By Numan Aksoy
When mass protests in the form of the Arab Spring came into fruition in late 2010, many scholars were caught by surprise. For decades the Middle East had remained stable, albeit mostly under repressive governments. If the ultimate goal of the Arab Spring was to spark the rise of representative democracies across the region, the results have varied. As of this writing, there have been cases of relatively successful democratic transitions like Tunisia, cases of clear failures of transition and successful government suppression of protests like Algeria, and cases that have carried on in the form of civil war as in Syria. Saudi Arabia, a major actor in the region, has so far successfully escaped the threatening winds of the Arab Spring. This paper seeks to explain the underlying reasons for the Saudi government’s success in maintaining power throughout the Arab Spring.
On December 17, 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the local governor’s office that ultimately led to his death. Bouazizi was neither mentally ill nor suicidal, and the self-immolation was not a coincidence but rather the result of a combination of social, economic, political, and even religious grievances of the Tunisian population in particular and the Arab world in general. The Egyptian uprisings followed shortly thereafter, resulting in the downfall of the decades-long military dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Likewise, the wheel of the Arab Spring kept turning as Libya descended into a civil war as a result of brutal repression by Muammar Gaddafi, albeit to a lesser extent than Syria where the death toll has surpassed 200,000 according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and still no sign of its president, Bashar al-Assad, looking to abdicate power.
In the midst of the Arab Spring one country has so far been left nearly untouched: Saudi Arabia. For the Al Saud family—who had founded and has ruled Saudi Arabia since 1932—the Arab Spring was more than a question of how much reform would be necessary to quell protest, if at all. Soon did the Saudi family realize that it would also be a quest for survival at a time when seemingly most of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors were giving in to popular demand. As Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University notes in a Center for Strategic & International Studies report on Saudi Arabia, “There was genuine concern in Riyadh that the wave of revolts was unstoppable and that its domino effect would topple well-entrenched regimes in quick succession.”
The question of Saudi Arabia’s future amid growing Saudi demands has not only attracted the Al Saud family. Many experts on Saudi Arabia believe the Kingdom will continue its rule unabated despite the growing demand from both Sunni and Shia Muslim populations within the country. One such scholar is Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In February 2011, as the flares of the Arab Spring were gleaming in front of distant observers, she claimed, “The notion of a revolution in the Saudi Kingdom seems unthinkable.” Still, others think that the Al Saud family is losing control of the country, but provide only tangential explanations as to how it has such a firm grip over society. Indeed, many of the reasons for the lack of popular political and economic demands like the ones seen in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt extend far beyond the problems on the surface.
The Al Saud monarchy has much to fear from the Arab Spring, especially since the inklings of uproar can be heard in the predominantly Shiite Eastern province of Saudi Arabia. There are four deep-rooted explanations as to when and how the Al Saud has managed its relentless hold on power: a seemingly endless oil wealth, a robust domestic coercive apparatus, patronage from the U.S., and Islam as practiced in the Kingdom.
Financing the Stability: The Oil Curse
Saudi Arabia is a classic example of a resource cursed country. Burdened with natural resources, the entire economy, government, and stability are dependent on the uninterrupted extraction and sale of oil. Oil accounts for 90-95 percent of Saudi Arabia’s exports and 35-40 percent of its GDP, pulling in hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue each year. Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, perhaps the root factor of Al Saud’s ability to successfully quell dissent, has also served as an impediment to development and democratization. Many scholars, including Michael L. Ross, have developed on the idea that oil impedes democracy. In a paper titled, Does Oil Hinder Democracy, Ross uses pooled time-series cross-national data from 113 states between 1971 and 1997 to verify the oil-impedes-democracy claim. His findings indicate states that rely heavily on oil and minerals for exports tend to be less democratic than states that do not. According to Ross, one main factor that fosters this relationship is the concept of the rentier state.
In the Arab world the rentier effect is perhaps most pertinent in Saudi Arabia. Because rentier states like Saudi Arabia derive most of their revenue from external rents—such as oil, minerals, or other commodities—these rents in turn allow governments to exempt their citizens of taxes, in effect cutting any representation in government. Furthermore, they allow the government, as is the case in Saudi Arabia, to offer subsidized and often free services like healthcare, education, energy, and housing.
But when these services are not met (or poorly met as in Saudi Arabia), public pressure for reform can lead to pressure for regime change, a nightmare for the Al Saud. When such uprisings took fruition in Saudi Arabia as part of the general Arab Spring protests in a pre-planned “day of rage”, the Saudi government was quick to hand out a generous offer of $130 billion for social benefits, housing, and jobs, in an effort to stifle protest.
Even with such mammoth amounts of state revenue from oil, corruption and inefficiency in government are widespread. According to Karen House, an expert with 30 years of experience in research and reporting on Saudi Arabia and author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – And Future, “40 percent of Saudis live in poverty and at least 60 percent cannot afford a home.” Moreover, the “government fails to provide basic services like quality education, health care, or even proper sewage and drainage to protect from floods”—referring to the flooding of Jeddah twice in a little over a year. Thus, instead of turning oil wealth into a blessing, the Al Saud has turned it into a curse, which may backfire in the form of regime-threatening uprisings. Although the Al Saud have successfully fended off large-scale protests by essentially buying social peace and support for their regime, this explanation is not yet sufficient to explain the reluctance of the Saudi population to rise up in threatening proportions against the Al Saud.
The Coercive Institutions
If Saudi oil money has been the financial supporter of stability thus far for the Al Saud, the Saudi coercive apparatus has served as the enforcer of the long-standing stability. Oil wealth in Saudi Arabia flows into various institutions of the coercive apparatus—including the intelligence agency (mukhabarat), the religious police (mutawa’a), and the senior religious scholars (ulama) that use their power to keep Saudi society in check. As the influential sociologist Max Weber writes in his essay Politics as a Vocation, a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is essential for a state’s existence. Once the state has such legitimacy—which the Al Saud usually obtains through religious decrees put forth by the same ulama that are on Al Saud payroll—public discontent can be suppressed. When Saudi police shot and killed Fasial Ahmed Abdul-Ahad, the organizer of the “day of rage” protests a week before the protests were to take place on 11 March, 2011, state security successfully diluted the efficacy of future protests. Similarly, when protests erupted in neighboring Bahrain the next week—where a minority Sunni government rules over the majority Shia population—Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 of its own security forces into Bahrain to help dismantle the uprisings.
To the extent that an Arab Spring-type revolution is necessary for the Al Saud to be ousted from power and make way for the demands of protesters, Saudi Arabia’s coercive apparatus must either be resistant to the inflicting of harsh repression on its society or lack the means to do so. Eva Bellin, an expert on Middle East politics and professor at Brandeis University, agrees, claiming that, “the strength, coherence, and effectiveness of the state’s coercive apparatus distinguish among cases of successful revolution, revolutionary failure, and nonoccurrence.” Certainly, the Egyptian military’s refusal to crack down on protesters after initially doing so and ultimately paving the way for public mobilization and allowing democratic elections in 2012 is a case in point.
But Saudi security forces are not limited to its military. As House explains, the mutawa’a, or religious police, “patrol shops and streets, on foot and in cars, to enforce their stern standard of proper Islamic behavior.” The seemingly ubiquitous religious police are embedded within Saudi society, discreetly preventing the mixing of opposite sexes in the workplace, coffee shops, and educational institutions (with the ironic exception of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST). Again, for the Al Saud to maintain such a pervasive coercive apparatus, oil revenue is crucial. Yet, as Bellin notes, “the robustness of the coercive apparatus is also shaped by successful maintenance of international support networks.”
Foreign Patronage From the United States
Indeed, the degree to which Saudi society is kept under scrutiny may not escape international purview without extensive backing from an influential foreign patron, namely the United States. Saudi Arabia enjoys a unique relationship with the United States that dates back more than half a century when U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz aboard the USS Quincy in 1945. The two countries have enjoyed a tacit agreement in which the Al Saud provides oil at reasonable prices to the United States in return for regime-support and national security. For example, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990, the United States deployed troops and a missile defense system into Saudi Arabia to fend off incoming Scud missiles from the Iraqi military.
Comparably, in countries where the United States has withheld its support for a repressive government, the protestors have successfully toppled their leaders. In the case of Egypt, its military had received more than $57 billion between 1946 and 2012. But once the United States withheld aid and support to the military-dominated government of Hosni Mubarak in and his ground forces refused to repress protests further, his downfall became inevitable in 2011.
Unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia has received untethered U.S. support despite much condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights (and women’s rights in particular). In her book, Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy Or No Democracy at All?, Amaney Jamal, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Princeton University, points out another reason for why Saudi Arabia enjoys extensive U.S. support:
“[D]emocratic reformers [in the U.S.] understand that a push toward democracy may result in bringing anti-American forces to power—which would mean jeopardizing U.S. Patronage—and therefore prefer the status quo…and invest in regime stability and cooperative governments over democratization.”
For example, the reason for U.S. withdrawal of support for the Egyptian government during the uprisings can also be tied back to the fact that the majority of Egyptians were willing to maintain good relations with the U.S. But the same cannot be said about Saudi popular opinion toward the United States, leading many policymakers in Washington to feel uneasy about the idea of supporting potential protestors’ demands for reform in the oil-rich country. Thus, Al Saud stability has been successfully maintained partly due to the patronage provided by the United States.
Islam as a Tool for Stability
Finally, scholars have looked into the possibility of Islam serving as a hindrance to democracy and, if so, how governments exploit it to further their agenda. Are predominantly Muslim societies less prone to democracy and, if so, what are the causes? Stephen Fish, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, uses quantitative analysis to answer this question. Fish compares the mean scores of predominantly Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries using control variables: Freedom House freedom rating, polity score, economic development, sociocultural division, economic performance, British colonial heritage, communist heritage, and membership in the Organization for the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Statistical data based on his multivariate analyses posit that predominantly Muslim countries are indeed less democratic than non-Muslim countries.
One reason why Muslim-majority countries are undemocratic yet stable, as Fish argues, is the subordination of women. In Saudi Arabia, female involvement in the labour force, for example, is about 18 percent, compared to over 75 percent of male participation. And although the problem of gender inequality is slowly improving in Saudi Arabia, there is clear and omnipresent subordination of women in public and in the workplace, which essentially alienates half of the Saudi population from any attempt at demanding social, political, and workplace freedoms.
In an IPSOS poll conducted in 2011 on the importance of religion in one’s life, two findings are worthy of attention. First, 94 percent of those with a religion in Muslim countries say their religion is an important factor in their lives, compared to 66 percent in Christian countries. Second, 100 percent of those polled in Saudi Arabia said religion was an integral part of their daily lives. Taking this poll and Steven Fish’s findings into consideration and applying them to Saudi Arabia where the population is ruled by Islamic law (sharia), avenues for democratic demands—let alone a full-fledged democratic government—have thus been elusive at best.
And because Saudi Arabia practices Hanbali law, the most legally restrictive of the four Islamic schools of law—also known as Wahhabi Islam—Saudi society has become acquiescent, due partly to the over-arching presence of Islam in public. As mentioned previously, roaming the streets of Saudi society are the religious police, enforcing conservative Islamic law like the prevention of the mixing of unrelated men and women. Furthermore, Religious scholars (ulama) issue decrees (fatwas) that shape daily life. As professor Haykel of Princeton University observes, “The Saudi Council of Senior Scholars issued a fatwa that declared all public protests illegal in Islam.” And according to studies conducted by the Washington Institute For Near East Studies, Muslim societies are more likely to accept the status quo, however disadvantageous, and not ask “how” or “why”. The extent to which Islam is embedded into Saudi society can also be seen in the government’s establishment of an official Website for approved fatwas. As House notes, there is a “pervasive presence of religion, which hangs over Saudi Arabia like a heavy fog and has been a source of stability, along with the Al Saud, for nearly three centuries.”
Saudi Arabia is not impervious to certain problems regarding stability. Challenges to the implementation of the four methods of public control are evident. First, although Saudi Arabia has over 265 billion barrels in oil reserves, reports indicate that production may not be enough to sustain growing domestic and international demand. And as the flow of information becomes easier and more Saudis gain access to the Internet, it will be harder for the Al Saud and its coercive apparatus to impose its legitimacy, especially on the Saudi youth and the country’s increasingly discontented Shia population. Protests in Saudi Arabia’s neighbors and in the broader region have not gone unnoticed from scrupulous observers within Saudi society. Furthermore, although the U.S.-Saudi relationship is unique, it is based primarily on oil. But in light of growing U.S. independence from oil as an import, a new principal focus is needed to base the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Finally, Islam’s role in the lives of young Saudis is slowly diminishing. As House observes, “religious authorities are faced with the problem of trying to issue fatwas that are relevant to modern life yet more often end up merely pointing up the inadequacy of religious rulings to current issues confronting young people.”
Still, Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolution attempts have been successful so far not because of a single factor or multiple rudimentary factors but rather because of a combination of the aforementioned methods that reach nearly all echelons of society, directly or indirectly: the distribution of Saudi oil wealth, an omnipresent coercive apparatus, the status of Saudi Arabia as a foreign patron supported by the United States, and its Wahhabi version of Islam that is deeply embedded within society. Karen House agrees:
“No single problem in Saudi Arabia…is likely to be fatal to the [Al Saud] regime. Rather, it is the confluence of so many challenges coupled with the rigidity of the regime, the sullenness of the society, the escalating demands of youth, and most important, the instability inherent in generational succession that could prove fatal to Al Saud rule.”
If the Al Saud wants to prolong its rule, it will have to use its oil wealth to alleviate the legitimate concerns of the Saudi population (for example, the housing problem), strengthen its coercive apparatus, use the perceived threat of growing Iranian (Shia) influence in the region to maintain its relationship with the United States, and utilize Islam in ways that appeal to the younger generation of Saudis. If not, the Al Saud may very well have an uninvited guest in the form of the Arab Spring.
Numan Aksoy is a rising senior at the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University studying Political Science and Middle East & North Africa Studies (MENA). He has served as an intern in the office of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts and other Members of Congress. He is currently a staff writer for the Boston Political Review, a Boston University Publication and has been published by other sources including BU Today (online) and the IR Review at BU.
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