Oil and societal quiescence: Rethinking causal mechanisms in rentier state theory

Jessie Moritz, Australian National University

This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 33: The Politics of Rentier States in the Gulf. Download the full PDF here.

Does the absence of revolution in the states of the Gulf during the 2011 Arab uprisings vindicate the argument that an oil or gas-rich government could ‘buy’ political loyalty by transferring vast sums of rent-derived material wealth to citizens?  Such claims on behalf of rentier state theory (RST) are common in both academic research and in the media coverage of the region after 2011. “A fresh infusion of money has so far bought order,” concluded the New York Times about Saudi Arabia in early 2011, while Michael Ross asked later that year whether oil would “drown” the Arab Spring, noting: “the Arab Spring has seriously threatened just one oil-funded ruler – Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi – and only because [NATO]’s intervention prevented the rebels’ certain defeat.”[1] Academic research too has occasionally relied on simplistic characterizations of the relationship between oil and societal quiescence, as in Samuel Huntington’s claim that “the lower the level of taxation, the less reason for the public to demand representation”.[2]

My research suggests that the link between rents, rent distributions, and co-optation is not nearly so settled.[3] This relationship is an important one to get right: without connecting oil and societal quiescence, it is difficult to identify the impact of oil on democratization or civil conflict, both of normative as well as theoretical importance to academic researchers and policymakers. That is, we must first understand how rents impact political mobilization before we can understand whether this will lead to violent conflict, regime change, or democratization.[4] Given the often contradictory findings of research on rents and political outcomes, a reassessment of causal mechanisms is important, as is already happening in the related literature on natural resources and civil war.[5] 

In part, as Michael Herb has argued, the ambiguous political outcomes of rentierism are due to complex causality, which in turn complicates the search for law-like relationships between rents and political outcomes.[6] He calls for the study of contextualized causal mechanisms through careful analysis of case studies, a suggestion reinforced here. However, even within case study research, political economy research in the archetypal rentier states of the Gulf has been heavily focused on top-down, state-centric processes of de-mobilization, pointing to the relative absence of street demonstrations or civil society associations as evidence of the state’s success. This ‘co-optation mechanism’ has become pervasive as an explanation for politics in petroleum-rich states, especially in the archetypal rentier states of the Gulf.

Pro-government narratives, for example, expressed outrage when citizens challenged the state despite benefiting from the rentier system.  There was no Omani Spring, claimed Muscat Daily commentator Raya al-Kharusi in 2012, as:

we have no such thing because the West’s reference to what happened in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Jordan have [sic] no comparison to the very few misfits who are ungrateful for all that has been done for them – educationally, health, free plots of land at only One Rial Omani per square meter, overseas scholarships, overseas government paid medical treatment, and the list goes on.[7]

In Bahrain, the Al-Rased television show questioned those who accepted state benefits and yet challenged the government; for example, an episode on 11 May 2011 focused on doctors and medical staff from Bahrain’s public hospital.[8] Also in Bahrain, incarcerated protesters reported their interrogators had expressed confusion over why medium and high-income Bahrainis risked their financial position to remain politically active. “They ask everybody about this…they aren’t thinking away from these material things”, claimed Mohammed al-Tajer, a Bahraini human rights lawyer who was detained in al-Qurain prison for over two months in 2011. “They thought that people rise [sic] because they want their salary, they want to be better paid…they never thought that our revolution was because we want freedom, we want democracy, we want a kind of share…in managing the country.” But many policy-makers I interviewed in Bahrain and Oman did not consider a material response as sufficient to defuse societal unrest, so it is certainly not a universal attitude. Nor did many of the activists themselves, suggesting this is an important moment to rethink our understanding of the co-optation mechanism.

Testing the micro-foundations

In part, this is a call to move away from national or cross-national levels of analyses, and towards sub-national or meso- (group) and micro- (individual) level studies – in essence, to re-evaluate the micro-foundations of the rentier state.  The literature has focused too much on how the state has attempted to produce societal quiescence and not enough on how and why members of society have chosen to promote, accept, or resist those attempts. Shifting the focus to society, of course, may uncover evidence that rent-based co-optation does work on some types of groups at certain times. If rentierism explains societal quiescence, in fact, then we should see evidence of its influence in the attitudes and actions of citizens (or at least a critical mass of citizens), especially in terms of determining whether or not to challenge state authority.

Nationally-representative surveys, though these are difficult to conduct in authoritarian contexts, may shed light on drivers of societal quiescence or citizen mobilization: one example is Justin Gengler’s 2009 study of Bahraini citizens, which found that material satisfaction explained Sunni, but not necessarily Shia, political activism.[9] Jim Krane’s study of GCC citizen versus expert perceptions of rentier entitlements, too, found that experts (including senior ministry officials in all six GCC states) overestimated citizen opposition to subsidy reform, suggesting that the state may have more room to manoeuvre on economic issues than they realize.[10]

Such attempts to use different sources of evidence to reassess the rent-societal quiescence relationship, not only from the position of the state, but also from the perspective of citizens, are critical. For example, if rent distributions increased at the national level and protests faltered, this correlation between rents and societal quiescence could easily be taken as evidence of causation. However, is a causal relationship convincing based on data from the protesters themselves? Did individuals feel more economically satisfied following the distributions? Is this why they left the streets? Was repression involved? What about other drivers of attitudes or behavior? For instance, if a citizen is employed in the public sector and receives free healthcare, free education, and other material benefits from the state, then according to the co-optation mechanism they should be unlikely to mobilize politically. However, as I found in my research, many political activists who had received those benefits but still mobilized in 2011 justified their action by reference to an ideology that encouraged challenges to state authority (for example Marxist-leftism, or religious groups who perceived a moral imperative to push for their beliefs). This suggests that the co-optation mechanism has either been ineffective or overpowered by these other drivers of political mobilization.[11]

A dynamic approach to rents and society

Qualitative evidence suggests that these other drivers are important,[12] yet the bulk of RST works remain fixed on state-centric, material-based explanations for political mobilization. Ironically, even Giacomo Luciani, one of the earliest architects of RST, specifically warned against promulgating theories of a ‘rentier state’ in 1987, arguing that in doing so there was “a distinct danger of exaggerating the argument and overlooking the fact that oil…is not the only significant dimension.”[13]

A better balance between society-centric and state-centric analyses would point towards the dynamic impact of rentierism. As rent distributions fluctuate, especially as the state attempts to curtail burdensome and unsustainable expenditures,[14] how do these changes impact citizen attitudes towards the state?[15] Paying greater attention to societal activism at the sub-national level can highlight how citizens move between political quiescence, active opposition, and even active support of the state, as well as how they shift between different forms of political action – from street protests, to popular petitions, to expressions of reform desires on social and traditional media – in response to regime governance strategies. In doing so, we can more effectively analyze the absence of political mobilization, especially where the state has employed an innovative regime survival strategy.  Such approaches may move beyond rent distributions to the use of social engineering (as Calvert-Jones covers in this collection), state-sponsored feminism (see Ennis), or coalition-shuffling (Leber), among other tactics.

In Qatar, where street protests did not occur in 2011, there have nonetheless been mobilizations on social media challenging key state directives (the sale of pork, for example, which is in turn linked to a perceived threat to culture driven by Qatar’s rapid, state-led economic development program). “The good thing about Twitter is there’s an avalanche factor,” argued a Qatari who’d been involved in several ‘hashtag movements’ for social change, “which means that nobody can be pinpointed – [it is] very difficult to determine who started the thing. It’s very difficult to determine if the person who started the thing actually wanted it to go to that direction, so it’s very safe to write in that sphere.” At the same time, direct calls for political liberalization in Qatar are very rare. A Qatari academic who otherwise expressed a desire for reform, when asked why there was no Arab Spring in Qatar, responded with the following:

You know that there’s no political representation. You know that incarceration could happen if you raise your voice too much and you’re living better than most people in the whole world…You’re not going to change the entire system; it’s not even conceivable, with that very few people [sic]. And the cost is very high because you’re going to move from being one of the richest people in the world to being incarcerated. So because of that steep cost, people just say: “what the hell.”

Alone, this interviewee has raised at least three mechanisms which have prevented their personal political mobilization: the threat of repression by the state (and, as the interviewee later went on to highlight, also by regime loyalists); the perception that reform would be unsuccessful (lack of opportunity); and material benefits (rent-based co-optation). All of these could be, directly or indirectly, linked to rentierism. At the same time, the cost-benefit analysis of political mobilization shifts considerably when these dynamics are altered, such as when state repression targets personal or kinship networks: one Bahraini participant in the 2011 protests, when asked why he had mobilized, said: “[w]hen you come from a Shia family, you have a family member in jail”, whereas another noted that her Aunt’s arrest had caused her to start publicly criticizing the state. The likelihood of these latter individuals becoming politically quiescent due to increased material distributions is low, illustrating the limits of the co-optation mechanism.[16]

Micro-level studies, of course, must be supported by data collected at the meso- and national level before patterns of political mobilization can be generalized. Nonetheless, they do offer an opportunity to identify a potential ‘universe’ of causal mechanisms relevant to societal quiescence in oil and gas-rich states, which, as Herb notes, may offer a productive way forward for a literature dealing with causal complexity.[17] It may improve our understanding of co-optation generally, too: after all, the co-optive capacity of rentier states differs largely in scale, rather than nature, to that of non-rentier states. Moreover, returning to careful analysis of causal mechanisms, alongside a better balance between state-centric and society-centric explanations for political mobilization, may help to generate new understandings of rents and societal quiescence, including those that can more effectively incorporate non-material as well as material explanations for political mobilization. These findings, most importantly, may help RST to remain relevant as an explanation of a particular type of social contract, with both theoretical and normative implications for oil and gas-rich states.


[1] Neil Macfarquhar, “In Saudi Arabia, Royal Funds Buy Peace for Now,” New York Times (June 8, 2011) https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/09/world/middleeast/09saudi.html; Michael Ross, “Will Oil Drown the Arab Spring? Democracy and the Resource Curse,” Foreign Affairs 90:5 (September/October 2011) 2.

[2] Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) 65.

[3] See also Uriel Abulof, “‘Can’t Buy Me Legitimacy’: The Elusive Stability of Mideast Rentier Regimes,” Journal of International Relations and Development 20:1 (January 2017) 55-79; Jocelyn Sage Mitchell and Justin Gengler, “What Money Can’t Buy: Wealth, Inequality, and Economic Satisfaction in the Rentier State,” Political Research Quarterly (2018) 1-15.

[4] Michael Ross, “Does Taxation Lead to Representation?” British Journal of Political Science 23 (2004) 229-249.

[5] Matthias Basedau, Annegret Mähler, and Miriam Shabafrouz, “Drilling Deeper: A Systematic, Context-Sensitive Investigation of Causal Mechanisms in the Oil-Conflict Link,” Journal of Development Studies 50:1 (2014) 51-63; Lars-Erik Cederman, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, and Halvard Buhaug, Inequality, Grievances, and Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[6] Michael Herb, “Ontology and Methodology in the Study of the Resource Curse,” London School of Economics Kuwait Programme Paper Series 43 (June 2017) 1-25.

[7] Raya al-Kharusi, commenting in response to Marc Valeri, “‘Qaboos Can Make Mistakes Like Anybody Else’ – The Sultan of Oman DeSacrilised,” Jadaliyya (18 November 2012) http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/8430/%E2%80%9Cqaboos-can-make-mistakes-like-anybodyelse_-the-s.

[8] B4hrain, “al-rāṣed Wezāra al-Ṣaḥa wa al-Salmāniyya,” YouTube (11 April 2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCO-BL_6swU. See also Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, Nigel Rodley, Badria Al-Awadhi, Philippe Kirsch, and Mahnoush H. Arsanjani, Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (Manama: Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 2011) pp. 39, 206, 394.

[9] Justin Gengler, Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2015); see also Justin Gengler, Michael Ewers, and Bethany Shockley, “Gulf Citizen Preferences towards Spending, Subsidies, and Taxation in a New Economic Era” POMEPS (2018).

[10] Jim Krane, “Stability versus Sustainability: Energy Policy in the Gulf Monarchies,” PhD Dissertation (University of Cambridge, 2014) 164-189; see also Jim Krane, “Too much of a good thing: Theoretical implications of subsidy reform and tax increases in the rentier Middle East” POMEPS (2018).

[11] Jessie Moritz, “Reformers and the Rentier State: Re-Evaluating the Co-Optation Mechanism in Rentier State Theory,” Journal of Arabian Societies (forthcoming).

[12] See for example Kristin Diwan, “Breaking Taboos: Youth Activism in the Gulf States,” Atlantic Council (March 2014) 1-6; Courtney Freer, Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); Said Sultan al-Hashimi, ed., al-Rabī‘ al-‘Umānī: qarā‘at fī al-sīyyāqāt w-al-dalalāt (Beirut: dār al-fārābī, 2013); Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent, and Sectarianism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[13] Giacomo Luciani, “Allocation vs. Production States: A Theoretical Framework,” in The Rentier State, edited by Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani (London: Croom Helm, 1987) 67.

[14] See for example Krane, “Subsidy reform and tax increases in the rentier Middle East”; Michael Herb, “Labor markets and economic diversification in the Gulf rentiers”; and Ishac Diwan, “A landing strategy for Saudi Arabia” POMEPS (2018).

[15] For discussion of Qatari citizen views on taxation, for example, see Gengler, Ewers, and Shockley, “Gulf Citizen Preferences towards Spending, Subsidies, and Taxation in a New Economic Era”.

[16] For further details, see Jessie Moritz, “Slick Operators: Revising Rentier State Theory for the Modern Arab States of the Gulf,” PhD Dissertation (Australian National University, 2016).

[17] Herb, “Ontology and Methodology”.