GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Political Segmentation and Diversification in the Rentier Arab Gulf
Paper Proposal Text :
A curious fact about the proposition that economic satisfaction breeds political indifference in resource-dependent states—about this “rentier state” thesis—is that for a conceptual framework first proposed some three decades ago and popular ever since, it has yet to be put to the test empirically. Certainly, some of its corollaries have invited quantitative research, most notably its implication that, at the country level, the extent of a country’s reliance upon resource rents should tend to be inversely-related to its democraticness, since more rents means more citizens content to relinquish their political prerogative in exchange for material benefits. Other studies proceed one step further to associate democracy with rates of taxation and government-sector employment.
Yet, for all their effort, these analyses cannot bring us closer to demonstrating the individual-level link between material contentment and political apathy that is the explicit theoretical mechanism underlying the rentier framework, precisely because such analyses do not operate on the individual level. That the regimes of the Arab Gulf are both autocratic and resource-dependent does nothing to show that, in early 2013 in the United Arab Emirates, or in Kuwait, individual citizens who are satisfied with their economic situation also tend to be satisfied with their country’s political situation—or, at the least, uninterested in changing it. Equally, that Saudi Arabia and Qatar maintain high government employment rates and do not impose income taxes cannot directly connect the individual-level economic outcomes of these policies to citizens’ political orientations. In short, extant empirical evaluation of the rentier hypothesis has been limited to tests of the very observations that gave rise to the theory in the first place, while its own proposed causal logic remains unexamined.
At its core, then, the rentier state thesis is less a story about the political machinations of greedy governments than it is about human nature and its impact on individual political behavior under particular conditions. Indeed, the most provocative claim of rentier theory is exactly this, that it purports to understand the very political motivations of individual citizens such as those of the Arab Gulf: why it is that people become involved in, or alternatively shrink from, politics; what it is that leads them to support or oppose a government. Economics, it suggests, is king; competing factors, it implies by omission, take a back seat. From here is it plain that any proper assessment of the rentier framework must investigate what the latter professes already to know: the individual-level determinants of political orientation in highly-clientelistic, rent-based societies. And as it was the Gulf region itself that served as archetype for rentier theory, it is perhaps only fitting that its first real test should be conducted there.
The contemporary record of Gulf politics would seem to indicate that some citizens and governments long ago reneged on their wealth-for-acquiescence agreements. In fact, one need not even reference the empirical failures of the rentier state model to understand why such an open-ended bargain never existed at all. In the first place, as opposition activists across the region today attest, not all citizens will be persuaded to forfeit their political prerogative by the promise of material wealth—or, for that matter, by the promise of violence. Certainly, one can imagine myriad sources of political motivation independent of economic concerns: perceptions of societal discrimination and inequality; sectarian religious orientations; adherence to revolutionary ideologies such as Arab nationalism or, more commonly today, transnational Shi‘ism, Salafism, or the Muslim Brotherhood; a desire for representative and democratic governance as a bonum per se; and so on.
Moreover, and more fundamentally, even if the state could buy the unanimous support of citizens, it need not even attempt to do so, for it requires only a minimum coalition of supporters with the physical (military) preponderance sufficient to protect it from potential challengers. Indeed, why waste limited resources chasing citizens opposed to the status quo when they might be used to reward those who already have a material stake in its preservation? Rather than deploy limited resources inefficiently upon the whole of society, therefore, rulers of distributive states such as those of the Gulf generally seek to maximize their own share by rewarding disproportionately a finite category of citizens whose support is sufficient to keep them in power, while the remaining population is comparatively excluded from the private rentier benefits of citizenship. This incentive for targeted distribution is especially great in countries where a large population (e.g., Saudi Arabia) and/or low per capita resource revenues (Bahrain) would limit the political utility of a more egalitarian allocation. Yet, even states unconstrained by such factors (Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates) have sought to segment their political markets, erecting tiers of citizenship that confer discrete levels of benefits, and that engender in turn varying levels of political satisfaction.
Finally, beyond the diverse non-material concerns of citizens and state incentives for unequal distribution, yet another process working to undermine the individual-level link between economic and political satisfaction in the rentier Arab Gulf is the ongoing effort by Gulf governments to diversify their sources of political legitimacy. Whereas much analytic focus continues to be directed at the problem of economic diversification away from reliance upon resource rents and sprawling public sectors, far less examined has been the parallel effort by Gulf rulers—one they have arguably approached with much more seriousness than the former question—to undertake political diversification away from purely economic bases of legitimacy. Such a strategy has assumed various forms across the region, but commonalities include a focus on “national” culture and heritage nurtured and protected by the ruler; opportunities for higher education and personal self-fulfillment often supplied by Western institutions; appeals to religious or tribal legitimacy; the pursuit of international prominence and prestige; and the provision of (and the highlighting of the provision of) other intangible benefits such as political stability over against political accountability.
This latter argument has acquired particular force in the wake of the Arab uprisings begun in 2010, not, paradoxically, because the Gulf states largely escaped the upheaval witnessed elsewhere, but precisely because many, or indeed most, did not. Ruling families in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and most recently the United Arab Emirates have pointed to the chaos abroad to explain and justify the need for measured reform at home, and to mobilize popular support against those who would dare to upset the comfortable if perhaps non-democratic political status quo. The Shi‘a of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the mainly Sunni tribal opposition in Kuwait, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE—such groups represent at once political scourge and political boon: the potential or actual basis of organized opposition, but also a bogeyman with which to rally the rest of society or, at the least, frighten it into inaction. Especially in the post-2010 period, then, those Gulf states in which political boundaries follow religious or other ascriptive group lines have hit on a powerful if perilous new source of non-economic legitimacy: not simply the provision of stability in a region gripped by chaos, but the veritable protection of citizens—loyal citizens—from enemies abroad and their subversive domestic agents. Heightening tension between the Sunni Arab monarchies and Shi‘a-led regimes in Iran, Iraq, and Syria has only reinforced this narrative.
Using original and previously-unavailable survey data from Bahrain and Qatar, this paper aims to interrogate the underlying causal mechanisms of rentier state theory by exploring the determinants of political opinion and behavior among ordinary Gulf citizens. In short, it seeks to discover whether individuals’ normative political attitudes toward their governments and the political actions they take for or against them are influenced foremost by material well-being or, alternatively, by non-economic factors, including sectarian affiliation, religious orientations, and intangible sources of political satisfaction and legitimacy in line with states’ efforts at political diversification. Qatar and Bahrain representing as they do the most and least quintessential rentier economies of the Gulf, respectively, such a cross-country analysis will offer results that are not only internally valid but generalizable to the larger category of the rentier state.