War in a Rentier State

By Pete W. Moore
Submitted to Session P2002 (New Approaches to the Rentier State, 2009 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
The development of rentier state theory as well as resource curse arguments focused little on explaining violent conflict. In recent years, economists working with large data sets have made something of a connection by arguing that resource dependent countries are more prone to civil war. They argue that the presence of lucrative commodities, like oil, make a powerful incentive for antagonists to use violent means to profit. This is a version of rentier state theory only in this case, instead of authoritarian durability, civil violence is argued to endure because of economic reasons. However, the quantitative analyses fail to generate knowledge about how such war economies actually evolve. Case study approaches are also limited in so far as systematic consideration of Arab cases has yet to appear. This paper seeks to critique rentier civil war arguments by examining the political economies of civil violence in Iraq.

Iraq has a fully functioning war economy in which militias and sub-state actors, not central political authorities, control whole sectors of the domestic economy, oil smuggling, and import supply chains. What are the political and institutional antecedents to Iraq’s war economy? To what extent is Iraq’s rentier state legacy a factor? By way of comparison, the paper draws on scholarship analyzing similar political economies of violence in rentier Algeria (1992-1997) and non-rentier Lebanon (1975-1989). The argument is that more than oil resources are at play. First, previous decades of political struggle to preserve Baathist control effectively dismantled the rentier state and decentralized economic activity to the provincial level. Second, Iraq’s external trade linkages and road networks tied the country to regional actors in ways that profoundly shaped the post-2003 violence. Finally, occupation policies and the chaos of violence have allowed the rise of new socio-political actors and expelled others. The current attempt by Baghdad’s new regime to rebuild the Iraqi rentier state is constructed on these political foundations.

In addition to utilizing the secondary literature on Algeria and Lebanon, the paper relies on new field research and on trade data before and after 2003. This includes original interview research with Iraqi and Jordanian traders, businessmen, and regional economists, as well as collection of trade data from Iraq’s primary trading partners: Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf states (Iran and the UAE principally).