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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Saudi Arabia’s “Sources of Legitimacy”

The uncertain keys to manufacturing legitimacy in the desert.

Today’s 3D Definition: Sources of Legitimacy

Business Insider looks at the political and economic facets of the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia: “According to Chatham House’s Vision 2030 and Saudi Arabia’s Social Contract report, if the Saudi government is unable to continue distributing subsidies and gifts to its population, ‘it will need to focus on alternative sources of legitimacy.’”

In Donald Trump’s America, this year the English-speaking world discovered the notion of “alternative facts.” With facts having less importance in Saudi culture than in the US, the focus on alternatives in the Arabian Peninsula takes us to the existential question of sources of legitimacy. As no clue to the meaning of this phrase is provided, readers can be forgiven for wondering what alternative sources exist to make any government or a social system legitimate.

Here is its 3D definition:

Sources of legitimacy:

If legitimacy is understood as the belief in and acceptance of the authority of an institution, the sources of legitimacy may be defined as any satisfactory form of trade-off perceived as beneficial to the public concerned. The known alternatives are:

1) A voice in choosing the leadership within that institution (democracy and oversight)

2) Exceptional moral leadership, sacrifice or heroism

3) When neither of the first two is available, then giveaways, freebies or bribes

4) When bribes fail, random symbols of aggressive power or simple coercion to intimidate and keep the population confused

5) When all other alternatives are exhausted, simple despotism

Contextual note

Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing change on several levels, the most dramatic of which is the concentration of power in one man, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud, after decades of power held collectively by the Saudi royal family.

Historical note

As Saudi Arabia has never had a true historical basis for legitimacy as a nation-state (definition 1 or 2) and has relied on the giveaways, freebies and bribes (definition 3) that have characterized its policies since the House of Saud was appointed by British and American oil interests to govern most of the peninsula in the early 20th century, weaning the population off those perks will not be an easy job — currently definition 4.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Jim Mattis