The Impact Of Arab Spring On Oil Wealth In Countries Involved: Cases Of Tunisia And Saudi Arabia

Introduction & Emergence of Research Question

In December 2010, self-immolation of a Tunisian Hawker named Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi was the starting point of Arab Spring. Then a sequence of uprisings of democracy supporters occurred in largely Muslim countries, including Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. Three world-wide known dictators – Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and Gaddafi in Libya – were fallen by civil uprisings. Arab Spring process caused the death of hundreds of thousands of people and the movement of millions of people from their homes during the protests and due to the conflicts. It also created severe economic damages to many countries in Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In the period of 2011-2012 for the countries of Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen; totally $20 billion of Gross Domestic Product and totally $35 billion of public finances disappeared.

These results showed that the causes and results of Arab Spring are interesting areas which has “real-world” importance. The Arab Spring created different outcomes in terms of uprisings among MENA countries. In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and the Republic of Yemen, the uprisings overthrew long-standing authoritarian governments fell. On the other hand, there were no remarkable uprising in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries except Bahrain and little protests in Saudi Arabia.

One of the perspectives about the factors which create the discrepancy between MENA countries is related to governance of the monarchies. GCC countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates-UAE, Oman, and Qatar) are all hereditary monarchies with Jordan and Morocco in the Middle East. The strong regional cooperation between these hereditary oil monarchies, immediate action to stop the diffusion of Arab Spring to GCC, usage of oil money to protect regime against public confrontation preserved GCC countries from Arab Spring.

The other factor indicated by scholars is inequality in society. Findings of Dang & Ianchovichina (2016) emphasizes that the main problem was the gradual derogation of middle class. However, Hassine (2014) finds that the expenditure inequality declined during the last decade before Arab Spring both in Tunisia and Egypt, where the uprisings and revolutions first commenced. These findings throw the suspicion on the influence of the inequality on uprisings.

Another viewpoint also related to inequality perspective is life expectations about Arab Spring countries. In the developing parts of Arab Spring in the MENA region, life satisfaction scores especially for middle class waned substantially before the Arab Spring (Ianchovichina, 2018). The lower quality level of public services and poor labor market situations discontentment in society via increasing perceptions of deterioration life-standards.

In this context, the breaking of social contract between society and government is the main point of this influence. The governments broke the social contracts which includes high level of public employment, free public services like education and health and also subsidies to basic consumer goods such as food and fuel. The gap between the life expectation and the realization for middle-class young people led to disappointment and then the protests. In other words, while they expected higher level of welfare than former generation, they were jobless and hopeless for a promising future. In addition, the corruption in the process of employment also fosters the grievances in these countries against government. Taking a job in both public and privates sectors became impossible without taking reference of powerful political and business elites.

After these arguments, it is necessary to explain how less affected countries preserved themselves from the diffusion of Arab Spring uprisings. While oil-poor Arab countries were overset by uprisings, the oil and also natural gas-rich countries confronted with comparatively little protests. The low oil income countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen have experience political revisions even social revolution like Tunisia. Oil-poor Syria has seen the greatest violence to date, and may also end with regime change. On the contrary, oil and natural gas-rich states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait struggled with relatively little protests.

As seen above, although there are different perspectives about the different contagion levels of Arab Spring among MENA countries, the oil wealth is one of the most salient variable to explain the influence level. Then in order to examine the Arab Spring and the oil wealth relation, the research question emerges as “why have the effects of Arab Spring been limited for high oil wealth countries when compared to low oil income countries?”

Relevance to Brief Literature

There are some explanations in the literature about the for the continuity of authoritarianism in some Arab countries after the 2011 uprisings. Oil wealth takes importance part of these explanations. The power of high amount oil and gas reserves to be one of the major structural components that explained where small uprisings failed to change the regimes. Thanks to oil income, incumbents can make redistribution in an effective way. Thus, when they are facing popular discontent they can activate the redistribution system with cash transfers, cheaper housing, and many other injections to citizens to mitigate uprisings. As a result, the Arab Spring indicates that there is a relationship between oil wealth and regime stability. Because regimes with oil wealth are prone to be not only more authoritarian but also more stable than regimes without oil wealth in the process of Arab Spring.

The Hypothesis &Variables

In the light of literature review and the within the scope of the research question the hypothesis eventuates to understand the reason why have the effects of Arab Spring been limited for high oil wealth countries when compared to low oil income countries.

Hypothesis: The high oil wealth of a country restricted to diffusion of the Arab Spring protests to its society.

By testing this hypothesis, it is possible to reach and analyse the power of high oil wealth for a country to restrict the protests of its society. According to the hypothesis, independent variable is the oil wealth of a country and the dependent variable its response to the protests of the 2011 Arab Spring.

Comparative Case Study: Tunisia & Saudi Arabia in Arab Spring

Some of the wealthiest countries in the Arab world such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait experienced relatively few if any protests. The oil producing states in Arab world such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait which are also the wealthiest countries have been able to give their society to prosperous system. In other words, governments had enough power to purchase loyalty of their citizens through increasing public sector employment and salaries, reducing taxes, and augmenting food subsidies. Thus, they discourage proliferation and transmission of the grievances. The countries which have not extracted oil revenue to mitigate the grievances in their societies had not got such kind of options and abilities to manage the uprisings. Therefore, it is necessary to compare the situation of an oil-rich country with an oil-poor country to reach more tangible findings for the testing of the hypothesis.

Tunisian Case in Arab Spring

Various factors are influential such a big revolution as Jasmine revolution in Tunisia. In order to understand the main factors, the findings of Beissinger et. al (2012), which focused to construct a link between the participants of the protests and the factors of increasing uprisings in their study, is useful. They demonstrated that economic grievances with the contribution of corruption directed the agendas of participants in the revolution and were more influential than any other factors such as civil and political freedoms. Thus, the economic grievances are the conductor of the uprising which has an organic bond the hypothesis of this paper.

At this point, it is important to understand the main factors related to the economic grievances which catalyze the protests in Tunisia for making a comparative study between the extreme country cases. Corruption is one of the catalysts that the overthrown leader Ben Ali’s family was directly involved in. Bombastic daily life of Leila Trabelsi, the wife of Ben Ali, was perceived by Tunisian people and fostered the grievances within the society. The corruption is also related to the high level of unemployment especially in the youth population. In addition to unfair employment procedures with the diffusion of corruption and favoritism, unemployment just after graduation created huge disappointments. As unemployment process became longer, the grievances gradually increased. As a matter of the fact that Bouazizi was not only demonstrating against the corruption problem in the government but the deprivation of economic possibilities in his country. He had already tried to enter the army and made applications for many other jobs but had been able to get work. Bouazizi’s situation represented the economic grievances among protestors of Arab Spring.

As implicitly mentioned, the unemployment and economic slowdown both are intertwined are other components to accelerate the strength and influence of the protests in Tunisia. Dramatic increase of inflation rate and unemployment level were had created disquieting effect in society and were questioned government’s economic policies. On the other hand, there was a bargaining with people and Ben Ali government. The government officials forced high-level educated people to ignore and stay silent for the unemployment problem in exchange for finding jobs. However, this group took a tough stance against pressures of the government. Negative economic situation stimulated the protest movement in Tunisia that ended with the fall of the incumbents. These findings support the perspective of the important effect of economic grievances in society on the conflicts.

In this perceptive, the broken social contract becomes most dominant issue as a origin of the uprisings in Tunisia. For a long period before Arab Spring, there was a social contract in Tunisia that the authoritarian regime was able to transmit country’s economic and social benefits to a big part of the population and keep its legitimacy and stability. As the economy failed to keep its ability to create more jobs for high-skilled labor and lost control to mitigate the increase in income inequality, the bargain between society and authoritarian regime languished. In the end, the number of people affecting negatively from the authoritarian governance transcended the number of the winners. Thus, the regime started to lose its legitimacy.

Case of Saudi Arabia in Arab Spring

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt led to the diffusion of anti-government protests in different parts of the Arab World. When this trend of the protests reached to the partner GCC states of Saudi Arabia such as Bahrain and Oman, Saudi government was obliged to take action. Bahrain’s Shia-led protest movement demanded for state reform and to shift the constitutional monarchy. Such democratic movements in the midst of the Gulf’s traditional monarchies caused the anxiety for the Saudi government. Thus, Saudi Arabia initiated a military force transfer to Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia had also economic problems in the time of Arab Spring. For example, Saudi Arabia had 30.2 % of youth unemployment according to the International Labor Office. They also suffered from corruption as other MENA countries. According to corruption perception index of the Transparency International, Saudi Arabia ranked 57th with the score of 4.4 and Tunisia took the 73rd place with the score of 5.1 from 182 countries. Two countries had similar level of corruption problems.

The outcomes of the Arab Spring emphasized that while oil wealth contributes to shape political development, the sociopolitical fabric and fluctuations on the regional security are important components that designate the influence of oil wealth on the political development. In the domestic arena, the Saudi government implement a carrot and stick policy for potential diffusion of Arab Spring. First, the administration injected high amount of money to expand the social welfare system via distribution of oil revenue to the lower and middle income citizens. In this context, the King granted a US$ 130 billion social aid package to preserve social peace including 15 percent salary increase for workers in the public sector; subvention to all students in public educational institutions for two months; the construction of monthly payments to the unemployed and minimum wage for Saudi workers in the public sector;building of 500 thousand new housing units for low income classes etc.

As seen above, the government can control the movements on society against its power in the virtue of high oil revenue as a redistribution component between winners and losers of the society. In this way, the government of Saudi Arabia kept the social contract and sustained its power with high oil revenue.


The country cases of this paper scrutinize the leading role of the economic grievances in the Arab Spring movement. As long as the countries can preserve their social contract with the societies, they can escape the uprisings due to the ability of funding the people in return of ensuring their silence the economic, political and social problems.

Although Tunisia has the highest level of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita in non-oil exporting MENA countries, the high level of GDP per capita could not sustain the social contract and the society found the space to start the uprisings due to the entrenched economic grievances. When we look at the Saudi Arabia case, it is the biggest oil exporter in MENA region. Saudi Arabia had also revealed unsuccessful economic performance and suffered from the corruption when Arab Spring was spreading on the MENA region. The difference of the Saudi Arabia as other oil-rich countries than the Tunisia like other low-oil income countries was the ability to maintain social contract as a tool for the interruption of the uprisings. Therefore, the high oil income has clarified as the main factor which can increase the strength of the governments to restrict the uprisings.

Thanks to the outcomes after the comparison of two cases, this paper argue that high oil income revenue is the main source to hinder the effects of the Arab Spring like many other risings originated from grievances.


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09 March 2021
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