Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Seeing the Arab Spring through Counterrevolutionary Eyes

September 23, 2011

The Arab Spring that has swept across the Middle East and North Africa over the past year was presented in a recent talk at the Institute from the perspective of counterrevolutionaries and the motivation of preserving privilege. Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University and author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, drew upon Saudi Arabia’s case to spin a tale of elite fears and oil dependency. His lecture was the first of the new Human Security in the Middle East Seminar Series.

Saudi Arabia has long struggled to preserve a system of authoritarianism, Jones said. The ruling class continues to do all it can to protect its power and check resistance. Why? “The rulers sit atop a closed political system, where citizens have almost no influence,” said Jones. “Potential democratic change threatens the domestic ruling power’s strength … and the unbridled privileged access that comes with it,” he added.

Jones explained further how this system is manifested in the international political economy of oil, the basis of Saudi Arabia’s massive wealth. “High oil prices are necessary to sustain both the domestic political system and the patronage that fuels it,” he said. Essentially, scarcity is manufactured, and production is manipulated to garner the highest revenue, said Jones. “Given the logic of global capitalism, it would be shocking if countries like Saudi Arabia acted in any other way,” he added.

Because oil is the second most abundant liquid on the planet, Saudi Arabia’s real power stems from the perception that oil is a scarce resource. Riyadh understands that consumers’ appetite for oil is so great that its prices can continue to climb. The Saudis have correctly guessed that consumers’– and especially Americans’ – breaking point, at which the price of oil becomes truly unacceptable, is still quite distant from current prices. 

As a result, a unique political economy of oil has been perpetuated, which goes against the market fundamentals of supply and demand. Instead, psychology, uncertainty, and the perception of insecurity act as drivers, and the oil-for-arms relationship between the United States and its Middle East allies, justified in language of national security, ultimately incentivizes the US to make securing access to oil a top political objective.

Pulling back to the greater revolutionary movement in the Middle East, Jones said, “The US’s commitment to the preservation of the political status quo in the Persian Gulf has been disastrous for the Arab Spring.” Americans’ oil dependence has inadvertently affected the aid and success of the protests, particularly in Bahrain. Saudi leaders view the Arab Spring and the pro-democracy protests as “the single greatest threat to their rule in a generation,” thus influencing the strength of their own response and the nature of the US’s involvement, said Jones. 

Behind all of this remains an economic system “that serves the interests of a narrow set of elites” in both the Middle East and in the US, said Jones. “The Arab Spring represents a serious threat to this order,” he said, which makes guarding the ruling parties’ power an important part of the counterrevolutionary agenda. If in the end the counterrevolutionaries win, “the cost of victory will be high because it requires permanent violence, autocracy, Islamic radicalism and an enduring dependency on oil,” said Jones.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Kaori Ogawa ‘12