GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
de Corral
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Evolution, not Revolution: Political Reform in Gulf Rentier States
Paper Proposal Text :
In all rentier states in the Middle East, from Algeria to the Gulf states, calls for reform have been mounting since the onset of the Arab Spring. In the countries that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), ruling families have, for the most part, perceived substantive political reform as threatening to their long-term survival. However, the contrary may be true. Political reform may be essential for regimes to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. Through an in-depth analysis of three Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain), this paper will seek to show that political reform processes are of critical importance for Gulf regime stability in the long run. This paper will build upon field research recently undertaken in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait that focused on state development and political reform efforts. Furthermore it will be based upon previous research conducted by the author on state failure in the Middle East, and oil revenue diversification in rentier economies.

For decades, rentier state theory has successfully explained why certain oil rich states, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, have remained authoritarian. This theory has hinged on states that depend on natural resource extraction being able to substitute political rights with welfare subsidies. In effect, these states instituted a “no-taxation, no-representation” social contract where political acquiescence by citizens was demanded in return for generous state-funded welfare that guaranteed free education, free healthcare, and public sector employment for citizens. In this light, this paper will build upon the work of notable scholars in rentier state theory, such as Charles Tilly, Giacomo Luciani, Hazem Beblawi and Michael Ross. Moreover, it will also build upon existing research by Steffen Hertog, Christopher Davidson, Jill Crystal, John Waterbury and Oliver Schlumberger, for instance, concerning political economy in the Gulf, reform movements, and patronage networks.

Most conventional scholarship on the region has often claimed that Gulf states experience either authoritarian or monarchical stability. However, due to the events of the Arab Spring, a nuanced approach to political stability and political reform in the region is necessary. Although the rentier state social contract has persisted for decades, it has been strained in recent years. Oil shocks, high youth unemployment, bloated bureaucracies, growing middle classes, and ineffective governance has exerted pressure on rulers to reform the social contract so as to allow greater political participation and representation. While political reform processes may not lead to outright democratization in the short run, it lays the groundwork for democratic institutions in the future. Hence it is of paramount importance to analyze in what ways political reform efforts can sustain stability in rentier states.

Thus far we have been able to observe significant developments in the Gulf with regards to challenges to the existing socio-political order. In order to counter the possibility of political dissent, Gulf regimes heavily invested in patronage packages aimed at maintaining the existing social contract. This was most noticeable in Saudi Arabia, where the government invested USD 130 billion over the next five years in increasing public sector wages, improving unemployment benefits, and creating 500,000 subsidized housing units. In Kuwait, the government issued a USD 70 billion investment – the largest public spending budget in its history – that would increase public employee salaries, allowances and fuel subsidies. Hence, it is evident that rulers have primarily opted to continue to buy stability. While to some degree this may have softened opposition to the regimes, it has in no means made calls for reforms disappear.

In fact, calls for democratic reforms have been heard throughout the region. In Bahrain, most prominently, marginalized communities have continuously protested what they see as cosmetic reforms carried out by the ruling family. Saudi Arabia has faced protests from Shia communities, and it has received sustained pressure to give greater political rights to women. Additionally, in Kuwait, contestation between the National Assembly and the Emir continues over checks and balances and where the balance of power ultimately lies.

Apart from calls for greater representation from certain segments of the population, great pressure to reform may also come from economic sectors. Gulf oil states are still heavily dependent on oil revenues. Oil shocks, as have occurred in the past, can have grave consequences on not only the economy, but also on the political order. If external shocks were to hit an undiversified economy, an alteration of the social contract may be necessary, as the ruling regime may not be able to guarantee sustained welfare subsidies to its citizens.

Gulf monarchies, which are largely seen as authoritarian regimes, have been bastions of stability. This can be attributed to the fact that Gulf states fit the rentier paradigm of statehood, and thus hold a tacit agreement with citizens in which political rights are substituted for large welfare provisions. While the regimes have appeared to be stable from the outside due to the existing social contract, they in fact face significant challenges to the existing political order. While outright calls for democratization or regime change have not been the norm, there are strong currents pushing for political reform. Economic challenges and social divisions further accentuate these movements. It is critical to ultimately understand that Gulf states are changing. Hence, analyzing the existing political structures and recognizing the current challenges is key to understanding what the political landscape of the region will look like in the coming years. While democratization may not be immediate, gradual reform efforts will take place that will ultimately force the traditional rentier social contract to change. It is important to show that while such developments may seem unwelcome to Gulf regimes, they are crucial to their long-term survival and stability.