GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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The Revolutionary Rentier? State-society relations in Bahrain during the Arab Spring
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper, at its heart, revisits the logics of cooptation and repression in rentier state theory (RST), while placing both in the context of regional and international politics. Although RST admits that rentier states react poorly in times of economic trouble (Karl 1997), little has been written about the possibility of political challenge during times of continued high rents. The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, however, provide an opportunity to audit the theory in a context of state upheaval and social unrest. Here public demonstrations of frustration with corruption and lack of democratization challenge the assumptions inherent in the literature that such sentiments are stymied by the distribution of rents from the central government. At the same time, distinct differences in the threat to and response of oil rich states and their resource poor counterparts exist. Michael Ross, in particular, argues for the continued centrality of oil resources in the Arab Spring uprisings, noting that Qaddafi’s regime in Libya is the only major oil producer that has been seriously threatened (indeed, which has collapsed) as a result of popular unrest (Ross 2011).

Although oil-rich rentier states have faced less challenge than their resource-poor counterparts, they are by no measure immune to spreading social unrest ignited by the Tunisian protests in December 2010. In fact, that the unrest has continued in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and to a limited extend Kuwait even as these regimes released millions of dollars in rent-funded distributions suggests society in oil-rich states is not as placid as generally accepted in RST. This paper bases its theoretical audit of rentier state theory on the reaction of Bahrain to the Arab Spring, as an example of a consolidated rentier state which has made a considerable effort to diversify its economy yet remains ultimately reliant on oil exportation. At the broadest level, the central question for the paper is this: has Bahrain reaction to the challenge of social unrest since 2011 conformed with the expectations of rentier state theory?

Drawing from recent developments in the RST literature (Hertog 2010, Dunning 2008), this paper uses disaggregated conceptions of ‘state’ and society’ to examine how individual elements of each have reacted since early 2011, and to assess whether they have behaved in a way consistent with RST literature. By presenting rentierism as a dynamic, the paper integrates RST with related literatures on developing states (such as neo-patrimonialism), arguing that rentier dynamics reinforce neo-patrimonial tendencies which have in turn conditioned state responses to popular protest in Bahrain. Most importantly, it finds the state-society relationship is far more fragmented than generally suggested in RST, with specific implications for the logic of cooptation and repression.

In Bahrain, the paper finds that state strategies of cooptation have targeted specific groups, denoting a rentier elite tied to the regime which works to perpetuate the rent-seeking system, a challenge to early works on RST which claimed rentier states avoided creating clearly defined constituencies (Luciani 1987: p. 75). While evidence suggests cooptation has been effective in reducing dissatisfaction from these groups, the paper warns against assuming attitudes toward the state are entirely a function of economic well-being. Instead, it views the loyalty of these groups as a result of rent-based cooptation and a product of non-rentier dynamics such as tribal heritage and sectarian identity.

Repressive tactics used since 2011 suggest a similarly fragmented state-society relationship, where the state has attempted to delegitimise unrest by describing it as an Iranian conspiracy to retake the small state. Shi’a groups have been specifically targeted as the state capitalizes on sectarianism, keen to alienate their Sunni power base from protesters and cement their loyalty to the regime. Even so, the re-emergence of supposedly ‘marginalised’ groups and increasing polarization of the society suggests state-society relations in rentier states are dynamic and the theory must account for changing attitudes over time.

Of course, none of these events have occurred in a vacuum. Part of the motivation for using the Arab Spring to audit RST is to examine how context has affected rentier state-society relations; the final section of this paper takes this one step further and directly examines the role of regional and international influences in Bahrain since 2011. How insulated are established rentier states politically, and how do international pressures transform the state-society relationship in rentier states during times of unrest? Bahrain demonstrates the pivotal role of international actors, as the crackdown on protesters in Bahrain by Saudi and Gulf troops powerfully reduced the capacity of the protesters to create change and rendered them less powerful relative to the state – indeed, arguably the regime might have collapsed if not for the intervention. On the other hand, if the state is willing to introduce foreign troops in order to quell domestic opposition, this has serious implications not only for the sovereignty of Bahrain but for the state-society relationship in this small rentier state. The paper considers Bahrain’s geostrategic position between behemoths Saudi Arabia and Iran and examines how the regional and international has shaped state and society responses to the Arab Spring.

It is hoped this paper will contribute to the GRM workshop by reassessing the state-society relationship of rentier states in context, challenging some parts of the literature yet ultimately upholding the central role rents play in shaping the political economy of rent-rich regimes.

Dunning, Thad, Crude Democracy: Natural Resource Wealth and Political Regimes (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Hertog, Steffen, Princes, brokers and bureaucrats: oil and the state in Saudi Arabia. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).

Karl, Terry Lynn, The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).

Luciani, Giacomo, “Allocation vs. Production States: A Theoretical Framework” in The Rentier State, Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani, Eds. (London, New York, Sydney: Croom Helm, 1987).

Ross, Michael L., “Will Oil Drown the Arab Spring? Democracy and the Resource Curse” Foreign Affairs 90:5 (Sep/Oct 2011) 2 – 7.