Monday, June 07, 2004

Theories of Saudi Revolution 1 – J Curve

It’s not just the violence in Saudi Arabia that leads me to believe that a revolution there is only a matter of time. Societies can endure high levels of violence without a revolution if the fundamental structures of the society are sound. This is not the case in Saudi Arabia.

The first theory of revolution that applies to the Kingdom is called the “J-Curve” theory.

A society that is poor and has always been poor generally expects this state to continue. This is a society of low expectations and it does not experience revolts against the government. However, societies that were poor in the past but experienced a period of substantial improvement in the quality of life expectt this to continue. When there is a significant decline in the quality of life, a sense of frustration develops. This frustration grows as the gap between expectations and reality grows. The society is poorer than it was in the recent past and this gap generates a sense of relative deprivation.

In the Saudi case, the country was extremely poor in the early part of the20th century, as it had been since time immemorial. With the discovery of oil life improved considerably for most people. It was the oil shock of the 1970s that radically changed the nation. They literally had more money than they could spend. The government provided free health care, free education through college, subsidized housing, fuel and airplane fare. Upon graduation, Saudis were guaranteed work with one of the ever-growing government bureaucracies or the nationalized oil company. This was a period of geometric increases in ever measure of well-being and likewise in Saudi expectations. Some of the benefits of oil wealth were lower infant mortality rates and longer life spans. Plus, Saudis could afford to have more children.

This period lasted throughout the 1980s and into the 90s. However, the oil-export economy simply couldn’t keep up. As oil prices declined and stabilized for years on end, oil revenues were flat at a time when the population was booming. There were more people to care for with the same amount of money. More pieces from the same sized pie meant smaller pieces. This is relative deprivation.

Saudi unemployment is around 40%. Young Saudi men who expected to work for the government can’t: the bureaucracies don’t need for them, they have few skills since they mostly studied religion in college, and the government can’t afford to hire them anyway. Saudi men can’t get married without jobs. They see that the social arrangement that worked for their parents no longer works for them. They don’t have a tangible stake in the success of society; a house, kids, a position of status.

While none of these factors turn people into revolutionaries, in does make them susceptible to revolutionary ideology and more willing to participate in organized violence.

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