Panel: The Rentier State Approach and the Arab Spring: Demise or Renaissance of an Old Concept


Room: F2, 1.0G, Fürstenberghaus
Day Time    
Tue 16:00-16:30 Beck Learning from Partial Success: The Rentier State Approach and the Arab Spring
Tue 16:30-17:00 Richter Oil Rents, Regime Survival and Contextual Conditions: Lessons from the Arab Monarchies during the Arab Spring
Tue 17:00-17:30 Shechter Citizens-consumers of the rentier state: Egypt and Saudi Arabia during the first oil boom (c. 1973-1983) and since
Tue 17:30-18:00 Ennis Millennials and the State of Entrepreneurship in the Gulf
Tue 18:00-18:30 Break
Tue 18:30-19:00 Schütze Strategic rents and their limitations as explanatory device for Jordanian politics
Tue 19:00-19:30 Fiorini Jordan and the Rentier State Approach: The Case of Employment Practices at the Jordan Phosphate Mine Company (JPMC)

Panel leader:

Martin Beck, Thomas Richter

Panel description:

More than two years after the Arab Spring started to gain momentum, it should be a major scholarly task to critically discuss how well‐established theoretical approaches could (not) contribute to an explanation of this epochal changes and its ongoing developments. This panel takes this challenge by focusing on the rentier state approach, one of the most known, most developed and also most contested theoretical concepts in social science on the Middle East. Open for the whole spectrum of social science and diverse methodological perspectives we seek to critically and constructively take stock what the rentier state approach has to say in regard to recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa. What are the specific contributions to a better comprehension of the Arab Spring looking through the lenses of the rentier state? Yet, also taking the reverse angle, what are the lessons the rentier state approach should learn from the Arab Spring?


Politics, Economy and Society


Beck, Martin: Learning from Partial Success: The Rentier State Approach and the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring diversified a previously fairly homogenous world area of authoritarian regimes into a region composed of authoritarian and transitional regimes. This is certainly a challenge for established theoretical approaches of Middle Eastern studies. Yet, in comparison to some other approaches (such as concpets drawing on essentialist ideas of Islam), the rentier state approach survived the Arab Spring in fairly good condition. In terms of outcome, the authoritarian character of only one major oil country –Libya—was fundamentally challenged; when focusing on the process of the Arab Spring, Bahrain appears to be the only other challenge for the rentier state approach.

However, it should be clear that any exception can only be tolerated if we confess that the rentier state approach does not constitute a law but a concept based on the ceteris paribus clause: Rentier states generate robust authoritarianism if (and only if) other things are equal. Thus, what has been different in the exceptional cases of Libya and Bahrain? What factors intervened, thereby changing the process and outcome in Bahrain and Libya in comparison to other oil countries in the Arab Spring? The presentation attempts to tackle these questions by both reflecting on the empirical particularities of the two cases as well as on comparisons with deviant cases in history such as Iran in 1979. One of the major findings is that institutions do matter: The regime of Qaddafi was ill‐prepared to deal with the uprisings since it had destroyed traditional institutions without creating new ones (similar as the Pahlavi regime). Another finding is that class‐based rentier states such as Bahrain are more prone to crisis of authoritarianism.

Ennis, Crystal A.: Millenials and the State of Entrepreneurship in the Gulf

This paper analyzes the peculiar manifestation of entrepreneurship promotion policies throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) given their apparent structural incongruence with the rentier nature of Gulf political economy. Through an examination of this tension which has resulted in a series of contradictory policies, practices, and behaviors, this paper speaks to emerging debates on the evolution of the rentier state in the GCC.

The framing of entrepreneurship and innovation promotion policies in the Gulf is the provision of a new path for a new generation. Certainly the language of sustainability, diversification, and private sector development is engaged, but it is the focus on the younger generations that makes a tired dialogue sound fresh, invigorating. The region is acutely aware of their youth bulge moving up the demographic pyramid, waiting to enter adulthood with secure employment and other “growing up” markers of success. Indeed, entrepreneurship and innovation have dominated policy discussions on the domestic and regional agenda and have become the ruling buzzwords for a new generation, offering an alternate path and the hope for change. The promotion of entrepreneurship in the GCC countries predates the onset of the Arab uprisings. Yet many of the causal mechanisms underlying the eruption of the uprisings across the region constitute part of the same cluster of pressures underlying the development of entrepreneurial and innovation initiatives. It is apparent, however, that the emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation since 2011 has compounded. Following a year of indepth field research, this paper assesses the real state of entrepreneurship in Oman and Qatar, particularly among Gulf millennials. It examines how the demographic bulge influences entrepreneurship and innovation activities and policy measures and how the environment in turn influences young people in the Gulf. Finally, it discusses what these symbiotic activities reveal about the evolution of the rentier social contract.

Fioroni, Claudie: Jordan and the Rentier State Approach: The Case of Employment Practices at the Jordan Phosphate Mine Company (JPMC)

While most political and academic debates on the stability of Arab monarchies revolve around the rentier state approach, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan defies the argument. Indeed, while the Hashemite regime of Jordan as not (yet) been seriously threatened by popular uprisings, the contention that the Jordanian population views the state as its benefactor appears doubtful as thousands of protests have occurred in Jordan since early 2011. To what extent does the rentier state approach apply to the Jordanian case?

This paper discusses the relevance of rentier state approaches for the current political situation in Jordan by focusing on employment practices. The first part reviews the literature dedicated to the political economy of Jordan to highlight the peculiarity of Jordan rentier system and its consequences for the relationships between the rulers and the ruled. It argues that recruitment practices in the public sector ‐ rather than the autonomy of the rulers as it is argued for Gulf oil‐rich monarchies ‐ appears as one of the key features of the ruler‐ruled relationship in Jordan.

The second part analyses the evolution of employment practices at the Jordan Phosphate Mine Company (JPMC) since its privatization in 2006; as well as the various protests against the company that have occurred since 2011. It highlights tensions between a rentier approach to employment (both in recruitment and jobseeking practices) and other “ethics” of employment. It relies on 6‐month ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2013 at JPMC headquarter, JPMC mines and the neighboring areas including al‐Hassa, al‐Abyiad and Ma’an district.

Richter, Thomas: Oil Rents, Regime Survival and Contextual Conditions: Lessons from the Arab Monarchies during the Arab Spring

Much of the regional Middle East Political Science literature criticizes the rentier state approach of being ahistorical and overly simplistic as the nature of the causal mechanism is concerned, which links state revenues from producing primary commodities (rents) towards regime survival. This paper tries to overcome this criticism by analyzing, which historical contextual conditions might be necessary (dis)enabling oil rents to be used in order to stabilize authoritarian rule. Looking at the evolution of Middle East monarchies since World War II, a configurational comparison of all previous and contemporary monarchical regimes reveals a number of interesting insides: First, not a single but a number of different trajectories explain the breakdown as well as the survival of authoritarian monarchies in the Middle East. Second, oil rents take a different role in all of these trajectories. On the one hand, oil rents contribute to survival, but only in combination with a deeply entrenched role of the monarchical family within the political affairs of a country (e.g. Gulf monarchies). On the other hand, the absence of oil rents does not lead to the breakdown of monarchical regimes as the cases of Morocco and Jordan clearly demonstrate. Third, despite abundant oil revenues the breakdown of monarchical rule becomes possible under very specific historical conditions. In oil abundant Iran 1979, US support was unable to substitute the missing institutionalized support of family members under conditions of failed legitimacy claims and rising social protest. In Iraq 1958, the rising amount of oil revenues was unable to shield the Hashemite family in a context of decreasing external support by the British and a rising level of societal unrest, despite a well‐established historical‐religious claim to political legitimacy.

Schütze, Benjamin: Strategic rents and their limitations as explanatory device for Jordanian politics

Lacking a strong national economy and substantial natural resources, Jordan has since its establishment been dependent on foreign aid. Due to its geo-strategic importance the Hashemite Kingdom has managed to overcome changes in the sources of this foreign aid, while maintaining a continuous inflow of it. This has enabled Jordan to ease social pressures by among others upholding a system of state patronage, which has traditionally worked to the benefit of Jordan’s East-Bank population. Faced with decreasing rent inflows Jordan has since the ascension to the throne by King Abdullah II in 1999 engaged in numerous high level efforts at economic liberalisation, with its system of state patronage and subsidies increasingly coming under pressure. While a 2012 IMF standby agreement demanded the reduction of subsidies, East-Bank Jordanian youth, whose parent generation has been the greatest beneficiary of state patronage and the traditional pillar of support for the Hashemite monarchy, have over the past years been spearheading a protest movement against perceived corruption, high prices and growing unemployment.

By initially focusing on three critical junctures of Jordanian history (the 1967 Six Day War, the 1990/1991 Gulf War and the 1994 Peace Agreement with Israel) and then comparing the findings to the occurrences of the Arab Spring in Jordan this paper illustrates how economic structures and strategic rents do not determine, but together with non-economic structures and in interaction with agency shape Jordanian politics. It is argued that rentier theory enables the identification of certain properties in a given state, but that these only become manifest in a contingent and often contradictory interaction with agency. Applying a structurational approach to rentier theory, which views both structure and agency as mutually constituted, the paper sets out to identify mediating factors that are easily disregarded by overtly determinist readings of rentier theory, but that are of major importance in shaping political outcomes.

Shechter, Relli: Citizens‐Consumers of the Rentier State: Egypt and Saudi Arabia during the First Oil Boom (c. 1973‐1983) and Since

In her study of mass consumer society in the US during the post‐World War II era, Lizabeth Cohen emphasized conversion from war to peace production as central in making consumption a citizens’ duty, as opposed to wartime savings. A postwar “Consumers’ Republic” experienced a clear political nexus between citizenship and mass consumption. A broad public and political consensus supported mass consumption to facilitate peacetime production and employment, allow economic recovery, and growing influence of the US in world affairs during the Cold War. Rentier states in the Middle East also created political economies based on a citizens consumers nexus, but ones which were implicit rather than explicit in their social contracts, and are yet to be revealed in research. Unlike in the US, rentier states increasingly formed a disjuncture between local production (production by locals in Saudi Arabia) and consumption. In regional consumer societies, citizens‐consumers became progressively depended on external revenues and on the authoritarian regimes which allocated such resources. In other words, unsustainable mass consumption where local demand was greater than local supply enhanced the rentier condition. The first goal of my presentation is to engage household consumption statistics from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to outline the respective development of mass consumption in the two countries during the oil boom, therefore, the growing significance of state allocation in citizens’ life. I later retell histories of the oil boom in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two different rentier states. I support such narratives with evidence from contemporary public discourse in the press and official statements from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, the launching of Import‐Substitute Industrialization under Nasser encouraged consumption of Egypt‐made, to facilitate industrialization. Sadat’s open door (infitah) policy, including allowing work migration of millions, facilitated rapid “consumption liberalization.” Production did not disappear as Egyptian intellectuals lamented at times, especially because a huge informal economy developed. Nevertheless, during the oil boom the Egyptian economy became ever more dependent on oil‐related revenues which flowed from the state to its citizens. Untaxed remittances and unregulated informal economy enhanced an inverse tea‐party political logic of “no representation without taxation,” while facilitating mass consumption. In Saudi Arabia, the oil boom brought into full swing a state‐led political economy of consumption which gradually emerged since the discovery of oil. This political economy was boosted in the 1950s and crystallized under King Faisal since the early 1960s. During the 1970s, Saudi Development Plans increasingly decoupled local non‐oil production and services from consumption. High imports of labor meant that Saudi‐made was seldom produced by Saudis, as did policies of gender segregation. The rapid development of consumer society in Saudi Arabia increased local dependence on petro‐dollars through state provisioning and market mechanisms alike. In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the entanglement of consumers’ desires and rentier policies may explain the longevity of the autocratic rentier state and current challenges in backtracking from earlier political economies.