Saudi Arabia is usually referred to as an absolute monarchy. Therefore, you would think that King Abdullah is an absolute king with absolute powers. However, anyone familiar with things in this country would tell you this actually is not the case. Rather, the country is ruled through a consensus among the King, the royal family, tribal leaders as well as the religious establishment. Now being non-tribal, I’m not sure if tribal leaders still play a big role in this consensus, but the other two institutions are obviously very much involved in decision-making in the top level. No mention of the people here, of course, but that’s another post.
Steven A. Cook, writing for Slate, says this is “one of the least understood but critically important factors that influence politics: informal institutions.” He continues:
It’s hard for outsiders—even those who live in Saudi Arabia—to see how this process works, because it is rooted in past practices around which certain norms and uncodified rules have developed. The unwritten exigency of consultation with the king’s disparate, and at times implicitly hostile, constituencies tends to constrain Abdallah’s policy options. Nevertheless, this is a tradeoff that Abdallah and other Saudi leaders are willing to make. According to Saudis, without this consultation, the cohesion and stability of the kingdom would be in jeopardy, raising the specter of a return to tribal conflict in the Arabian Peninsula. From this perspective, Saudi foot-dragging looks more like a measure of pragmatism.