By Farooq Sulehria
July 03, 2012
Oil rent, Islam, Western support. These are the three approaches often employed to explain the House of Saud’s resilience. Saudi Arabia is no doubt an oil superpower. It holds 19.8 percent of world’s proven oil reserves and contributed 12 percent of global oil production in 2009.
No doubt oil rent has strengthened the Saudi state vis-a vis society. Understandably, the analysis of oil-rich states in recent decades has been largely dominated by rentier-state theory. An Iranian economist, Hossein Mahdavy, is usually credited with developing the concept of the rentier-state in relation to Iran prior to the revolution of 1979. (Although the term “rentier-state” actually goes back to the early 1900s)
He defined rentier-states as countries “that receive on a regular basis substantial amounts of external rent [which are] rentals paid by foreign individuals, concerns or governments to individuals, concerns, or governments of a given country”.
Mahdavy’s conceptualization of the Iranian state, carrying both political and economic implications, has inspired host of studies on oil-rich states. By and large, these studies link the rentier-state to the high possibility of social stagnation and political inertia. The argument goes like this: The source of state revenues is oil rent rather than exploitation of the masses (taxation), thus the government in a rentier-state is not under any pressure to introduce political reforms.
On the other hand, part of the population also enjoys an increasing prosperity from oil revenues; therefore, mass movements for social change are less likely to emerge. Furthermore, the government possesses huge capacity to bribe or coerce pressure groups and thus forestall any fundamental challenge. This is how a link is established between rentier-states and dictatorship.
No doubt oil wealth enables the rentier-states to allocate welfare, build a limited social base and co-opt political rivals. Apparently, the Sultans themselves believe that they can buy support. For instance, when the Arab spring began to make headlines, King Abdullah clearly tried to bolster stability through cash outlays. He announced huge spending packages, first in December 2010, later in March 2011.
However, the rentier-state perspective has been criticised both from the right and the left. For instance, an expert on Saudi affairs, Stig Stenslie, in his recent book ‘Regime stability in Saudi Arabia’ describes elite integration as ‘the’stabilising factor. He borrows this concept from Norwegian sociologist Trygve Gulbrandsen: ‘Elite integration...implies that the different elites are unified in one way or another.’
Stenslie places royal family atop the Saudi pyramid while in his view the elite consists of Saudi religious leaders, tribal leaders, leaders of bureaucracy, and business leaders. While rentier-perspective and ‘elite integration’ offer some interesting insights, both fail to correctly characterise state and civil society in oil-rich countries. Hence the case of Libya cannot be explained by such theories.
In order to understand why the Arab spring has arrived in different Arab countries in different ways, we need to understand the nature of class formations and the makeup of the civil society in various Arab countries. For instance, in the presence of relative democratic freedoms an otherwise explosive Lebanon has not been a part of the ongoing revolutionary process that has caught hold of many countries in the region. Similarly, in Tunis and Egypt where political, parties, trade unions, relatively independent media, professional bodies and limited possibilities to organize or agitate were available, not only the outcome has been different from Libya and Syria but also the resistance took the form of an intifada, not armed resistance.
In case of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikhdoms, we need to take into account two important factors Marxist scholar Adam Hanieh points out in his seminal study ‘Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States’.
Firstly, the way organic growth of the working class was stunted through “a spatial fix” in the Gulf countries. The local labour was replaced with imported workforce. Imported labour had no rights as imported workers were not granted citizenship. Thus, the labour class was constituted through its specialisation.
For instance, oil giant Aramco – once the largest employment provider – in 1958 had 70 Saudi workers. In the early 1960s, 90 percent of the workers in the economy were Saudis. By 1980, 50.7 percent of the workforce consisted of migrant labour. Initially, labour was imported from Arab countries, not just in Saudi kingdom but across the countries of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). But taming an Arab population was difficult especially in view of nationalist Pan-Arab, socialist, and later on, Pan-Islamist fundamentalist currents. If Arabs constitute a nation, why should an Egyptian be denied citizenship in Saudi Arabia?
Understandably, migrant labour in Gulf countries would get restless when Arab world was swayed by radical currents. Hence, working class was spatially fixed yet again. Arab workers were deported and replaced by an even more disempowered labour from South Asia. By 2002, Arab proportion of migrant workers would fall from 74 percent in 1975 to 25-30 percent in the GCC countries. The first Gulf War (1991) provided a golden opportunity to hasten transition towards South Asia. Presently, there are seven to eight million foreign workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They can be expelled any time. In fact, many have been dispatched since the global economic crisis hit.
Secondly, citizenship restricted to a tiny minority, moved up the ladder - taking jobs in higher-level managerial positions. This tiny minority was provided with varying levels of access to the benefits accruing from oil-rent. These ranged from cheap housing and education to massive economic grants and business contracts.
The spatial fix and, simultaneously, the development of a domestic capitalist class through the redirection of oil revenues to the leading merchant families and other elites, enabled the Gulf regimes, including House of Saud, to construct a powerful system of control over the resident population, while consolidating and binding citizen allegiance to the ruling monarch upon which an indigenous capitalism could develop.
It is, therefore, not lack of Facebook subscribers; it is the absence of civil society institutions that is holding Arab spring back in the case of Arabian peninsula.
Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor.