Crystal A. Ennis, Leiden University
This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 33: The Politics of Rentier States in the Gulf. Download the full PDF here.
Increasingly rentier states nurture a dysfunctional, but useful, relationship with neoliberal capitalism. This corresponds with global trends where neoliberal capitalism benefits from authoritarian modalities of governance. Oil continues to play an overdetermined role in economic governance and economic life in Gulf states. Beyond its role in propping up governing establishments, the structural logic of the rentier economy runs deep and is resistant to change. Yet simultaneously the ideology and discourse of the free market, the importance of privatization, deregulation, and liberalization of economic spaces combined with an emphasis on self-employment and individual empowerment has become widespread. Like global financial institutions and consultancies, the Gulf states too are busy promoting entrepreneurship and private sector growth.
The promotion of women’s entrepreneurship in the Gulf region can be understood within this broader evolution of rentierism and neoliberal capitalism. Women’s empowerment projects around the world, whether run by multinational corporations, development actors, or the state, claim to empower women through market opportunities. Such feminism is critiqued for its abandonment of its radical roots and transformation by neoliberalism. This form of gender empowerment cast through the lens of free market rationales is what Kantola and Squires have dubbed “market feminism.” This global development trend melds with economic patterns in Gulf economies, cast between oil dependence and policy discourse on diversification.
Looking at the promotion of female entrepreneurship allows us to examine how the dual neoliberalization of feminism and rentierism interacts with women’s economic engagement in the Gulf states. By claiming that the experience of female actors in the Gulf is not univocal, this essay suggests that state-society relations in Gulf economies are more fluid and co-constitutive than usually depicted in accounts of rentier states. Feminist political economy helps to show that understanding the reimagination of the rentier state and its impact on society requires one to take seriously the deep structures of the economy alongside the stories and experiences of so-called rentier citizens – at least half of whom are women.
The rentier state meets feminist political economy
Much of the political science scholarship which emphasizes the link between rent and authoritarianism overlooks the ways in which neoliberalism interacts with authoritarianism. The expansion of neoliberal economic patterns does not sit well within the theoretical claims of rentier state literature, which view autocratic, oil-economies as power-maximizing, autonomous actors with politically-acquiescent populations dependent on the state and its various redistributive mechanisms. Using entrepreneurship as an entry-point contributes to exploring the diverse ways neoliberalism has impacted politics in the Gulf.
Authoritarian neoliberalism, an analytic lens developed by Ian Bruff, helps explain some of these paradoxical behaviours. It was initially used to explain the rise of authoritarian tendencies in democracies, but various blends of authoritarianism and neoliberalism can also be identified across autocratic countries with recent histories of rapid economic development. Some call this ‘state capitalism,’ but I suggest that authoritarian neoliberalism better encapsulates the logic and disciplining power of the discourse of neoliberalism alongside explicit economic policy choices. Indeed, “neoliberalization in authoritarian states produces a symbiotic configuration whereby the reforms are enacted and protected through existing mechanisms of authoritarian statecraft.” The promotion of women’s entrepreneurship makes the marriage of convenience between rentierism and authoritarian neoliberalism especially evident. The utilization of both state feminism and market feminism to promote private sector growth, diversification, and women’s advancement advances narratives of state as reformer and underlines how policy agendas can be co-constitutive and mutually beneficial.
A gender-agency problem
Zooming in on women’s entrepreneurship in the Gulf allows us to challenge two spaces of analysis common in rentier state literature – assumptions about weak popular agency in the Gulf ruling bargain and links between oil rents and development.
Gulf women face two marginalizations in economic research on the region. First, citizens in general are viewed as voiceless and lacking in agency given the rentier ruling bargain. Second, women are viewed as especially oppressed either by oil, Islam, or culture – victims of policies and norms who need to be saved either by benevolent leaders who champion their growth or by the market which promises liberation. Occasionally, they are instead presented as a sui generis privileged elite whose vast financial resources give them endless economic and entertainment opportunities. But such caricatures are no more useful than the more prevalent tropes of oppression.
The literature on rentier political economy therefore tends to neglect or to distort the role of women in economic change. Policies are not gender neutral, and neither are studies. By ignoring women in accounts of economic development in the Gulf, we fail to comprehend the depth and breadth of economic choices and their impact. As Okruhlik has noted, “Not the simple receipt of oil revenue, but the choices made on how to spend it shape development.”
This essay focuses on one dimension of these economic policy changes to highlight the nuances of gender: why have Gulf states chosen to embrace a market discourse around entrepreneurship? It appears paradoxical to promote independent income generation that may distance citizenry from cycles of economic dependence and loyalty. The promotion of women’s entrepreneurship is a global trend which resonates in distinctive ways through Gulf political economy.
Because women’s participation in labor markets is weak in the Middle East, international financial institutions (IFIs) view women as an “untapped resource” that can contribute to economic growth. Gulf states are encouraged to motivate women to be entrepreneurial because of the potential gains possible from their productive economic engagement. The promotion of entrepreneurship is being sold globally as a universal remedy to weak economic development and labor market outcomes. IFIs, multinational corporations, global consultancies and governments across political spectrums have lined up behind this trend. Even the UN has embedded entrepreneurship for development among its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Furthermore, already bloated public sectors have little capacity to absorb more citizens. Where the private sector is reluctant to hire Gulf nationals, the hope is that employment creation through entrepreneurship can be an escape valve.
Injecting Gulf women into entrepreneurship locates their productivity in economic accounts. These developments are depoliticized and rest upon an intensifying trend of technocratizing issues of economic development while at the same time failing to problematize the failure of economics to value reproduction and ‘women’s work’ in economic accounts. Moreover, such a discourse proffers freedom and autonomy through dependence on capitalist markets rather than men.
Yet women, just like other social actors, do not experience state policies and business relations equivalently. Diverse forms of economic participation can be freeing or constraining and interact with patriarchal social and political forces. My research with female entrepreneurs revealed varied experiences with entrepreneurship. Certainly there were those who found it empowering – the source of autonomous income leading to financial independence. These women embraced the discourse around entrepreneurship and self-employment. Others felt that entrepreneurship provided a different type of freedom – that is, it allowed them to become economically active without necessarily having to be in a male-dominated workplace (through, for example, home businesses or businesses with primarily female clients). Still others experienced it in a reverse way; the financial necessity of formal economic participation was a heavy burden. Women thus respond to policy discourse spaces diversely and find varying ways to use and navigate these opportunities to improve their situation.
Entrepreneurship promotion has melded with women’s empowerment projects globally. Women joining the labor market is viewed as win-win because it is growth maximising. Such neoliberal economic policy advice has been internalized and promoted from the Gulf state. Like corporate women’s empowerment projects “use a version of feminism” to earn legitimacy and “develop a reputation as good corporate citizens in a globalized economy,” so too do rentier states embrace female empowerment through entrepreneurship as one branch of state feminism. It supports state narratives of championing women’s roles in economics and government.
Oil rents, women, and the labor market
Scholars have been concerned with whether oil rents impede democracy and development in the Middle East for several decades. Binary answers have shaped much of the intellectual engagement around the impact of rent on economies, polities, and societies. Similarly, when it addresses gender, rentier state literature has asked whether rentierism hampers or facilitates women’s economic engagement. Women’s economic participation is also treated with binary, testable answers. The results of economic development choices are determinative of the shape and space for female participation.
The region is widely viewed as underperforming in terms of women’s economic engagement. Yet Gulf women have excellent access to education, health care, and child and elderly care support. Moreover, Gulf women are entering universities and completing degrees at higher rates than men. They even comprise a higher percentage of computer science and IT majors than men. The story looks positive. However these outcomes are not well reflected in the labor market. Gulf women are decidedly underrepresented in the private sector workforce. The World Bank has dubbed this phenomenon the ‘gender paradox’ of the Middle East.
Some scholarship blames oil for these outcomes. Ross argues how oil-led development negatively impacts women’s labor market participation. Oil-dependent economies build industrial activities in sectors less hospitable to women’s employment globally, like extraction and refining. Such structural claims have been met with vigorous debate. Indeed the Gulf region may not in fact be the “radical outliers” to the impact of economic development on women as often predicted for oil economies.
In fact, women in the Gulf are entering the formal labor force at higher rates today than previous decades. World Bank estimates show that formal female labor force participation has at least doubled over the past four decades in all six GCC countries (Table 1). While it still remains low in Saudi Arabia and Oman, rates in Kuwait and Qatar fall within EU averages. Theories that view oil as relegating women to the home by lifting the financial imperative of work have given way to evidence which suggests that young Gulf women are more prepared to work in advanced industries than men.
What is evident from this data is that accounts which suggest female labor force participation is low view the statistic as a percentage of the total workforce rather than as a percentage of the total female population (table 1). It is, however, worth keeping in mind critiques of such measures which only consider populations of “economically-active” individuals. These data do not account for disenfranchised job seekers, the underemployed, and those who chose to remain in school because of a dearth of economic opportunities. Moreover, choosing certain segments of the population to base such estimates on, while revealing some trends, muddles citizen/non-citizen divides and other often gendered phenomenon like household workers and ‘trailing spouses’ in expat-dominated economies.
Data also show a clear preference for public sector employment. This is consistent with all Gulf nationals but more pronounced among women. As Figure 1 illustrates through the Omani case, Omani women comprise 35 percent of public sector employees, but only three percent of private sector ones.
Part of this can be explained with a view of how economic structures shape labor markets in the region. The over-reliance on oil rents in state budgets has sustained the characterization of Gulf states as the quintessential rentiers. This is coupled with a dependence on foreign labor that began in the early oil boom years when expatriates were required to plug a human resources and skills gap. This dependence has continued, constructing rigidities in the labor market that are difficult to change. The results are labor markets segmented by nationality, skill class, sector, and gender. The predominance of non-nationals and men in the private sector obscures the visibility of women.
Furthermore, GCC countries use public sector employment as a means of wealth redistribution and to manage unemployment. In economies like Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, hydrocarbon revenues are unable to keep up with the expansion of the working age population, and unemployment among young people is high. Women’s growing entry into the workforce enlarges the employment burden on the state – especially where women’s employment is preferred in the safe and secure public sector. Thus along with the pursuit of diversification and economic growth, the entrepreneurship agenda is intended to help offset the state’s employment burden by offloading it on the private sector and the individual.
The state promotion of entrepreneurship can therefore be interpreted as reenvisioning ways of spending oil income and redistributing wealth to a wider network, including women and youth not necessarily from privileged backgrounds. Gulf governments have needed to underwrite the provision of new economic possibilities by policy strategies like entrepreneurship promotion through grants, loans, business incubators, and more. Individuals compete for access to such state support. The expansion of the rent-seeking net beyond political and commercial elites is a noteworthy dynamic.
Moreover, a variety of women from diverse social classes are embracing the state’s promotion of entrepreneurship and self-employment. Few initiatives are innovative with a scope that responds to regional economic malaise. Rather much of the business activity centers on microenterprises and consumption goods. But these entrepreneurial forms provide a way of earning independent income. They also illustrate diverse ways women internalize and respond to economic options and structures in the economy.
My research on female entrepreneurship promotion provides three insights into the transformation of the rentier state. First, in trying to stimulate the private sector away from oil, the rentier state has found a new way of expanding rent circulation. This reform distortion reifies the market as the place of liberation and elixir to domestic economic woes while at the same time creating a new mechanism of reliance on the state. Second, it decouples assumed linkages between economic liberation and political liberation. The embrace of neoliberal discourse and policy advice is not concerned with improving democratic outcomes, but coexists comfortably with authoritarianism. Third, while oil does not necessarily keep women out of the workforce, the neoliberalization of feminism and of rentierism has coalesced around the idea that women’s formal labor market participation – especially through creating their own enterprises – resolves both economic and employment challenges.
This brief claims it is time to untangle gender in political economy analyses on the rentier state. It further suggests that scholarship on the rentier state should also consider the texture of policy impact. Asking qualitative questions around how impacts are felt and experienced whether deliberately or unintentionally can round out our analysis of rentierism and push the boundaries of the questions we can continue to ask at various levels of analysis.
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