GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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The categorization and delineation of rentierism: With special reference to tourism
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper has at its core two aims related, respectively, to demarcating the boundaries of what constitutes rentierism and to distinguishing between the various types of rentierism that exist in different rentier states. The term rentierism is used throughout, as it will be argued that this best encapsulates the idea that rentier features illustrate a dynamic of politics rather than, more ambitiously, explaining the structure of a political economy, as Beblawi and Luciani (1987) initially sought to do with rentier state theory.

The first aim is to explore the definitional and other boundaries of rentier state theory by examining the degree to which tourism can be considered a rentier sector or rentier dynamic. Despite sharing some features with oil, gas, aid or other sources of income more commonly associated with rentier economies, tourism is only very rarely mentioned as a rentier sector (as an exception, for example, in Richter and Steiner 2008), while oftentimes it explicitly is considered not to be rentier (Mansfeld and Winckler 2008). It is acknowledged here that tourism does not easily fit with early rentier theory, especially since rents accrue to various actors in the economy, not just the state, and because tourism retains the potential to contribute to productive parts of the economy and the formation of new political actors to a much greater extent than more common sources of rents. Nonetheless, tourism contains some rentier characteristics. It is externally-derived income, often providing surplus wealth beyond what is domestically produced. It can sustain some rentier pathologies in a political economy where reselling of goods, overcharging for services, or surplus fees or other costs are a feature of the sector. Further, tourism can have a demonstration effect on wages, as oil and gas usually do, if artificially-high incomes can be derived from tourism services. And tourism can have a negative effect on political institutions and state-building, as rentierism arguably does, if it encourages informal economic activity, unlawful conduct, and at least partial relief from the need for taxation by the state (for examples of some of these dynamics in the case of Egypt, see Gray 1998).

The paper therefore argues that tourism ought to be considered a quasi-rentier sector. In support of this, the second aim of the paper is to suggest a categorization of rentier states. In this section, it is argued that both the overall value of rents ― whether from oil, gas, aid, or even tourism, remittances, and other “quasi-”rents ― and the nature of them ― especially whether they accrue to the state or to other political actors ― dictates how “rentier” a political economy is. It is proposed, to this end, that a political economy can be one of:
• Über-rentier (or “extreme rentier”, as Herb 2009 refers to Kuwait and the UAE, to which could be added Qatar because of its gas rents), in which rents overwhelmingly dominate an economy’s export earnings and government receipts, typically accounting for the majority of overall GDP as well;
• Rentier, referring to other states with a strong reliance in particular on hydrocarbon-derived rents, if to a lesser extent than an über-rentier. Examples might include, in the Gulf, states such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman;
• Welfarist/populist rentier; where some rents provide a state with some cooptive and repressive means, but where the smaller value of such rents per capita means that rent transfers are usually done through the provision of public services or opportunities for employment with a large bureaucracy. Examples include, in the Gulf, Iran and Iraq (and within the latter, in effect the Kurdish Regional Government as well; and
• Quasi-rentier, where rents are predominantly received by non-state actors or by society, but with impacts that create at least some rentier-like characteristics to the political economy. There are no strong examples of this in the Gulf, although if Dubai is taken as an economy in and of itself, rather than as part of the UAE economy, it would probably qualify, while Bahrain has the potential to become quasi-rentier as its oil reserves are depleted. Egypt and Jordan are examples from elsewhere in the Arab world.

Both the über rentier and rentier cases can also be in a phase of rentierism that I have previously defined as “late rentier” (Gray 2011), where the state-society relationship is more complex and nuanced that earlier rentier state theory recognized, but with the fundamental elements of that theory still holding validity, especially in terms of the non-democratic nature of the state, the cooptive and repressive mechanisms purchased by rents, and with many aspects of the “oil curse” present.

It is hoped that this paper will ultimately make two key contributions to the GRM workshop, in line with its two sections, by: first, helping to refine the scope and limits of what constitutes rentierism and a rentier state; and second, by elucidating a categorization that treats rentierism as a dynamic that can take many different political-economy guises.


Beblawi, H. and Luciani, G. (eds). 1987. The Rentier State: Nation, State and the Integration of the Arab World. London: Croom Helm.

Gray, M. 2011. ‘A Theory of “Late Rentierism” in the Arab States of the Gulf’, Center for International and Regional Studies Occasional Paper No. 7 (Doha: Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, 2011).

Gray, M. 1998. ‘Economic Reform, Privatization, and Tourism in Egypt,’ Middle Eastern Studies. 34(2), April, pp. 91-112.

Herb, M. 2009. ‘A Nation of Bureaucrats: Political Participation and Economic Diversification in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.’ International Journal of Middle East Studies. 41(3), pp. 375-395.

Mansfeld, Y. and Winckler, O. 2008. ‘The Role of the Tourism Industry in Transforming a Rentier to a Long-Term Viable Economy: The Case of Bahrain,’ Current Issues in Tourism. 11(3), pp. 237-267.

Richter, T. and Steiner, C. 2008, ‘Politics, Economics and Tourism Development in Egypt: insights into the sectoral transformations of a neo-patrimonial rentier state.’ Third World Quarterly. 29(5), pp. 939-959.