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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Sources of Saudi Conduct: How Saudi Family Law and Royal Polygyny Produce Political Instability


Unlike other areas of law, where rules have either been borrowed from Western regimes or only apply to certain segments of society, Saudi family law touches every member of Saudi society, from ordinary citizens to royalty, and originates in an Islamic legal tradition that predates most modern legal systems by several hundred years.  Nonetheless, most writers on Saudi Arabia (the Kingdom) have largely neglected the role of Saudi family law in influencing the Kingdom’s royal family and policymaking, despite the dominance of family businesses, tribes, and family offices in the Saudi economy and state.  This Article outlines how Saudi family law produces economic incentives that, without reform, make the maintenance of political stability in the Kingdom unlikely past three generations.

Accordingly, this Article can be understood as an alternative and supplement to the dominant political science theory for understanding Saudi policymaking, Rentier State Theory (RST).  Specifically, this Article demonstrates how the incentives produced by Saudi family law can more accurately predict Saudi policymaking and disruptive political events than RST, including, but not limited to, the Kingdom’s Ritz-Carlton purge and building of largescale commercial real estate projects, which might otherwise appear irrational to outside observers.  The Article begins with a discussion on the mathematics of polygamy in the Kingdom and ends with a discussion of how the incentives produced by Saudi’s family law system produce far-ranging implications for both the Kingdom’s neighbors and its current allies, including, but not limited to, the United States and Israel.  The Article concludes with legal reforms that the current Saudi state may wish to undertake, should it wish to avoid a similar fate to the previous two Saudi states, both of which collapsed in under three generations (1744–1814; 1824–1891).  Additionally, reforms suggested over fifty years ago by Saudi prince Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud are analyzed, as well as various legal customs found within Jordan, which Saudi policymakers may wish to borrow from and modify to provide the Kingdom increased political stability in the longer term.

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