GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Theoretical approaches to the political economy of tourism in the Arab Gulf states
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper seeks to examine how theories on the political economy of the Gulf can be applied to an understanding of the dynamics of tourism in the region. In particular, it is concerned with what the main political economy approaches on the Gulf say or imply about tourism, and the degree to which tourism fits with them. In so doing, it investigates four main areas of explanation and debate.

The first area is concerned with where tourism fits with rentier state theory, and specifically, within what the paper will argue is a ‘late stage’ rentierism (Gray 2011), to which the GCC states have transitioned over the 1990s and into the 2000s. Late stage rentierism retains the argument that the centralized dispersal of rents and low taxation levels mean an absence of democratization pressure on the state, but allow for a more responsive state, more active development strategy, and openness to (limited) reform due to changing societal dynamics and an underlying state fear of revolutionary threat without such responsiveness and reform. It will be argued that both an opening to tourism and the development of related sectors such as sport, leisure, and aviation are all the product of this late stage rentierism. Crucial, moreover, are the economic diversification strategies and national employment policies of the GCC states, as these almost invariably target tourism for its wide economic impact, especially the circular flow of money and the labour-intensiveness of the sector.

Second, the paper considers the nature of the ownership of the means of production in the Gulf and what this means for tourism. The Gulf states have what has variably been described as patrimonial capitalism (Schlumberger 2008), casabiyya capitalism (Champion 2003), and a new state capitalism (Bremmer 2010) at their core, where the royal families and those closest to them have traditionally owned a disproportionately large amount of the means of production. Moreover where state-owned firms, listed firms, or a hybrid of the two exist, they are often very efficient and profitable, unlike in the state capitalism and patrimonial economies of, for example, the post-independence Arab republics. Tourism fits into these dynamics for several reasons: because it has the potential to impact widely on the economy and benefit a range of sectors; because it is a relatively simple sector to expand and thus can be developed on the terms of the ruling family; and because some of its firms (such as national airlines, major attractions, and sometimes the land or property used by hotels and resorts) are typically state-owned, making their development and exploitation attractive to the Gulf’s royals and state capitalists.

Third, it is argued that there is an important economic dimension to the state-led nationalism, mythologization, and retraditionalization that is a feature of contemporary Gulf politics (Davidson 2008: 167-176, 193-206; Valeri 2009:12-147). This politics, it is argued, stems from the need by regimes to legitimize themselves and lay claim to power and authority, while also developing the sense of nation among citizens of the state. Such politics links the political and economic, and in turn links them to the development of tourism. Tourism both supports and is encouraged by the development of new projects, holding of events, re-creation of cultural assets, and retraditionalization of public space. The branding of states (Peterson 2006: 732-748), especially as branding usually claims a uniqueness to the society, also attracts tourism, and tourism in turn is seen as legitimizing the claims of states to a country’s cultural and historical uniqueness. Finally, economic tradition is often featured in such politics, typically claiming a long but differentiated association with other cultures and justifying such contact today through tourism and commerce.

The above three points apply to all GCC states. On top of these, most of the smaller GCC states are microstates or have microstatist dynamics (Peterson 2006: 732-748), in which economics is central to the survival of the ruling regime and the state itself. It is argued that this prompts the development of tourism in three ways. First, as microstates and given the economic geography of the Gulf, there are tight limits in many economic areas. The development of tourism is possible and, indeed, not especially complex compared to other development approach requirements. Second, while these small states collaborate through architecture such as the GCC to increase their security or leverage, they also have sought to develop a unique diplomatic and economic position to justify their existence as states and especially to develop links with external powers and major firms, thereby increasing the number of strong actors with an interest in the continuity of the state and the regime. Finally, in the process of doing this, several of the Gulf states have deliberately ‘branded’ and globalized themselves, in the process of which they have developed their tourism capacity and links.

The ultimate aim of the paper is to marry theories of Gulf political economy with the study of the Gulf’s tourism sectors, showing how tourism is integral to understanding the political economies of the contemporary Gulf, and how an understanding of tourism can be enhanced by a political economy approach.


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