Friday, September 12, 2008

Rentier states and democracy promotion in the Middle East

Brian Ulrich, who is currently guest blogging over at American Footprints (one of my favorites) and refers to a piece written earlier this month for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Riad al-Khouri, a Senior Fellow at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. al-Khouri described in his initial article the relevance of so-called "Rentier States" in spurring democracy promotion in the Gulf Region.

In his response, Ulrich's gives what appears to be a well-informed perspective on the topic thusly:
I've never been a big fan of political science's tendency to privilege the model over the case. In this case, it seems likely that the historic lack of political liberalization isn't tied to the fact that Gulf governments don't extract tax revenue from their citizens, but that said citizens haven't historically made agitation for political reform a priority. I also think that at least Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates should be seen as something like politically authoritarian economic communes on which the form of the nation-state is a new, still uncertain fit. A distribution of resources people see as equitable still matters, which leads to some interest in reform. In addition, people do have other interests which, from time to time, they decide would be best met through democratization as opposed to, say, patronage ties.

And if you are so inclined, be sure to check out this Op-Ed detailing why rentier states are partially to blame for the historical and conspicuous absence of democratic institutions (or even political rhetoric) taking root in the Middle East region, as well as the effect of foreign aid policy:
What most Americans have yet to fully grasp is that the administration’s grand strategy of democratizing the rest of the Middle East is also a fantasy. However much we might want to share the blessings of liberty with everyone in the region, it is the last place we ought to anticipate seeing widespread democratization. The problem is that nearly all of the countries in the region are rentier states. Their governments depend not on taxes from the governed but on economic rents--revenues earned from sources other than productive labor, technical ingenuity, and capital investment—and as a consequence have no reason to tolerate dissent from a free press or seek the consent of the governed through democratic elections.

Oil revenues support the governments of Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Gulf States and Iran. Foreign aid supports the governments of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan. Money earned from soaking religious pilgrims in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and from opium growing in Afghanistan complete the picture of national economies which create little or no new wealth. This is not a region where governments are busy encouraging new investment in manufacturing or cutting edge consumer technology.

The fundamental political problem with dependence on economic rents is that it reduces all politics to a zero sum game in which tolerating dissent, negotiating compromise and choosing leaders through free and fair elections are deeply irrational behaviors for political elites. Competition for political power in a rentier state is simply too raw to be constrained by liberal institutions. That’s why some Iraqi political elites are only going through the motions of participating in the flimsy, American built democratic institutions while the rest are already openly fighting a civil war.

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