Saudi Arabia is ruled by an absolute monarchy. The king, and it is always a king, is head of state and government. The kingdom has no constitution, but is instead based upon the teachings of the Quran – at least, the Quran as interpreted by Saudi royals. This particular interpretation is known as Wahhabism, an ultra conservative system of governance. The ruling elite is made up of the House of Saud, a hugely wealthy family from which all leaders are selected. Opposition parties are illegal, as are elections.
There is no path to power in Saudi Arabia other than to be a direct male descendant of the first king of the country, Abdul Aziz al Saud, or Ibn Saud as he is often known. His sons and grandsons are the ones who choose who will rule the country next. The process for doing so is secretive.
Infighting in the ruling house of Saud often takes dramatic turns. In 2017, members of the royal family along and former government ministers, numbering up to 500 in total, were arrested and detained in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. This was ostensibly part of an “anti-corruption” drive. Whatever the real reason, it had the effect of solidifying the rule of “moderniser” and de facto Saudi ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS).
While there are theories as to whether the crackdown was also to shake other sections of the ruling class down for a share of their wealth, the opaque nature of the regime means that this cannot be known. Trials were announced, just as MBS appointed 26 new judges. It is thought that the state secured $800 billion from those arrested.
This is the nature of the Saudi ruling elite – corrupt, fickle and driven by personal ambition.
MBS has tried to build a profile as a reformer – someone wishing to open the country up to the wider world, liberalise society and move away from the kingdom’s reliance on oil. But he has also presided over an increase in detentions of political dissidents, a devastating war on Yemen and now the fantasy-like Neom project, which he hopes will open Saudi Arabia to the world’s wealthiest individuals while displacing the Huwaitat people who currently call the land home.
Neom is an attempt to gloss over the reality of this anachronistic, totalitarian and corrupt system. It is a pitch to divert attention away from a political system existing purely in the interests of a single family, made wealthy from natural resources. The modern utopia promised by Neom will, similarly, also be ruled by this unaccountable, corrupt clique. Neom boasts of being the natural home of “free-thinkers” everywhere. But there is nothing “free” about Saudi Arabia.