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Gulf Monarchies – Oil Wealth And ?traditional? Social Structures Essay, Research Paper

Identify elements of continuity and change in the interaction between oil wealth and ?traditional? social structures in the Gulf monarchiesDevelopment of the Gulf monarchies, and the rapid rise in standard of living the world had witnessed in the past fifty odd years can be attributed to the possession by many these states of one of the most important commodities, oil, and their ability to control world oil prices. Naturally, the enormous wealth that has been accumulated in the region has affected the both the economic and social structures of the Gulf monarchies, and in this essay I intend to identify these elements of change and continuity and their origins. I will first examine the development of the modern nation-state, during the early part of the twentieth century, discussing the taming of Tribalism and Islam, and the development of an ideology to justify the political system. The arrival of oil wealth furthered the development of bureaucratic, centralised structures, and the enabled the consolidation of the new political systems. As well as having direct effects of social structures, I will discuss what could be considered indirect effects, such as the proposition that a ?rentier society? has developed, and conclude by summarising the current relationship between citizens and the state with reference to the social elements of permanence and variation.

When discussing the ?Gulf monarchies? I am referring to the countries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. The economies of the region are, to a very large extent, dependent on income derived from the exploitation of oil and natural gas, and subsidiary industries. Historically, this has been a recent development spanning the last fifty to sixty years. The region was originally very poor, residually colonised by Ottoman Turks, and in the late nineteenth century became politically dependent on the United Kingdom. During the first quarter of the twentienth century, vast reserves of petroleum were discovered in the region. This natural resource has become very important to the modern world, and consequently, the exploitation of petroleum has been a source of extraordinary wealth for these desert economies.

Gregory Gause suggests that portrayals of the ruling elites of Gulf monarchies are based on two general assumptions, which together create a picture of the regional politics being that of ?traditional? regimes which are culturally distinct from the West yet need the West to survive. The first of the assumptions is that societies are ?traditional? as mentioned, with tribal social structures and Islam being the basis of politics and government. This leads us to believe that political participation is not a serious issue, as in the West, the forms of government have existed in the current form for hundreds of years, and the rulers are tribally based elite families culturally suited to the particular region. The second assumption is that the regimes of the Gulf monarchies are weak and fragile, with the social and economic upheavals of the oil boom upsetting the aforementioned ?traditional? political order. The inability of states to defend themselves against neighbours, and the need for Western military or security intervention has contributed to the image of sovereign fragility.

Gause himself rejects the picture of politics created by two assumptions which he believes are ?not so much as wrong as outdated? . Although Tribalism and Islam were central concepts for the origin of the Gulf monarchies, relationships have changed significantly since the discovery and exploitation of oil, and the subsequent advent of oil wealth in the 1970?s.

Traditional Society in the Gulf monarchies was one based on Tribalism and Islam, and the successful process of State formation, required the consolidation of various, at times factious tribes with varying interpretations of Islam, through the creation of an ideology with particular interpretations of these concepts, to legitimate their rule both domestically and internationally.

During the early years of State development, tribes still played an important part in the running of the state, acting as the link between the state and its citizens, tribal members. Many governments though undertook a policy of centralisation, and bureaucratisation, with the intention of providing services to citizens directly, so eventually surpassing the ?Tribal? tier. The advent of enormous oil wealth, provided governments with funds with which it could realise this policy, so appealing directly to citizens through the provision of education, medical treatment, subsidised food, housing, employment and energy amongst other things, so successfully shifting their political focus from the tribal to state tier. The concentration of education, state employment and economic activity in major cities in the region drew people out of traditional, nomadic, or tribal ways of life into the more modern urban lifestyle. In the past, tribal structures had offered physical and economic security to citizens, but it appears that in all Gulf monarchies the state has now assumed that role.

While rulers had used urban groups and the British to lessen their reliance on tribes in the early part of the twentieth century, it was the coming of oil revenues that finally and decisively shifted the balance of power away from the tribal structures and towards the state. They ceased to rely on tribal structures for financial support ? the oil wealth provided them with the opportunity to bargain for political support, loyalty and service. Tribal leaders became pay rolled employees of the state with generous regular salaries to minimise the chances of their re-emergence as a source of opposition.

The taming of Tribalism has been complemented by the taming of religious institutions. Once secular authority?s supremacy was established across the State, so uniting the tribes, rulers sought to absorb Islamic institutions into agencies of the state. By giving them some degree of power and status rulers could earn their loyalty, reducing the chances of them becoming a source of opposition, as well as providing religious sanction to political order.

The growing bureaucracy of the state coincided with coming of oil wealth. Judges, teachers, scholars or preachers all became employees of the state ? the extent to which the state came to monitor and control the ?lower levels? was unprecedented. In the tribal system for example, a preacher at a local mosque was chosen by local notables, and salaried from the local community, but in the modern Gulf monarchy, the mosque is likely to have been built with state funds, and the preacher a salaried employee of the state.

?the pattern of dealing between state authorities and religious institutions that has evolved during the twentieth century ? from a position of rough equality to that of subordination of religious institutions to the state, with occasional use of force to solidify that subordination, is mirrored in the evolution of relations between states and tribes?.

Establishing state authority may have required the subordination of Islamic and tribal institutions to state supervision, a process furthered by oil wealth, but it should be noted that the rhetoric and symbols are not politically unimportant. The appropriation of these institutions, symbols and rhetoric have been used to create an ideology of support for their rule. Quoting from Gause:

?what most westerners see as ?traditional? is a construction of recent decades, in which rulers employ a political language to convince citizens of the legitimacy of their political system. Rulers portray their systems as representing the best of religious and tribal traditions, contending obedience to it as a religious and cultural obligation, so ?forging emotive links with the populace? to gain legitimacy.?

The absurdity of this ?deception? of the populace, can be identified in the establishment of the Arab Gulf States Folklore Centre in Doha, Qatar in 1982, with the purpose of ?co-ordinating and supporting the study of folklore?, with the boards members comprising of the Ministers of Information of each state!

Citizens of the Gulf monarchies have been permitted to organise socially and participate politically only through the sanctioned institutions provided by the state. Governments have supported tribal and religious institutions and allowed them space to operate.

The unintended consequence of the policy of taming Islam and Tribalism has been that when political opposition has arisen it has tended to be based on tribal and religious bases, both ideologically and institutionally. By limiting public space, it is natural that political opposition has tended to coalesce around the tribe, mosque or religious school. These movements have provided regimes with their most serious challenges. An appropriate, contemporary example has been that of Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin-Laden, an extremist organisation and leader that grew on the fringes of sanctioned institutions in Saudi Arabia.

The distinctive political aspect of the Gulf monarchies is that governments have access to enormous wealth, particularly in light of their relatively small populations, and without having to tax citizens. The vast oil reserves in the area are owned by the states, i.e. governments, so concentrating great power in its hands, with the effect on the population determined by however governments choose to spend oil revenues. This unusual structure, has been identified by scholars, and is referred to as the ?distributive? or ?rentier? state, where a significant proportion (almost 75% in some Gulf monarchies) of national income comes from the international economy. Characteristics of the rentier state, are the dominance of governments in economies, with even the private sector heavily reliant on government decisions, the ability of governments to provide a wide array of services directly to citizens, the build up of large government civil and military apparatuses, the weakening or destruction of sources of political opposition to the state, and the consolidation of power in the hands of an elite to an unprecedented extent.

The development of the rentier state is said to have led to the creation of what can be called a ?rentier society?, where citizens can make money for not doing any work. An example of this is the requirement for expatriates wishing to work in Saudi Arabia needing to obtain a ?guarantor? who must be a Saudi citizen, who takes a percentage of your wages for doing nothing!

In observing the development of the modern Gulf monarchies, I have identified both elements of continuity and change in the ?traditional? social structures. Perhaps the most obvious of the former, is the continued importance of both religion (Islam) as a means of justification and the continued importance of tribalism in some states as a means of defining the social hierarchy. Although both these elements have been ?tamed? and developed to the benefit of the State, they have not become, as I have already mention politically unimportant.

From the classic misconception, or ?picture of politics? created by the two assumptions Gause identified as predominant in the West, one may have struggled to identify any change in social structures, but hopefully in this essay I have highlighted the major changes, including the creation of a new ?ideology? and ?national identity? with the taming of both Islam and Tribalism. The oil wealth has brought overarching power to the authorities of the State in all fields including religion. The Arabian Peninsula was always relatively poor compared to the fertile agricultural societies of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia, with the only small exceptions across the region being trading ports and holy cities. The poor governments provided little in the way of services to their citizens, with the most important pre-WWII role being judicial, establishing a rudimentary system of courts, in some states.

The original, traditional societies were really, a world away from the current overarching, bureaucratic societies of rich modern Gulf monarchies.


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