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Modernizing without democratizing? The introduction of formal politics in Saudi Arabia

Hertog, Steffen (2006) Modernizing without democratizing? The introduction of formal politics in Saudi Arabia. Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft (3). pp. 65-78. ISSN 0945-2419

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Saudi Arabia is often treated as an exceptional case by both political scientists and regional specialists. This is true in many regards, but both communities seem to overlook the fact that the nature of the kingdom as an »outlier« makes the testing and comparison of broader hypotheses of comparative politics all the more rewarding. This is especially the case with recent institutional changes in the political field, which partially fit patterns witnessed in many other authoritarian countries, but are at the same time situated in a specific Saudi context of skewed state–society relations and rentierism. Saudi Arabia has seen a modest but discernible measure of political »liberalization « since at least 2003. A number of new »interest groups« such as professional associations and a human rights organization have come into being, and elections have been held in various organizations and on the municipal level. The Kingdom seems to have departed from the old model of Saudi politics which was characterized by an omnipresent bureaucracy and a formally atomized society. The recent institutionalizations of politics in the Kingdom open up unprecedented spaces for public debate. At the same time, they signify an attempt to modernize Saudi political paternalism, a modernization, which is happening along »corporatist« lines: interest groups and interest articulation mechanisms are licensed and more or less controlled by the state. They have monopolies on specific, exclusive task areas and are therefore organized in accordance with functional criteria. This set-up is quite different from the Western (or Anglo-American) idealtype of »pluralism« which stipulates a free interplay of competing and overlapping interest groups which exist independently of the state. A striking characteristic of the recent corporatist moves is that most of the new formal groups have been created above society, with very weak links to the region. broader groups they are supposed to represent. The explanation lies in the informal nature of politics in Saudi Arabia and the absence of an associational tradition in the patronage-based Saudi rentier system. The inclusion of business in formal policy-making is an analytically important exception to this: different from other groups, it is politically meaningful, as Saudi business has a tradition of formal organization and lobbying, and has been granted space to develop historically. None of this is true of the other, recently created »civil society« organizations. This is why business inclusion is a success in terms of formal interest intermediation, whereas the activities of other groups appear anemic and politically irrelevant. Saudi corporatism is similar to that in a number of other, smaller Gulf states, where recent interest group politics also have a somewhat artificial flavor. As traditional corporatist interest groups in republican Arab regimes have lost much of their traditional mobilizational function, there might be a broader trend of convergence in the Arab world.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2006 Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
Divisions: Government
Middle East Centre
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
J Political Science > JQ Political institutions Asia
Date Deposited: 05 Nov 2010 16:49
Last Modified: 20 Jun 2021 01:36

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