Charity as Politics ‘Writ Small’ in GCC States

By Miriam R. Lowi
Submitted to Session P4824 (Politics, Space, and Subjectivity in the Arabian Peninsula, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arabian Peninsula;
Gulf Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Charity as Politics ‘Writ Small’ in GCC States
Charitable giving in the petro-monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula provides a rich ‘field’ for the (comparative) study of politics and state-society relations in the contemporary period. This is so for several reasons. First, being Muslim societies, people are expected to give charity regularly, to show their devotion to God by attending to the community’s welfare and assisting those in need. Second, as these are relatively conservative Muslim societies with regimes that assert their adherence to Islamic norms in governance, charitable giving is indeed prominent, extended in a variety of ways, and engaging ruling families, NGOs, and private citizens. Third, given that wealth is abundant, the possibilities for broad re-distribution and the enhancement of social welfare through charitable giving are vast.
In this paper, I offer an overview and analysis of charitable giving in four Gulf monarchies – Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia. On the basis of multiple field research trips and extensive interviewing, I explore the questions: who gives, how do they give (and why), and to whom do they give (and why). I highlight several key findings: first, despite abundant wealth and (supposedly) extensive giving, poverty persists in at least two of the four states -- Saudi Arabia and Oman; second, the largest, most active, and best endowed charitable foundations have been created by (members of) the ruling families (in Saudi Arabia and Qatar) or prominent political movements/associations (in Kuwait); third, private giving in all four countries tends to concentrate on family, tribe, ethnic community; fourth, with few exceptions, foreign migrant laborers are excluded from access to charity.
These findings suggest that charitable giving, while intrinsic to the practice of Islam, may also be instrumentalized by various societal actors to advance particular political interests. It may be used as a tool for the purposes of: (1) gathering information about members of society, (2) asserting relationships of power, authority and control, (3) shoring up allegiance (to a ruler and/or an ideology), (4) consolidating the definition and/or boundaries of community. Indeed, on the basis of these findings, I argue that charitable giving in Gulf petro-monarchies today reflects politics writ small.