The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has troubled the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) significantly since 2010. The protests were a shock to many around the world as no one had predicted such protests and consequently revolutions or wars could or would happen in the MENA region. However, once it became clear that this ‘domino effect’ was happening, people began to question whether there were any correlations between the nations involved. One of the main things questioned was the role of oil. The majority of states that have experienced significant protest or civil war have not been states in possession of large quantities of oil. So does rentier state theory explain the failure of mass mobilisation in certain states?
Let’s role it back to how this ‘Arab Spring’ began. In December 2010 in Tunisia Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and veg seller set himself on fire in protest against corruption in the country. This led to all out protest in the nation and the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The protests soon spread as in January 2011, they broke out in Yemen and Jordan swiftly followed by Egypt in February 2011 following the Mukhabart beating to death Khaled Said (of which pictures appeared on the internet sparking outrage). A couple of weeks later, Hosni Mubarak resigned. The Libyan people joined the ‘Arab Spring’ in February 2011 too along with Bahrain, Morocco, Oman and Algeria followed by Syria and Saudi Arabia in March 2011 and finally, Kuwait in the summer of 2011. Every protest was different in nature and outcome as some were easily resolved by their leaders, others involved regime change or even counter-revolution and many continue to suffer grave civil war to this day.
Of all the states that were involved in the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria and Libya were the only states with significant oil assets and Libya was the only state that saw dramatic change.
At first glance, it appears that states involved in the Spring that had oil wealth were able to survive the upheaval. Due to the sheer amount of money that these states make from producing oil, they were able to ‘buy off’ their citizens – which is exactly what Saudi Arabia did. Saudi Arabia put $136 billion into the public sector to help fund housing and unemployment. This undoubtedly prevented citizens from wanting to revolt further – along with the fact that people were arrested and often tried in courts specifically used for terrorism charges. The Saudis were also able to use their oil influence in Bahrain where they helped the Bahraini King suppress rebellion with military force (probably paid for by oil).
Although on the surface oil (rentier-state theory) may be useful in explaining why certain states did not have to deal with the mass mobilisation of their citizens during the ‘Arab Spring’, it doesn’t truthfully represent it. Oil prices fell during the late 1980s and we didn’t see political liberalisation then and also, there were a number of other causes such as the authoritarian or monarchic (although monarchies can also be authoritarian) nature of governments and the protests themselves.
Arguably, it wasn’t the fact that oil producing states had financial abilities but it was how we used them. The Gulf monarchies attempted to consult and include the vast majority of the population rather than just a particular group of supporters – something that Libya failed to do. Libya did not use their oil wealth to appease their citizens in a successful way which ultimately led to widespread protests that spiralled. When Qaddafi finally attempted to ‘buy off’ his citizens (with $24 billion for housing) it was too little, too late. This just goes to show that some states were a lot more willing to use their oil wealth to buy off their citizens and prevent them protesting than others. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Monarchies recognised this ability – Libya, did not.
The majority of states in MENA are either ruled by monarchical or authoritarian governments. Its arguable that Monarchies were able to retain power without much issue during the ‘Arab Spring’ due to the nature of their regime and the tradition it entailed. Monarchies sit outside the normal legislative institutions making it easier for them to quell protest and offer reforms in an easier manner – due to the differing factions in the legislature. In Saudi Arabia reforms were granted as women gained certain political rights as well as noted changes to interfaith dialogues and the judicial system. Libya on the other hand played off clan and ethnic differences and held central importance to the army to stamp out process. The army then split into two meaning that civil war broke out. This is something we have also seen in Egypt and Syria – deserters – yet we have not seen it with monarchical regimes as they still retain full support of their militaries. Qaddafi came to power in 1969 following a military coup and played off deep divisions in the country ensuring he followed authoritarian rule. This created a fractured and distrustful society, which ultimately was prepared to rebel against authoritarian rule.
My last point is that the nature of the protests varied significantly. In Saudi Arabia protests were pretty limited – the majority of protests were in the Eastern Province, the Shia dominated region of a Sunni nation. Limited groups were involved in the protest such as the Free Youth Coalition and the National Youth Movement (both Shia). The protests did not call for the direct overthrow of the regime, only for changes to human rights and putting an end to corruption. There were vary few Sunnis who became involved in the protests. This meant that unity and mass mobilisation was not going to happen due to sectarianism being used as a counter-revolutionary strategy. This was the opposite to Libya were protest was widespread and mainstream. Libyan protests expanded nationwide and even set up the National Transitional Council (NTC). There were numerous opposition groups which had grown abroad as well as underground at home such as the Libyan Constitutional Union and the Libyan Islamic Group and, to top it off for Qaddafi, most the Arab world despised him making it a lot easier to overthrow him.
So, although oil wealth helped states that were willing to use their oil wealth to ‘buy off their citizens’, it was very much dependent on whether the state in question was willing to do so. Saudi Arabia was willing to put billions into employment benefits, housing and public sector pay and therefore this, to an extent, helped prevent mass mobilisation. Libya on the other hand, attempted to put a few billion into the state welfare and citizens, in particular housing, but it was very much seen as far too little and far too late. Furthermore, the protests themselves and their demands and the nature of the regime played significant roles. In Libya, a large section of society called for the fall of the regime whereas in Saudi Arabia, a limited sect of society protested. Furthermore, due to its monarchical nature and the support of their armed forces, they were more capable of overcoming unrest in the early stages whereas, in Libya, the authoritarian regime lacked the overall support of the military and therefore, the regime fell.