GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
Political Economy and Contention: Societal Mobilisation and Political Change in Saudi Arabia
Paper Proposal Text :
The recent protests and demonstrations seen in Saudi Arabia and in other Gulf states call into question the theory that the populations of these states do not protest or challenge the current political and economic status quo. Without taxation, so it has been said, there is no popular demand for political representation and accountability (Herb, 2005: 298). However, it appears that little taxation and generous welfare benefits in Saudi Arabia have not been enough to prevent relatively frequent flares of civil unrest. In light of recent events new explanatory factors must be sought to better understand why and how there has been increased social mobilisation within the Gulf states, and whether or not this can result in real political change.

Whilst the explanations as to why there have been more prominent and vocal protests in Saudi Arabia are interesting and merit further study, this paper aims to investigate the means by, or the conditions under which civil unrest is occurring in Saudi Arabia. In particular it will focus on Saudi Arabia’s rentier economy and the impact that it has on the structure of society and societal mobilisation. To better understand the influence that economic structures have on societal ones and on social mobilisation in general, the main body of the paper will use McAdam, Tarrow, Tilly’s theory of the dynamics of contention to analyse the recent protests in Saudi Arabia.

The study will focus on two key relationships. Firstly, the relationship between the structure and politics of a rentier economy (and state) and the existence of robust, relatively independent societal networks. Economic structure has a significant impact on the way in which society is organised. Factors such as a large bureaucracy or neopatrimonial business networks (key characteristics, in short, of Saudi Arabia’s economy) may inhibit the establishment, and/or development of societal networks.

Secondly, the paper will analyse the extent to which networks can contribute towards sustained social mobilisation and pressure for political change. By highlighting key components of McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly’s theory, those of political opportunities and constraints, forms of organisation and repertoires of contention (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly, 2011: 41), it is possible to identify certain structures and processes (as influenced by the state’s political economy), or the lack thereof in Saudi Arabia’s societal makeup. Through the application of the theory, the influence of these structures can be applied to the analysis of recent demonstrations to draw conclusions about their potential durability and political impact.

Through preliminary research, looking both regionally and at Saudi Arabia in particular, there appears to be a significant link between the nature of a state’s political economy, the existence and utilisation of networks, and sustained social mobilisation. The coordination of demonstrations, movements, messages and popular support depend, to a large extent, on pre-established societal networks. The longevity and characteristics of those demonstrations witnessed in Saudi Arabia are contingent on the fact that there exists only a very weak societal network, the development of which is impeded by politico-economic factors. As such, demonstrations are often short-lived and relatively spontaneous with no long-term political goals or strategies, often organised by individuals or small groups via the internet. With no strong, long term independent societal structures pervading Saudi society, there are few opportunities for sustained popular mobilisation. As a result, there is likely to be little impact on the current political landscape or policy. The paper will analyse different protests and political demonstrations in light of this theory, studying different groups and their support structures, such as the movement(s) for women’s rights, and the groups against anti-Shia discrimination.

The final section of the paper will turn to the potential impact of economic change on the economic and societal structure of Saudi Arabia. Whilst this remains, at least for the moment, speculative, it is nonetheless inevitable that the necessary diversification of Saudi Arabia’s economy and decline of its rentier character will induce change both at the societal and political level. Indeed Saudi Arabia’s efforts to develop new and more diverse industries and economy mean that facing these issues will not be long coming. National responses to current events of civil unrest have been facilitated by the political and economic power afforded to the ruling family by its rentier character. As the narrow ruling elite lose its monopoly on power and experiences a dilution of control over business and industry, the development of more robust societal networks, both at the business level and the civic level could afford a stronger and more sustained voice to societal actors. As the economy develops, therefore, so must national responses adapt to societal demands.


Herb, M. (2005). ‘No Representation without Taxation? Rents, Development, and Democracy.’. Comparative Politics 37(3). pp. 297-316.

McAdam, D., Tarrow, S. and Tilly, C. (2001). Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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