GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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The inequitable rentier state: GCC economic diversification strategies and spatial variation in popular unrest
Paper Proposal Text :
In the last few decades, economic development strategies of the small Arab states in the Gulf have evolved markedly. Far from assertions in the early 1970s that petroleum wealth would engender no more than an allocation policy, Gulf states have created complex and sophisticated development strategies designed to diversify their economics away from dependence on the petroleum sector (an increasingly urgent goal considering the mid-2014 fall in oil prices).

Though they are diverse and their effectiveness in practice varies across the region, these development strategies share a variety of characteristics, including a focus on attracting and securing FDI, public-private partnership initiatives, the creation of special regulatory zones to target key areas of investment, incentives to encourage the employment of citizen-labour, and, to differing extents, the importation of migrant labour to support economic growth. They are critical to the creation of sustainable development in the Gulf region, yet have also had important consequences for horizontal inequality, between urban and rural spaces, between major cities, and between capital and regional areas.

This paper explores the tangible impact of economic development policy, and how the intersection of migrant labour, national identity, and rural-urban inequality coalesced to shape protest movements in 2011. At its core, it seeks an explanation for the spatial variation in political mobilisations within Gulf states: why, for example, some spaces experienced intense and violent conflict, while others remained quiescent and loyal to the regime. Based on an in-depth analysis of street mobilisations in Oman and Bahrain, with wider comparison to the rest of the Gulf, it argues that rent-driven diversification strategies implemented over the past four decades focused on large-scale development projects intended to invest domestic capital and expand employment, but neglected the type of employment these projects created. Problematically, many projects disproportionally generated expatriate, rather than national, employment, fuelling a strong sense of inequality among citizens.

Further, these development projects often entail spatial transformations, of rural and urban areas (as with Rusayl Industrial Estate in Oman, or Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone in the UAE), rehabilitation of historical sites such as traditional markets (as with Bab al-Bahrain Souq, or Souq Waqif in Qatar), and capitalising on global trade flows (as with the Mubarak al-Kabeer Port project in Kuwait). While at the national level these projects are critical to economic growth, at a local level these development projects can become visible demonstrations of inequality, particularly where they are staffed by migrant workers and where local unemployment rates of nationals are high.

To evaluate the role of economic policy implementation (as compared to other explanations for popular unrest), the paper maps where protests occurred in 2011 and 2012 in the Gulf states, including an estimate of scale and intensity, and then contrasts this with the impact of state development programs in those areas, including an original estimate of citizen unemployment levels by governorate in Bahrain and Oman, and analysis of migrant labour population growth in regional and urban areas. It does not forward a mono-causal explanation for the diverse political mobilisations that occurred in the Gulf states in 2011, but rather highlights the interaction between economic development and citizen dissatisfaction in a contested space: where economic diversification is critical to sustainable development, yet the implementation of development strategies has been pursued with insufficient attention to the emergence of regional, urban-rural, and other forms of spatial inequality. Within this context, demographic composition, housing policies, and nationalisation strategies become increasingly politicised, and the implementation of cultural projects (such as Katara Cultural Village in Doha) become tools of governance, designed to project an image of the state as protective of traditional values even as migrant numbers soar. The strength of traditional authority in the face of urban and rural transformation is critical: in governorates where citizens have remained quiescent or vocally loyal to the state, such as Riffa in Bahrain, and much of Dakhliya in Oman, the paper traces how traditional forms of authority and targeted distributions by the state have allowed these regions to better weather the development-driven transformations of the past few decades, and contrasts this with the relative quiescence of other Gulf states, particularly Qatar.

Viewing development in this way can help explain, for example, why the most violent Omani protests occurred in Sohar, the site of massive state investment yet which also suffers from high local unemployment. In Bahrain, the Bahrain Financial Harbour development project was designed to attract foreign capital and enhance the country’s position as an international services hub, yet in 2011 became a focal point for protest movements, who viewed the inequality between the highly developed Harbour and the absence of development in rural (largely Shia) villages as emblematic of corruption between the state and business elite.

The paper ultimately uses this analysis to revisit rentier state theory, which remains the dominant literature on the connection between state development policies and (assumed) political quiescence, but insufficiently examines the implications of rent-driven development for rural and urban inequality. These popular mobilisations thus highlight how some development projects have paradoxically caused the very unrest they were intended to preclude. Critical to our understanding of effective development policy, then, are local perceptions of inequality and this paper presents comparative case studies based on extensive in-country research to delineate how this works in practice during a period of regional political mobilisation.