Thursday, May 23, 2013

Political Segmentation and Diversification in the Rentier Arab Gulf

Amid the latest drama in Bahrain -- a "temporary" (two-week) dialogue boycott by opposition parties prompted at least in part by a recent police raid on the home of 'Isa Qasim; and al-Wifaq's call for the "largest human gathering in the history" of Bahrain on Friday, tomorrow, in solidarity with the shaikh -- amid this flare-up in an otherwise boring story of "dialogue" without the actual dialogue, I've been preparing remarks to go along with a paper I'll present at the upcoming Gulf Research Meeting in Cambridge.

The paper, which on the whole is more theoretical than empirical, utilizes survey data from my fieldwork in Bahrain along with a new survey of Qatari citizens undertaken in early 2013 as part of a survey research course I co-taught at Northwestern University in Qatar.  Anyway, I thought I would post these remarks here, along with the actual paper, in case it is of interest to anyone thinking about similar issues.  The panel, titled "The Rentier State at 25: Dismissed, Revised, Upheld?" should prove to be very interesting despite the inevitable heckling by members of Bahrain's conference-crashing "think-tank" Derasat.

My paper examines the different ruling strategies available to rent-based regimes such as those of the Arab Gulf, and demonstrates how these divergent political strategies must serve to alter our theoretical expectations about the citizen-level relationship between economic and political satisfaction in the Gulf states.  It is titled "Political Segmentation and Diversification in the Rentier Arab Gulf."

A draft of the paper can be found here.  The draft discussion is below.

I will talk a little bit about the relationship between economics and politics in the Gulf, and about the larger explanation for the region’s relative immunity from reform pressures compared to other countries of the Middle East, with partial reference to a recent political survey conducted in Qatar. The common explanation is, of course, some variant of the rentier state hypothesis: the idea that Gulf nationals are too wealthy to care about politics—or at least too wealthy to act upon their political grievances, to the extent that they exist, and risk upsetting the comfortable status quo.

And, certainly, citizens’ satisfaction with their material circumstances is an important driver of the perhaps unlikely stability achieved by the Arab Gulf states—not only since the Arab Spring but for decades now, during which time they have continued to defy expectations that their outmoded political structures will eventually be overturned.

Yet this seemingly straightforward picture—economic benefits for citizens and political autonomy for Gulf rulers—is surely more complicated than it seems, and is becoming ever more so. In the first place, we see that this so-called rentier bargain, to the extent it operated before, clearly no longer obtains either in entire Gulf societies or among some groups of citizens, most obviously in Bahrain but arguably elsewhere as well.

More importantly, and more fundamentally, we see that it is no longer material benefits per se that tends to bind citizen and state in the Gulf, but in most cases intangible benefits: things like opportunities for knowledge and education, safeguarding of culture and religion, international prestige, protection of some citizens against other groups in society (the Shi‘a in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE, or the tribes in Kuwait), and finally political stability (if not political accountability) in the face of regional upheaval and perceived external and internal security threats.

This fact reflects another element conspicuously missing from the rentier state story: an appreciation that the citizen-state relationship varies widely across the Gulf region, and is unpinned by dramatically different rentier strategies on the part of states themselves. These differences in strategy reflect both differences in resource and population endowments but also the particular orientations of rulers and ruling families.

For the primary purpose of the rentier state is not, as is often said, the allocation of oil and gas revenues to ordinary citizens, but the allocation of this revenue in the cheapest manner possible—that is to say, in a way that guarantees the survival of the regime while at the same time maximizing the state’s own share of the resource wealth. Indeed, to what purpose rule if one is unable to enjoy the material rewards?

Some Gulf rulers, such as those in Qatar and the Emirates, enjoy the resources to be generous both to citizens and to themselves—i.e., to deploy consider benefits without impacting their own discretionary spending. As of 2012, the resource revenues of Qatar equaled $164,000 per citizen, and in the UAE a relatively meager $84,000. (Kuwait is $49,000.) Yet in Bahrain, by contrast, this ratio was only $6,500 per citizen, in Oman only slightly more at around $7,000, and in Saudi Arabia about $13,000. So clearly half or even two-thirds of the Gulf states could not simply buy citizens’ political support even if they so wished.

On the other hand, it is not clear that even the wealthiest Gulf states, including the supposed quintessential rentier state Qatar, can achieve this feat using economics alone. The first problem is that expectations are not static but ever increasing. Qatar, for example, doubled pensions only in 2006, yet today there are widespread calls for a further increase, as prices and lifestyles continue to become more expensive. In fall 2011 salaries in the public sector, where nearly all Qataris are employed, were raised by 60%, 120% for those in the police and military. Yet according to a public opinion survey conducted by SESRI in January 2013, less than half of respondents (47%) said that the increase “really helped our family.” (This is in part a reflection of widespread indebtedness, estimated to affect some three-quarters of Qatari families.)

The second problem facing Qatar and other Gulf countries is that citizens do not evaluate their economic status in absolute terms but in relative terms, compared to their fellow citizens. For example, the aforementioned survey also asked Qataris to rate the economic situation of a hypothetical Qatari family. “Imagine,” it asked, “a Qatari family with three children. Its annual income is [the equivalent of] $100,000 per year, its primary vehicle is a Landcruiser, and in the summer the family vacations in Europe but doesn’t own a house there. How would you evaluate the economic situation of this family?” Just 21% of respondents said that this family was doing “very well,” whereas a combined 37% rated it as “moderate” or below—“weak” or “very weak.”

A follow-up question altered the scenario. This time, the family’s annual income was the equivalent of $200,000, it had a Lexus SUV as a primary vehicle, and the family summered in an apartment in London that it owned. But even in this case, only 4 of 5 Qataris (81%) said this family was doing “very well.” Hence in Qatar, at least, it is not simply the absolute standard of living that influences the relative satisfaction—and thus political orientations—of citizens, but one’s impression of how well one is doing relative to others.

As a result, even countries wealthy by Gulf standards have had to find sources of political legitimacy beyond mere economic benefaction. Some countries—including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Kuwait—have employed a strategy of political segmentation, disproportionately benefiting one class of citizens with the material (if not necessary demographic) preponderance to ensure the regime’s political continuity.

Apart from allowing the state to save precious resources by not dissipating them across the whole of society, this strategy also has the effect of creating a constituency of supporters with a basic stake in the preservation of the political status quo. Such constituencies, such as most obviously the Sunnis of Bahrain, may in principle share few policy preferences with the ruling elite, and indeed may benefit economically little more than members of the excluded community. However, the basic social and political division engendered by the state’s strategy of segmentation means that the Bahraini state continues to provide a vital benefit to its Sunni supporters: it “protects” them from their fellow citizens in the opposition, who would seek a wholesale revision of the social, economic, and political status quo. This same dynamic one witnesses across the Gulf, from the Shi‘a of Saudi Arabia, to the tribal community of Kuwait, to the Muslim Brotherhood in the Emirates.

An alternative to political segmentation in the Gulf has been political diversification. Here the state attempts to cultivate non-material sources of political legitimacy through the promotion of, among other things, nationalism, culture and heritage, education, international prestige, and an emphasis on political stability. Thus, in the Qatari case, for instance, we find Education City, Katara Cultural Village, the Museum of Islamic Art, the Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab state mosque, Suq Waqif, World Cup 2022, the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival, and other mega-projects.

The difficulty here is that this strategy of political diversification requires a considerable up-front investment in physical infrastructure, meaning that in order for a state to limit the necessity of economic distribution it must already have considerable resources to distribute. Those states most in need of diversification, then, are those least able to afford it.

On this point, I will end with another relevant finding from the aforementioned survey of Qatari citizens. This analysis attempts to predict—statistically—the political views of Qatari citizens using several variables (along with standard demographic control variables) that one might expect to be related to political orientations. A first is a respondent’s level of satisfaction with his current household economy; a second measures the extent to which a citizen thinks job opportunities are distributed fairly in the country—that is, that a Qatari and expatriate of equal qualifications would have an equal chance of being hired for an open position; a third measures the extent to which a respondent believes the state represents his values; a fourth measures the degree of agreement between what the respondent says are his top political priorities, and what the respondent believes are the state’s top priorities; and, lastly, a final variable measures whether a Qatari respondent names “maintaining political stability” as his top political priority.

The results of this analysis are surprising. Across a wide range of indicators, the strongest and most substantively important predictor of Qataris’ political opinions and behaviors is not their relative satisfaction with the economic benefits they receive, but their perceptions of the fairness and values of the state, and the extent of their agreement with its actual policies. On the one hand, this finding—that Qataris are not linked to the state simply on the basis of economics—is a positive one from the standpoint of the state, as it demonstrates the effectiveness of its deliberate strategy of political diversification. But it also implies that Qatar and other Gulf states increasingly, and largely of their own doing, must be responsive not just to the wallets of citizens but to their values and policy preferences.


  1. I would have thought that the most obvious reason for you to be heckled during a seminar is your excruciatingly unfunny attempts at humor. You regularly lace your articles and talks with sarcasm. Unfortunately for your readers and audience alike, your self-perceived levels of wit fall far short of the reality. Kindly do us all a favor and stick to analyzing the facts in plain and parsimonious English without “comedic” insertions of inverted commas. (See what I did there?)

  2. Anonymous: lighten up. There are some of us out here who do find Dr. G's sarcasm and humor quite funny and that it doses his writings with a bit wit . Do yourself a favor and "take a chill pill".

  3. @1st Anon: So why is it exactly that you visit here and/or attend my talks?

  4. You're missing something.

    The majority of tribes in Kuwait were naturalized in the 1970s and 1980s to shift the demographics of Kuwait. They were Saudi subjects long before they opted to become Kuwaiti citizens. This is all very similar to what is happening in Bahrain right now regarding political naturalization to shift demographics.

    Bahrain is currently attempting to shift the demographic balance because they want to reduce Shias to a minority.

    Kuwait successfully shifted its demographics a few decades earlier.

    ''The Identity of Politics of Kuwait's Elections'' by the Foreign Policy

    In some ways, the Kuwaiti government brought the "tribal" problem on itself. In the 1960 and 1970s, when the government was fighting against the liberals and nationalists, they brought in an estimated 200,000 tribal people from Saudi Arabia and gave them Kuwaiti citizenship. As one person explained, "They were given huge parcels out [in] the suburbs. There was no mingling or assimilation so the new bedu formed neighborhoods in isolation from larger Kuwaiti society." The strategy has backfired. The government has lost their loyalty and their vote. Tribes are now the largest bloc in the opposition. The government still retains the enormous welfare costs of the "new bedu" and their many offspring. The tribes do indeed agitate for more material benefits from the state -- which they consider only their fair share vis a vis the hadhar.

    The best source:
    “Nationalism in Pre-Modern Guise: The Discourse on Hadhar and Badu in Kuwait” by Anh Nga Longva

    Almost all badu originate from what has been internationally recognized since 1932 as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (in other words Saudi subjects before they opted to become Kuwaiti citizens). Furthermore, their immigration, which occurred mainly after Kuwait's independence in the 1960s and 1970s, was neither individual nor spontaneous but collective and encouraged by the Kuwaiti authorities.

    Page 175 (click to read)

    Another source:
    ''The Shia Migration from Southwestern Iran to Kuwait: Push-Pull Factors during the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries'' by George State University.

    Page 57

    Modern observers also provide demographic estimations of Kuwait during the same period. For instance, Sami Al-Khaldei indicates that from the beginning to the middle of the twentieth century Shias constituted more than 50 percent of the population but governmental policy of providing Kuwaiti citizenship to a huge number of people called “Bedouins” during the 1960s and 1970s had reduced the percentage of Shia population in Kuwait to 35 percent.13 Mary Cubberly Van Pelt also estimated that the Iranian inhabitants in Kuwait between 1915 and 1940 numbered about 10,000.14

  5. What is happening in Kuwait right now is kinda similar to what would happen in Bahrain 25 years from now, if the naturalized Pakistanis, Jordanians and tribal Arabs turned against the Bahraini government.

    Kuwaiti Shias didn't join the tribal-led opposition, because it's common knowledge that the tribes are against Shias and want to use ''democracy'' to limit personal freedom and rights. All Sunni Islamists in Kuwait's parliament are ''Badu'' (tribal).

    Kuwait's leading opposition figure, Musallam Al Barrak actually attended a rally in support of the King of Bahrain and Saudi intervention in Bahrain. Musallam Al Barrak has also made several anti-Shia remarks in the past. I think his family moved to Kuwait in 1975.

  6. “Nationalism in Pre-Modern Guise: The Discourse on Hadhar and Badu in Kuwait” by Anh Nga Longva

    Page 172


    In present-day popular speech, the term hadhar designates Kuwaitis whose forefathers lived in Kuwait before the launch of the oil era (1946) and worked as traders, sailors, fishermen, and pearl divers. In contrast, the term badu designates a specific group of newcomers: these are immigrants, mostly from Saudi Arabia, who used to live on animal pastoralism; they moved to Kuwait between 1960 and 1980, after Kuwait had become an independent, oil-exporting nation, and have been granted Kuwaiti nationality over the years since then.

  7. Hi,

    In fact I make precisely this argument (and even cite Longva) in my chapter in the shortly forthcoming "Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf."


    1. I look forward to reading it.