Posts Tagged 'Arab spring'

Arab Spring. Attempt at paradigm 2

By Torgeir Fjærtoft

In my previous blog input I maintained that to establish viable successor regime to the toppled dictators, the new power holders must initiate regional economic integration to create the employment necessary for social and political stability. Empowering people without improving their lives will undermine the empowerment because the continued frustration and rage can only be controlled by force.

So far, of the affected or vulnerable countries in the region only Saudi Arabia has responded to the Arab Spring by an economic program in the form of boosting internal transfers of oil income.  The Saudi intention is to contain internal ramifications of the regional popular uprising by improving people’s lives without empowering them.

As an oil producer with liquid assets abroad Saudi Arabia has a domestic freedom of maneuver that the new regimes following the Arab Spring have yet to acquire, be they oil producers or not. The regime in Riyadh can therefore be seen as a case study of the reverse end of the evolving Arab Spring, which has started with empowerment and needs to develop an effective economic policy. In the current context, an economic policy addressing the most pressing social problems would need three components: distribution, employment and production.  Saudi Arabia has succeeded as oil producer in terms of volume and income but failed to create commensurate employment. Economists, prone to reduce complex, multi-determined problems to simple equations, call for reversal of internal transfers, reduction in public sector employment, economic diversification by investments in new sectors, and competition. However, these are not options available to Saudi decision-makers at the moment.

What outside observers invariably fail to see is that the monarchy steeped in its ancient traditions is in its essence also a social contract. This basically tribal political culture is in one sense also modern.  Power, though in name absolute, is actually the function of elaborate transactions. Like in a Western welfare state, political support is earned by providing for constituents who judge their leaders by the yardsticks of their own lives. At the same time, power is also the function of the ability to negotiate a modicum of consensus within the elite, which means compromise, balancing opposing demands. These two constraints, people’s welfare and elite consensus, delineate the freedom of maneuver for the Saudi decision-makers, also now. Attempts to transcend these constraints will jeopardize the political stability.

There are two known cases when reductions in internal transfers had serious political ramifications. In the first instance, when in 1956 credit dried up, the extended royal family mobilized to prevent King Saud from establishing his own dynasty, leading to the current collective royal leadership model. In the second instance, the fall in oil prices in the 1980’s led to the Sahwa opposition in the early 1990’s. The Sahwa movement was precipitated in no small degree by reducing the number of public sector positions among the clerical graduates denied the presumed promise of secure employment.

Like in all societies, frustrated young men seek alternative ideologies and faiths with rejection as the common denominator. In Saudi Arabia the elite has throughout the history of the official Wahabist doctrine compromised by cooperating with external powers, first with the Ottomans, then the British and today with the US. Compromise, however necessary or wise, makes the official ideology vulnerable to domestic opposition groups, such as the Sahwa, who may reclaim it in a purer form. An additional vulnerability is the Shia minority surrounding the oil fields. Relations range from tenuous to tense.

By our Western standards, Saudi Arabia falls short, and we would like the Arab Spring as a democratic movement to take hold there as it did in Egypt. For this purpose we may accept a period of instability over the current stability. However, we may err in assuming that the alternative to the current stability is a higher degree of democracy, respect for human rights and the empowerment of ordinary people, including women and minorities. The alternatives could be worse than the current imperfections.  Changes could have other consequences than those intended by the initiators. One consequence of the Libyan uprising against Khadafy has been the flow of frustrated men and arms to terrorist movements in the region.

Destabilization of Saudi Arabia, as pivotal oil producer indispensable to the global economic stability and full of arms, could prove infinitely worse. If the Saudi decision-makers were to follow the advice of most economists, such a scenario would under the current circumstances be much more likely than stable economic growth and democratization.

The evolving Arab spring. Attempt at paradigm.

By Torgeir Fjærtoft

The Arab Spring is a paradigm change in the sense that old assumptions no longer hold. The new paradigm must explain how the new situations evolve, and, in the Norwegian context, what Western policies would respond most effectively in altered circumstances.

In an evolving situation the best approach is to identify phases:

First phase mobilization

The first phase was the poplar mobilization on the new social media and in the streets. The western policy response was to refrain from intervention despite vested interests in the old regimes.

Second phase removal of dictators

The second phase was the forced removal of dictators, a phase still ongoing in Syria. Gadhafi was removed with western military support in a humanitarian intervention. Norway was heavily involved.   The risks and uncertain long-term consequences of the Libyan intervention that have been discussed in the aftermath, make a humanitarian intervention in Syria unlikely at this point, even though the suffering would justify it more than in Libya.

Third phase new regimes

The third phase is when the new regimes take power. Will they succeed in maintaining control, or can the countries they are now responsible for, slide into chaos and disintegrate, like Somalia? Will they honor the popular movements that brought them to power by a degree of democracy, women’s empowerment and religious pluralism, or will they become new dictators? At this point the development could realistically go either way. The future is open, undecided. At this stage the best Western policy is to urge upon their new rulers that democracy is not only the right, but also the most effective rule, and support women’s groups and religious minorities by active networking.

Fourth phase economic integration

The fourth phase will hopefully be regional economic integration, without which economic policies will not be sufficiently effective to create the necessary employment for social and political stability.  Economic cooperation would also favorable affect the political culture. The business culture operates with more rational basic assumptions, mental models, than the political culture. To succeed in business it is necessary to actively seek opportunities for win-win options, which can only be achieved by compromise. The European break with historic hostility was made by initiating and institutionalizing integration of the central economic sectors at the time, coal and steel.

Crises can drive cooperation

The European cooperation evolved in response to crises; in fact, the European cooperation has been driven by crises. In the Middle East, the most rational policy now would be to initiate practical economic cooperation despite current political crises.  Economic cooperation is the most promising vehicle to facilitate cooperation on crises management, the European model.

Regional integration of gas supply imperative

The current Middle Eastern equivalent to the coal and steel of the early 1950’s Europe would be gas, which can only be optimally utilized in a regional context. Failure to do so could have global implications by destabilizing the country in the region most important as global oil supplier, Saudi Arabia. Destabilization of Saudi Arabia would spread to the whole Middle East. Solely regional integration of gas supply can prevent the foreseeable Saudi crisis at the point when domestic oil consumption and depletion of assets make both oil exports and internal economic transfers impossible. The result would be energy shortage in Asia and destabilization of the Middle East. By substituting as much as possible of the current domestic oil use with gas from the enormous South Pars field, for power production, desalination of water and the planned petrochemical industry, more Saudi oil can be exported and earn cash for domestic transfers. There is really no long-term alternative to such a strategy. But it can only be realized by the necessary degree of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the two holders of the South Pars field, Qatar and Iran. Norway could provide inputs to the parties from own experiences as gas producer integrated with the European market. We may even suggest select parts of the agreement with the EU, the EEA Agreement, for experiments in economic cooperation.