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Rethinking Rentier State Theory: Qatar and the Rise of Smart Money

Political legitimacy in the Gulf cannot be explained by oil wealth alone.

The bargain between rentier states and their populations is simple: the government ensures the financial well-being of the people, and the people do not rebel or try to influence political decisions of the state.

In an article for International Relations of the Middle East entitled, "Oil and Political Economy in the International Relations of the Middle East," Giacomo Luciani, one of rentierism’s most prominent thinkers, wrote that because the relationship between rentier states and their people involves money flowing from the government to the people in the form of entitlements — instead of from the people to the government in the form of taxes — rentier regimes are “financially independent of society… autonomous (that is unaccountable).”

Rentier state theory, therefore, asserts that a population’s political loyalty can be commoditized and purchased. Today’s examples of rentier states include Gulf nations such as Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman, where governments reap massive international revenues — rents — from oil exportation, and thus have the financial resources necessary to buy off their citizens.

But political scientist Michael Herb noted in “All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies,” that monarchs in Iraq, Libya and Iran have been toppled despite increasing oil revenue. In addition, problems within rentier states are beginning to surface, such as diminishing returns in citizen gratitude for state benefits, discontent engendered from inevitably unequal rent distribution, and encouragement of expressed dissention as regimes buy off opposition voices to keep them quite.

The traditional definition of rentierism, therefore, is simply wrong. At best, the supposition that the Gulf citizenry is merely being bought off is a gross generalization of a complex process, one in which Gulf monarchies have strategically used their petrodollars to meet the needs of their people.

Using Qatar to Reframe the Concept of Rentierism

One such need is a national narrative, or myth, where both the citizens and polity take part. Using Qatar as a case study, the crafting of a national narrative can be seen especially during the tenure of the recently-retired Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Mehran Kamrava writes that Qatar, during this time, created “a set of symbols based on Qatari tradition and heritage that justified [the emir's] rule as a natural extension of the country’s cultural history and national tradition.”

Two examples of how Qatar deployed oil rent to achieve this narrative are the construction projects of the Abdul Wahhab Mosque and the Museum of Islamic Art. In addition, Qatar has created a unifying vision of the future by investing in facilities for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Most construction costs involved in these projects have not been disclosed, but one can safely assume the bills were not cheap.

Abdul Wahhab Mosque asserts Qatar’s national religious identity within the greater Islamic community. The Museum of Islamic Art provides citizens with a sense of culture and heritage, a rightful place in the history of the Arab world. The FIFA World Cup thrusts Qatar into the global limelight, giving Qataris pride for their country and injecting them with a sense of responsibility to represent their country well on the international stage.

The date of the World Cup is highly significant. The year 2022 is no small leap into the future. Given today’s hyper-connected world where long-accepted realities seem to become obsolete at record speed, Qatar’s focus on preparation for an event nine-years away is a bold statement that things in 2022 will not be significantly different than they are today — at least not when it comes to politics.

The example of how Qatar implements oil wealth to create a national narrative, shows that the financial transaction between the state and citizenry involves more than the state merely handing out checks for the citizens’ tacit approval.

A Regime’s Legitimacy

It disproves another paradigm of rentierism stated by Luciani, that “the authoritarian rentier state does not need to refer to a ‘national myth,’ because it is supported by a rent accruing from the rest of the world and does not need to impose taxes on the domestic economy.

Another deconstruction of rentierism was made by Gwenn Okruhlik, who pointed out in an article for Comparative Politics that “wealth generated through oil receipts is a catalyst for opposition to the state, rather than a tool to placate dissent,” because it is “distributed inequitably… and provides potential dissenters with the resources necessary for mobilization against the regime.” She uses Saudi Arabia as a case study where neglect of the eastern provinces, led to riots and dissent within the Shi’a community.

As Herb observed: “Gulf Arabs… think that they themselves, as citizens, own the oil, not the ruling families.” It is therefore evident that, despite being significantly less transparent than Western governmental finance, oil rent distribution in Gulf nations is monitored with interest by Gulf citizens.

If they believe that oil rent has been distributed justifiably, only then will citizens of rentier states consent to their regime’s legitimacy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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