Social engineering in rentier states

Calvert W. Jones, University of Maryland, College Park

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

Culture plays a limited role in rentier theory, and social engineering even less of one. Two of the best known contributors, Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani, argued in The Rentier State (1987) that such states need not bother with national mythmaking since they can build loyalty through the distribution of their large stores of resource wealth. Why spend time and effort trying to shape the culture of a population—constructing stories of peoplehood, legitimizing myths, narratives of citizenship, and the like—when loyalty can be acquired through easier and more direct means?

The argument is not without its merits. The Gulf monarchies, among the richest of rentier states, devoted relatively little attention in their early years to devising and inculcating elaborate forms of nationalism. Because rulers could gain loyalty by providing an unprecedented degree of economic and social welfare for citizens, “there wasn’t yet a deep coherence or political meaning to being Emirati or Saudi or Qatari” (Okruhlik 2011, 126), nor was there much urgency to establish one. Dirk Vandewalle (1998, 171) draws a similar conclusion in the case of Libya, noting that distributive states need not “elicit more than perfunctory loyalty” to survive and prosper. Comparisons to governments with fewer resources at the time of state-formation are especially revealing. Like the nearby Gulf states, Iraq was also a monarchy patched over tribal allegiances in its early years, yet it could not build loyalty in the same way. Shortly after independence, it turned to social engineering in the public school system; if it couldn’t “buy” loyalty, it would need to instill it by way of a powerful nationalist ideology.

It is striking, then, how ambitious and far-reaching social engineering efforts by the Gulf rentier monarchies have become, both at home and abroad. Not only does rentier theory not predict it, but the theory also gives us some compelling reasons not to expect it. Of course, such social engineering is not an entirely new phenomenon. Even though the Gulf monarchies largely eschewed the inculcation of all-out nationalism, they dabbled in social engineering, especially during the first oil boom, by producing museums and histories to legitimize ruling families as rightful political leaders. Hence Qatar, although “sadly lacking in a civic myth” in the early 1970s, soon began “developing symbols that would clarify and legitimize [the emir’s] claim to rule” (Crystal 1990, 162).

Yet such early efforts at social engineering pale in comparison to the wider and more penetrating campaigns unfolding today. In Saudi Arabia, the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has famously declared his country “not normal” (Hincks 2017) and aims to transform it with a sweeping set of social and economic reforms, reversing the Kingdom’s longstanding preference for gradualism. Notably, he is taking on the “third rail” (Gause 2010) of Saudi politics—gender segregation—by lifting the ban on women driving and opening cinemas, including gender-mixed ones. Using new public rhetoric and symbolism, he is also promoting what he calls “moderate Islam,” reducing the power of the Wahhabi establishment, and moving toward a more secular nationalism as the basis for regime legitimacy.

In the UAE, the leadership has also sought to defy the “king’s dilemma” (Huntington 1968) by fostering a more open and globalized society knit together by a new nationalism, while maintaining regime legitimacy. As in Saudi Arabia, high-profile initiatives promoting knowledge, culture, and innovation, such as new universities and futuristic cities, are typical (Ulrichsen 2016). But the UAE campaign started earlier, and has gone deeper with extensive reforms to public education, starting with kindergarten. These aim to transform both the mindsets and the skillsets of the rising generation in a bid to create more “globalization-ready” citizens (Jones 2018). Reforms emphasize student-centered methods—pushing creativity, problem-solving, and vocational skill over the rote memorization approach of the past—and also a revamped nationalism that celebrates UAE identity as pioneering, entrepreneurial, tolerant, and loyal. In addition, the regime instituted mandatory military service in 2014, with all men 30 years or younger required to register and live in barracks as they fulfill service requirements (Alterman and Balboni 2017). 

Why social engineering?

Such bold social engineering flies in the face of rentier state theory and raises a number of important questions. First, why are we seeing such investments in social engineering on the part of Gulf rentier states? One answer may be cost. Social engineering is not cheap and may produce unintended consequences, discussed in more detail below. But, as a strategy of building loyal citizens, it is presumably cheaper and less distortionary than direct provision of government jobs and other forms of state largesse.

Another important reason is that resource wealth alone isn’t enough to secure loyalty and stability and never has been. The rentier social contract—in which states provide economic and social welfare in exchange for citizen loyalty—is more theory than reality. Undoubtedly, resource wealth helps. It is telling that the Gulf’s “extreme” rentier states (Herb 2014), such as Qatar and the UAE, were among the only regimes in the region to emerge from the 2010-2011 pro-democracy uprisings relatively unchanged, despite their near absolutism. But such wealth is unlikely to serve as a reliable basis for citizen loyalty in the longer term. Moreover, as Gulf regimes gear up for a confrontation with Iran, widely perceived as an external threat, they have further incentive to consolidate strength and loyalty.

The rentier social contract is a variation on what Rogers Smith (2003) calls an “economic story of peoplehood,” in which rulers gain the support of constituents by making socio-economic promises. While there may be some leeway—for example, Krane (this volume) shows that Gulf governments have removed some subsidies, with little of the political consequences expected by rentier theory, and Gengler (this volume) suggests that the rentier citizen’s freedom from taxation may not be as sacrosanct as believed—this type of loyalty is a rickety sort. Without a deeper connection to the state, loyalty based primarily on economic stories of peoplehood is not likely to persist through hard times (Smith 2003), and is instead inclined to dissipate when socio-economic promises cannot be fulfilled. All the Gulf states are under growing strain stemming from a range of factors, including volatility in international oil markets, the unequal distribution of resource wealth, demand for greater political participation, and massive expatriate populations with few rights (Davidson 2012). The time will come when shrinking resources may constrain the ability to respond through distributing more rentier wealth.

Far from burying their heads in the sand, Gulf leaders are increasingly aware of these cracks in the rentier social contract, and that brings us to another driver of contemporary social engineering—elite agency. Earlier theorists attributed considerable autonomy to rentier states, seen as divorced from the need to tax and thus bargain with their citizens. But these theorists did not anticipate the degree to which ruling elites would become aware of their own rentier-induced weaknesses and seek to address them in innovative ways. In Terry Karl’s memorable words, such ruling elites are “weak giants that could be rendered ineffective by hundreds of rent-seeking Lilliputians” (1997, 60). A neglect of elite agency is consistent with the oft-noted economic determinism that underlies much of the theory. But while rentier economic structures can and do influence political actors entangled within them, those actors can also make unexpected decisions, reflecting at least some degree of freedom to think and act within those structures (Hertog 2010).

Social engineering by Gulf rentier states is one area in which elite agency plays a key role. Many ruling elites know about the perils of resource wealth, not only economically, but also politically in the shaky basis for loyalty that an over-reliance on it for legitimacy can provide. Some of them have even studied the topic in political science courses in the West (Jones 2015), and they don’t wish to stand idly by as the challenges deepen. Social engineering efforts today are partly a reflection of political elites searching for solutions to these challenges, often with the support of top international experts (Jones forthcoming in 2019). They know that the rentier social contract will be difficult to sustain in the coming years, and so they are experimenting with ways to adapt it, attempting to instill greater economic self-reliance and less expectation of government jobs and other forms of state largesse—without undermining their own legitimacy.

The new nationalisms underlying these campaigns are therefore critical. Rulers need not only prepare their citizens economically for a post-petroleum age by upgrading skills and mindsets, but they also need to reconstruct the basis for legitimacy. In line with this need, political symbolism is shifting from rentier themes such as “Support us because of the good life we can provide you” to neoliberal nationalist messages such as “Work hard and contribute to your country because you love and owe it,” “Prove yourself by being successful in the nation’s private sector,” and “Support us, not because we provide for you, but because you are citizens of this great country and we are its leaders.” As Ennis (this volume) shows, such messages may also be gendered, reflected in Gulf government efforts to cast women’s entrepreneurship as a means of empowerment.

A third driver of contemporary social engineering is a widening recognition that resource wealth, rather than being a reason not to bother with mythmaking, nationalism, propaganda, and the like, in fact offers tremendous opportunities for and temptation to engage in such activities. In other words, the earlier rentier theorists may have been correct that rentier states do not “need” social engineering as urgently as resource-poor states do, especially at the time of state-formation. But that doesn’t mean they don’t engage in it, for political, economic, reputational, and other reasons. The rigid functionalism in early rentier theory (“if there’s no need for it, it doesn’t happen”) was therefore misplaced. Gulf leaders, far from being reluctant social engineers, are coming into their own as very enthusiastic shapers of attitude and opinion.

My research has investigated the consequences—intended and unintended—of Gulf social engineering. In my book, I focus on the UAE drive to build a new kind of citizen, better adapted to a more open and globalized world in the eyes of the leadership (Jones 2017). Surveying more than 2000 Emirati youth, comparing incoming and outgoing cohorts in regular public schools as well as public schools that had implemented major reforms in line with the state’s social engineering goals, I found mixed results.

While the evidence suggested UAE social engineers are succeeding in influencing civic attitudes, effectively increasing tolerance, civic-mindedness, and patriotism, their efforts appear to be backfiring with respect to economic and political attitudes. Notably, students subjected to social engineering seemed to grow more supportive of the citizen’s right to a government job, perhaps reflecting a heightened political consciousness surrounding ownership of oil rents and the right to one’s fair share—a “shareholder mentality” (Beaugrand, this volume). They also grew less entrepreneurial and more interested in political participation for themselves, albeit not other citizens. I described these new citizens as “entitled patriots,” highly civic and patriotic yet also highly entitled. To summarize, while the data pointed to success on the civic front, the evidence did not suggest that UAE social engineers are succeeding in their effort to cultivate more economically self-reliant citizens without triggering political demands. Solutions to the “king’s dilemma” remain as elusive as ever.

How and why social engineering efforts succeed or backfire—and the normative implications for society—are likely to remain important questions, especially as technologies allow ever-greater means of influence and invasion of privacy. For example, in my book, I found that the new nationalism being promoted by UAE social engineers was itself partly to blame for intensifying economic and political entitlement attitudes. By offering excessive praise for citizens and their nation, it did not motivate hard work and high achievement so much as justify elite status. Such “feel-good” nationalism was therefore very helpful in promoting civic and patriotic attitudes, but not successful in fostering entrepreneurialism, risk-taking, and other development-friendly attitudes sought by leaders.

This trend can also be seen in Gulf leaders’ use of social engineering abroad (Hertog 2017).  Saudi Arabia has long been accused of promoting its own worldview in foreign locales, building schools and mosques that legitimize its claims to leadership in the Muslim world (Shane 2016). But changes in technology and the global media landscape have opened up new avenues for such cross-border social engineering and invited new entrants to play the game. Saudi Arabia and Qatar both have powerful media empires today that can be deployed for social engineering. Thus, in the wake of the Arab uprisings, Gulf leaders used these tools of soft power to complement their hard power interventions, furthering their shared interests in monarchical regime stability. While rebels in some countries, such as Syria, were portrayed in a sympathetic light, others closer to home and more threatening to the monarchs themselves, such as those in Bahrain, were largely ignored (Lynch 2018).

How do international audiences react to Gulf efforts at cross-border social engineering? And domestically, is social engineering working as Gulf leaders intend? We need to ask not only about origins and mechanisms of social engineering by rentier states, but also about outcomes and limits. While new media technologies have empowered social engineering ruling elites, they have also empowered citizens to resist efforts to influence them. Despite their media empires, the rich Gulf monarchies are far from universally loved; thus, while Qatar was popular right after the Arab uprisings, that popularity “collapsed when [Qatar] was seen to overreach and try to impose the Muslim Brotherhood on Egypt” (Lynch 2016, 61). Conflicts within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may also limit the power of social engineering, as Saudi and Qatari media promote increasingly divergent narratives. In addition, unintended consequences are typical, a lesson the Saudi leadership presumably learned from its earlier, brick-and-mortar efforts at social engineering in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In conclusion, rentier state theory should be extended to make more room for culture and social engineering. Any of the post-rentier strategies of reform outlined by Herb, Diwan, and others in this volume will need to be accompanied by newly legitimizing rationales to gain popular buy-in. Despite early predictions, rentier states can and do engage in ambitious social engineering schemes both at home and abroad, and we need to understand why, how, and to what effect. Because social engineering is booming in the Gulf rentier states, the region offers a valuable opportunity to investigate these questions in comparative perspective.



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