Authoritarian Regime Stability: A comparison between Libya and Saudi Arabia

Francis Fukuyama wrote in The End of History? that ‘the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’[1]. In today’s political world, Fukuyama’s statement is, to an extent, controversial with regards to the number of non-democratic regimes. Some political scientists therefore examined the underlying reasons for the ongoing diversity amongst regimes. A considerable part of those studies was concerned with the underlying reasons for authoritarian regime stability in the Arab World. Others examined the factors that can explain the breakdown of those regimes. Although their findings involve a broad range of aspects from culture to political economy; this essay mainly stresses the latter.

Benjamin Smith argues that ‘the most durable regimes are either highly authoritarian or highly democratic’[2]. Many long-lasting authoritarian regimes are situated in the Middle Eastern and North African region, these countries share a great deal of commonalities such as their religion, language and customs, as well as natural resources. However, it is still possible to come to different conclusions with regards to the durability of their regimes. In this essay, I aim to demonstrate that state capacity is a crucial factor in explaining authoritarian regime stability. I will compare two authoritarian regimes, Libya and Saudi Arabia, and discuss the different circumstances of these regimes. I will then conclude that the former could not survive, at least partly because of its weak state capacity whereas the latter was able to remain stable thanks to its strong state capacity. It is crucial to start by defining the terms to which this essay predominantly refers, namely authoritarianism, political stability, the rentier state and state capacity, in order to assure conceptual clarity.

Authoritarianism has been one of the most prevalent political regimes over the course of political history. Yet, there has been an apparent difficulty in establishing an appropriate typology of authoritarian regimes due to the great variety of authoritarian orders. To put it simply, the term ‘authoritarian’ refers to all sorts of non-democratic regimes. Although none of the typologies is without its problems, Juan Linz’s definition appears to be the most frequently used definition of this subject matter. Linz centres his typology of authoritarian systems around four characteristics: ‘limited political pluralism, legitimacy based on emotion, no extensive or intensive political mobilisation as well as constrains on the mass public, and formally ill-defined executive power’.[3] As Linz’s definition indicates, individual freedoms are either limited or absent in authoritarian regimes and power is concentrated in the hands of a person or a small group. Similarly, political stability is also regarded as a multidimensional concept. For instance, Leon Hurwitz argues that political stability can be defined as ‘the absence of violence, government longevity, the absence of structural change’[4] and so on. It is possible to reduce the meaning of political stability to one of the aforementioned variables. This might result in neat quantitative analysis, however, it would be detrimental to the understanding of certain qualitative phenomena examined in this essay. Political stability is thus considered as what Hurwitz terms a ‘multifaceted societal attribute’[5], which can be encapsulated as ‘the capacity of a country’s political system to withstand internal and external shocks’[6].

Some scholars take these definitions into consideration and argue that resource wealth (particularly oil) is one of the key factors in explaining authoritarian regime stability. Those who propose a causal link between resource wealth and authoritarianism are often known as the Rentier State Theorists. For instance, Paul Cipriani argues that ‘states that derive the majority of their revenue from rent tend to be both stable and authoritarian’[7]. This type of state, as Cipriani indicates, obtains either all or at least a significant portion of its income from renting its natural resources to external buyers, rather than using other means such as domestic taxation.[8] The prototype of rentier states is Saudi Arabia along with other examples that are predominantly situated in the MENA region, such as Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Algeria, Libya and so on. Although these countries share many similarities in terms of their culture, religion and natural resources, some of them also constitute notable differences from one another with regards to their state capacity. Charles Tilly defines this notion as ‘the extent to which the governmental agents control resources, activities and populations within the government’s territory’[9]. Conforming to Tilly’s definition, Samuel Huntington argues that if an authority makes a decision, ‘the probability is high that it will be implemented through the government machinery’[10]. In the opposite scenario, Barbara Geddes states that: ‘officials cannot carry out the policies they choose’[11] when the state is weak and less coherent. It is worth noting that the term state capacity may refer to a broad range of variables from state institutions to state authorities’ capacity to dominate by self-legitimisation or oppression.[12]

In light of these conceptualisations, I examine the reasons underlying authoritarian regime stability in the MENA region. Countries in this region share a great number of similarities, some of which play important roles in their regimes’ resistance to change. The oil-rich countries are especially significant to this essay, since the aforementioned Rentier State Theory has suggested a pivotal relationship between oil wealth and regime stability. What makes the MENA region particular is that, although it is often perceived as ‘unstable as well as itself a source of global instability’[13] from a Western perspective, a great number of authoritarian regimes in this region are considered to be stable. Hence, I argue that this seeming contrast makes this region almost certainly an ideal terrain for comparative research. The aforementioned common features of the countries render it a suitable area for the following research methodology: ‘most similar systems design’[14]. This is because, as Todd Landman explains, this type of methodology aims to identify the dissimilar characteristics amongst similar countries and ‘account for the observed political outcome’[15]. Landman also stresses the appropriateness of this type of methodology for studies that are concerned with a specific area, because he appears to believe that ‘there is something inherently similar about countries that make up a particular geographical region’[16]. In line with Landman’s view, I have chosen to focus on the MENA region and draw a comparison between Saudi Arabia and Libya in order to examine authoritarian regime stability.

Notwithstanding the fact that Saudi Arabia and Libya share many commonalities, the stability of their regimes have been in stark contrast since the advent of the Arab Spring. Some of the common features shared by these two countries are conspicuous, such as those related to religion, ethnicity and culture. For instance, Sunni-Islam has been the dominant religion in both Libya and Saudi Arabia and it has a paramount presence in both societies. In addition, cultural and ethnic ties can also be found in these countries such as the prevalent use of standard Arabic amongst the Arab majority of both populations. Moreover, when compared with Western liberal and democratic values, both countries are considered to be highly authoritarian as they continue to maintain their ‘not free’ status according to the latest findings of Freedom House 2017.[17] Finally, Saudi Arabia possesses the second largest oil reserves in the world, while Libya appears 9th on the list.[18] This is particularly relevant to the purpose of this essay because oil wealth is perceived as an important contributor to the stability of authoritarian regimes by the Rentier State Theory.

Rentier income appears to allow states to establish their legitimacy in certain ways. For instance, Dirk J. Vandewalle accounts for the means by which rentier states gain political legitimacy and argues that: ‘For Gaddafi, legitimacy was bought by ensuring that the regime’s distributive largesse was applied to a wide segment of Libyan society’[19]. Similarly, John P. Entelis notes about the Saudi Arabian government that it used its oil wealth for ‘spending programmes that helped to reduce pressures for democracy’[20]. What Vandewalle and Entelis aim to elucidate is that for these countries, rentier income is the means of procuring stability. However, it is necessary at this point to highlight that Saudi Arabia has maintained its stability through the course of the Arab Spring, when the ‘revolution euphoria’[21] reached unprecedented levels in the region. Conversely, Libya has experienced considerable instability in spite of its oil wealth. We can therefore ask, why Libya has had such experiences whereas Saudi Arabia has not? For Theda Skocpol, the answer lies generally in ‘the state’s strength’[22] and especially in ‘the state’s capacity to maintain a monopoly on the means of coercion’[23]. Skocpol’s argument is noteworthy because state capacity is vital in developing a thorough understanding of regime stability.

For instance, Cipriani asserts that ‘the Saud monarchy announced social spending in excess of $100 billion in response to popular discontent’[24] along with deploying extensive military and security forces in order to maintain stability during the Arab Spring. He also notes that ‘in Libya, Gaddafi’s regime quickly responded protests with $24 billion housing fund… and used mercenaries in addition to his army’[25] in an endevour to supress the protests. We can therefore draw the conclusion that both of these countries attempted to maintain stability by means of rent. The Saudi Arabian monarchy did not appear to experience any considerable challenge during the Arab Spring but the same cannot be said for Libya. The protests resulted in the defeat of the loyalist forces and Muammar Gaddafi was eventually captured and killed. This contrast indicates that oil wealth cannot be perceived as a single factor that leads to regime stability. This is simply because a causal link between the two cannot always be found, just as in the comparison of Libya and Saudi Arabia. What then was different in Gaddafi’s Libya compared to Saudi Arabia regardless of the oil-stability relationship? I argue that the answer lies in differences between their regime characteristics and their state capacity.

In agreement with this view, Axel Hadenius and Jan Teorell assert that specific forms of authoritarian regimes are important indicators for regime stability.[26] This is to indicate that although certain types of authoritarian regimes are not ‘mutually exclusive’[27], it is necessary to examine the differences between them. Saudi Arabian and Libyan regimes are dissimilar in a number of ways. The former is relatively easy to define because it can be regarded as the epitome of the ‘dynastic’ Gulf monarchies, at least since its formal establishment in 1932.[28] The latter is far more difficult to categorise because of the frequently changing dynamics. For instance, the monarchy was overthrown by a military coup led by Gaddafi in 1969, and the regime was then established as a republic. However, under Gaddafi’s unchallenged rule for almost forty-two years, the Libyan regime was technically turned into some form of family/one party rule. Hadenius and Teorell have therefore chosen to categorise Libya’s regime as ‘others’, which do not entirely fit under any given definition. [29] The significance of this is that the Saudi regime by nature is more inclined to remain stable in comparison with the Libyan regime. This is because, as Lisa Anderson emphasises: ‘monarchies are the most stable amongst all authoritarian regimes’[30]. The comparison between these two regimes shows that when there is a lack of substantial confrontation directed to the government agents themselves or to the ways in which the governmental mechanisms function, the regime tends to remain stable, as being the case in Saudi Arabia. It can also be said that the notion of ‘patrimonialism’ has a different meaning in the lives of Saudi Arabians due to the hereditary monarchy. In Libya, although Gaddafi came to power by promoting ‘sovereignty of the people’, he ultimately supported invalidation of ‘representative rule in parties and Parliament’[31]. Thus, it can be argued that the emergence of this rather unwarranted patronage caused considerable damage both to Libya’s ‘already weak state bureaucracy’[32] and to the legitimacy of Gaddafi’s government in the eyes of Libyan people.

The dissimilar natures of these regimes contributes, to a certain extent, to their state capacity. It is necessary to recall that state capacity is a multidimensional concept, which is often difficult to measure. It might, therefore, seem complicated to draw a direct link between state capacity and stability. However, some of the aspects of state capacity are prominent when comparing the regimes in Libya and Saudi Arabia. For instance, Eva Bellin argues that ‘the security establishment is most likely to lose its will and capacity to hold on to power when it loses crucial international support’[33]. It can therefore be argued that Gaddafi’s regime would have survived if Western powers, such as the US, Britain and France, along with other Arab governments did not support the opponents of his regime.[34] This indicates that strong state capacity entails expedient international relations, as Mark Katz asserts that ‘In Libya, far from seeking to preserve the status quo, Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in rallying Western and some Arab support for overthrowing Gaddafi’[35]. The same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia, as Katz also stresses the long-term alliance between the Saudi Arabian government and the US, highlighting the ‘Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement’[36] between the two. Hence, if we look at the contrasting role of international relations in the Saudi Arabian and Libyan cases, we can argue that the latter lacked considerably strong state capacity that the former has enjoyed, which eventually caused stability for the former and chaos for the latter. Considering all the factors that I have outlined in this essay, I conclude that although oil-wealth is significant in part, it is not enough per se to explain authoritarian regime stability; the characteristics of such regimes and the capacity of such states are also crucial.


1. Anderson, Lisa. (1991), ‘Absolutism and the Resilience of Monarchy in the Middle East’, Political Science Quarterly Vol. 106, №1, p. 1–15.

2. Bellin, Eva (1986), ‘The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle-East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 36, №2, p. 139–157.

3. Cipriani, Paul. (2012), Oil Wealth and Regime Stability in Light of the Arab Spring, (McGill University: Graphite).

4. Cook, Steven A. (2007), Ruling But Not Governing, (The John Hopkins University Press).

5. Entelis, John P. (1976), ‘Oil Wealth and the Prospects for Democratisation in the Arabian Peninsule: The Case of Saudi Arabia’ in Naiem A. Sherbiny and Mark A. Tessler, eds., Arab Oil: Impact on the Arab Countries and Global Implications. (New York: Praeager).

6. Fukuyama, Francis. (1989), ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, No: 16, p. 3–18.

7. Geddes, Barbara. (1994), Politician’s Dilemma: Building State Capacity in Latin America. (University of California Press).

8. Hadenius, Axel & Teorell, Jan. (2006), ‘Authoritarian Regimes: Stability, Change, and Pathways to Democracy, 1972–2003’, Kellogg Institute Working Paper Series.

9. Herb, Michael (1999) All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies. (Albany: State University of New York Press).

10. Hroub, Khaled. (2015), ‘(Social) Media and Politics and the Arab Spring Moment’, Quaderns de la Mediterrània, 22, p. 145–150.

11. Huntington, Samuel P. (1968), Political Order in Changing Societies, (Yale University Press).

12. Hurwitz, Leon. (1973), ‘Contemporary Approaches to Political Stability’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 5, №3, p. 449–463.

13. Katz, Mark. (2014), ‘The International Relations of the Arab Spring’, Middle East Policy Council, Vol. 21, №2.

14. Katz, M. et al. (2014), ‘U.S. Commitments to the Gulf Arab States: Are They Adequate?’, Middle East Policy Council, Vol. 21, №2.

15. Landman, Todd. (2008), ‘Comparing Few Countries’, Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics: An Introduction, (Routledge), p. 68–82.

16. Linz, Juan J. (1964), ‘An Authoritarian Regime: The Case of Spain’, in Cleavages, Ideologies and Party Systems eds. Eric Allard & Yrjo Littunen, (Helsinki, Academic).

17. Przeworski, Adam & Teune, Henry (1970), The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry, (Wiley-Interscience).

18. Puddington, Arch & Roylance, Tyler. ‘Populist and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy’, Freedom House 2017. Web. [Accessed 19 March 2017].

19. Skocpol, Theda. (1979), States and Social Revolutions (NewYork: Cambridge University Press).

20. Skocpol, Theda. (1985), ‘Bringing the State Back In: Strategies of Analysis in Current Research.’ In Evans et al., Chapter 1, p. 3–37.

21. Smith, Benjamin. (2004), ‘Oil Wealth and Regime Survival in the Developing World, 1960–1999’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 48, №2 p. 232–246.

22. Tilly, Charles. (2003), The Politics of Collective Violence, (Cambridge University Press).

23. Vandewalle, Dirk J. (1998), Libya since Independence: Oil and State-Building, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

[1] Fukuyama (1989), p. 4.

[2] Smith (2004), p. 237.

[3] Linz (1964), p. 159.

[4] Hurwitz (1973), p. 463.

[5] Hurwitz (1973), p. 3.

[6]. Hurwitz (1973), p. 3.

[7] Cipriani (2012), p. 3.

[8] Cipriani (2012), p. 4.

[9] Tilly (2003), p. 41.

[10] Huntington (1968), p. 1.

[11] Geddes (1994), p.14.

[12] Skocpol (1985), p. 4.

[13] Cook (2007), p. 1.

[14] Przeworski & Teune (1970), p. 33.

[15] Landman (2008), p. 70.

[16] Landman (2008), p. 71.

[17] Puddington & Roylance, ‘Populist and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy’, Freedom House 2017. Web. [Accessed 19 March 2017].

[18] ‘The World Factbook’, Central Intelligence Agency, 2016. Web. [Accessed 19 March 2017].

[19] Vandewalle (1998), p. 27.

[20] Entelis (1976), p. 79.

[21] Hroub (2015), p. 145.

[22] Skocpol (1979), p. 31.

[23] Skocpol (1979), p. 32.

[24] Cipriani (2012), p. 5.

[25] Cipriani (2012), p. 5.

[26] Hadenius & Teorell (2006), p. 2.

[27] Hadenius & Teorell (2006), p. 5.

[28] Herb (1999), p. 241.

[29] Hadenius & Teorell (2006), p. 8.

[30] Anderson (1991), p. 14, Hadenius & Teorell (2006), p. 17.

[31] Anderson (1986), p. 3.

[32] Anderson (1986), p. 3.

[33] Bellin (2004), p. 144.

[34] Katz (2014), p. 1.

[35] Katz (2014), p. 2.

[36] Katz & Kahl (2014), p. 3.

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