Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State

Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State

Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State

Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State

Synopsis

The oil-producing states of the Arab Gulf are said to sink or swim on their capacity for political appeasement through economic redistribution. Yet, during the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, in Bahrain and all across the Arab Gulf, ordinary citizens showed an unexpected enthusiasm for political protest directed against governments widely assumed to have co-opted their support with oil revenues. Justin Gengler draws on the first-ever mass political survey in Bahrain to demonstrate that neither is the state willing to offer all citizens the same bargain, nor are all citizens willing to accept it. Instead, shared social and religious identities offer a viable basis for mass political coordination. Challenging the prevailing rentier interpretation of political life in the Gulf states, Gengler offers new empirical evidence and a new conceptual framework for understanding the attitudes of ordinary citizens. Justin Gengler is Senior Researcher at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University.

Excerpt

The persian gulf kingdom of Bahrain is commonly cited as the Arab world’s first “post-oil” economy, both in the sense of its being the place of the first discovery of commercial quantities of oil in the region, and also the first to have effectively run out. the former meaning is now largely a point of trivia, the 1932 find by Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) long overshadowed by the far more massive oil and gas reserves subsequently located and exploited in nearby Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and most recently Qatar. Yet, implicit in this designation also is something more than historical fact: the idea that, as first discoverer, Bahrain also was the first representative of a certain class of nation, whose members would in the ensuing decades assume a previously unimaginable global significance. This new political genus was, of course, the oil— or rentier—state, kept afloat not through a productive workforce and sound economic management, but by the grace of God (or, less glamorously, by the chance geological distribution of dead plants and animals). Commercial oil had existed for some seventy years prior to its discovery at Bahrain’s Jabal al-Dukhan, but the building around it of an entire polity was an experiment never before witnessed.

The other half of Bahrain’s designation as the first “post-oil” economy therefore connotes similarly both a factual statement and a cautionary lesson in societal organization and sustainability. Production from Bahrain’s ‘Awali oil field peaked in 1970 at 76,640 barrels per day, and at the time of its nationalization in 1980 was already in sharp decline. Despite a temporary offset from higher oil prices in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was clear that the site of Bahrain’s first oil well would soon live up to its Arabic name: “Mountain of Smoke.” When civil war struck Lebanon in 1975, Bahrain seized the chance to diversify away from resource reliance, Manama rapidly replacing Beirut as the financial hub of the Middle East. By 2003, oil output was down 51 percent to a mere 37,550 barrels per day, while a jump in immigration and naturalization to sustain the petroleum and banking industries had augmented the island’s population threefold over the same period, from around 215,000 residents in 1971 to more than 650,000 in 2001. in less than . . .

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