The wealthy autocrats of the Gulf have traditionally relied on money to minimise dissent and keep themselves in power. In the initial alarm over the Arab Spring uprisings, the king of Saudi Arabia dipped into his pockets and produced a £133 billion social spending package to include bonuses for government workers, unemployment allowances, a boost in housing loans and an increase in health spending. Kuwait, meanwhile, created 17,000 new jobs in the public sector.
Since then, falling oil prices have forced Gulf rulers to tighten their belts – which could undermine their claims to legitimacy and jeopardise the implicit social contract where citizens acquiesce in autocratic rule in exchange for generous economic benefits.
Recognition that handouts cannot continue at the level people have become accustomed to has given the rulers an incentive to develop other ways of maintaining public support.
In a research paper for the Carnegie Endowment published last week, Justin Gengler looks at alternative options and concludes that Gulf states can still "effectively cow populations into political inaction even as the economic benefits citizens receive are dwindling". Surveys suggest Gulf Arabs are more likely to tolerate economic discomfort if they remain confident that the regimes can still provide security and stability.
"By sowing communal distrust, highlighting threats, and emphasising their ability to guarantee security," Gengler writes, "regimes can reinforce domestic backing and dampen pressure for reform more cheaply than by distributing welfare benefits."
It follows from this that the more fearful people are of threats to their security the more likely they are to appreciate the regime's protection – which in turn increases the temptation for regimes to hype up existing threats and perhaps also create imaginary ones. Gengler notes some of the emerging problems:
- Gulf regimes establish electoral and legislative rules that institutionalise cleavages based on identity politics.
- Official national narratives in the Gulf are frequently exclusive, highlighting differences among citizens and privileging certain population segments over others.
- Gulf regimes increasingly treat even peaceful opposition and dissent as veritable threats to national security, rather than as ordinary political challenges.
- Some Gulf Cooperation Council states have conducted an assertive, adventurist foreign policy that has contributed to regional instability and promoted a militaristic nationalism.
While this may assist the regimes' survival in the short term it can only creative more difficulties in the longer term. A "securitisation" strategy is also not necessarily a cheap way of bolstering legitimacy. Saudi Arabia's disastrous military adventure in Yemen, for example, is an obvious drain on the kingdom's financial resources.
"Gulf rulers," Gengler warns, "are often unable to manage social tensions once unleashed, and some have ended up stoking the very dissent they wished to suppress. This is a precarious strategy that carries serious risks to citizen welfare and the long-term survival of regimes."