Chequebooks or Change? Understanding the Role of Rents in Mobilization Efforts in Kuwait

By Geoff Martin
Submitted to Session P3589 (Your Money and Your Life, 2013 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arabian Peninsula;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Since 2010 there has been a surprising increase in mobilization efforts by many different groups in Kuwait. These groups have united many different tribes, urban-rural groups, and ideological factions under a banner calling for political reform. In this unprecedented environment, activists organized the country’s largest protests ever.

These events are puzzling if rentier theory, the foremost explanation for durable authoritarianism in the Gulf, is applied to the situation. Generally speaking, rentierism argues that rents foster socio-political stagnation that alters state-society relations (Luciani 1994, Beblawi 1998). Yet, within this literature there are intrinsic differences between three approaches that result in divergent explanations for the protest events. This leads to the question: how and to what degree did the issue of rent distribution influence or contribute to mobilization efforts by groups?

The classic approach to rentierism states that civil society groups are primarily rent-seeking units concerned with stable access to rents (Brynen 1992, Herb 1999, Ross 2001). From this view, opposition groups mobilized because rents were not being distributed effectively, generating a crisis in their relationship with the state. Another approach argues that the distribution of rents causes’ conflict instead of stifling it, because the way revenues are deployed fosters civil society opposition (Okruhlik 2009, Sandbakken 2006). From this perspective, current protests by groups can be explained as being the failure of long-term distribution strategies. The last approach theorizes that rents only work to weaken civil society by working in concert with the traditional legitimacy and historical institutions of the regime (Moore and Peters 2009, Gause and Yom 2012, Crystal 1989). If this view is correct, than the protests are the result of degradation in the traditional legitimacy and institutional coherence of the Kuwaiti state, which means that unaided, rents cannot assert state authority.

This papers’ objective is to test these different theoretical outcomes. Kuwait is an excellent case study due to its characteristics as a classic rentier state and the intensity of recent mobilization efforts. The study proceeds in two steps. First, by qualitative interviews conducted with activists, tribal leaders, and others who were involved in the protests in February to June 2012 and March to August 2013. Second, by carrying out an analysis of economic and socio-historical data to understand the context of the situation. This research contributes to the literature by unpacking the black box of rentier theory to understand its mechanisms and explanations more accurately.