The Rentier State Theory Revisited
Rentierism, far from being saddled with being the sole explanatory tenet for the entirety of the Middle Eastern political universe, should instead be treated as a trait of Gulf politics
The Rentier State Theory (RST) has received renewed academic traction in its ability to explicate the politics of the Gulf states since the dawn of the Arab Spring. By discerning the externally accumulated income streams, the RST strives to not only account for the ‘democratic deficit’ and the broader state-society relations within such nations, but also aims to untangle the developmental obstacles confronted by the Gulf states (Ross,2001). However, since the 1970s when it was first propounded, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have — to differing degrees — transitioned. Thus, although the notion of a rentier deficient in a politically-involved populace and domestically-inclined economic policy was possibly tenable in the formative decades of rent influx, but given the profound modifications in the GCC countries’ political economies, there is a need to further qualify this theory. This essay — using Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE as examples — will primarily tackle the RST assumption that high external rents lead to undemocratic and unresponsive regimes that are autonomous from their societies (Beblawi,1990), and then challenge the notion that rentier states are obsessed with ‘allocation’ in lieu of ‘production’ (Luciani,1990). Here, Gray’s (2011) theory of ‘late rentierism’ will be used, wherein certain RST principles are accepted, but the original theory is further contextualized by more nuanced historical, social, and cultural factors.
By way of definition, in this context, an economy is considered rentier if it obtains — on a “regular basis” — an extensive sum of “external rent” (Mahdavi,1970:428), wherein ‘rent’ is defined as “the income derived from the gift of nature” (Marshall,1920:350).
The examples of Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE are chosen because oil revenues account for 77%, 93%, and 77% of these states’ national budgets, respectively (Hvidt,2013:13). Additionally, as Figures 1 and 2 elucidate, petrochemical exports have regularly constituted a substantial chunk of their GDP and total exports. Thus, each of these states is ‘rentier’ by virtue of lodging centralized monarchies which have been accruing a large share of their revenue from unproductive exogenous fronts. These countries are chosen for their inherent paradoxes. Albeit rentier, Kuwait’s rather active parliament with genuine political authority is noteworthy vis-à-vis Oman and UAE; the latter being the least representative of the Gulf monarchies (Power,2012). On the other hand, UAE, and to a lesser extent, Oman, have diversified remarkably over the decades, whereas Kuwait, relatively, has not (Hvidt,2013). Thus, a “controlled comparison” (Van Evera,1997:56) is warranted.
Rentiers as undemocratic and unresponsive:
RST argues that rentier regimes are not obligated to allow democratic representation as they do not need to levy indirect and direct taxes, thereby being autonomous from domestic society. Here, as the title of Herb’s (2005:297) exposition highlights, the social contract is grounded on the notion of “No Representation Without Taxation.” As government finances rely primarily on exogenous capital, a situation arises whereby the reigning echelon is unwitting to partake in any political reforms that may jeopardize its privileged position. Instead, centre-state affairs are arranged vertically via neopatrimonial shackles of dependence (Beblawi,1990) — the populace effectively being “bought off” (Hollo,2013). Elsewhere, the indigenous society is “segmented, unable to form horizontal linkages,” (Springborg,2013:302) in the form of political parties or labour unions, essential for political and socioeconomic advancement.
However, in practice, a rentier is never strictly autonomous from its civil society — there is the perpetual danger of a rebellion restraining the independence of the regime, and thus, the administration often does more than merely bribe its people. Further, as Gray (2011:23) pronounces, although a rentier may evade democratization, “it must still be responsive to basic societal needs.” The establishment of comparatively anaemic parliaments in certain GCC nations or the expansion of their influence in others is but an instance.
In Kuwait, for example, the 1962 Constitution affords parliamentarians the authority to remove confidence in the prime minister and other cabinet ministers, making the Kuwaiti National Assembly the most powerful representative body in the Persian Gulf (Foley,2010). Often, the parliament “has been the scene of successive challenges to the king’s powers and the push to extend the rights of the elected assembly” (Power,2012:5).
“Lively parliamentary elections [in Kuwait],” notes Al Khouri (2008) “give rise to a collection of disparate political actors.” The November 2016 elections featured a 70% voter turnout, enormous in contrast to that in certain Western liberal democracies (Al Jazeera,2016). Additionally, the country has a history of parliamentary candidates openly advocating for ‘full democracy’ (Agence France-Presse,2012). Al Khouri (2008) adds:
“With different interests and ideologies increasingly independent of the ruling family, the country undergoes open debate about institutions. Parliament requests ministerial testimonies about possible corruption. The country’s ruler interferes more as a caretaker than a tyrant, to allow for a modicum of open democratic politics according to constitutional rules.”
Elsewhere in Oman — due to the highly-personalized nature of his monarchy — Qaboos bin Said al-Said has benefited from a comparably greater extent of autonomy. However, national undertakings have been sanctioned in the interest of state-building and the fortification of the Sultan’s legitimacy (Valeri,2009); which can barely be construed as the rationale of a regime devoid of domestic interests. Besides, the political structure in Oman has gradually been systematized; with the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) and the Majlis al-Dawla (State Council) currently resembling an approach approximating representative democracy (Valeri,2006:200).
Contrary to popular opinion of Oman being “an oasis of peace in the Middle East” (Gidda,2017), in 2011, Oman faced momentous domestic protests. The people demanded higher pay, lower prices, and an end to corruption (Bakri,2011). These demonstrations, albeit comparatively negligible, did elicit a significant economic and political response. Not only did the Sultan increase the minimum wage by 43% and announce 50,000 new public sector posts, but also stipulated a generous monthly allowance for jobseekers. Moreover, he summarily dismissed a third of his cabinet following allegations of corruption and promised further authority to the legislature (Valeri,2015). As Power (2012:20) elucidates: “[S]ignificantly, since the elections of 2011 the parliament now appears both more assertive and more accountable to the public.”
Conversely, the UAE has the most embryonic and undemocratic structure of political representation amongst the GCC countries, for its “male-only, ruler-nominated, 40-person strong Federal National Council [FNC] plays only an advisory role and cannot introduce bills or debate any matter of public concern if the government objects” (Kapiszewski,2006:121). That said, in 2005, due to domestic pressure, the country took steps towards widening political participation by announcing the prospect of electing half the representatives in the FNC (Janardhan,2011). Similarly, in 2011, anticipating popular unrest, “the government expanded the voter franchise for elections” (Heath-Brown,et al.,2016).
Thus, there has been a gradual pluralization in Gulf politics, wherein these states “acknowledg[e] the need to appear open to change” (Gray,2011:25) and often “strategically [use] their petrodollars to meet the needs of their people” (Hollo,2013). This preserves the preexisting state of affairs and concurrently aids these governments in posing as benign regimes that consult their civil societies — especially when the latter’s central interests are affected by official policy.
This notwithstanding, significant democratisation has surely not transpired in these nations. For example, in Kuwait, while 50 delegates are directly elected to the National Assembly, the Emir has the authority to anoint a further 15 ex-officio representatives (Quamar,2016), instantly proffering the regime a lopsided advantage. Additionally, although the parliament has substantial influence, its powers are effectively negative — the National Assembly can block appointments or filibuster legislation but has little to no authority to conceive and construct (Power,2012).
Likewise, in terms of elite interactions, these states are still as neo-patrimonial, with power strictly assumed at the centre by a royal coterie, and influential associations prudently regulated for the benefit of regime preservation and fortification. In each country, the ruler consolidates the reign around himself, “maintaining other members of the elite in a relationship of dependence on his personal grace and good favour” (Almezaini,2013:51). This is particularly prevalent in Oman where the regime is centred around Sultan Qaboos, an absolute monarch embodying a “throwback to an Ottoman-era Sultan” (Tennent,2015). Here, the Sultan has avowed his legitimacy by executing an impressive policy of national unification and by crafting a massive coterie of civil servants who rely on the Sultan for their subsistence. As dictated by the 1996 Basic Law (Parolin,2006:64):
“The Sultan remains the paramount authority in the country and even though the Council of Ministers is the highest executive authority (Article 44), it derives its power from the Sultan, who also issues and ratifies all laws and decrees (Article 42).”
That said, the neo-patrimonial patronage arrangements can be explicated by the historic social context of these Gulf states. Deriving from a historical, deep-seated loyalty for tribal constructions, inhabitants of these countries are understood to yearn communal camaraderie, permitting them to be pliable to an autocratic monarch (Ayubi,1995:166). Instead of being a consequence of rentierism, the neo-patrimonial social order can then be viewed as the institutionalization of “existing patterns of social influence behind a new “modern” façade” (Mandaville,2007:98).
In Kuwait, the dominance of the merchant-class in the early years of state-building impelled the ruling family to establish a commanding national assembly as an influential domestic counterweight (Crystal & al-Shayeji,1998). The regime’s alliance-formation began in the pre-oil period, when indigenous hostility from the merchants obligated the House of Al-Sabah to shape novel centre-state bargains (Yom,2011). Rush (1987:40) explains the role Sheikh Abdallah — Kuwait’s first Emir — played in co-opting the dissenting merchant-class by “introducing wide-ranging reforms and a system of government that would restrict the powers of the ruler.” Thus, a “more inclusive coalition” (Herb,2016:8) was fashioned, whereby power was dispersed beyond the genealogical edifices of the ruling family. Here, Yom (2011:217) argues that the Kuwaiti monarchy reigns via “popular rentierism” — one which embraces “a broad coalition of social forces,” and “furnishes enduring loyalty from below while constraining abuses of state power from above.”
Similarly, in Oman, the accession of Sultan Qaboos in 1970 was facilitated after he deposed his own father in a coup and fought off his next of kin. His accession, for example, was disputed by his uncle Sayid Tariq bin Taymur (Power,2012:21). This explains the overtly-personalized nature of his regime, wherein he “has not allowed anybody else in the al-Said family to acquire significant administrative experience” (Katz,2004). Back then, the establishment of the Sultanate owed not just to the expansion of social, educational, and infrastructural reforms but to the regime’s militaristic supremacy against dissenters, especially in the protracted campaign to conquer the Dhofar expanse in the south (Al-Ghailani,2005:138).
Furthermore, in the UAE too, the merchant class holds a position of influence, wherein through an advantaged position vis-à-vis the regime, citizens can afford non-state parties admittance to state resources, akin to Beblawi’s (1987:389) conception of “second order rents.” Here, RST postulates that the country incorporates “vertical patron-client relationships” (Rubongoya,2007:7) due to its ‘rentier’ nature. However, this theory disappoints in explaining the societal-fixation of merchant leaders per se. Thus, a more exact portrayal would be erected if one analyses their historical origins (Azoulay,2013:68). Dubai, for instance, “has derived fame and prosperity from its trade. With little or no other means of livelihood, trade became the main source of income for this sheikhdom” (Al-Sayegh,1998:87). Dubai’s saga of commercial expansion would have been abbreviated or noticeably nonexistent if it weren’t for the emirate’s merchant class; the prime harbingers of development in the pre-oil era. Remarkably, in the symbiotic liaison that was then established between the merchants and the sheikhdom’s early rulers, it was the former who held much of the political influence (Al‐Sayegh,1998:89). Thus, the neopatrimonial dominance of these “merchant elites or bourgeoisie” was due to their historic links with political leaders, which proffered them “access to commercial land” and the ability to pocket “construction contracts from governments” (Almezaini,2013:64).
Thence, the “hierarchical and centralised structure” reinforced by a “paternalistic authoritarian management style” (Tayeb,2005:76) is due in large part to the pre-oil historicity of these regimes, and not just a product of rentierism.
Rentiers as ‘allocation’ states:
The RST is founded on another assumption — that accumulating ample hydrocarbon rents unavoidably results in undemocratic regimes fixated on “allocation” instead of “production” (Luciani,1990:71). Such economies fashion a ‘rentier mentality’ and “embod[y] a break in the work-reward causation” (Beblawi,1990:88). Here, ‘reward’, in the form of revenue, is not linked to work, but instead to fortuity and providence. Thus, nations structured around allocation lack cause to generate market stimulus for development; fixating on an “expenditure policy” in lieu of an “economic policy” (Luciani,1990:76).
However, RST lacks utility in explaining the modern development programmes being employed in the Gulf. For example, since the 1970s, Dubai’s rulers committed the emirate to persisting as a ‘production state’; a decision borne out of economic aspiration and political circumstance. Unlike the oil-rich Abu Dhabi, Dubai was not endowed with adequate oil reserves to withstand a rentier policy. This is where the ‘Dubai Model’ of diversification (Calderwood,2007) entered the scene, wherein the regime was induced to “build on Dubai’s existing strengths in order to create a developed and sustainable economy before the oil era came to a close” (Hvidt,2007:563). For Dubai, oil rent was not the only paramount consideration; as Figure 3 shows, mineral products contribute little to the emirate’s trade. As Anthony (2002:90) quips:
“What also mattered was the maintenance of good political and people to-people relations with its commercial partners and customers…a matter of being able to establish and maintain good relations with Dubai’s domestic and international investors.”
Similarly, the Government of Abu Dhabi (2008) has published impressive variants of the Vision 2030 and Abu Dhabi Capital 2030 development strategies. Oman too has a coherent convention of economic development policy through a progression of five-year plans. As Özyavuz and Schmid (2015:16) note, the Sultanate has mooted for “numerous economic reforms to improve the business framework and liberalize the economy by creating free zones” and partaking successful diversification in “tourism, construction and…[the] industrial sector.” Additionally, the country instituted the Vision 2020 strategy to embolden the private sector in generating new jobs for locals and “reducing its reliance on the oil sector’s contribution to GDP” (Strolla & Peri,2013:17).
As Figure 4 illustrates, the diversification quotients of both, UAE and Oman are well above the GCC average, greater even than Italy and Germany, respectively. Kuwait too, albeit to a lesser extent, has been keen on diversifying. The ‘New Kuwait’ State Vision 2035 illustrates a programme of economic development that is set to reinvigorate the private sector by furthering infrastructure ventures; likewise, the five-year Kuwait Development Plan, approved in 2015, will further augment the country’s role as a trade, services, and banking pivot within the region (Dsouza,2015).
These policies indicate that ‘late rentierism’ is transpiring, in which Gulf regimes pursue economic prospects due to the “rentier-like political outcomes” (Gray,2011:29) that coincide with development. This is in part due to the ‘new’ variant of “state capitalism” which Bremmer (2009:40) argues, has encouraged these regimes to embrace new commercial policies for their neopatrimonial network. Here, parallels have been drawn between the GCC’s move towards diversification and the ‘Beijing Consensus’ — one where a robust pro-market economy goes hand-in-hand with an authoritarian political regime, thereby snubbing the implicit correlation between economic and political liberalisation that is ubiquitous in orthodox neoliberal theory (Halper,2012).
This essay has endeavoured to illustrate that rentierism, far from being saddled with being the sole explanatory tenet for the entirety of the Middle Eastern political universe, should instead be treated as a trait of Gulf politics. As evidenced by the examples of Kuwait, Oman, and UAE, Gulf nations, albeit undemocratic, are still responsive to their citizenry. Furthermore, they have endeavoured to embrace more sustainable and diversified economic strategies. Here, RST disappoints in considering these modern-day deviations in regime attitude towards a production-oriented economy. Nonetheless, rentierism still has core utility in grasping the nature of state-society interactions in these regimes. Thus, RST needs to be further qualified to fashion a new theory of the ‘late rentiers’; one that has a more nuanced dynamism in clarifying the apparent paradox that these regimes currently face — that while they are transforming with the times, they are still profoundly uninterrupted in their reliance on external rents and neopatrimonial elite linkages.
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