Stability in the Persian Gulf

The winter break is a time for reading for the Policy Tensor. The list this year has been particularly interesting. I started off with Oil Monarchies by F. Gregory Gause, III. I had been really looking forward to it and I wasn’t disappointed. The surest sign of a good book is when it convinces you to change your opinion on the merit of its arguments. In this case, the question was the following.

Why were there no uprisings in the Arab Gulf monarchies?  

My original answer to this question basically boiled down to US interests in the region. Namely, that Washington wasn’t going to allow challenges to any of its client regimes in the Persian Gulf. The agitation in Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia were brutally crushed with US acquiescence. Whilst the White House allowed regimes to be overthrown in the Eastern Mediterranean RSC, it wouldn’t gamble with stability in the Gulf, the Gulf being one of the three strategic regions that the US cannot allow any others powers to dominate. [The other two being Western Europe and East Asia.] While this explains US policy, it fails to account for the relative absence of domestic challenges to the Arab Gulf regimes. This is where this seminal work changed my thinking.

The rentier state is one where the revenues come directly from the international economy into the coffers of the state in the form of rents from natural resources or investment income. A priori, a state that does not tax the populace enjoys a degree of autonomy from civil society. Indeed, democratic pressures historically came about as a response to the extraction by the state. Moreover, the rentier character of the Arab Gulf monarchies has very specific consequences for the political economy of these countries.

First, the state has become overwhelmingly dominant over the body-politic of these countries. Not only does the public sector account for the lion’s share of the economy, it employs well over half of the entire workforce of each of the GCC states (an astonishing 75% in the UAE). Most of the citizenry depends on the largesse of the government in the form of heavily subsidized education, health care, housing, employment and business contracts. This allows the regimes to retain political loyalty and discourage dissidence through denial of patronage. 

Second, the enormous apparatus of the state provides the regimes with a number of levers to control society. These range from the large civil bureaucracies to the military, police and the secret services. The enormous windfall from the oil price revolution has allowed these states to create strong coercive apparatuses quite unlike anywhere else in the Third World.

Third, and most importantly in my opinion, the rentier character of these states have allowed them to eliminate, co-opt or prevent the emergence of all autonomous centres of power. Labor unions are non existent. The religious establishment is on the government payroll and strictly controlled by the regimes, especially in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In fact, the House of Saud derives its legitimacy from its historic partnership with the Wahhabi ideologues and defines itself as the protector of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. There are hardly any civil society groups like community organizations and teachers unions. Political parties are strictly banned in all Gulf states except Kuwait. Perhaps most important for the prospect of liberal democracy, business groups are completely dependent on the favour of the ruling families.

All of this has allowed an unprecedented concentration of power in the ruling families. Note that power is concentrated not in the office of the King or the Emir but rather in the corporate body of the ruling family. Princes enjoy a degree of autonomy and compete with each other for influence and power even as they remain unified in maintaining their absolute control. Succession struggles thereby become the biggest threat to regime security.

Given this thick description of the Arab Gulf monarchies the absence of uprisings there becomes explicable. In a private correspondence with the Policy Tensor, Professor Gause affirmed that he had not expected the uprisings to spread to the Arab Gulf states for precisely the reasons identified above. Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia have to understood as a special case. The Shi’i majority has been systematically excluded from the patronage of the state and have remained much less dependent on it. Moreover, they have maintained an independent community centred around their links to the clerics in Najaf and mobilized themselves around the politics of exclusion. Whence, it was the only site of mass uprisings in the Persian Gulf. 

My initial misunderstanding is referred to as the realist fallacy of privileging the global level even when the appropriate level of analysis is a lower one–interregional, regional, or as in this case–domestic. This brings us to the second book, Regions and Powers by Buzan and Waever, which will be the subject of the next post.                          


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