Saudi women vote during municipal elections in Riyadh in December. (Aya Batrawy/AP)

Why is Saudi Arabia — a highly conservative state where very little changes — suddenly embracing various kinds of reform, including loosening its repressive gender policies?

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a media offensive to sell Vision 2030, which Bloomberg BusinessWeek called “the $2 trillion project to get Saudi Arabia’s economy off oil.” At the same time, the monarchy is loosening restrictions on social policy. The religious police have been stripped of the power to arrest. In December, Saudi women cast their first-ever votes. Last month, the Justice Ministry announced that women would be allowed to view their marriage contracts. And the deputy crown prince has hinted that women may soon formally be granted the right to drive.

Conventional wisdom says Vision 2030 is driven by low oil prices and soaring military expenditures caused by Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The moves to liberalize Saudi society, by contrast, are often explained as springing from generational turnover or a gradual evolution in social attitudes.

Separating fiscal and social policies in that way, however, overlooks how the kingdom’s finances and its policies toward women are linked.

In a forthcoming article in  International Studies Quarterly, we argue that autocrats in oil-rich states strike bargains with important societal interest groups. Rulers impose repressive social policies to secure the backing of key groups — as the Saudi royal family has done with the Wahhabist religious authorities. If those social policies are being withdrawn, it means that the monarchy is trying to rewrite that bargain.

How Saudi Arabia restricts women’s rights — even though doing so is unpopular

Recent reforms to Saudi social policy may seem small, but they are important in the context of Saudi Arabia’s many harsh and restrictive social policies. Such restrictions touch almost every aspect of Saudi life. Some are reported in the West as frivolous examples of Saudi strangeness, like when a cleric issued a fatwa against snowmen. More seriously, the kingdom enforces harsh constraints on women (see, for instance, the Week’s list of “eleven things women in Saudi Arabia cannot do”).

Observers often describe these policies as reflecting the country’s religious heritage. But that’s not quite right.

As Madawi al-Rasheed and others have argued, for many Saudi subjects these policies represent a radical, state-sponsored program aimed at transforming their culture. Many restrictive Saudi social policies derive from specific religious traditions that originated in the Najd region, the center of the Arabian Peninsula and the heartland of the royal house. Those policies have been imposed on other, more cosmopolitan regions of the country (such as the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts), requiring major changes such as rebuilding vast parts of cities like Mecca. These policies aim to enforce not only Hanbali-Wahhabi religious orthodoxy but also prescribed uniformity in behavior, what Nabil Mouline calls “orthopraxy.”

Moreover, there is little evidence that a conservative Saudi public has demanded these policies, which can be quite controversial. True, many Saudi women support at least some of these restrictions, but many would also like much greater autonomy than they currently possess. Indeed, public opinion surveys show that Saudis hold similar views as citizens of other Muslim-majority countries that adopt far less restrictive policies toward women.

 

Measuring the Wahhabists’ influence by looking at whether women can work in lingerie shops

One recent debate over whether women could work in lingerie shops illustrates the divide between the kingdom’s women and the religious establishment. Religious authorities argued against letting women work in these stores, insisting that it gave them too much independence and power. But, as a result, the stores had to be staffed by foreign male workers — which many Saudi women saw as both immodest and economically threatening.

The monarchy issued royal decrees directing the Labor Ministry to insist that the lingerie shops’ foreign male sales clerks be replaced by Saudi women. When women took those jobs, however, the religious police harassed and threatened them. The kingdom’s highest-ranking cleric, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz al-Sheik, called the policy “a crime and disrespectful.” And when the labor minister refused to rescind the policy, a group of leading clerics threatened to pray that he develop cancer (like his predecessor).

Many Saudis are unhappy with the gender restrictions in part because they’re so costly. They don’t just constrict women’s lives, they also force Saudi families to pay billions of dollars (or, rather, riyals) every year — and impose costs on Saudi society as a whole.

For instance, at the personal level, because women can’t drive, many Saudi families have to employ a driver, requiring them to hire foreign workers instead. At the macro level, because women can’t work, much of the kingdom’s labor force is idle, which may reduce per capita GDP by up to 38 percent.

Saudi social policies are the regime’s survival strategies — because they “pay off” powerful interest groups

Using government funds to regulate women’s lives isn’t very popular, isn’t very traditional and is tremendously expensive. So why do Saudi rulers pursue such inefficient policies?

Because of the bargain that the Saudi state makes to trade oil revenue for the support of politically powerful groups. This bargain comes at the expense of women’s economic, social and political development. (This theory builds on earlier work by UCLA professor Michael Ross, summarized here by Chris Blattman.)

Like the other oil-rich governments of the region, the Saudi regime rests on two simultaneous bargains.

The first is between the government and the population at large. In exchange for giving up formal representation in their government, Saudi citizens get a raft of state-subsidized goods, ranging from housing to health care to subsidized gasoline. It’s the inverse of the U.S. Revolutionary War rallying cry of “no taxation without representation.” In democracies, representation brings taxation. In rentier states, freedom from taxation — and the presence of subsidies — buys acceptance of a lack of representation. That’s one reason Saudi subjects pay no income tax.

The second bargain connects rulers and other powerful interest groups. Rulers want to remain in office as long as possible, both because they receive large sums from staying in office through stipends, forced loans and other forms of corruption, and because losing office would mean exile or death. Such were the fates of other monarchs of oil-rich Middle Eastern countries: The last Iraqi king was killed, along with his family, in a 1958 revolution, while the shah of Iran died in exile in Cairo.

For their part, powerful interest groups want as large a share of the oil revenue as possible. Rulers know that if these groups withhold support for the government, a successful coup might result. If potential rebels offered them a larger piece of the pie than the incumbent, such a coup might be profitable for them. To buy their loyalty, oil-rich governments make sure that powerful businessmen, the military and intelligence services, and (especially in Saudi Arabia) religious authorities receive constant and large payouts from oil revenue.

Many agree that the astonishing political stability of the oil-rich Arab monarchies stems from these bargains. We think, however, that this picture overlooks one big thing: Some elite groups demand policy changes in addition to extracting money from the incumbents.

In Saudi Arabia, the regime’s response to such non-monetary demands includes supporting religious education, hiring religious police, the international export of Wahhabi beliefs, and imposing strictly monitored behavior codes based on gender. Saudi Arabia is not the only nation to make such a bargain. Iran and some other oil-rich Arab states display similar tendencies. To be sure, Saudi Arabia is an outlier in how closely religion and the state are integrated, as well as in the vast amounts of its oil revenue, which OPEC puts at $285 billion.

Lower oil prices mean that Saudi Arabia can no longer “afford” its strict social policies

This system worked as long as the monarchy could underwrite both bargains. When oil prices were high, rulers could afford to provide costly policies to satisfy ideological interest groups — such as idling half of the workforce and imposing costs on families — while also tossing out the largesse of subsidies and social benefits to maintain the first bargain with the people as a whole.

Now oil prices are expected to remain low for years. And so the monarchy can’t afford to keep paying for both bargains.

In other words, just like Vision 2030, changing Saudi policies toward women and society spring from fiscal challenges, not moral evolution. And that suggests the Saudi monarchy faces tough times politically. It’s tricky to take benefits away from groups that have become used to demanding and getting what they want. Rewriting the basic bargains that underpin the regime carries the obvious risk that another potential regime might offer better deals — and take power.

Those factors are why even tentative and limited reforms change the relationship between the monarchy and the religious establishment. An accretion of seemingly trivial changes, such as enabling movie theaters to return to Saudi Arabia, may add up to the Saudi version of perestroika. But, as Tocqueville wrote and the Soviets learned, the most dangerous moment for an authoritarian regime is when it starts to reform.

Yu-Ming Liou is a PhD student in international relations at Georgetown University.

Paul Musgrave (@profmusgrave) is assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.