the history of the House of Saud and the Wahhabi movement, and a selection of maps. The first two chapters consider the contemporary kingdom and the study of Saudi politics, which Shihabi notes remain opaque to outsiders. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the Al Saud and its “considerable achievements” (p. 13), although the author points out that “the extremely tight circle of ultimate decision makers at the top meant that policy was often made impulsively behind closed doors” (p. 44), something that appears to remain true today. The next two chapters consider the role of the Wahhabi religious establishment and the fight against Saudi radical militants.

This segues neatly into a timely discussion of the kingdom’s youth bulge; in particular, the frequently ignored underprivileged male constituency who, as Shihabi highlights, due to boredom and frustration become attracted to the “dangerous allure of violence”. Chapter 7 examines the mystique of state power, in particular, as the legitimacy of monarchical rule is more deeply entrenched in people’s consciousness, thereby enhancing “the aura and stature” of the Al Saud.

As Haykel points out in the Preface “the book is not a doomsday prediction” about the imminent collapse of the House of Saud (as is so often the case); however, the eighth chapter considers the price of an Al Saud collapse, not only for Saudis themselves, but also for the wider world, which Shihabi argues would be “cataclysmic”. Chapters 9, 10 and 11 address external issues: firstly therisk of Saudi instability to the other Gulf Cooperation States; secondly, from a Saudi perspective, the significant threat of a politically ambitious Iran and finally the crisis in Yemen. Certainly, since the book’s publication, there has been deterioration in Saudi-Iranian relations and a worsening of the situation in Yemen –– both of which could have serious ramifications for Saudi Arabia.

The final chapter offers the author’s ideas for reform. Whilst pointing out that reform does not come without risk, Shihabi argues that without “an alert, bold and proactive leadership” failure to deal head on with imminent existential threats (both internal and external) could have serious consequences for the Kingdom, the region and wider world. In the short Afterword (written in 2015) that follows the main text the author discusses King Salman’s decision to appoint Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and Prince Mohammed bin Salman as deputy crown prince ignoring the “concept of family balance” as practiced previously by the Al Saud.

Yet, in 2015 Shihabi could not have known that Prince Mohammed bin Salman would further tear up unwritten Al Saud rules by taking the position of crown prince for himself, thereby potentially positioning himself to become King of Saudi Arabia for decades to come. Although Shihabi writes that a second edition of the book is forthcoming, there is no informationabout a future publication date on the publisher’s website. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to read how Shihabi interprets events since he wrote the original text. Is the new leadership addressing some of the problems and challenges that the author highlights in the text? To what extent does the new more assertive Al Saud leadership constitute the “alert, bold and proactive leadership” that Shihabi says is necessary for the future security of Saudi Arabia? It may not be possible to provide definitive answers to these questions at a complex and uncertain time in the Kingdom’s history.

However, by raising important issues regarding Saudi Arabia’s future, Shihabi’s The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil provides a thought-provoking, insightful and timely text –– one that sheds light on some of the socio-political and socio-economic challenges confronting contemporary Saudi Arabia.–Journal for Arabian Studies