Anatomy of change in an oil-monarchy. Immigration, reforms and social transformation in Saudi Arabia (1991-2018)
This article explores the evolution of the State and of State-society relations in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Arab Springs. Besides the harsh repression and buy-out of political opponents, Saudi governments also crafted social reforms to address the structural causes of potential mass popular uprising. In an oil-rich country dependent upon foreign labour, the reforms primarily focused on migration and employment issues as key sectors deemed to fuel socio-economic discontent. I first offer and archaeology of the political engineering deployed in 2011, showing that its roots dive in the 1990s Gulf crisis, reiterating the State’s efforts to control over immigration and immigrants and use the latter as scapegoats in context of economic and political crises. Secondly, I explain how, in both cases, dynamics for reforms are tied to both individual political agendas of power-seeking princes and structural transformations within the State. Thirdly, I show that the 2011-2018 reforms attempt to change the terms of the rent-based social contract. The most recent reforms reinforce social and labour-based segmentation between nationals and foreigners while unveiling dynamics of social change linked to the entrenched presence of foreigners in the country. The anatomy of reforms in Saudi Arabia contributes to a wider analysis on the articulation of political and socio-economic changes in undemocratic and illiberal contexts. It engages from a seemingly marginal standpoint with the debate on the democratic deficit and political change of oil-based rentier economies in a novel fashion.
Hélène Thiollet is a Researcher at CNRS CERI Sciences Po. Her research focuses on migration policies in the South, she is particularly interested in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. She teaches international relations, comparative politics and the study of international migration at Sciences Po. Hélène Thiollet is a CNRS permanent researcher.
She is a graduate from the Ecole normale supérieure (Ulm A/L98), holds a PhD in Political Science from Sciences Po and Master degrees in Geography of development (University of Paris 1 La Sorbonne) and Classics (University of Paris 4 La Sorbonne). In 2002-2003 she was a Visiting Student at the Harvard University Department of Government, with a fellowship from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She was a Post Doctoral Fellow at Oxford University in 2009-2010 with the OxPo Research grant and is now a Research partner at the International Migration Institute at Oxford. She has been a board member of Critique internationale, a French language IR journal, since 2009.
Helène coordinated the ANR research project "MobGlob – Global Mobility and Migration Governance" (ANR 2012-2015) with Catherine Wihtol de Wenden. She a member of the research programme "Global-cities: comparative approaches to cosmopolitanism and migration" funded by USMPC "Société plurielles".
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