Recently at KEVO our very own (kind of - borrowed from NYU Abu Dhabi) Pascal Menoret and Toby Jones (Rutgers) spoke about Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the wake of regional upheaval.
Pascal opened up with two dates: February 24, 2011 and March 11, 2011. The former marking King Abdallah's return to the kingdom after a months long convalescence and the latter a "Day of Rage" modeled after the Egyptian gathering that culminated in the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, lined the streets of Jiddah to welcome the king while very few turned out for the protest. Saudi dissidents joked that the "Day of Rage" became a "Day of Police Demonstrations" as security forced constituted the only large presence. But the al Saud were not worried, notwithstanding the security precaution, and even allowed for journalists to parade the streets as a demonstration of official rhetoric: Saudi subjects are too well-cared for by their royal masters.
20% of Saudis, according to official state figures, live on $3 and 5% live on $1. Literally, millions of improvised people in a nation resting on top of 25% of proven oil reserves. Social services in Saudi Arabia (ex. education and medical) rank low in quality. The Saudi people are clearly not well-cared for, but why does the system hold? Why the confidence of the al Saud?
Pascal outlined several reasons. The royals' ability to co-opt segments of the population, fermenting divisions between Sunnis and Shi'a, a promotion of a brand of Saudi nationalism and exceptionalism, an information blackout and the politicization of data (especially on demographics), censorship, sexual repression, and - what may be the crucial aspect of domination - the political economy of debt termed by Menoret as "the political economy of subjection". Saudis nations have accumulated heavy burdens of debt (60,000 are on a "bad debt list" and may be treated harshly, including jail) and through debt are financing their own subjection.
Beyond that there is also the imbibed fear of repression that is recognized through the widespread prosecution of Saudis - intense and random - that has created a society were 1 in 600 Saudis are held in jail. Heavy repression and, in addition, difficulties in unifying are the challenges of Saudi dissidents and reformers.
Needless to say, a bleak picture.
Jones spoke about Bahrain. Describing the nation as now effectively an apartheid state headed by an increasingly ruthless authoritarian (Sunni) monarchy systematically oppressing and repressing the Shi'a majority. Bahrain's regime, aided by Saudi and UAE troops, crushed a peaceful, pro-democracy movement back in 2011, but the protests continue along with their corollary of confrontations with the armed coercive state apparatus. For a background on Bahrain this Economist article is useful.
Jones outlined a worsening reality where hopes for a compromise breakthrough are increasingly distant as the opposition has been radicalized through the bloody attempts at crackdown (the self-styled moderate vanguard has lost control and the "street" increasingly will settle for nothing less than the overthrow and exile of the royals as opposed to the erstwhile goal of constitutional monarchy) and the regime is now directed by hardliners unwilling to devise any plan of accommodation and committed to plenary obviation of the protest movement. These two polarized forces threaten to bequeath a bloody Sunni-Shi'a stalemate (akin to occupied Iraq) and regional intervention in Bahrain where Saudi, Iran, the United States and likely other nations contest the regional map on the landscape of Bahrain (akin to civil war, and arguably present, Lebanon).
I would add (and I'm reasonably certain that Jones would agree): This is not to draw symmetry between a genuine democratic movement and an authoritarian system. The latter imposes a structure of violence that is the sparking force, conditions any reactive violent and is responsible for the entire scene of violence and its consequences.
The regime's sole basis of support has been the (mostly) Sunni middle class, but this class - Jones argues - is growing frustrated. The regime promised a crackdown would restore the order and stabilize the nation. But it is clear that political turmoil continues, especially in the villages outside of the capital Manama. Tourism, a crucial sector, has collapsed; the merchant class is shifting funds overseas, and many of the foreign banks (Bahrain's claim to fame is being a hub of mostly Islamic finance) and financial houses have relocated. Despite the regime's PR staging of a Formula One race in order to feign a turn to normality, the nation remains on precarious grounds. That remaining leg of support, akin to Syria's business class in Damascus and Aleppo, will only be aggrieved further as protests and confrontations continue and is vulnerable for the regime.
Is there a way out for Bahrain based on liberal democracy? Jones is skeptical. The past conduct and present comportment of the regime does not augur well.
The unifying force in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Jones concluded, is the political economy that the House of Saud must enforce - domestic and foreign - in the Gulf in order to maintain the royals' authoritarian rule: a regional, pro-Saudi balance and the economy of scarcity in the oil industry.
An incredibly informative event, though sad, very sad.
Jones' book, "Desert Kingdom" (Harvard University Press), is incredibly good and highly recommended.
Pascal's book, "The Saudi Enigma", is on my summer's reading list but knowing Pascal I'm certain it is excellent. Pascal has a forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press, "Thugs and Zealots", on Saudi youth.